“But does the church preach that salty message? Not as I hear it, it doesn’t. It preaches nutra-sweet religion of test-passing, which is the only thing the world is ready to buy and which isn’t even real sugar let alone salt. In spite of all our fakery, though, Jesus’ program remains firm. He saves losers and only losers. He raises the dead and only the dead. And he rejoices more over the last, the least, and the little than over all the winners in the world. That alone is what this losing race of ours needs to hear, even though it can’t stand the thought of it.” (Robert Farrar Capon)
My daughter Micaela and I watched the first season of Call the Midwife when it aired last year on PBS, hoping it would live up to the “next Downton Abbey” hype. I never thought of writing about it, though – it seemed sweet… but not necessarily deep. Here’s the synopsis:
“Call the Midwife is a moving and intimate insight into the colorful world of midwifery and family life in 1950’s East London. We are introduced to the community through the eyes of young nurse Jenny Lee as she arrives at Nonnatus House to live and work as a midwife alongside an Order of Nuns… the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus who have been active in the East End as Anglican nursing nuns since the beginning of the 20th century.”
Admittedly, there were consistent themes of grace in an incredibly broken world. Poverty, illness, negligence, forced prostitution. Death as norm. But it wasn’t until after watching the Christmas Special that I had the inkling to put down some thoughts on it.
The Christmas Special, like many in the series, was a bit sappy (or “treacly” as the Brits say) and, in parts, predictable. Yet there were elements of grace that couldn’t be missed – lights in a world so full of darkness. Midwives finding faith in the Anglican Convent. Babies born in pain and poverty even to a girl “too young to be a mother.” (Sound familiar?) Going into the world of the “least of these,” into the brokenness none of us want to look at, let alone be a part of. At the start of the episode, Jenny, the main character, is sent to follow up a ragged old woman. Mrs. Jenkins lives in a filthy hovel and her physical person is just as wretchedly dirty. She is a miserable human being – least, little, lost. As Jenny and Sister Evangeline leave her shack following a visit, they hear a pitiful and desperate scream. “We used to call that the ‘Workhouse Howl,” says the older nun. (The memoir this show is based on is actually a trilogy and the second is based on the Dicksenian workhouses scattered throughout England in earlier times.)
Jenny is attending to Mrs. Jenkins, gently trying to remove her shoes which have become stuck to her feet as she hasn’t taken them off for… who knows how long. Not a pleasant scene. Slowly Jenny and the nun strip the nasty, soiled clothes from the woman’s body and lower here into a bath. As they delicately wash this creature – a human no one wants to be near, let alone touch – the background plays the nuns singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Phrases from the hymn echo: “Free Thine own from Satan’s tyranny”, “Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.”
A breathtaking scene. In my mind I see visions: Of the Divine as a human baby humbled in a hovel like Mrs. Jenkins. Of the Son of God coming for the broken, wretched Mrs. Jenkins (Luke 4 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”) Of baptism. Of foot washing. That last one hit me hard. A nun and a midwife washing the feet of the least of these as the viewer is reminded of the one who would come to wash the disciples feet, our feet.
I put the series away for awhile and forgot about it. Then yesterday we watched an episode from season 2 and I remembered why I like the show. Two story lines – both clear illustrations of “the least of these.” A recent addition of nursing assistant, Jane, to the convent gives us a glimpse into severe anxiety and pain of past. Jane’s past unknowingly collides with the second story: A baby boy born with spina bifida during a time where diseased/disabled children ended up being allowed to die or were institutionalized. The pain, the sorrow of ordinary common folks like us (well, like me, at least). This episode knocked the breath out of me most likely because I have a disabled daughter and God has privileged me to daily experience the truth of 1 Corinthians 1: “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are…”
The NY Times says that “…the strange pull of this series is its humanity, not its horrors.”
I guess that is the draw. The 1950’s aren’t usually a decade I’m “keen” on. But the underbelly of what it means to be human is clearly depicted in a harrowing, heartbreaking way and yet… with tenderness and beauty.
This show is based on the real-life memoirs of Jennifer Worth. It was such experiences among the least, the little, and the lost that revived a dormant faith for her. Not becoming a powerful healer. Not seeing greatness. But watching humble nuns care for diseased, disgraced and sometimes despicable human beings. In the book, at one point, she asked Sister Monica Joan about her religion. The answer: “Do not ask me to immortalize the great Mystery of Life. I am just a humble worker. For beauty, look to the Psalms, to Isaiah, to St. John of the Cross … For truth, look to the Gospels – four short accounts of God made Man. There is nothing more to say.” Another time, Jennifer asks her what had made her decide to “abandon a privileged life for one of hardship, working in the slums of London’s Docklands? Was it love of people?”
“Of course not,” she snapped sharply. “How can you love ignorant, brutish people whom you don’t even know? Can anyone love filth and squalor? Or lice and rats? Who can love aching weariness, and carry on working, in spite of it? One cannot love these things. One can only love God, and through His grace come to love people.”
This encounter apparently inspired Ms. Worth to start reading the Gospels and search for such truth and beauty, such grace. If what ended up on screen in the BBC adaptation is any indication, she may have found what she was looking for.