Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Ali's friendship with Penny Goater

Ali visiting Penny Goater - and her dog Holly - in 2003
Ali had a great gift for friendship, and gave her time and energy generously. I am happy to publish this piece by Penny Goater who was a close friend of Ali's for thirty years.


Ali and I first became aware of each other in 1983 when she spotted a letter of mine that was published in a Disability magazine. She wrote to me and introduced herself and her work for SPUC as the National Organiser of the Handicap Division, asking if I would be interested in knowing more about their campaigns. I wrote back saying yes, but explaining that I ran an animal welfare organisation for young people and couldn't devote much of my time to other campaigns. Ali loved animals and was interested in my work, so we kept writing and when she moved from Essex to Dorset (I live in Somerset) we were able to meet and our friendship grew from that point.

We shared a great deal in common as disabled women of a similar age and background. But we were also interested in the differences between us - for example, Ali travelled extensively and I rarely did so I loved hearing about all her adventures and seeing her photos. It's always difficult to put a friendship into words because friendship is a feeling and a coming together of 'like minds'. When we did differ, any discussion we had was always open-minded and respectful and this strengthened our friendship, broadened our views and we learnt a great deal from each other.

We both experienced some difficult personal challenges during the time we knew each other but we also had lots of fun together! Ali had a brilliant sense of humour and laughter was a key element in all our get-togethers. Even in dark times there was always something to lift the spirits, and Ali would often have a witty or funny anecdote at the ready. I really miss her sense of fun and her joy in the simple pleasures of life.

When I was seriously ill at various stages of our friendship, Ali was always there for me. She was one of only two people I asked to see after I had major surgery in 1994; even though she wasn't well herself she undertook a long, uncomfortable car journey to be at my side in the hospital, giving me great comfort at a very difficult time.

I  am so grateful that I had the opportunity to visit Ali shortly before she died.   I didn't want to tire her or make things difficult but that visit gave me the opportunity to sit quietly by her bed, hold her hand and thank her for our very precious friendship during the 30 years we knew each other; we reminisced a little and shared some silent, reflective time.

Ali had an enormous capacity for love and gave her time to others freely and generously, even when she was exhausted or in pain. All of us who knew Ali well have our own special memories of time spent with her, of phone calls shared, of letters and emails written, and these help us to keep her close. She lived her life to the full and contributed greatly to the lives of others. Ali was unique and exceptional; I miss her greatly and think of her every day. I am so grateful that she wrote to me in 1983 and that our friendship blossomed. I feel truly blessed to have known her.

Penny Goater

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday 1991 - Ali received into the Church

Easter Sunday 1991 - Ali on the day she was received into the Catholic Church
25 years ago, on the morning of Easter Sunday (31 March) 1991, Ali was received into the Catholic Church at St John Payne Church, Greenstead, Colchester. At that Mass she made her first Communion and was confirmed a Catholic.

Before being received into the Church Ali was invited to give a 'testimony', which is reproduced below.   She had longed to be a Catholic for what seemed like an eternity, but there had been difficulties that appeared to be insurmountable.  When Ali says that her journey of faith had been "long and tortuous" she was not exaggerating.  It seemed to her  to be a miracle when the obstacles suddenly disappeared during Lent 1991, and when Fr John McGrath, then parish priest at St John Payne Church in Colchester, arranged for her to be received into the Church on Easter Sunday. 

Ali always spoke highly of Fr McGrath's kindness and patience when, from the mid-1980s, she sought him out when she had queries about the faith.  Having received her into the Church it was fitting that he conducted the rite of committal at her burial in Dorset on 13 December 2013.

Ali's Testimony on Being Received into the Catholic Church.
My journey of faith has been long and tortuous, and it is certainly by grace rather than personal effort that it has reached this point of being received into the Church. 
I grew up in a loving Christian family.  My parents, who are here supporting me as ever, are members of the United Reformed Church.  After school I went to University and got married.  As I grew in confidence, my gaze was set increasingly strongly in the direction away from God.  I believed all things were possible for me by my own efforts, and that by striving for 'success' I could 'overcome my disability.'  There was no room for spirituality in my world then.  I rejected Christianity, which had become completely irrelevant to me, and declared myself an atheist.  I believed that the power to change my world lay with me - it was up to me what happened.  It certainly did change, but usually for the worse. 
The turning point came through trauma.  My husband left me suddenly and totally unexpectedly.  At the time of my greatest brokenness I became aware in a very special personal way of Mary the mother of Jesus.  She has been with me ever since guiding and healing me. 
Fr McGrath suggested I join the parish group going to Lourdes in 1987, and with some trepidation I agreed to go.  It is perhaps a measure of my distance from God that I had to ask him how to pray, although while we were there I discovered that the answer was simply to love God and speak of my love to Him. 
Fr McGrath recently reminded me of this, and he also commented that I had begun my 'spiritual journey' from nothing.  I think he was just being kind because in fact I started from less than nothing. Nothing would have been a blank page, a total uncertainty and a preparedness to consider all possibilities seriously.  That, however, was not my position, since I had been certain that there was no God, and that I was entirely in control of my own destiny.  So I had to be drawn back from less than nothing - a negative - to nothing (willingness to consider even the possibility of the existence of God) to beilef in the truths deposited in the Church. 
An important step for me was changing my mind on abortion - a move I made while still an atheist. I realised the necessity of protecting the weakest human beings, whatever the personal cost, but it took me a long time to work through that, and realise that if life was of infinite value, there must be an infinite being to imbue it with that value! 
In Lourdes I learned the importance of loving myself - not for what I could do or what I had achieved, but because I was the creation of a loving God.  Having discovered this and realised that I was after all loveable just as I am, it came as rather a shock to find out that even within the Church there is much misunderstanding of disability.  I became so upset by constant questions about what was 'wrong' with me, and by insensitive comments like "you are in the way" (wherever I sat!) that I temporarily ran away even from the Church, and felt that there was no place for me within it.  It has taken me a long time to recognise the answers to this:  that what is 'wrong' with me is the same as what is wrong with every human being - sin;  and that while I  am sometimes in the way, in the sense that concerns about my temporal body (which happens to be disabled) sometimes get in the way of my soul recognising the God who made it, if I am physically "in the way" in a Church it is a fault in architecture and not a fault in me! 
From the despair of separation from God and the feeling that I have nothing to offer Him I have come almost full-circle.  I certain have "no thing" to offer, but that is not the same of "nothing."  What I have to offer God are my deficiencies, my weaknesses and my fears, and I ask him to fill my deficits with His grace.  In this I have come to recognise the advantages a disability like mine offers:  it is obvious, it cannot be ignored, and it is an opportunity to share in the sufferings of the crucified Christ.  Through it I learn to use my weaknesses as a measure of the great love of God - the more we are forgiven the more we marvel at God's mercy, and the weaker we are the more aware of the strength of His love for us. 
St Paul tells us that God's power is made perfect in weakness, that God's grace is sufficient for us, and that "when I am weak, then I am strong."  Maybe I have to run to God on my desires and not on my two feet, but it is the same God who has come to meet me just the same, and He who my soul strives to reflect. 
I have seen through the eyes of Mary our mother, the love of God;  through confession I have been washed clean by His mercy;  and I can now offer my "no thing" to God blindly - with my eyes closed in prayer the better to see Him.  I know he will fill me up and compensate for my weaknesses with His strength, and I know that His Church is the place where, in the Eucharist,  I can encounter at last the real presence of my saviour. 
Easter Sunday,  31 March 1991

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

First Confession

Ali at the Carmelite Priory, Oxford, March 1991

It is nearly 25 years since Ali was received into the Catholic Church, on Easter Sunday, 31 March, 1991.

The good priest who received her into the Church, Fr John McGrath, recommended that she make an eight day retreat beforehand, so we made our way to the Carmelite Priory, Boars Hill, on the outskirts of Oxford, for eight days, from Sunday 17th to Monday 25th March.  

During the retreat Ali made her First Confession - 25 years ago today on 22 March. She prepared conscientiously for the Confession, recalling all she had done during the 36 years of her life up to that point.   Afterwards she exhibited much joy and gratitude, knowing that her sins had been fully forgiven.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

A letter in The Guardian

 It was on this day 35 years ago  - 2 March 1981 -  that Ali, then 26,  had a letter published in The Guardian newspaper, which led to her life taking a direction totally different from what she had expected.

The letter expressed Ali's objection to the practice, that had been reported widely, of sedating and starving to death new-born disabled babies.

The letter said:

Sir, - I refer to your article Deformed Babies Allowed to Die, Doctors Admit (February 25). 
I am 26 years old and was born with Spina Bifida. As far as my own case is concerned, I am fairly severely handicapped and confined to a wheelchair, so I am not sure a similar case would now be selected to live. Nevertheless I feel that my life has been worthwhile and enjoyable, and that I have achieved a measure of success. I have travelled widely with my husband, and  been to university and gained a degree. I certainly would not agree with the findings of the nameless and rather nebulous surveys that you quote as saying that most Spina Bifida teenagers would rather not have lived. 
Not unnaturally, I suppose, I feel very strongly that "not striving officiously to keep (Spina Bifida) babies alive" amounts to killing them.  I think this would be ethically dubious even if one agreed that doctors could intelligently predict every person's potential in life at the time of their birth. Apart from the obvious humanitarian implications, is it not rather presumptuous to suppose that life on earth, as lived by "normal" human beings is now at its apex? If every form of life that deviated in any way from "normal" had been systematically destroyed since the beginning of time, presumably life itself would still be confined to the sea.  
I believe the practice has been going on for some years now, though it does seem slightly ironic that in this International Year of Disabled People it would appear to be quite permissible and indeed legal for members of what is arguably this society's most esteemed profession to starve handicapped babies to death because they do not conform to some physical ideal. 
I wonder what the reaction would have been if it had been recommended in the International Year of the Child that babies in poor countries should be deliberately starved to death by doctors because in their opinion their quality of life could not be as good as that of a child born into a richer society? My personal opinion is that the only life one can and should judge and assess the value of is one's own.  
Yours faithfully
(Mrs) Alison Davis
After the letter was published Ali received nearly 100 letters responding to what she had said. Several of them were from pro-lifers who made the point that the fatal discrimination against disabled babies was an extension of the mentality that promoted screening for disability followed by abortion, so that disabled unborn children would never even get to see the light of day.

At that time Ali was pro-abortion and did not have a good opinion of pro-lifers.  Nevertheless, she was intellectually honest and considered the arguments presented to her.  She spent time checking out material in the university library and found the pro-life arguments irrefutable.  Within a couple of years she was working for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

Inevitably, one's thoughts develop as one gets older.  While continuing to hold the view that nobody has the right to judge negatively the value of anybody else's life,  Ali subsequently did not hold the view, indicated in the letter, that the value of one's life is subjective.  She held that life is precious - indeed of infinite value - even if at times one may not actually recognise that is the case. In later years she would never say that the 'worthwhileness' of her life - or of anyone's life - lay in any achievements or successes she may have enjoyed;  such things were, she believed, incidental given the intrinsic value of each human life.

About ten years after the letter was published Ali and I were at a pro-life meeting and a woman, who was unknown to Ali, approached her.  She took a folded up piece of paper out of her purse, and showed it to Ali.  It was the letter Ali had had published in The Guardian.  The woman said it had made a deep impression on her and she had cut it out and  kept it in her purse since then.

Friday, 8 January 2016

A happy birthday in India

8 January 2006: Ali's last birthday celebrations in India.
Pictured with Sk. Nagoorsheda who has Down's Syndrome.
Recalling - naturally - Ali's birthday today, it is easy to remember many of the birthdays celebrated with her over the years.

Between 2001 and 2006 Ali spent two weeks in India each January.  She was normally there for her birthday on 8 January.  If we went to India later in the month she had a birthday celebration there anyway.

Although she also went to India in 2007, Ali's last birthday celebrations there were ten years ago, in January 2006. On the day of her birthday a new home, named after the charity she founded - the Enable Home for Disabled Children - was opened in Ongole, Andhra Pradesh, with joyful festivities. At that time there was no indication that all that Ali had worked so tirelessly to develop would disintegrate just a few months later because of the corruption of a few people in India who betrayed the trust that had been put in them.  What happened was heartbreaking for Ali.

While Ali appreciated the celebrations that were put on in her honour, she was happiest of all just being with the children.  They called her 'Mummy Alison' and she loved them as intensely as any mother would love her children.  Being with 'her' children made those birthday celebrations between 10 and 15 years ago so special for Ali.

Returning for Ali's birthday on 8 January 2006.
 College students Ali had been supporting since 1995.
8 January 2006:  Ali's 51st birthday.
With some of her children at the newly opened Enable Home in Ongole.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Two years on from that "bright and clear day"

Ali in 2005
In the approach to the second anniversary of Ali's death on 3 December 2013 my thoughts have inevitably turned to those last momentous days of her life.

I have already written a little about Ali's death.   Ali wanted to live on account of the people she loved in her life.  But she loved God and wanted to be with Him too.  In her final weeks, days and hours the phrase she said over and over again was "I want to go home."

At some point from 2007 (as indicated by the publication details in the book) Ali read the long diary "Divine Mercy in My Soul" written by the Polish nun, Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), who was canonised in the year 2000, the first saint of the new millennium.  I recently looked at Ali's copy of the book and saw that she had highlighted a number of passages.

Ali hadn't highlighted the passages as an academic might, to emphasise some new thoughts and ideas that she was learning. Over the course of nearly 25 years Ali had taught me so much and as I read the passages it was almost as though I were hearing her voice, expressing many of the ideas I had heard from her own lips.  It seemed to me that she was highlighting the thoughts that most resonated with her own.

One of the passages highlighted by Ali referred to St Faustina's eager desire for the last day - the "bright and clear day" - of her life.  Having lived with Ali for so many years, and having been present during those final days,  I have no doubt that Ali shared the sentiment expressed by St Faustina:
"O bright and clear day on which all my dreams will be fulfilled: O day so eagerly desired, the last day of my life! I look forward with joy to the last stroke the Divine Artist will trace on my soul, which will give my soul a unique beauty that will distinguish me from the beauty of other souls."[para 825]
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to Dr Anthony McCarthy, Ali's much regarded SPUC colleague and friend, that to me Ali's death still seems very recent.  I was struck by his reply, in which he said: "I suspect Alison's light shone so bright it will always seem rather recent than distant."

Some people light up the world in an exceptional way.  Sometimes we just know that particular people are extraordinary even if we don't know precisely what is extraordinary about them.  I was in the privileged position of knowing better than anyone how authentically extraordinary Ali was.  It will inevitably take some time for Ali's extraordinariness to be explained and appreciated fully - just as it took some time for the extraordinariness of St Faustina to be explained and appreciated.

For now, let the words of St Faustina, highlighted by Ali, be a way of letting the light of these two extraordinary women continue to shine.

Ali at St Faustina's shrine in Lagiewniki, Krakow
in September 2007

Below are many of the passages from St Faustina's Diary that were highlighted by Ali.  The number after each passage refers to the paragraph number given in the Diary:

"O Jesus, I will let no one surpass me in loving You!"  [227]

"To suffer without complaining, to bring comfort to others and to drown my own sufferings in the most Sacred Heart of Jesus!" [224]

"O Christ, may delights, honor and glory be Yours, and suffering mine.  I will not lag one step behind as I follow You, though thorns wound my feet."  [70]

"O my Jesus, You alone know the longings and the sufferings of my heart.  I am glad I can suffer for You, however little."  [73]

"For Jesus, one can bear anything."  [88]

"From the moment I came to love suffering, it ceased to be a suffering for me.  Suffering is the daily food of my soul."  [275]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina]  "My child, you please Me most by suffering.  In your physical as well as your mental sufferings, My daughter, do not seek sympathy from creatures.  I want the fragrance of your suffering to be pure and unadulterated.....The more you will come to love suffering, My daughter, the purer your love for Me will be." [279]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina]  "I want to see you always as a little child." [290]

"...for it is precisely when I suffer much that my joy is greater; and when I suffer less, my joy also is less."  [303]

"Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth; it purifies the soul. In suffering we learn who is our true friend." [342]

"True love is measured by the thermometer of suffering. Jesus, I thank you for the little daily crosses....for the upsetting of all my plans."  [343]

"Suffering is the most harmonious melody of all."  [385]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina]  "My daughter, suffering will be a sign to you that I am with you."  [669]

"Amid the greatest torments, I fix the gaze of my soul upon Christ Crucified;  I do not expect help from people but place my trust in God.  In His unfathomable mercy lies all my hope."

"Death destroys nothing that is good."  [694]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina]  "Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of my Mercy."

"I will do everything within my power to save souls, and I will do it with prayer and suffering." [735]

"Set a guard over my lips, so that the fragrance of my sufferings may be known and pleasing to You alone." [831]

"I know very well that people will not understand me; that is why my sacrifice will be purer in Your eyes." [957]

"I have been ill for four months, but I do not recall having wasted so much as a minute of it."  [1062]

"This grace from God was given to me precisely because I was the weakest of all people; this is why the Almighty has surrounded me with His special mercy." [1099]

"I do not know how to live without God, but I also feel that God, absolutely self-sufficient though He is, cannot be happy without me." [1120]

"Should You give me health and strength, be blessed;  should You confine me to a bed of pain for my whole life, be blessed,  Should you give only failures and disappointments in life, be blessed.....Should You leave me in darkness and all kinds of torments, be blessed."  [1264]

"Now I understand why there are so few saints;  it is because so few souls are deeply humble."  [1306]

"Lord, reduce me to nothingness in my own eyes that I may find grace in Yours."  [1436]

"I wish to speak of one more thing that I have experienced: when God gives neither death nor health, and [when] this lasts for many years, people become accustomed to this and consider the person as not being ill.  Then there begins a whole series of silent sufferings.  Only God knows how many sacrifices the soul makes."  [1509]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina]  "My pupil, have great love for those who cause you suffering. Do good to those who hate you.....It is not always within your power to control your feelings. You will recognize that you have love if, after having experienced annoyance and contradiction, you do not lose your peace, but pray for those who have made you suffer and wish them well." [1628]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina]  "Be always merciful as I am merciful.  Love everyone out of love for Me, even your greatest enemies, so that My mercy may be fully reflected in your heart." [1695]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina] "My daughter, know that if I allow you to feel and have a more profound knowledge of My sufferings, that is a grace from Me.  But when your mind is dimmed and your sufferings are great, it is then that you take an active part in My Passion, and I am conforming you more fully to Myself.  It is your task to submit yourself to My will at such times, more than at others." [1697]

"O God, who are happiness in Your very self and have no need of creatures to make You happy, because of Yourself You are the fullness of love; yet out of Your fathomless mercy You call creatures into being and grant them a share in Your eternal happiness and in Your life, that divine indwelling life which You live, One God in Three Persons."  [1741]

[The words of Jesus to St Faustina] "consider My Sorrowful Passion in all its immensity. Consider it as if it had been undertaken for your sake alone." [1761]

"If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion and the other is suffering." [1804]

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Kanigiri - 20 years ago

Twenty years ago, on 12 August 1995, Ali and I arrived at a small centre for disabled children at Kanigiri, Andhra Pradesh, south India.   Ali had heard about the centre two or three years earlier and had been sponsoring two boys there.  They had written to her and asked her to visit....so we did.

The visit changed Ali's life - and not simply because it led to many other visits to India, and to much activity to help to improve the children's lives.   For the previous ten years Ali had found life generally very tough and had wanted to die.  At Kanigiri she found a reason to live.  Ali spoke and wrote several times about the profound impact of those two days at Kanigiri, for example in an article for The Observer:
I went to India with Colin Harte, my full time assistant, to visit a new project to help disabled children, little knowing that it would change my life for ever. Many of the children are so disabled they can barely manage to crawl in the dust. They are unwanted and unloved by their families, but it is true to say that they saved my life. The first time I visited the children they called me "Mummy." They hugged and loved me, and as I was playing with them, I suddenly loved them all, overwhelmingly and fiercely, as if they really were my own. When we left I said to Colin "I think I want to live." It was the first time I had thought that for over 10 years.
Returning to England,  Ali learned the children's language, Telugu, so that she could write to them and speak with them.  She worked tirelessly to raise funds and to develop medical support for these and many other children.  All these things were done in addition to her full-time employment.

The video, above, (or here) is a thankful and joyful reminder of that first visit to Kanigiri, and of the children who always remained close to Ali's  motherly heart.

The music in the video is a song from a Telugu movie, Nuvve Kavali.  We took the children to see it at the cinema in January 2001.  The music and the movie was one of their favourites, as well as Ali's.