Sunday, 22 March 2020

A happy day

22 March 1990 - Ali on the Isle of Wight with Pooh Bear (right) and Linden Lee (left)
On this day 30 years ago, Ali and I went for the day to the Isle of Wight.  I think it was our only visit to the island and it was an exceptionally happy day for Ali.

Just over a year later she would be received into the Catholic Church, but at that time Ali felt totally unwelcome in and excluded from the Church.  We didn't go to Church as she felt there was no place for her.  Ali often said she wished there were in Churches a "leper place" - where the lepers would be tolerated - where she could sit, if not welcome at least not shunned.

On the Isle of Wight we found ourselves passing Quarr Abbey, and for the first time in some months Ali entered a Catholic Church, though with some trepidation.  We arrived a little late (perhaps helpfully late) for Vespers.  Ali wrote to  me later that day:
"We were late (not by accident, I think) and no one noticed us at all.  In a funny way I felt as relaxed as if I had found a spiritual "leper place" where I could be unnoticed and easily, happily with Mama and Jesus - cradled, loved, accepted, really who I am. You being by my side bore me to Mama and Jesus.  You took me to the place and "carried" me in.  I felt fully alive...It was a special present just for today.  It's not yet time for the Church to accept me or learn to love my brokenness.  We must await that in patient hope." 

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

The age of retirement

In the earlier years of Ali's employment for SPUC - about 1991.
Today, on her 65th birthday, Ali would have reached retirement age and qualified for her state pension.  For most of her working years, Ali was employed by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), defending the right to life of the most vulnerable from conception until natural death.  Whether or not Ali would have continued in paid employment, had she lived until now, it is not possible to believe that she would have ever ended her efforts to defend the most vulnerable.

Ali's pro-life work was achieved at much personal cost. She could not help but be deeply affected by having to read and hear on a daily basis how people like her were "better off dead" and thus denied the chance to even be born, or so "undignified" in their suffering with chronic disability or illness that they should have the option of ending their lives.  I don't think many people understood the damaging effect on Ali's own self-esteem, effectively to have to justify daily her own right to even exist in this world.

The walls of Ali's study varied over the years but the one constancy was that they were covered with photos of dear friends and loved ones, including many who were especially vulnerable.  The photos of these individuals helped to motivate Ali. I'm sure that if Ali had been merely concerned with establishing her own right to live she would not have been able to work for SPUC for as long as she did.  It was her love not only for God but also for others, which spurred her on to persevere in her very important work. 

Ali's study wall in Sept 1992
Ali's study wall in May 1995 
Feb 2003:  Ali in her study
Part of Ali's study wall in Nov-Dec 2006

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Perpetual light for Ali.

Photo taken  on Thursday 5 December 2013 at 19:39
The main prayer for those who have died is for eternal rest, and that perpetual light may shine upon them.

During Ali's last nights her room was lighted with many candles and not with the harsh glare of electric light.

When Ali died at 08:40 on the morning of Tuesday 3 December 2013 a few of the candles were still alight.  They were left to burn out naturally in the following hours.

Early in the afternoon of Wednesday 4 December Ali's very good friend Amanda Lewin visited with her daughter Marie.  They went into Ali's bedroom, where Ali had died and from where her body had been taken to the undertakers earlier that morning.    It was observed that one candle, in a plastic container, still burned brightly, but it was about to burn itself out as the wax was depleted.

The three of us went into Dorchester to view Ali's body at the undertakers'.  Returning to the house 2-3 hours later, we again went into Ali's bedroom and were astonished that the candle was still burning. While a candle that is about to burn out might sometimes burn with a small flame for a short period before going out,  the candle was not flickering but burning brightly.  

Amanda and Marie returned to their home.  During the evening the candle continued to burn brightly though there appeared to be the bare minimal amount of wax, which didn't diminish.

When bought, the size of the candle would have been about 10cm x 6 cm.  Some months earlier my mother had given it to me and other candles, when she was having a clear out.  This candle was given to her when her most recent grandchild was born and she had already burned it for several hours.  I did not recall when I first lighted it - it was possibly from the evening of Sunday 1st December, but it was at least from about 4-5pm on Monday 2 December.    By the night of Wednesday 4 December it was lasting longer than would be expected.  At any rate, candles don't burn brightly for hours on a mere sliver of wax.

It was impossible for the candle to still be burning on the morning of Thursday 5 December - and yet the impossible happened.  It was very odd.  The photo, above, was taken at 19:39 on the Thursday evening: the candle was still burning brightly - impossibly! - with a sliver of wax which wasn't being burned away.

The candle continued to burn brightly when I went to bed after midnight.  It was extinguished by the time I arose the next (Friday) morning.

Amanda and Marie were as astonished as I was when they saw the wax-depleted candle burning brightly on the afternoon of Wednesday 4 December..  More than 30 hours later it was still burning brightly.

I am not proposing an explanation for this strange occurrence.  I am merely describing what happened.

May Ali be enjoying eternal rest in inexhaustible light. 

Sunday, 29 September 2019

Last days in Poland (26-29 Sept 2007)

28 Sept 2007: At the Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Łagiewniki, Krakow
We travelled back to Krakow on Wed 26 Sept.   Previously we had stayed in the centre of town.  Now we stayed a little further out, near the shrine to the Divine Mercy in Łagiewniki.

During the two full days of the Thursday and Friday we visited several places, including the Divine Mercy shrine, where the earthly remains of St Faustina Kowalska are situated under the painting by Adolf Hyla which was inspired by St Faustina's visions.

Ali at  the Divine Mercy shrine
One of the most moving visits was to Krakow's old Jewish quarter - Kazimierz. About 64,000 Jews lived there before the second world war, and only about 3,000-4,000 survived, many of whom did not remain in Poland.  It was sobering to walk through the streets where those who suffered so greatly had lived and especially to visit the Synagogue where they worshipped.  Unfortunately I discovered when we arrived that I had forgotten to bring my camera and I have no photos of it.

Many of the survivors owed their lives to the industrialist Oskar Schindler, and we visited his factory which kept them in employment. 

27 Sept 2007:  Ali at the Oskar Schindler factory in Krakow
We visited new places in Krakow and revisited some we had seen some days earlier.

Tyniecka 10 - the house Karol Wojtyla and his father lived in after moving to Debniki, Krakow in 1938
The right side view of the Vistula river in front of Tyniecka 10
The left side view of the Vistula river in front of Tyniecka 10
St Stanislaw Kosta Church in Debniki, attended by the younger Karol Wojtyla
The courtyard of the Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University, Krakow



28 Sept 2007:  Ali in the main square,  Krakow

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

A visit to Fr Tadeusz Styczen SDS in Lublin

Ali with Fr Tadeusz Styczen SDS at Lublin 
Tues 25 Sept 2007:  The previous day we had travelled the 200 miles from Czestochowa to Lublin for one reason - to visit a dear friend of ours: Fr Tadeusz Styczen, S.D.S.  There are some people whose presence in our lives seems to be truly Providential, not just a happy accident.

I first met Fr Tadeusz at a conference for European legislators at the Vatican in October 1998.  Ali and I had  been concerned about how a passage (n. 73) from Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (On the Gospel of life) was being interpreted.  It seemed to many people that it was endorsing so-called "imperfect legislation" to prohibit some abortions while allowing others, if that was all that could be achieved at a particular moment in time.  Ali believed that it would be wrong to support such "imperfect legislation"  and I thought that the passage did not necessarily teach what others claimed it did.

The conference discussed many topics, though "imperfect legislation" was not among them.  I was therefore surprised to hear a Polish priest, who was unknown to me, raise this very question in a discussion period at the end of the first session.   He was expressing the same sorts of concerns that Ali and I had, and as very few people shared our view I was very interested to meet and talk with him.  We spoke several times during the conference and during the following days while I stayed in Rome.

I did not realise for some time just how distinguished my new Polish friend was.  He was the Chair of Ethics at the John Paul II Insitute at the Catholic University of Lublin.  The previous occupant of the Chair had been Karol Wojtyla - who remained in that position until he was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978.  The future Pope had supervised the theses for  Fr Tadeusz Styczen's Masters and doctoral degrees.  According to one papal biographer:  "To the extent that Wojtyla had a protege, Father Styczen was the only one."  (Tad Szulc,  Pope John Paul II - The Biography (1995) p. 209).  Fr Tadeusz was a very close friend of Pope John Paul II, vacationing with him, having daily access to him when he was in Rome, and was with him when he died.
Fr Tadeusz Stczyen SDS
Ali was not with me in Rome when I met Fr Tadeusz, and he was very interested in hearing about her. He had a particular sympathy with the suffering this issue had caused Ali as it was an issue of particular concern for him too.  They were not to meet until 2005, on his first and only visit to England, and it was a great joy for both of us to visit him in Lublin.  He was at that time retired and not in good health, and we suspected we might not see him again.  Fr Tadeusz died on 14 October 2010.

The Catholic University of Lublin (KUL)
Ali at Lublin castle
Ali at Lublin Castle
It was a great encouragement to Ali and me to know that Fr Tadeusz shared our concerns about the interpretation of Evangelium vitae, n. 73.  We contributed to volumes he edited on the question that were published by the Catholic University of Lublin in Polish and German.  Above and beyond this however, was a conviction that he was an exceptionally good and holy priest.  Ali thought he was saintly, which is perhaps not surprising given that he was the protege of a saintly pope.

25 Sept 2007:  Last visit with Fr Tadeusz Styczen SDS.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Our Lady of Częstochowa

The Icon of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa
24 Sept 2007:  Today we visited Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, one of Poland's greatest shrines which is especially famed for housing the icon of the Black Madonna (or: Our Lady) of Czestochowa.  The icon has been housed at the Jasna Gora monastery since the 14th century, and there are legends that it was discovered in 326 in Jerusalem by St Helena, and even that its origins go back to St Luke.  At any rate, it is greatly venerated in Poland and many great miracles have been associated with it.

Pilgrims venerating the icon
While we were there there were Masses taking place or great numbers of people praying in front of the icon and it was not respectful to take photos, so the two photos shown above are taken from the internet. 

The monastery is an impressive size, as indicated by some of the photos taken outside.

24 Sept 2007:  The entrance to the monastery church

There is a large space for open air pilgrimage Masses

Monday, 23 September 2019

Auschwitz

The approach to the Auschwitz I concentration camp
Sunday 23 Sept  2007:  After the relaxed and  carefree previous days, today was a sombre reminder of the evil of which human beings are capable.

We visited the two main Nazi concentration camps at  Auschwitz (in Polish: Oświęcim).  It is estimated that 1.3 million people were incarcerated in the camps at Auschwitz, of which 1.1 million were put to death or died. About 90 percent were Jews:  one-sixth of the total number of Jews killed in the Nazi holocaust lost their lives at Auschwitz.  

The entrance of Auschwitz I with the misleading sign Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free)
The first camp, known as Auschwitz I, was a former army barracks close to the centre of the town, which the Nazis converted into a camp, holding prisoners from 1940. 

23 Sept 2007:  Ali at the Auschwitz I camp
The paths were  bumpy and it was painful and difficult for Ali to get around, though of course she made no complaint. She wanted to be aware of what had taken place there, including Block 11 which was known as the "death block,"  where many prisoners were tortured and killed, sometimes by starvation.

At the end of July 1941 ten men were chosen to be starved to death in punishment for the escape of a prisoner.  One of the men chosen,  Franciszek Gajowniczek,  was distraught for his wife and family.  Hearing this, the Franciscan priest, Fr Maximilian Kolbe, volunteered to take his place, and had his offer accepted. He encouraged those condemned to death with him, leading them in prayer.  Without food and water he alone was alive after two weeks, and so the Nazis ended his life on 14 August with a lethal injection.   Franciszek Gajowniczek survived his incarceration and lived until 1995, dying at the age of 93.  He was present at the canonisation of St Maximilian Kolbe in 1982.

The entrance to Block 11 (the death block)
Block 11 - the death block .  The execution wall (see below) is in the yard through the entrance on the left
The Execution Wall between Blocks 10 and 11
Looking into Cell 18 in Block 11, where St Maximilian Kolbe and his companions were starved to death
Inside Cell 18 in Block 11.
Between Blocks 10 and 11 was the Execution Wall, where thousands of prisoners were shot. Being at these places of death, seeing the block with shoes and trunks piled up, and also seeing the crematorium, was a sobering experience.

The crematorium at Auschwitz I
Because of the increasing number of prisoners at Auschwitz I, a new camp, known as the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp,  was built from October 1941, a couple of miles away on the outskirts of the town.  It was designed to house up to 50,000 prisoners, who would also be a forced work-force, but its numbers grew to about 200,000 at a time.  It became not only a work camp but an extermination camp too.

Approaching the entrance of the Auschwitz II - Birkenau camp 
The entrance of the camp
Looking into the camp from the entrance tower
The entrance tower from within the camp

The vastness of the camp - view to the right of the entrance tower
Barracks would each contain 700 or more prisoners
Inside the barracks that housed the prisoners


The retreating Nazis blew up the gas chambers
The ruins of the gas chambers
The ground still holds the ashes of some of the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz