Thursday, 3 December 2020

Seven

Two "seven year olds" - Ali and the delightful Maria Brennan (in March 1995)

Seven years ago today Ali passed to eternal life. 

Ali recognised the significance of numbers, in particular the number of perfection: seven. From the creation of the world in seven days in the Book of Genesis, through to the seven Churches addressed in the Book of Revelation, the Bible frequently highlights the number seven.  Catholic doctrine embraces such things as the seven virtues, seven deadly sins, seven corporal acts of mercy, seven spiritual acts of mercy, seven sorrows of the Mary, seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

Ali often spoke of seven as being the perfect age for a child, an age at which, even as an adult with an incisive mind, engaged in serious pursuits, she aspired to live.  Her profound appreciation of what lay at the heart of Catholicism and the pro-life movement was, I believe, because she was able to be so very childlike.  Not childish - far from it.  But very childlike.

On the evening of Ali's death, Tuesday 13 December 2013,  I went to Mass and the Gospel reading for that day - the first Tuesday of Advent -  was so apt:

Filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, Jesus said:  'I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.  Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do.' (Luke 10: 21-22)

Ali accepted the truth that each and every unborn child is precious and deserves to be protected from harm, and that it is never acceptable to cause the death of people who feel life has nothing more to offer on account of suffering or old age or disability, because she rejected the foolishness of the so-called 'learned' and 'clever' people who say otherwise.   She was happier spending time with her young friend, Maria Brennan, than with the 'clever' people.  Ali accepted the totality of the teaching of the Catholic Church because she had the simplicity of a child to recognise and accept its truth.

I'm sure Ali enjoyed the story as much as Maria!

Many of Ali's friends recognised her simple, childlike spirit - how, even though at one moment she might be discussing the finer points of embryology and stem cell research, she could happily switch to talking about her favourite teddy bears, or tell stories about the family of wolves who lived in the garden, and also of an assortment of other nearby residents - Idris the dragon, Vincent the vole,  Clyde the crocodile, to name but a few.  She fitted more into a working day than I would hope to achieve in a week, yet she would have time for the 'silly' things in life when it truly did seem that she was just 'seven'.

On one such occasion, in October 1989, Ali was quiet for a while and I asked what was on her mind. I'm grateful for having recorded the conversation:

"A strange thought.  God is younger than we are.  We only grow old because we have sinned."

-  How do you mean?  "He doesn't grow old."

- How have we sinned?  "We separated ourselves from eternal innocence.  Innocence doesn't get bored whereas as we get old, we get bored.  We lose wonder of things.  Like, we aren't surprised that leopards have spots - it's just a 'fact' - but a child is full of wonder that any leopard has spots or that an elephant has a trunk, etc.

"God is perpetual innocence which is love so he never gets tired of telling the sun to rise again every day or the moon to rise.  He doesn't get bored of telling them:  every day it's new.

"We feel old and experienced but spring is young.  It's a statement of perpetual innocence.  So it's younger than we are. Like, every blade of grass he makes, God kind of says, 'Why didn't I think of that before?' like it's new, like you can read the same story 100 times to a child.  We [i.e., adults] can brush past a field without noticing.

"If God thinks that about each blade of grass, imagine what he thinks about each person."

At a different time, also in 1989, Ali spoke of an occasion when she was about seven.

"I can remember being at home in bed - I was ill quite a lot - and everybody was out and I was just looking out the window and I kept saying, I wanted to know what forever and ever was.  And I kind of got a glimpse of eternity just as I was saying the words and asking Jesus.  I was afraid of "forever and ever" because it seemed the most terrifying concept, which I suppose at that age it is... I just felt that "forever and ever" would be bearable if Jesus was there."

Ali has a better appreciation now of "forever and ever."  

We don't have a true understanding of the requirements of the present moment if we neglect a childlike contemplation of "forever and ever."  Even in the midst of great suffering and distress Ali was able to appreciate the present moment, with the simplicity of a seven-year old, because she recognised the calling to share eternity with "perpetual innocence" and the preparation this requires of us.

Ali with her good friends, Mary (left) and Chris Brennan (hidden behind Ali)  and some of their family.

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