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A Friendship Bridging Earth and Heaven

Life: Issue Three

Kelly Lindquist-Ray

Two months after my husband Ian died, I found myself re-reading Plato’s Republic with my fellow students at St. John’s College. I had gone back to the master’s program to finish my degree (in order to better support our seven children going forward), as well as to re-read the books that my husband Ian loved, and to have some time to reflect on the last year and a half of our lives together. Ian found out he was sick with leukemia on March 24th, 2021. Almost 80 years earlier, on that same day, a devout Catholic family, along with the Jewish neighbors they had been hiding on their farm, were killed in Poland by the Nazis. On that day, March 24th, my own family of nine became inextricably linked with the Ulma family of nine. That day began a friendship between us that spanned time and space, joining heaven and earth, bearing witness to the whole tradition of the saints and their intercessory power in the lives of Christians from the time of Our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection.

But first back to re-reading Plato’s Republic. This time around, while reading the Allegory of the Cave, I was struck by two things I had never seen before. When I was young and had read about the Cave, all I could think was: “We need to educate everyone, including ourselves. We need to be dragged from the cave and drag out others as soon as possible!” After I became old like the Green Lady in Perelandra, I realized the way Plato describes education is mostly a life of suffering. As the captives in the cave discover, we are chained, we have to be painfully liberated and dragged out. As we get dragged out, our eyes start to burn. In order to see real things we have to look at their images in the water first, and this, too, is painful. Then, when we are finally ready to gaze on the Sun itself, our eyes get burned out! And we become blind to everything else but the Sun—Goodness itself!

When Ian died of leukemia, I felt as if I had ascended out of The Cave and into the Sun. Quite literally! Three days before he died, I walked behind him as he ascended the flights of stairs up to our bedroom, where he would die. And in his ascent, and in his last moments of suffering and agony, my eyes were burnt out to everything but to God’s deep and abiding love for us. Before that moment, I had felt like marriage and all its fruits were the real thing that life was about, but I learned instead that they are some of the most beautiful images we have here on earth of the real thing itself. And that real thing was Our Lord calling Ian home to Himself. Ian was not mine. He had been given to me as a gift for a time, but now was called by Our Lord to return to Him.

We learned how sacred and holy and grace-filled our family life had been the whole time. We had learned that all the small problems that had seemed so big were easily healed by Our Lord’s love and forgiveness.

This call of Our Lord to return to Him is present in the life of every Christian. And it is the key that unlocks our lives as Christians. If we are His, as a Bride is her Bridegroom’s, then our whole lives in whatever vocation we live (consecrated, married, or religious) is to be aimed at returning to Him, over and over again, until the day He calls us Home.

The Ulma family is a startling example of this reality. They are the first family of martyrs declared saints by the Church. Despite this high honor, their lives were simple and quiet in the small eastern Polish town of Markowa. Józef, the father, was a farmer and photographer, who would be betrayed by a fellow Pole (who had asked for a portrait to be taken, when really he was spying to see if they were hiding Jewish people). Wiktoria, a devout mother of six, raised the children on the farm. Józef took beautiful pictures of her mothering the children indoors and outdoors. When the Nazis knocked down their door, she was pregnant with their seventh. First the two sets of Jewish families were killed, then the Ulma parents (and unborn baby), then the six remaining children who were screaming and crying. The soldiers had a few moments to think about what to do about the children before killing them. They then spent the night drinking and cursing while burying all the dead in a mass grave. The people of Markowa, friends and relatives of the Ulmas, snuck out in the middle of the night later to bury them all properly enough in a hidden location. But it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War in 1989 that the family were given a truly proper burial in a Catholic cemetery, next to the church where they had been married and all their children baptized.

What is striking about the Ulmas is that in a time when many turned a blind eye and many more otherwise decent people refused to risk their families’ safety by harboring Jews, the Ulmas did. They who had so much to lose risked it all for love.

It is difficult to understand what motivated the Ulma family to undertake such heroic action. In the graces available in the sacrament of their marriage one may be able to see just how God purified them. They fell in love, chose to get married and to be open to children. Their love for one another became manifest in seven beautiful children to whom they devoted themselves, day in and day out. The raising of a family, the caring for children, teaches one to become self-sacrificing. This kind of self-sacrifice was evident when we met their living relatives in Markowa. One of Wiktoria’s relatives, Mrs. Urszula, said the following: “What I can give to Mr. Ian is a prayer, which I do, and my grandkids are praying for him, as well as our parish community. We have a prayer group that is praying for his health and we believe that Good God will save him.” She also said, “My father-in-law, who was Wiktoria's father, said to me when I was entering that house, many years after the tragedy: ‘My child, remember that life is a service, and we only live on this Earth to serve others.’ He was a wonderful, holy man.” The Ulmas came from a devout multi-generational family of people living for others. Their small village is a testament to this still today. The community relies on and gives to one another in a way that is very foreign to the individualism of our society. The testament to this in my own life was their extraordinary move to help us strangers living thousands of miles away.

As I got to know the Ulma family in prayer and came to know their family still living on earth, and to visit their town the summer after Ian died, I realized that their courageous actions were not anything out of the ordinary from the life they had already been living. I’ll try to explain: the day Ian was diagnosed, our Catholic doctor had read an article about the Ulmas on Catholic News Agency and urged us to pray to them for a miracle. Our doctor knew that leukemia was a deadly disease and that I was pregnant with our seventh, just like Wiktoria was upon her death. Struck by the similarities between us, we began to ask for the intercession of this remarkable family. The spiritual connection bore tangible fruit.

One night Ian was gravely ill and still hadn’t been treated. I lay in bed after helping a child in the middle of the night. I could hear Ian in pain. I was pregnant and scared for him. As I held our baby in my womb and began to pray, I asked the Ulmas to be with us. Immediately, a peace that I have never had by temperament came over me and the whole house. Somehow I knew they would help us walk this path of suffering, and they did, and still do.

Two days before Christmas, right as we hoped to hear news of his hard-fought battle won (after nine months of terrible treatments), we learned his leukemia had returned. It was a crushing blow. Yet the fight had turned from an external test of strength and endurance, which Ian fought nobly and through which many people prayerfully supported us, to an internal fight confronting an uncertain future. Of course, we sought out other medical treatment, but we also turned to the Ulma family relatives for relics: anything that could heal Ian. A number of dear friends with Polish connections began bombarding the small village of Markowa, seeking any avenue of contact: “Someone has an aunt/cousin who lives in Poland,” “Someone knows a Polish Dominican,” “Someone knows the priest at the parish!” Every response we heard back from the town of Markowa and from the Ulma relatives was: we know about Ian and his family. We are praying for him and them. People have offered Masses here for him.

We were so moved by strangers being willing to pray for Ian and us. And yet this moment showed us just how truly we are the Body of Christ. And how truly the extended Ulma family lived this out. Of course, they were willing to help us fellow Christians thousands of miles away. Of course, the Ulma family were willing to help us from heaven. No stone was left unturned by Christians near and far praying for dear Ian and our family. And Our Lord’s grace was abundant. Ian and I and the children had no fear in the face of this great evil. Ian took on suffering after suffering willing to fight for us and did it with kindness towards everyone he met in the hospital, and with perseverance in the face of so much suffering, external and internal. He had lost his ability to work and all self-sufficiency was stripped away. He taught me and the children how to suffer beautifully and nobly. And for those four-and-a-half months until his death, we lived more happily and healthily as a family than we ever had before: with God’s grace and gratitude overflowing abundantly, we enjoyed the precious time we had left, knowing that any day might be the last together on earth.

Ian’s suffering and death had been prolonged. The Ulmas’ had been quick, though agonizing. But perhaps God had given them a grace, too, to know that no suffering in this world is ever more or even close to the grace that God has in store for us always. Sometimes the veil is lifted. In our lives it certainly was. We learned how sacred and holy and grace-filled our family life had been the whole time. We had learned that all the small problems that had seemed so big were easily healed by Our Lord’s love and forgiveness. We learned that God’s mercy was greater than the evil of death. We learned all of this through Ian’s suffering and through the grace God poured out through our family and friends who loved us and prayed us through every step.

Two people in particular from the Ulma family in Markowa showed tremendous generosity. George Weigel had a Polish journalist friend, Paulina, who generously traveled to Markowa from Kraków to ask in person for a relic for Ian. Józef Ulma’s nephew, Jerzy, gave us—total strangers—a beautiful book from Józef’s impressive collection which had been signed by Józef himself. Wiktoria’s niece by marriage gave us wooden pieces from the door of her family home. These relics lay under Ian’s pillow as he died.

He was very sick at the end and had a terrible fever. But the last day of his life at three o’clock in the morning, I was finishing the prayers he and I would say together every day. I blessed him with holy water and oils and touched holy images to him. As I touched the Ulma Family icon, written by one of our extended family, to his body, his eyes opened up! His fever had broken. He grabbed my hand and said he wanted to eat something, so our doctor ran downstairs. Then he grabbed my hand and said, "I can’t thank you enough.” I responded, “Don’t thank me. Thank the Ulmas!” I thought he had been healed; he looked so much better! He and I and our doctor talked for a bit. The next morning Ian’s pain was completely gone. And for the last twelve hours of his life, he lay there peacefully with us, as we sang, prayed, held him, and watched Our Lord call him Home.

When thinking about these last few hours of staring at the Sun, I thank Ian for his strength and witness in the face of death, and I also thank the dear Ulma family and their relatives, who helped us to see Ian’s horrific disease and the tragedy of his death—his life cut so short at 35 years old—in the greater context of the reality of heaven and life forever with Our Lord. The Ulma’s story too is horrific and tragic, and yet we as Christian’s rejoice in their goodness and in their victory won!

Every night at dinner during the Easter season we sing a Byzantine chant Ian and I had learned early in our marriage “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he tramples death, and to those in the tombs, he gave new life. By death, he tramples death, by death he tramples death, and to those in the tombs and to those in the tombs he gave new life.” The kids and adults alike all trample death with our feet as we sing the chant. We then finish with Saint Ian, Pray for Us! Blessed Ulma Family, Pray for Us!

Kelly Lindquist-Ray is a homeschooling mother of seven and lives with her family in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Posted on May 28, 2024

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