08. The Stork's Assistant--the Nursemaid
We must say a word about those who assist the mother, especially about the stork's assistant, or seriously speaking, about the midwife. We are not speaking about the Egyptian midwives, told about in the Scriptures, who had orders from Pharao to kill all the new born boys immediately after birth. We speak of those who feel that they may be God's assistants at a new life's entrance into the world.
It is a beautiful vocation, to be assistants to God and men. The midwife was at our side when we stood upon the threshold, and when we made our entrance into the busy world of life. Next to the pastor and the schoolteacher she is a necessary article of ecclesiastical furniture in Hungary. As late as last century, she was mentioned in the episcopal visitations. I have heard that even today in certain towns of Switzerland she holds her office by virtue of an election in which all the married women of the town take part. More than anything else hers is a position of trust.
As long as there have been marriages on earth, there have been midwives. The midwife is a blessing for every suffering mother and for every whimpering child. It is a blessed but also difficult calling. She cannot be present even at the bedside of her own dying mother, when a child, entirely strange to her, is on the way. She must be ready day and night. She must have a constitution of steel and iron, for she will be put to the test. She may be called out on a stormy night, when she has settled down at home for a quiet rest. At another time she may be obliged to assist the mother for twenty-four hours and more, listening to her cries of agony during the labor pains. It is not surprising that at the sight of such suffering her own heart should be moved deeply.
On a certain cold rainy night in February, in a town of Sicily, the town midwife heard heavy pounding at her door. The voice of a desperate man is crying out that she is needed at once, for a woman in a certain near-by village has been suddenly taken with labor pains, and all the signs point to a difficult birth. The midwife suddenly aroused from deep slumber is frightened and still half asleep. She herself is the mother of five children and at present she is carrying another. Her time cannot be far off. She hears the wind whipping the rain against the window, as the storm rages without. To her it seems like a trial sent by God. Besides she cannot expect any remuneration for her services from this poor family. She wavers, but her doubt is only momentary. The voice of duty speaks within her, rather the voice of her heart and of mother-love. A mother needs her help and perhaps even the life of a tiny human being is in danger. Without further thought of herself and her own pregnant condition, she ventures out into the wintry stormy night. The road is bad, the storm is at its height, and now and then she must rest to quiet her own wildly beating heart. After an hour and a half she arrives at her destination. But by that time she has come to the end of her strength. She barely steps inside the door when her own labor pains overtake her. She sinks down beside the other expectant mother, and in a little while gives birth to her child. She performs the midwife's offices for herself, but then at once must attend to the other woman. Lying beside her, feeble as she is, she helps deliver the second child.
The Difficult Ones
There are undoubtedly difficult births, but there are also difficult women. The midwife sometimes meets with helpless, awkward women, foolish husbands, and superstitious relatives and servants. She, if anyone, has a deep insight into the confusion which original sin can and does cause among human beings. She can relate stories of wild unfettered passions, unhappy marriages, and deserted wives. If she has a heart at all, she must be affected.
In such cases merely natural motives do not suffice. She requires greater strength, and the strength of faith in God. I know a midwife who would go about collecting all sorts of things for poor mothers who were without means or work. She gathered baskets of childrens' wear. She even took jobs in factories in place of these mothers, who were obliged to be back at work seven weeks after their delivery.
Her calling also has its dangers. The big things in life are also surrounded by the greatest dangers. If she gives her service and help only for money, then her life is merely a business or occupation. A very hard but expressive proverb says: "The devil knows no better horse than a light-minded midwife."
Nowadays a good midwife must be scientifically trained, which is but right and just. The better her training the more advantageous for mother and child. The scientific training must also be accompanied by spiritual training. Knowledge can never take the place of a clear conscience. She is the handmaid of God and not the handmaid of sin and Satan.
In olden times, before midwifery became a science, and many women as relatives of the family would handle such cases, it was customary for the midwife to consider those she delivered as her own, and she proudly brought them to the church for Baptism. And when such a child attained prominence in life, a gleam of that glory fell upon her. I remember well the pride of the woman who had served as midwife at my own birth, when I returned home after a year of study at the gymnasium. Such women belong in a class with the famous "Resi-tante," who in her day delivered two thousand, two hundred and eighty-three babies. These good women considered themselves instruments in the hand of God. A book by Lisbeth Burger, "Forty Years a Midwife," relates many a story of loyalty and suffering. Sometime ago I had business in Zalalovo. A large funeral was in progress, conducted with great pomp and accompanied by a vast multitude. An old midwife, who had performed her work most loyally and conscientiously for years, was being buried, and the gratitude of mother and children was accompanying her to the grave. In the year 1934, a large marble statue was unveiled on one of the main streets of Melbourne, Australia -the figure of a woman with many children playing about her feet. The memorial was erected in honor of Anna Panthoug, midwife in the city, who had delivered over ten thousand children during her years of service.
These women are aware of the fact that two lives are dependent on their help. On the occasion of a difficult birth they do well to call upon the Guardian Angel of the mother and the child, and on their own. They should also remember our Blessed Lady, who made the long journey over the hills to assist her cousin Elizabeth in her hour of agony. The Blessed Virgin did not consider this service beneath her dignity; on the contrary, she assisted with understanding, love and a ready hand.
Something of romance and magic surrounds the midwife. In some countries, the children imagine that she is there to ward off the stork, who might otherwise bite the foot of the mother. They believe that the stork brings the babies to the midwife and she in turn divides them among the mothers, going from house to house. They think that she carries the children in her large black bag.
Guarding the Children
We must also say a word about the nursemaid. She is found in the families of the wealthy as well as in many ordinary homes. When a nursemaid is too expensive, then often the oldest daughter or even one of the brothers takes over. This is a responsible position, to be entrusted by a mother with her child. The nursemaid can ruin the little soul, or on the other hand, she can edify the child and lead it to become a living temple of God. She can spoil the child by telling bad and wicked fairy tales to the child. On the other hand, money cannot repay the services of a good nursemaid. Pelagia, virgin and martyr, became a Christian through the good offices of a nursemaid. St. Vitus was also taught the doctrines of Christianity by a maid, and was baptized by her. Strengthened by her, he gained the crown of martyrdom. St. Benedict, when intent upon leaving the world, consulted his nurse, before even mentioning it to his parents. In her novel, "Gosta Berling," which won the Nobel prize, Selma Lagerlof sings the praises of nursemaids: "The old nurse sat by the cradle to sing the little one to sleep. You know how much good a loyal nursemaid can do for children." A good maid often helps three generations in their days of childhood. She brings peace while the children grow up. She is part of the family.
Besides the father, mother, midwife, and nursemaid we must also remember the ordinary servants in a family. They can have an influence upon the adolescent children beyond estimation. And still they are often the most forgotten persons on earth. They are usually far from home, far from the pastor, the teacher and church, living on a farm. They are in entirely new surroundings. It is not surprising, then, that they sometimes are lost upon the path of darkness which leads to passion and illicit pleasure. In 1938 there were 6,095 suicides in Hungary, of which 743 were female servants. This certainly is a sign that true Christian charity is lacking to a great extent in some families. According to the Christian view, the servant should be the right hand of the mother, who in turn, should give the servant her confidence and love. The strange family must make a new home for the strange servant. The old Roman word "familia," meant a group which included the men and women servants. Among ourselves in the olden days it was not considered a disgrace to be a male or female servant. Servants were received and welcomed as members of the family. The Bible does not consider the status of servant as something degrading. "If you have a faithful servant, let him be to you as your own soul, trust him as a brother," We are all children of God, redeemed by the blood of our Lord. So there are no slaves and masters, but we are all one in Christ. Since the servants also have immortal souls, you are responsible for their spiritual welfare. They must be given the opportunity to attend to their spiritual duties. The time spent in church is not time lost. There they find the spiritual strength to perform their work with a joyful heart. A sun with invisible rays radiates from their souls. Such invisible resources should be awakened in their hearts. Manual labor is not everything. True, it is sometimes necessary to speak strongly; and it is better to have a bit of honest storm, than to keep your secret ire bottled up. After all, a servant is not a perfect being, and requires guidance and occasional reproof.
Do not forget that your servant has a mother, who is fearful and worried about her daughter. The mother of St. Zita sent her out into a strange place as a servant with these words: "My child, always remember the admonitions of your mother." The servant maid performs many duties, so that the mother can give more time and attention to her family. The patron of servant maids is the virginal St. Zita, who was a servant in one home for 38 years, and there perfected herself in her purity and sanctity. She expressed surprise that people could sin and do evil.
Have all the faithful servants died out in our day? Is that high ideal "handmaid and servant of the Lord" lost to us in our times? Even though the words man-servant and handmaid are fast disappearing from our vocabulary, yet these invisible helping hands will be missed, when once they are dead and gone. The memorial to the "Unknown Soldier" is honored, and while the music plays wreaths are placed at its base. But who honors the numberless "unknown servants," who have given their lives in serving others?
The Church places a high value on service. She raises it to one of the Major Orders, the diaconate, which means "holy service." To serve is neither degrading nor disgraceful; on the contrary it is a service sacred to God.
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