Last weekend sisterly deaths - real and fictitious - linked 2016 Aden to 1961 Poplar. On Friday news began to appear of an attack on a care home for the elderly in Aden, Yemen, in which four Missionaries of Charity and twelve other people were cold-bloodedly murdered. These women, who had given their lives to God through service of the poorest and neediest, were killed for no reason other than violent hatred of everything they stood for. Their senseless, unnecessary deaths are being mourned by people of goodwill around the world.
And then on Sunday night nine million viewers wept their way through two moving plotlines in Call the Midwife. As if the guilt and self-reproach of those who had unknowingly prescribed and taken thalidomide weren't harrowing enough, we also had the unexpected death of one of the most popular characters. Sr Evangelina, a tough, gutsy, outspoken working-class workhorse, brought up in the hardship and poverty in which she then spent half a century nursing and midwifing, died - uncharacteristically peacefully - in her sleep following a massive stroke.
Nuns in films and TV are all too often one-dimensional stereotypes or caricatures, but the CTM scriptwriters have always managed to avoid that pitfall and given us good, rounded characters. Sr Julienne's serene beauty is balanced by her strength and practicality, while Monica Joan combines poetic feyness and fragility with sheer, greedy devilment whenever there's any cake in the house. Winifred can be romantic but not soppily so, and, as I wrote just over a year ago, Cynthia's call to the community was sensitively and realistically portrayed.
And in the midst of all this strode Evangelina, a nursing veteran of two world wars, as briskly bossy and opinionated as she was tender, caring and committed. She didn't wear her heart on her sleeve - it would only have got in the way of rolling them up; but even those she terrified knew how much she loved and would fight to the death for them. A couple of series ago at her golden jubilee she was feted by the generations she had delivered and cared for; on Sunday night those same people sombrely queued up to pay their last respects. The undertaker only appeared on our screens for a few minutes, but his moving, dignified explanation of why he would not charge a penny for her funeral, burial and headstone spoke for them all. Sr Evangelina had not only delivered him, she'd also kept him alive against the odds, battling for him and going several extra miles; her only payment the certainty that he had lived and thrived.
After the programme, after I'd finished wiping my eyes, I checked my Twitter feed, where, among many emotional tweets was this short tribute from scriptwriter Heidi Thomas McGann: Sr Evangelina... I wrote her. I loved her. And I gave her back to Him. Certainly, the scriptwriters gave Evangelina some brilliant lines, many of them down-to-earth and humorous. But they also enabled her a while back to utter words that every religious could wholeheartedly assent to: If there's one thing the religious life has taught me, it's that it's impossible to love too much. What's needed is taken up, and what's not needed hangs around somewhere, looking for a home.
Thankfully, not many sisters will ever die violent deaths; while hardly any, in real life or on TV, are laid to rest with the local equivalent of a state funeral. The vast majority of us live, pray, serve and die in relative obscurity, known only to those whose lives we touch in our communities and ministries. Like Sr Evangelina and the MCs we strive, fall, soar to new heights and renew our YES every day, simply aiming, freely and generously, to share the love and tenderness of God we ourselves have freely and generously received. If we can make a difference, if people grow and thrive and know they are loved, that's enough: because whatever we do, wherever and however we do it, we've all learnt that it's impossible to love too much. That's the beauty, joy and heartbreak at the heart of our vocation...
And today, International Women's Day, we can pray and give thanks for all those women who have inspired us, and whose courage, care and commitment have enabled us to live and thrive...