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The earthy spirituality of ‘Call the Midwife’

'Downton Abbey' is a bit of a guilty pleasure, but the 'other' popular BBC series, 'Call the Midwife,' has a gritty beauty and spiritual depth that all the riches of Downton couldn't buy.

While I cannot deny that the BBC series Downton Abby has its undeniable pleasures — Maggie Smith’s performance as the Dowager Countess chief among them — having watched and rewatched it through three seasons, it does not, for me, rise above the level of a semi-guilty pleasure; a happy diversion and escape.

By contrast, the other BBC series Call the Midwife — which has been more popular in the UK than Downton — not only holds up under repeated viewings, it improves. But even more, the show offers an astonishingly positive view of religion and religious people.

The nuns, from the apparently angelic but worldly-wise and tolerant Sister Julienne to the crass but loving Sister Evangeline to the aged and doddering Sister Monica Joan, defy every crude stereotype ever dreamed up by scriptwriters.

While it was my particular interest in maternal health that drew me to Jennifer Worth’s wonderful memoirs (upon which the shows are based), what surprised and delighted me was the way in which the sisters of Nonnatus House in London’s East End serve the whole community in the whole range of life. They greet the newborns; they tend the dying; they keep the hours of prayer in the midst of blood and pain, mud and misery.

In one episode, a young girl secretly gives birth in an empty basement as the nuns sing Vespers; their haunting plainsong invoking mercy, grace, and protection for the coming night even as the girl cries in bringing forth her young. The sisters are not yet able to extend care to her, but their prayers intercede before their skilled and loving hands and hearts do.

"Call the Midwife and Being Lazy." Photo courtesy Meaghan O'Malley via Twitter Creative Commons.

“Call the Midwife and Being Lazy.” Photo courtesy Meaghan O’Malley via Twitter Creative Commons.

Another features an aged and forgotten woman, deeply traumatized by the deaths of her children and her wretched existence in a workhouse — who is so filthy and unkempt that her boots have fused to her skin — is carefully undressed, bathed, and dressed by Sister Evangeline and the young, interning nurse-midwife Jenny. Again the sung liturgy tells the story, as the cinematography evokes a suffering Christ in the form of a forgotten old woman.

Some find Midwife hard to watch for its admirably realistic portrayals of labor and delivery; and of the condition in which the urban poor of London lived (and in many places, live). I say it is worth watching precisely for those reasons: we do not only meet the divine in beautiful forests and fields. We meet the divine in the bravery of women giving birth; of people offering dignity and compassion to the “least of these.”

The marble halls of Downton are beautiful. Their ups and downs, joys and sorrows, clashes and conflicts with war, privilege, poverty, death, and more are entertaining enough. But it is not as astonishing as Call the Midwife,with its seamless integration of flesh and spirit, heart and hands, intellect and spirit. It is a spiritual screen gem in the mud of London’s slums. For me, at least, it has a beauty that all the riches of Downton cannot buy.