Four Cavell Nurses stood at the four corners of Edith Cavell’s grave on Life’s Green at Norwich Cathedral. The rain poured down and ran down their faces but they did not flinch. Quietly proud, this was the honouring of one of their own; their very stillness was its own powerful tribute. We had gathered with them for the annual remembrance of the execution of the nurse, Edith Cavell, in this the centenary of her death.
Although the hoped for sunshine had not materialised, somehow the rain seemed very appropriate. One of the abiding images of the First World War is the rain and mud in the trenches. And if they could endure that, and much, much worse, surely we could cope for a few minutes standing in the rain – although some of us still clung to the shelter of an umbrella.
Edith’s death was but one among hundreds of thousands of deaths, so why should this one death be specially remembered. Undoubtedly a women being executed was unusual. Some tried to draw attention to her execution as a sign of the barbarity of the enemy but Edith expected the sentence she received and said she believed it was just. Some tried to make her out to be a great heroine and tried to use her death to encourage more to sign up. But Edith wanted to be remembered just as a nurse, and her family asked that no statues be erected.
But the real reason why Edith’s death needed to be remembered was more challenging to a nation at war and still searches us today. On the eve of her execution, these are her last recorded words:
But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and Eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.
One of the books she kept with her whilst in prison was Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. In her life and through her death, Edith Cavell seeks to point away from herself and towards her God. Throughout her life she sought to witness to a deeper truth, to live not just as a good citizen of this country but as a citizen of the Kingdom of God; she wanted her life to be an imitation of Christ’s.
Through hymns, readings and sermon the rain continued to fall, yet none of us wanted to be anywhere else. We wanted to be there and so help ensure that her legacy is not forgotten. As the Last Post called us to silence, I pondered to what extent my life has been lived free of hatred and bitterness? Does my life point away from me and towards the God who redeemed me?
Edith pray for me.