When I was a junior in high school, I witnessed evil writhing on the stone floor of a Benedictine monastery about an hour outside of Krakow, Poland.
I hardly ever tell this story, but in light of the Parkland tragedy, it seems appropriate.
Every year during the first week of March, my high school takes students overseas on Crescite Trips. (“Crescite” is the school motto, a Latin imperative meaning “grow.”) This particular group traveled from Berlin to Krakow, a 10-day Soviet-Bloc-Meets-Western-Enlightenment trip.
On day five, we rode a bus from Krakow to visit the former death camp at Auschwitz. It was see-your-breath cold outside. We were encouraged not to take pictures. But I had no desire to do so anyway.
Walking through Auschwitz is a horror. The whole complex hinges on a cruel promise, an iron sign piercing the gray sky, announcing that “work will make you free.”
We saw a plot of land roped off and marked “MASS GRAVE” because it had once been the ash dump outside the crematoria. When the Russians liberated the camp, they were unable to distinguish ash from the soil. So they memorialized the whole thing.
One of my friends, Andrew, snapped a picture with his phone.
I asked him why he did that.
“Memories,” he said.
We stayed that night at Tyniec Abbey, the oldest monastery in Poland. It was the first Friday of Lent, and we arrived just in time for a dinner of jelly toast followed by vespers. Afterward, we went to our rooms and washed up. The monks make their own soap. It smells like oatmeal.
Some of us returned to the chapel for compline, the prayers religious brothers recite just before bedtime. Only four students went: Andrew, John, Walter, and myself. Afterward, John, Walter, and I left to play chess in my room.
I was losing to John when one of the teachers leading the trip, Mr. Luckett, knocked on our door. I noticed he was not wearing shoes.
“You two need to come over to the chapel,” he said.
As we walked across the outdoor courtyard, he explained. Andrew had been praying alone after compline. Nearly an hour passed and the church emptied out except for a few monks assigned to keep the blessed sacrament company. Suddenly Andrew fell to the floor and cried out, drawing their attention. Once surrounded by monks and teachers from our trip, he began calling for us.
I remember wondering during his whole story how Mr. Luckett could be flapping across the cold stone barefoot. What could possibly be exciting his blood to keep his toes that warm?
When we entered the church, we heard the cries. They sounded like the noises a sheep makes when hit by a tractor at the county fair. Andrew was lying on the floor spread out in crooked cruciform. A teacher and several monks crouched over him.
When Andrew saw us, he started gesturing.
“What happened?” I asked.
“It, It touched me,” he said.
Andrew told us how he had been praying when he felt something behind him. A pinpoint sensation on the back of his neck. He tried to turn around, but it was as if a vise had locked his neck in the forward position. He felt It coming closer and closer — panting — and he could bear the anticipation no longer. A dull thud alerted the monks that he had passed out on the church floor.
Then the screams. First cries of human terror. Followed by more animal groans. When the monks arrived he couldn’t stop calling for Nic and John for Nic and John.
It was decided that Andrew had suffered a panic attack and that Nic and John would take him back to his room where we would watch over him until he fell asleep.
But back in the room, Andrew told us he was terrified It would come back for him. He requested that we all hold hands and pray the rosary as a trio. Neither John nor I dared ask what It was; we knew that if we sought It we would most likely find the thing that wanders the world, seeking the ruin of souls. Better just to pray the rosary.
We prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries, appropriate to a Friday in Lent. At about the third mystery, Andrew began wincing and breathing heavily. By the fourth mystery, he was crying out in that same sheep’s bleat we had heard in the chapel. Soon the cries devolved into something more guttural and throaty: hacked brays of despair and epithets flung at the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Like a goat.
John and I prayed louder. Andrew writhed, trying to free his hands from ours. John and I gripped tighter. In the struggle, he rolled himself off the bed and slammed himself into the wall. John and I prayed louder.
Mr. Luckett rushed back into the room followed by two monks.
“Satan!” Andrew screamed. “Get away from me!” Then came the expletives.
He was kicking now, lying on the floor, eyes all whites, pupiless.
The monks informed us that an ambulance was coming and that Andrew would spend the remainder of the night in a hospital. When they took him away on a stretcher, he made so much noise that the other 20 people on the trip could see what was going on. A panic attack.
The next day, nobody addressed the situation.
On the flight back to Washington, D.C., several days later, Andrew thanked me for sticking by him in that moment. He thanked John, too, but John did not want to talk about it.
I now see why. Andrew needed help, but we couldn’t give it to him, except through our prayers. I did not know this in 11th grade. I thought I was in a position to take action. I looked at my friend like a complicated problem that needed fixing when I should have seen him as a human being, in need of my love and prayers.
For the next six months, I martyred myself for Andrew, trying everything I knew to find a way to solve his problem. I thought if I listened to his anxieties, I could diagnose his problems and restore him to his place before It attacked him.
I remember indulging his whims — driving around the Beltway with him while he rolled up his sleeves and showed me the long grooves It had told him to carve into his skin. I listened to his fatalistic gay fantasies, thinking talking about it would at least make him love life, when in truth, I probably only fed his chronic lust for death. I even let him borrow my iPod and puff my cigarettes (in those days I only smoked Marlboro Red 100s) while he told me that Titus Andronicus line about the “splitting the sky with a thousand curses” was true; that’s how we all live and always will live.
In the end, I lost a friend. Andrew became a blight in my eyes, the unfixable problem. I could only console my conscience with the cruelest erasure.
I now see the pride in my fault. I pray for Andrew every day. It’s all I can do. It’s all I ever could have done. I wish I had known in 11th grade that no one man (with one notable exception) can conquer sin all on his own. Auschwitz should have taught me that. But it took a much more personal encounter with evil.
When I see that same evil manifesting itself in a Florida public school, all I can do is pray. I know this shooting (like all the shootings before it and doubtless the many after it) will produce a policy debate. We will talk about gun control and mental health. We always do.
But for me, I can’t see just problems that need fixing or policies that need enacting. Before anything can change, I have to keep seeing people who need love and prayers. And I pray God will have mercy on us.
Nic Rowan is a junior studying history.