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.