Being Lazarus

Standard

lazarus

In my parish, every year we read the “Optional for use with the RCIA” readings for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent, which means that this past Sunday, we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus as presented in the scriptures is a bit of an enigma. He might be the titular character, but his sisters Mary and Martha get most of the screen time, so to speak. Lazarus only appears long enough to stagger out of the tomb “bound hand and foot”—a feat of amazing dexterity, especially for a guy who’s been dead for four days. Lazarus never responds to his miraculous comeback. The scriptures do not record his gratitude to Jesus, nor perhaps his criticism—because who is to say that Lazarus wanted to come back? St. John did not record the answers to the questions Lazarus must have gotten tired of hearing. Where were you? What was it like? How did it feel to come back? Why don’t you write your memoirs and solve this whole question of the afterlife once and for all?

Of course, St. John knew his business, which was to bring his readers to know and love Jesus Christ, not Lazarus. He may not have satisfied his readers’ curiosity, but neither did he distract us from the central character with wild subplots. He left that up to less important writers like me.

Of all the characters in the story of Lazarus, Lazarus himself is the one with whom I most easily identify. I have had my opportunities to play Martha and Mary, weeping over the death of a loved one, “Lord, if you had been here, he would not have died.” But I also have entirely too much experience being Lazarus. I have not spent four days rotting in a tomb, but I have come a good deal closer to death than most living people—twice.

During my first semester of college, at age eighteen, my appendix ruptured, but I did not realize what had happened. I spent two weeks in my dorm burning up with fever, too weak to walk across campus to the infirmary. I thought I had the flu. Finally, I asked my parents to take me home and then said, “Mom, you’d better call a priest.” Yes, I asked for a priest before I asked for a doctor. A doctor could not have helped me at that moment. There comes a point when only Jesus can say, “This illness is not to end in death,” because the body has no resources left with which to fight. I knew instinctively that I had reached that point. Our parish priest anointed me that afternoon, a Sunday. On Monday, my father took me to the doctor, who sent me to the hospital, where I had surgery on Tuesday.

By the time I actually went under the knife, I had already recovered. The fever had broken, all of my other symptoms had disappeared, and the doctor remarked how silly he felt wheeling what appeared to be a perfectly healthy eighteen-year-old into the O.R. What he actually removed was not my appendix but the hard shell my body had formed to contain the pieces after it ruptured. There was no infection at all. “There are no recorded cases of anyone surviving a ruptured appendix without surgery,” my doctor said, “And there still aren’t because I operated on you. But you would have lived regardless.” I have never seen the expression my doctor wore that day on any other person’s face before or since. I don’t think he used the word “miracle,” but those were the eyes of someone who has beheld an event that he cannot explain.

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how nonchalantly I received his news. Nor did the doctor, who kept trying in vain to elicit some kind of reaction from me beyond a shrug. What he said wasn’t news to me, except in the medical details. I already knew when and by Whom I had been healed. True grace comes very much as a matter of course. Miracles are inevitable in the light of God’s true love.

The second time I almost died was just a year ago, in March of 2017. I had surgery that was supposed to be minimally invasive, usually done as an outpatient procedure. It did not go as planned. I lost a great deal more blood than I should have, but no one told me that when I woke up. All I could find the strength to say was, “It hurts to breathe.” This prompted my nurse to pump me full of painkillers. All through the night after my surgery, I woke up every four hours or so to say, “I can’t breathe. It hurts to breathe.” Then I was given narcotics to put me back to sleep. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I knew the drugs were making it worse, even though I was too weak to say so. There came a moment when I received the latest dose and as I drifted off, I knew: I’m probably not going to wake up.

It was a moment of pure peace.

As in my other brush with death, the worst had passed before the doctors did what was necessary to save me. I was conscious and breathing without pain by the time the morning nurse came in, looked at my chart, and called the doctor to say, “Have you seen her numbers? I really think you should give her a transfusion.”

I did not experience cardiac arrest or brain death on either occasion, although I know I was very close. I did not have the “near death experience” of walking through a tunnel of light toward the open arms of Christ or my loved ones. I never saw any visions or heard any voices. But in my moments of greatest weakness, I learned that the veil between this world and the next is imperceptibly thin and easier to slip across—from both directions—than we care to admit when we’re healthy. I do not know if everyone experiences death the same way, but I know that I experienced near-death the same way twice. I shall be terribly surprised, the last time I go, if it is different.

In my experience, the approach leading up to the veil is a terrifying darkness filled with pain, but there is a kind of event horizon beyond which fear and suffering have no meaning. They simply don’t exist. There might be a medical reason for this, that the brain is too weak to produce the necessary chemicals to perceive those emotions, but on both occasions when I realized I was much more likely to die than to live, every care I had ever known dissolved in pure surrender. There was no danger on the other side of the veil. The toil and heartache are all here, in this world, in the months of excruciating recovery and the trials of life yet to come. It is not exactly true to say I didn’t want to come back. But it is true that the only answer I could give—the only answer I would ever want to give—to the peace of that surrender is, “Yes.”

Writing those words frightens me. I do not want to die. I have a husband and children who depend on me, family and friends who would grieve, books I still want to write, places I still want to visit, things I still want to accomplish in this life. I’m only thirty-eight. I’m too young to die—a ridiculous fallacy, but one I cannot shake despite all evidence to the contrary. It does no good to admit, either silently or aloud, that I know I really will be better off when I’m dead. It sounds like lunacy, even to me. But this is nothing compared to the lunacy of believing that a passage through the veil is The End. The veil is only the threshold of something unequivocally beautiful. That, over there—that is life. What we call life here is not even its shadow. It is the shadow of a shadow of a shadow.

Coming back from that state where I could “see” (for lack of a better verb) beyond this life, I am changed, but perhaps not in the ways one might expect. Death is not magic. I’m the same person now that I was before, with all the same strengths and weaknesses and failings I cannot seem to overcome. I am grateful to be here again, but the primary imprint the experiences left on my soul is not gratitude. It is mission. I did not get up and walk out of my metaphorical tomb by myself. I had no power to do so. Like Lazarus, I was called so that others “will see the glory of God.” It’s a far less dramatic mission than it sounds. My assignment is still the same as it ever was: to love the Lord my God with all my heart and to love my neighbor as myself. If it is marginally less difficult to do that now, it is only because I have less doubt about the outcome. I do not claim to have no doubt. My experiences are, after all, unverifiable, and for the second one, I was heavily drugged. Nevertheless, the testimony of my senses asserts that the hope of salvation is not hoped in vain.

For me, the knowledge of death is irrevocably linked to the knowledge of God’s eternal love. I have known that love here on earth in many ways: through the love of others, through the sacraments, through prayer, but it was in dying that I knew Him best. Rising back into this world is, by comparison, a tepid anticlimax. Perhaps that is why Lazarus never wrote his memoirs. Perhaps, like me, he could only shrug at the miracle. I AM is, and His words are true. Beside that knowledge, no miracle could ever be astonishing.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Advertisements

The Immigrant

Standard

The Immigrant

I stumbled across a gem on Netflix this week: The Immigrant, a 2013 film from director James Gray that I had never heard of. I gave it a chance because Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix are both actors I trust to deliver good performances. They did not disappoint, though Cotillard’s character is more consistent than Phoenix’s. But the film also provided a visual feast of cinematography, plus something I never dared to hope for: a story laced with Catholic-flavored themes of forgiveness.

Set in New York in 1921, The Immigrant stars Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, a young Polish Catholic woman who has fled war and famine to come to the United States with her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan). At Ellis Island, Magda is taken into quarantine for tuberculosis, while Ewa is labeled likely to become a ward of the state and tagged for deportation. Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), who claims to be from the Travelers’ Aid Society, bribes the officials to set her free; then, through a mixture of kindness and coercion, he leads her into the burlesque show where he serves as impresario and the prostitution ring where he serves as pimp. It’s evident early on that Bruno has fallen in love with her, but that does not stop him from selling her on the streets. Ewa goes along with the scheme because she must raise a large sum of money to pay the bribes that will free her sister from the immigration detention center—money she cannot earn legally because she has no legal status in the United States.

Enter the inevitable third party of their love triangle, Bruno’s cousin, a stage magician named Emil (Jeremy Renner). He offers Ewa the opportunity to escape her life of degradation, but Ewa cannot leave her sister behind.

To this point, the film is a well-crafted drama, a period piece that manages to be both intimate and grand, leaving nothing of the topless burlesques to the imagination yet handling the prostitution scenes with unusual subtlety and discretion. James Gray knows how to use a single touch to evoke more emotional depth than a graphic sex scene ever could. The plot hiccups occasionally, with a few scenes that are too contrived, but on the whole the script provides a worthy vehicle for its excellent cast.

But then—

The turning point comes when Ewa decides to return to church. She attends Mass, praying to Mary for help for both herself and her sister, then stays to go to confession afterward. Bruno eavesdrops to hear her sins, including the priest’s admonition that she must leave the man who is misusing her. From this point forward, there were so many ways for the plot to go wrong—so many easy clichés the writers could have chosen. Instead, The Immigrant does the hard work of being genuine. It resists clichés, as well as the all-too-prevalent temptation to graft modern ideologies onto stories about the past. Ewa and Bruno are granted the rare dignity of being allowed to be true to themselves. The final scenes are nothing short of beautiful. I can hardly remember a better cinematic expression of genuine love—yet not even so much as a kiss is exchanged.

In reading through a few of the secular reviews of The Immigrant, I cannot help but notice that there is virtually no mention of the film’s emphasis on love and mercy. The immigrant experience in America, Gray’s talent for evoking emotion, and the plot’s occasional missteps seem to have gotten all the ink. But to this reviewer, The Immigrant was not only a treat for my eyes, but for my soul.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Happy Second Birthday to Jennifer the Damned!

Standard

cover-take2

On Halloween, 2015, I shivered with excitement and sat in the rain all day at my first-ever book event, The Louisiana Book Festival, proudly displaying the fruits of six years of loving labor: hot off the press, my first published novel, Jennifer the Damned. Since then, my weird little vampire adaptation of Crime and Punishment (yes, really) has meandered through the world, finding fans among both vampire lovers and people who never thought they could enjoy a horror novel, and bringing me some truly heartwarming stories from readers who found in its pages exactly the kind of story they needed to help them cope with life’s darkness.

Here’s to all of you, lovely readers, and to the books we love that help to shape our hearts, minds, and souls–as Jennifer has forever shaped mine.

Happy Halloween!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories, Part 2

Standard

Hunchback

The second half of my October essay about The Spiritual Purpose of Horror Stories is now up over at Wiseblood Books. If you missed the first part, you can catch it here.

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Where to Find Catholic Fiction

Standard

Good Books

There’s been an awful lot of ink spilled about the rebirth, revitalization, and re-enchanting of Catholic literature in the last several years, complete with the proliferation of journals, publishing houses, and conferences. But did you know there has also been a similar effort to revitalize the marketing and availability of Catholic fiction? Several new ventures have emerged to help readers—as well as parents, teachers, and librarians—connect to all the good work being done in the name of Catholic fiction. Below are the ones I know about. If you know of any others, please spread the word in the comments!

Virtue Works Media

Cathy Gilmore is in the process of building a platform to connect media consumers of all ages to books, movies, and other media that promote one simple thing: virtue. Her vision is comprehensive, looking to serve all ages and genres, including everything from boutique small press fiction to Hollywood blockbusters. Virtue Works Media will eventually bring its catalog directly into parishes, Catholic schools, parish schools of religion, conferences, and anywhere else Catholics gather. Cathy is on a mission to make sure Catholics know they can get their entertainment from a Catholic source and still find works of the very highest quality.

As a start, she’s put together Five Fave Top Ten Lists of books and a few movies for ages preschool through adult. I’ve read enough of the books to know, these are good lists.

Good News! Book Fair

Lizette Lantigua is determined to oust Scholastic from Catholic schools by creating Good News! Book Fair. She offers fairs at every level, from elementary through college, as well as fairs for Catholic parishes or organizations. The books cover every possible genre, fiction and non-fiction alike, hopefully replacing some of the vapid secular offerings with something better, in every sense of the word.

Catholic Reads

Catholic Reads is a brand-spanking-new program launched in 2017, designed to be the Catholic equivalent of BookBub. Every book they review must be offered at a significant discount to receive promotion through the site. Alyssa Watson and her team are a bunch of unabashed sci-fi/ fantasy/ horror nerds—in other words, my kind of people—but the site offers every kind of fiction, from picture books on up.

Catholic Teen Books

Catholic Teen Books is a co-op of about ten Catholic YA authors who write in a variety of genres. They also have a Facebook Page with a slightly broader membership, dedicated to promoting Catholic-themed fiction for middle and high school students.

Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval

The Catholic writers Guild Seal of Approval is designed to help Catholic bookstores find good work to fill their shelves, so it is geared toward retailers rather than readers. Some of the venues mentioned above use it as a shortcut to approving books for their own catalogs. You can find a list of books that have received it on Goodreads.

Happy Reading!

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

Marian Hymns from the Orthodox Tradition

Standard

Mary icon

Today, August 15, is the day when we Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the Mother of God was assumed body and soul into heaven to become the queen of heaven and earth. Most of us will go to Mass today and sing “Hail, Holy Queen” and perhaps a setting of the Magnificat or Salve Regina. We have a rich tradition of music with which to honor our mother.

But our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Christian churches also have a rich devotion to the Blessed Mother, complete with their own set of really beautiful hymns written in a different musical idiom than we usually hear in Catholic churches, and very well worth listening to. So, here to put you in mind of our mother on this blessed day is sampling of Marian hymns borrowed from our brothers and sisters of the Orthodox faith.

The Angel Cried, hymn for the Paschal season

O Virgin Pure, Byzantine chant

Suplicatory Canon to the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary

 

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.

The Marian Effect

Standard

Marian Effect

As I wrote about recently, I had the honor to serve on a panel called “The Marian Effect: Building Strong Women in Writing and Life” at the Trying to say ‘God’ Conference at Notre Dame in June. We now a have Facebook page established by my fellow panelist, Angela Doll Carlson, to try to keep the conversation going. We’re still trying to figure out how best to use it. So far, we’ve been sharing lots of beautiful Marian art, music, and poetry, which should be a good enough reason to come join us. I hope to “see” you in our community!

 

Karen Ullo is the author of two novels, Jennifer the Damned and Cinder Allia. She is also the managing editor of Dappled Things literary journal and a regular Meatless Friday chef for CatholicMom.com. She lives in Baton Rouge, LA with her husband and two young sons. Find out more at www.karenullo.com.