By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
Alison Davis was born on 8 January 1955 in England with spina bifida and eventually suffered from hydrocephalus, emphysema, arthritis and osteoporosis as well. Her physical condition became the means that gradually shaped her inner being until she was able to declare that “suffering, a share in the sufferings of our Lord Himself, is the greatest privilege possible in the world we live in".
from pro-abortion to pro-life
Alison was brought up in the United Reform Church, but eventually became an atheist in her teens. She got married when she was twenty and advocated for a woman’s so-called "right to choose". After reading an article in The Guardian advocating death for children with severe disabilities such as her own, Alison wrote a letter which The Guardian published. Shortly after, she received a letter from a pro-life group which was the beginning of her journey to a complete change of heart regarding abortion.
Dr Colin Harte became Alison’s caregiver around 1988-89. What was meant to be a short-term service proved instead to last until her death in 2013. He personally witnessed the suffering Alison endured as well as the journey of faith she made. Caring for Alison changed Dr Harte completely.
from atheist to Catholic
Dr Harte describes the spina bifida Alison suffered from as a “split spine”. She was confined to wheelchair from her teenage years and endured the severely painful consequences of the prior use of crutches and calipers in her childhood years. In 1985, Alison’s husband left her suddenly, leaving her barely able to get by economically. Mental and emotional suffering was added to her physical suffering. Colin says that Alison’s life “fell apart”. However, this provoked an interest in religion which eventually led her to embrace the Catholic faith in 1991.
from desiring death to acceptance
In the early years when Colin cared for her, she still felt at times “the desire to die." Alison had also made several attempts to commit suicide. "She was sympathetic to the idea of euthanasia", Dr Harte says, because she felt that life was "so wretched and she couldn't see a future for herself. She approved of it [euthanasia], would have requested it, would have qualified for it, and her life would have been taken if there had been laws in place then that exist today."
“It was through the suffering and physical difficulties she was in that she tried to find if there was a God…. Her faith made an enormous difference in accepting her pain and suffering".
It was on their trip to Lourdes in 1989 that Alison asked Colin what it meant to offer up suffering. Twenty-two-year-old Colin had been brought up a Catholic but found himself unable to respond. A few days later he offered the explanation that “our suffering can be offered up as a prayer to God, and has a purpose and a value in that way”.
suffering as greatest privilege
Alison began right then and there to offer up her suffering to the Lord. This “momentous discovery” provided Alison with the spiritual dynamism that gave purpose and meaning to her suffering. She would later say:
“My suffering and all suffering has a purpose. And the uniting of my sufferings with those of Christ on the Cross and offering them up to God in heaven was a way of showing my love to Jesus and the most powerful prayer I can offer for myself, for other people, and for suffering people. I honestly do believe that suffering is a share in the sufferings of our Lord Himself, and therefore the greatest privilege possible in the world we live in".
care of the person
To those who care for people with disabilities, Dr Harte recommends breaks and periods of “respite”. What is probably more important, however, is “how you see the person that you are caring for". The perspective of the sick person as the “patient”, the “passive recipient” of care, “is not the appropriate way to see it in my view”, Dr Harte says. Caregivers need to be aware of “the great dignity of the persons we care for, the infinite value of their life. And not just of their life, but of the suffering” they bear.
the dignity of the person who suffers
The “great dignity of her suffering and the good she could do with her suffering” is something Dr Harte found lacking in the spiritual care Alison received from various priests.
“I think we don’t speak enough about the good of suffering…. Death isn’t the worst thing in our society, suffering is…. While doing everything possible to relieve somebody’s suffering, because that’s part of care, to realize that the suffering that cannot be relieved is valuable, it has a purpose, and it has the greatest purpose insofar as it can be offered up in union with the sufferings of Christ for the good of oneself, and in remission of one’s own sins, and also for the good of the Church and the world…. This is a powerful need in the Church, to have this source of good.”