“There is Christ, or there is death.”
This was an odd thing for Andrew to say, given the man’s generally jovial character, and was sufficiently startling to catch Will’s attention. The two men, both students at Mercy College, were in the reading room of the library, studying for various final exams. It was mid-December, with a healthy seven inches of snow standing on the ground and a cold wind constantly hollering against the windows. The reading room resembled a medieval hall, with a ceiling standing a solid story-and-a-half high, hoisted over large stained-glass windows. An (electric) fireplace cast a deceptively-warm glow from one corner, augmenting the slightly dim lighting hanging from the ceiling.
Under different circumstances, Will would have appreciated the scene, but at that moment he was too startled by Andrew’s comment to notice. “What do you mean?” he compelled himself to say after a few awkward moments, unsure as to how to handle the situation.
“There is Christ, or there is death,” Andrew repeated, “there is God or there is the void, nothing else in life is of any consequence.”
There was nothing in that evening’s conversation to bring them to this point. They had briefly discussed their respective struggles, academic stresses, the large-breasted hostess at the bar they had emerged from a few hours prior, but nothing even tangently related to Andrew’s apparent epiphany…at least as far as Will could tell. Andrew had a serious disposition as he sat across the bench, though Will thought he could see the faint traces of a mischievous smile at the corners of his mouth. Able to stand it no longer, he finally said, “Well…what do you mean, exactly?”
At this, Andrew reclined slightly and placed his hands over his (slightly) extended stomach. “When you get right down to it, man has two choices: God or emptiness. Effectively, Christ or death. Our physical bodies will inevitably corrupt, erode, and die, but our souls can endure if they learn to partake of God’s grace.”
Will sat uncomfortably. This was so utterly unlike Andrew that he didn’t know how to respond. Though he knew his friend of some years to be a quietly religious man, this was always a private matter for him. In any event, he wasn’t even particularly observant, his faith more a matter of cultural and familial environment than lived passion. Could he really have misjudged his friend so extremely? They had been in near-daily contact for more than three years now, a consequence of the small computer engineering program they were both enrolled in. Prior to Andrew’s engagement to a local girl, they had even shared an apartment together with other mutual friends. The suddenness of this change was therefore such as to leave Will completely flat-footed.
Andrew continued to recline and subtly smirk, clearly enjoying the edge he found himself having over his friend. After a few moments, he let out a slight, noiseless laugh and shook his head.
“This is clearly not the best way to explain what I mean, is it?” he finally said, almost amused with himself. “What I am getting at is that modern men have to make a deliberate choice: finding meaning in life through a spiritual pursuit, or at least tacitly accepting the nihilism of the materialist age.”
Will began to return to himself, sitting more upright and stroking his black beard nervously. Andrew was beginning to make more sense now, albeit in a strange, esoteric way. Looking at the books before his friend, he now discerned that they were from his Western Philosophy class, a 400-level beast of a course taught by Dr. Ferdanelli, one of the most demanding schoolmasters Will had ever met. Perhaps Andrew had finally snapped? His mind working on too much coffee, Red Bull, and processed foods to resist the pressure?
But Andrew appeared calm, collected. Again, Will could not shake the feeling that his friend was deliberately toying with him, trying to edge him toward something, and getting a fair bit of amusement out of it all. Will was about ready to confront him directly when Andrew suggested, to his surprise, “let’s go for a brief walk, I’m getting drowsy sitting here.”
Will was still too flabbergasted to argue and found himself packing his bag without consciously realizing he was doing it. Before long, the two men were on their way out of the reading room, walking down a twisting staircase to the lobby, and then emerging out the front door to the main courtyard of the campus. Andrew took an exaggeratedly deep breath, clearly appreciating the crisp winter air. The wind had calmed now, and everything actually seemed eerily quiet. Students could be seen walking in various directions in the distance, but the campus’ geography was such as to leave them fairly isolated where they stood. This realization made Will feel uneasy, but Andrew seemed not to notice. A few seconds later, he turned to the left and began to walk toward the oldest part of campus, home of the ancient chapel and the creatively-named “Main” building.
“How much do you know of campus ghost stories?” Andrew asked. Will had been expecting a weird follow-up to his friend’s earlier comments, but this was something completely from left-field.
“What?” he asked.
“You have to be familiar with the main stories at least. The collapsed tower, the nun’s ring, the empty coffins: any of these ring a bell?”
Getting a better sense of what Andrew meant, Will responded, “Well, yeah, I’ve taken the same haunted tour everyone has around Halloween; never gave them any serious thought, though.” At this Andrew actually made an amused chuckle.
“Amateurs: they’re well-meaning but actually do a disservice to most of the stories,” he said. “I take it you’ve never seen a ghost for yourself?”
Ordinarily, Will wouldn’t have thought that this was a serious question, but the night’s conversation already had him in a strange mental place, so he simply responded, “No, can’t say I have.” This answer seemed to please Andrew, though he didn’t show it except for the faintest hints of a smirk. “Would you like to?” he asked.
Will already thought the night couldn’t get much weirder, but Andrew had managed to outdo himself once again. “C’mon man, are you serious? What’s this all really about?”
“Really, would you like to see a ghost?”
“You led me out here in the cold (looking at his watch) at just past midnight to go ghost-hunting?”
“Nothing so childish as that, but if you want to be convinced of my previous point, that ‘there is God or there is death,’ I can prove it to you right now, tonight.”
Andrew seemed so convinced of this that Will found himself, once again, following without consciously deciding to do so. After perhaps a hundred yards, they found themselves in the wooded grotto outside of the chapel. He had stopped listening to Andrew’s narration, distracted by his own nerves and sense of bewilderment, but managed to hear his friend offer that “they say this place is haunted.” Will had passed this wooded area many times, but it occurred to him that he had never actually stopped there before. In the center of the circular wooded space was a large magnolia tree surrounded by a stone path. On the northern edge of the grove were two metal benches, and it was to these that Andrew indicated as he narrated that:
“…in the years before Mercy College was governed by a secular administration, it had been managed by an order of nuns. In contrast to our popular conception of them, many sisters would partake of cigarettes after religious services, coming here to do so…”
Will found himself scanning the walls of the chapel as Andrew was talking. He thought he had seen shadows pass by the stained-glass windows, from the inside of the chapel, but he couldn’t be certain.
“…they did this so regularly and so habitually that many nuns reported seeing their deceased sisters here long after they died, still enjoying the red man’s leaf…”
Again, Will thought he saw movement, but said nothing. If it was all a trick, it was a very well-orchestrated one. The creepy environment, the nighttime atmosphere, the cold wind. It would be simple for Andrew to have had one of his friends walk by the windows, getting in on the joke at Will’s expense. He could think of half a dozen such friends off the top of his head.
“…unlike the other urban legends, this is one that the sisters who remain actually talk about openly. They feel reassured that their friends and fellow travelers continue to live on and check in on them from time to time…”
Will definitely felt something pass him and was quite sure that it wasn’t the wind. Seeing the same mischievous, knowing look on Andrew’s face, he was sure that his friend was about to offer his punchline.
But then, there was the smell of smoke, the faint scent of a cigarette. Andrew actually seemed a little surprised, as if unsure that his efforts would work despite his earlier confidence. From the corner of his eye Will thought that he saw it, her. There was a small orange light hovering above once of the benches, of the correct size and color to be a lit cigarette. There was simply no mistaking it. The death sticks had played such a central role in his parents’ lives that he was certain of what he saw, though it had only been for a moment. He looked at Andrew, astonished.
His friend said nothing, merely nodding.
After a few moments, the light had disappeared, and the smell dissipated. The two men were left standing alone again.
“So, what do you think?” Andrew asked, “do you think this place is haunted?” Will just stood quietly, trying to process what had happened. He had barely noticed that a few other men had come to stand beside Andrew, offering sympathetic looks. He would later recognize these newcomers as classmates, but his head was still spinning too fast at that moment.
Will eventually let out an exhausted, shivering laugh, and continued in this manner for perhaps twenty seconds. When he finally collected himself, he affirmed that he did believe. What choice did he have?
It was only then that it dawned on him.
The wooded grove had been almost utterly black. One of these strangers could easily have hid in the shadows without Will noticing, ready to light the cigarette on Andrew’s signal. The cigarette itself could have been suspended from a wire, something that would have been visible in the daylight, but which was easily obscured by the cover of night and the shadows of the trees. Will had only seen the apparent apparition once it was already lit, leaving a few seconds for Andrew’s conspirator to drop out of sight. The smell would have taken care of itself. He looked from one man to the next and let out another laugh, different this time, the kind of laugh a man has when he finally understands a joke that had to be explained.
Will had expected Andrew to react in kind, but instead he only saw a more amused version of that same knowing smirk.
“Alright, man, the jig is up…” Will said, proceeding to lay out the theory he had just come up with. He felt quite proud of himself, like Sherlock Holmes in those Robert Downey Jr. movies. He expected Andrew and his friends to be impressed, to be surprised at having been found out so quickly, but they too had the same knowing, almost…pitiful (?) expression on their faces. Laughing, Will asked an amused, “what…what is it?” and, following their gaze, he turned around.
And found himself face to face with the full ghostly apparition of a nun.
Will still denies it to himself, convinced that Andrew had merely gotten one of his lady friends to dress in a cheap Halloween costume and wear greying makeup. Will had jumped back at her sight and stumbled over a tree root. His fall would have given her plenty of time to retreat back to her shadowed hiding place. Sightings of the nun still persist, though many years have passed since this incident. Students continue to visit that wooded grove hoping to see her, but most leave disappointed. Were it all a joke, a faux-apparition designed to teach Will a lesson, he was at a loss for what it was supposed to be.
The mind has a curious way of rationalizing even the most incredible events. When one is not ready to accept something, there is almost no limit to how far he will go. See the way lefties are still throwing tantrums two years after the 2016 election, for example, or the way media types are desperate for any hints of “collusion”: it is simply too painful to consider that their own worldview just might be wrong. This has always been the reality of the human condition, and it is a problem that will be with us for a long, long time.
Daniel Bretton is a wayward son of New England. A simple, philosophically-inclined man, he wanders the world in search of wisdom, both worldly and Godly. Like Herodotus, he reports what he sees and leaves the reader to draw his own conclusions.