Tyniec Abbey

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.