Book Review: Call the Midwife

Book Review: Call the Midwife, by Jennifer North
By the Rev. Deacon Patricia Marks
Posted April 28, 2013

The Rev. Deacon Patricia Marks

Here is a review of Call the Midwife—no, not the popular BBC series, but the book with pages that rustle when you turn them, a lively and compelling tale set in London’s impoverished East End. More importantly, here is a tale of the author’s spiritual path.

Jennifer Worth began her midwifery career with the Sisters of St. John the Divine, an Anglican order whose members had served in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. Dressed in wimples and long skirts, they hopped on bicycles, pedaling through crime-ridden streets to deliver babies at all hours of day and night.

There are stories galore. Mary, for instance—she is the fifteen-year old who ran away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend straight into the arms of a handsome hustler. Given shelter at a convent, she was devastated when her baby was adopted. And Len, the Holy Fool, who pretended not to notice his newborn son’s different ethnicity. Ignoring his friends’ jibes, he became a loving father to a loving son. And Conchita, who could speak no English and her husband no Spanish: their 25th baby was premature; refusing hospitalization, she held him close for months, feeding him every half-hour.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer North

Best of all there is the author, who comes to Nonnatus House* not knowing her church background—perhaps Methodist, she tells the Mother Superior. She marvels at the simple faith of a young nun who traded a life of “fun and opportunities” for poverty, chastity, and obedience. “The sight of that fair young face in the firelight, reading the ancient prayers, turning the pages quietly and reverently . . . was deeply affecting,” Jennifer admits.

Even more affecting is the delusional Sister Monica Joan, whose outspokenness and greediness infuriates everyone. Jennifer becomes so angry at her outrageous behavior that she avoids her as much as possible. But all changes the night the elderly nun is found wandering in the frigid weather barefoot and in her nightgown, convinced that she is on her way to save a newborn.

That experience awakens Jennifer to forgiveness and a glimpse of unconditional love. Despite her frustrations, she realizes that she loves both Monica Joan and the convent, from the sound of its bells to its “selfless work in the service of God.” And then she has an insight–“Was it perhaps—and I nearly fell off my bike with shock—could it be the love of God?”

Later, Monica Joan tells her bluntly that it wasn’t the people who drew her to her profession—“How can you love ignorant, brutish people you don’t even know?” Rather, she says, the love of God was what gave her the grace to love those she served. She quotes the “I fled Him” verses of Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” and then says impatiently, “Find out for yourself . . . No one can give you faith. It is a gift from God alone. Seek and ye shall find. Read the Gospels: there is no other way. Do not pester me with your everlasting questions. Go with God, child; just go with God.”

And Jennifer did. So should we all.

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*Nonatus House: a fictitious name for the Sisters of St. John the Divine. The patron saint of midwives and expectant mothers is St. Raymond Nonatus, who was born prematurely after his mother’s death, hence the word “nonatus,” or “not born.”