I spent this week devouring Call the Midwife. I started with the series, then read the books to get the bigger picture. At first, the compassion of the nuns stood out the most, and then deeper themes began to appear. In the end, I concluded that Call the Midwife is deeply symbolic of rebirth and the options of a Christian life: those devoted to lifelong chastity, those who are temporarily single, and those who are married.
Characters in the series represent these three lifestyle choices quite well, and two of them transition from one life into another. Each gives something to think about and all come back to the underlining theme, which is agape (unconditional) love. We see many examples of this love in the nuns and nurses as they learn to put aside their moral judgments and simply “serve.” In the books, Jenny frequently marvels at Sister Julienne’s ability to love and serve everyone she comes into contact with. Agape love isn’t easy to do, because our natural instinct isn’t to love one another; it is to love ourselves. Jesus commanded us to love one another “as we love ourselves,” because He knew we are more than capable of self-love; it’s self-denial that is hard.
I’m going to define agape love as Dr. Peck does in The Road Less Traveled: “the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own and another’s spiritual growth.” It is the opposite of selfishness, since this kind of love desires the other person to reach a point where the person who “loves” them is no longer “needed,” thus to serve without the desire to benefit other than feeling the joy of seeing another person reach a point of total wellness. This is the love the nuns have for the district and the people in their care.
The Apostle Paul encouraged singleness because it enables us to do things for God’s kingdom that would be far more difficult for married couples with family responsibilities. A single person can have, as their primary focus, a lifelong calling to service. Their family is whomever they can help, whenever they need help, wherever they might be. A single person is responsible to and for no one other than themselves; therefore, they can be up at any hour, go anywhere, and do anything God requires. This is the life lived out by the nuns of Nonnatus House, and their vows support this greater calling: chastity (for emotional and physical purity), poverty (so that they can drop everything at a moment’s notice to serve, and have no worldly distractions), and service (to one another, and to their community on the whole).
Lifelong chastity is a calling that few people have, but for those that do, it has immense potential for spiritual growth. It must be a decision, however, based in spirituality rather than selfishness. Agape-love for others doesn’t begin with the desire to remain single so that one has total control over one’s independence; willing singleness is surrendering one’s independence to God. He will ask much more of you than a spouse ever will, but with that surrender and service comes a particular anointing and spiritual fulfillment.
Book Jenny is in awe of Sister Julienne, who possesses a special something that she does not understand. Jenny is so unfamiliar with spiritual things on her arrival that she doesn’t correctly identify this gift until much later as spiritual presence. Sister Julienne loves, obeys, and serves God so wholeheartedly that His love radiates out of her, putting others at ease and allowing her to love them unconditionally. He gives her genuine agape love. Julienne lives a far different life from Jenny, but is spiritually fulfilled in a way Jenny isn’t; everyone she meets is her family, and when she is no longer needed, she searches for ways to serve other people.
Temporary singleness is shown in the lives of the nurses at Nonnatus House; in them, we see the benefits of singleness and throwing yourself into the immediate service of God, but with a willingness to make the transition into marriage when called. Temporary singleness is a time that many Christians find hard to bear; many long for marriage and are frustrated when it isn’t forthcoming. But the same benefits of lifelong chastity apply to temporary singleness: it is a time to devote yourself to the service of God and to learning how to agape-love.
Sister Bernadette encompasses this transition beautifully; God called her to serve as a nun, and then called her to marriage. She is an ideal we can strive toward, if our desire is both to serve God and to marry, because during her earlier years as a nun, Bernadette was happy. She served in her capacity as a midwife, she devoted herself to prayer and love, and she was content in being single. That changed when she met Dr. Turner, and her heart shifted from a love directed toward each person she encountered to a more focused love for her future husband and his son. Temporary singleness shouldn’t be a time of sexual frustration and impatience; it is a time when we have the independence to turn that independence over to God, and at the right time, He will grant us a new purpose through marriage and new responsibilities.
Lastly, there is the calling to marriage—not merely for sexual and emotional fulfillment, but that the couple can serve God together. No two people are ever the same, so no two marriages ever have the same purpose. Two are stronger than one. Their independence is more limited, because they are responsible to each other in addition to God, but God unites them in every way possible to handle the trials of life and accomplish things that single people can’t. The calling to marriage and bearing children is important; it further limits the independence of the couple, but also is spiritually fulfilling in a paternal sense. Only through having children can we truly understand how much God loved His Son, and in doing so, grasp the enormous sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, as well as God’s willingness to let Him take our place.
Bernadette’s decision to leave behind the habit for a wedding ring transitions her from one life to another and is symbolic of rebirth. She goes through a period of intense anguish as she reconsiders her calling; she is separated from her former, comfortable life, emerges uncertain into a new world, and eventually finds her place in it. Rebirth is the theme of the book through Jenny’s eventual acceptance of faith, and the series’ emphasis on childbirth and Bernadette’s emotional and spiritual journey; and also the theme of Christianity itself: all must be spiritually reborn to be made whole in Christ.