I have no doubt that there is a special place in hell for people who lie to nuns. But when lying to nuns helps you discover Jesus Christ, maybe there’s a loophole? I hope this is true, because I lied to a nun my junior year of college and still feel guilty about it. Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, mea culpa.
Worse yet, I wish I could tell my friend, Kevin, this story. He plays a huge role in it — the defining role, really. Kevin was a huge fan of Kids in the Hall and Monty Python, and hijinks with a nun feels right up his alley, but he died of cancer the spring before this happened.
The lie happened because I was an obnoxious film student who couldn’t be pulled away from his “art” to actually go to class. Especially a required theology course called “Jesus and Salvation.” Nevermind it was taught by a brilliant professor, the aforementioned Sister Hilkert. Nevermind it was a fascinating topic on how we understand the man/myth/legend of Jesus. No, I was busy making short films in black-and-white 16mm Kodak.
So when I went to class after three consecutive absences, saw everyone handing in a paper, and realized it accounted for 25% of our grade, I took action. I told Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert a lie.
“Sister Hilkert, I’m so sorry but I actually forgot my paper at my dorm room. Can I email it to you when I get back?”
Sister Hilkert was too kind. “Of course!”
“The only problem is I have to work after this class and won’t be back until 5 to send it. Is that okay?” Another lie.
But again, Sister Hilkert was kind. “That’s okay!”
So I ran to my dorm room, grabbed my laptop, ran to my preferred writing spot (ironically beside a bust of the Virgin Mary), and looked up the prompt — I had 4 hours to write and didn’t even know the topic.
We were being asked to personally reflect on the various academic and theological understandings of Christ’s resurrection that we had been learning about in class. They ran the full spectrum — from the belief that Jesus died on the cross and His body decomposed somewhere, to the belief that He was fully resurrected and walked the earth again.
I was panicked with the time constraints and unable to overthink it — a favorite pastime of mine — so I started to write about Kevin.
Kevin Healey was brilliant, hilarious, kind, snarky, fearless, and much more. I met him during our freshman year of college and became fast friends. We made bad comedy sketch videos together. We drank Captain Morgan together and danced like idiots on St. Patrick’s Day. He had an aggressive form of osteosarcoma and took chemo treatments every Saturday of our freshman year. He lived a journey of bravery each week that would have brought a weaker man down.
Losing a friend in college is weird. The routine of classes and studying and drinking cheap beer doesn’t stop, so when you go to your friend’s funeral with all your buddies, the car ride still has the air of a spring break road trip. You’re still laughing and joking all those miles to Ohio, but then you get to the funeral home, see a line of mourners stretching out the door, and it gets real fast.
I hadn’t fully processed the experience of Kevin’s funeral, so in the rush to write this paper for Sister Hilkert, I just blurted on paper what happened. I wrote about Kevin in the role of Christ, my mourning friends in the role of the disciples. The anecdote of an earthquake shaking the ground at the time of Christ’s death made sense. Seeing Kevin laid out in his coffin, my friends convulsing, sobbing at my side — it felt like the earth would give way and swallow me up whole. To see the death of someone so close to me, so much like myself, truly felt like the end of the world.
I wrote about seeing Kevin’s body, somehow shrunk without the force of his person behind it, and easily understood the belief that Jesus died and His body decomposed in the tomb. In the face of my friend’s death, the disciple’s initial despair made sense. My grief was complete, overpowering.
I wrote about the disciples’ reactions to seeing Christ again. They must have thought they were losing their minds. Doubting Thomas appears to be the rational one. Had I seen Kevin walking about I would have taken myself to the psych ward.
So the turn that the disciples take — to go from the grief of losing a friend as close as Christ, as close as Kevin — presents a choice. We can either look at it as a delusion, understandably born out of terrible grief; or the only reaction to the impossible made possible. The only way I could make sense was to believe that the disciples believed. And if death was not the final word in this story, perhaps it was not the final word with Kevin’s story.
I finished my paper at 4:55 p.m. and then waited until 5:07 p.m. to email it (allowing for time to return from my fake job to my dorm room), and crossed my fingers that Sister Hilkert wouldn’t sniff out my deception.
So when I returned to class the following week and Sister Hilkert asked to speak with me afterwards, I knew the jig was up. She caught me. She saw all my jumbled words for the rush job that it was. I was right to feel all that Catholic guilt.
“Javi, I read your essay,” she began. This was it. I’d have to leave the university. Hand me the sackcloth that I may repent.
“I just have to say, it was a pleasure to read.” Twist!
“It was such a great example of theology — of faith seeking understanding,” she said. Were I feeling guilt before, now it was twisting my insides.
I said something like “thank you” and slunk out of class as quickly as I could. A few days later, I got the paper back and saw an A++ written large on the back. Even Sister Hilkert’s TA commended me on it. I felt awful.
Kevin would have laughed in my face. He would have laughed and told me I deserved it, and then he would have thought of a sketch we could write about it. One of us would have ended up playing Sister Hilkert.
I last saw Kevin at Mass in our dorm. I’ll never forget giving him a hug at the sign of peace and feeling how thin he had become. He had fought through chemo, radiation, a lung removal, a knee replacement, and more. We celebrated Christ’s resurrection one last time together, which was an appropriate farewell.
This year would have been Kevin’s 30th birthday. He’d probably be a brilliant lawyer or writer or academic. I’m sure we would share some text chain to share thoughts and jokes. I bet he’d be great at Twitter.
Kevin taught me the whole point behind Jesus. I believed in Jesus before Kevin — I professed my faith in Jesus at Mass for years before I met Kevin — but Kevin taught me what the point was. It took his death for me to learn it, so it’s not a lesson I take lightly.
To have faith is a choice. It’s not just some assimilated cultural tradition. It’s the daily action of choosing to believe that once, 2,000 years ago, a man rose from the dead. It’s recognizing the madness of that decision, facing the devastation of grief, and choosing to believe that there is hope.
The disciples were racked with a grief I could understand, but they kept going. If they could, I could. There’s hope in death. I have the joy of friendship and the agony of losing it to thank for that conviction.
Sister Mary Catherine Hilkert, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have lied to you. Knowing your generosity, you probably would have been fine and offered an extension had I told the truth. But had I given myself more than a few hours to write that paper, I never would have blundered my way into this discovery. So in the end, it’s probably for the best, right? I hope you see it that way.
Kevin, I miss you. Happy 30th birthday. I wish we could celebrate it together with a Guinness. Thank you for being my friend and showing me the way.