RPM, Volume 11, Number 23, June 7 to June 13 2009

Pain and Anguish

A Meditation for Holy Saturday,
April 11, 2009

By Kenneth Taylor

Kenneth Taylor is a member of St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church, Athens, Georgia, where he sings in the choir and serves as a Lay Eucharistic Minister.
This is a revised and extended version of a meditation he wrote for his parish's 2009 Lent and Holy Week devotional booklet.

Lectionary Readings:

Job 14:1-14
Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16
1 Peter 4:1-8
Matthew 27: 57-66

"Set me free from the net that has been hidden to catch me; for you are my refuge." —Psalm 31:4 (Revised English Bible)

This occasion and these readings resonate with me deeply for personal reasons. 1

I came to Athens and St. Gregory the Great parish in August 2005 to pursue a doctorate in history at The University of Georgia (UGA). I hoped this effort would fulfill an old dream, yet said dream ended after sixteen months, when I resigned from the program one semester into my second year. Three months earlier, I had received a letter informing me that I would have no third year, and asking me to transfer to the M.A. program. I declined, for I had earned my Master's degree before coming to Athens. So I limped emotionally to the end of the semester.

In retrospect, I should have anticipated the inglorious end of this academic chapter in my life. During my first semester (Fall 2005) I was glad to have been able to start my doctoral program, given the fact that I had to apply for two consecutive years before the university admitted me. Then, during the second semester, I began to experience grave doubts about whether I was in the right place. At the time I labeled these misgivings "grad school jitters" and pressed ahead with my tedious assignments, keeping a potential Ph.D. in mind as the ultimate goal.

Yet what I feared most to be true was indeed reality: the Department of History at The University of Georgia was never my proper place. This statement impugns nobody; rather, it describes reality objectively. Despite my frustrations, I hoped that I would have a chance to earn my doctorate. That dream died in Fall Semester 2006. Yet I pressed on, finished the term, and fulfilled the terms of my teaching assistantship. I had made commitments to the department and the university, and I was determined to fulfill them to the best of my ability. This became increasingly difficult as the end of the semester neared, but I persevered, although the stress of rejection had neutralized me academically. 2

I thought at the time that the worst possible thing had happened to me. Actually, something worse was about to occur. If my program had not ended in December 2006, it would have terminated in February or March 2007.

In late December 2006, I started a new job at the Georgia Museum of Art, where, in February 2007, police officers arrested me on a felony charge (The court, upon the district attorney's recommendation, dropped the charges four months later). In the meantime, going to jail, suffering the accompanying humiliations (standard to those booked into jail), and knowing that my innocence had not prevented all this from occurring deepened my depression. During my incarceration, I would have welcomed death, not that I was willing to act to bring about that result. I was afraid what would happen if I attempted and failed. Also, I feared the emotional effects on my family in any case. So, I prayed for death and cursed the days I awoke.

The charge stemmed from a previous employer (in southern Georgia) who embezzled funds. He and two others involved pled guilty; I did not. There were two reasons for this. First, I was innocent. Second, I was angry, and determined not to aid and abet the efforts of those who sought to convict me. After four months, though not guilty, I accepted an offer to pay restitution in exchange for the court dropping charges, nobody having indicted me. It was imperfect deal, and no side came away satisfied entirely. The district attorney never got his fourth guilty plea, and I did not get away quite free. Yet the deal ended my case in my favor and lifted a cloud over my head. 3

During my time in jail, I derived comfort from the New English Bible and 1979 Book of Common Prayer one of the two priests with whom I had regular contact delivered for me. Jail policies required only paperback materials, so someone had to rip the covers off the Prayer Book. The Bible, fortunately, was a paperback. I read Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (Rite II) silently each day. In addition, I bonded with the Psalms, especially those that mentioned enemies and pleaded with God to smite them. My prosecutor seemed more like my persecutor, so the emotion was understandable, if not Christ-like, at the time. 4

Unpleasantness mounted. The Athens Banner-Herald ran a slanted story about my arrest. The article, a mix of lies and half-truths, painted me as guilty. (It was not entirely inaccurate though, for it spelled my name correctly). I read this article inside the Athens-Clarke County Jail. This made a bad day even worse.

After three nights in the Clarke County Jail, I was transferred to the Telfair County Jail, where I spent seven days in a large cell in which the television blasted all day. This was usually Black Entertainment Television. I am egalitarian with regard to matters of race, but no amount of racial acceptance equips me to tolerate rap. Sorry, but I can't take it. So, I spent much time on my bunk, withdrawn into a proverbial cocoon of my own creation. 5

Upon my release, my sister Barbara, took me to her home near Reidsville for two days before she drove me back to Athens, where my car awaited me. The next day, a Sunday, I returned to church (having been absent for a week). During announcements time I addressed the congregation, thanking them for being with me in Hell and for being Jesus to me. Indeed, members of my parish had visited me at the Athens-Clarke County Jail, when I was near my emotional low point, so I owed a great emotional debt to them. My remarks prompted applause and some crying.

This incident marked a significant change for me. Prior to my arrest I had kept most people at a certain emotional distance, for I wanted not to seem vulnerable. The psychological roots of this practice ran deep. My family was mobile during my youth, for my father was a United Methodist minister, and that denomination has a reputation for moving clergy members every few years. As a youth I tired of making friends then leaving them two or three years later. So I withdrew into myself. Accordingly, my reasons for maintaining emotional distances might have even made some sense at some point in time. Yet, by 2007, I had spent too much time behind a psychological wall. My ordeal prompted me to lower that barrier and to show vulnerability to certain people. I am glad I did.

In post-release pastoral counseling with my rector, Beth Long, I began to speak aloud to another human being the dark feelings and great frustrations I had. The verbal expression of these involved certain impious adjectives and pronouns, but they were honest, and I needed to purge my system. Fortunately, Beth, with her kind and maternal style, listened sympathetically and non-judgmentally.

"If I scale the heavens you are there, if I lie flat in Sheol, there you are." —Psalm 139:8 (New Jerusalem Bible)

My life had collapsed. Yet I was never alone. God was with me. For four months, members of my parish, other congregations, and my family helped me. Together they pulled me out of the abyss. And resurrection began. My former self-being dead and buried, I witnessed God working in my life to raise me in an altered form. I still do. Psychological open wounds remain and await conversion into scar tissue, but healing has begun.

Meanwhile, I needed to move into new quarters, for the person from whom I had rented a room was preparing to take out-of-state employment. I had to vacate the room by the end of June, but I had no financing for an apartment at the time, as I had not worked full-time in four months.

(Imagine a scene from an imaginary job interview. Interviewer: "Why did you leave your last job?" Interviewee: "I was arrested, but I am innocent.")
So, Jim and Jane McGown, kindly people I had befriended, took me into their home and allowed me to live on the second floor as a house guest. For six weeks, I cleaned their kitchen and became a favored houseguest until I moved into a new apartment. And they extended their understanding and advice to me as I continued my recovery from my ordeal. They have my undying thanks.

Hard feelings die hard, but they die. In spring 2008, I received mail from the Dean of the Graduate School at The University of Georgia. Her office wanted to know why I had dropped out of my degree program. So, I told her in writing and in frank terms. I recounted my frustrations at the History Department, which I described as the "gaping maw of Hell." And I meant it at the time. To say that I feel pleasant emotions when I think of the History Department (or UGA generally) today would be to lie, but negative emotions do not fill me, either. Instead, I feel mostly indifferent and only somewhat angry. I tested myself Sunday evening, March 8, 2009, at the beginning of Spring Break, when the UGA campus was nearly deserted. I walked routes that had been part of my routine five days a week for most of sixteen months from August 2005 to December 2006. And I discovered that, for the first time since my degree program, I felt almost no anger. Instead, I focused on how long ago I had been there from day to day. I knew intellectually that "long ago" had been a mere three years ago, but that time felt closer to thirteen or thirty years. Indeed, given all that has transpired in my life since 2006, three years is a lifetime, and I am a different person. 6

I approached death's door when I was 19 years old. In a college dormitory in Tifton, Georgia, a fellow resident choked me until another resident stopped him. I recovered emotionally from that incident in time, and even came, by grace, to release all anger against my attacker. The legacy of my near death at an earlier age is an increased love of life, for I know that I could have died years ago. Although I fear certain ways of dying, I do not fear death itself. Like Emily Dickinson, one my favorite poets, I think of death as a friend, although I want to live as well as possible as long as possible. My point is; If I can forgive (by grace) the person who almost killed me years ago, I can forgive (by grace) those who ended by doctoral program and who prosecuted me. It will happen Deo gratia (by the grace of God).

Each of us resides on this earth for a set of reasons, many of which are specific to temporal and geographical circumstances. (Yet they fall broadly under the rubric of glorifying God), One operative question is; will we seek to know what they are and to fulfill them? We will succeed, by the grace of God. And we will know that the darkest times precede the dawn—in this case, resurrection, whether literal or metaphorical, historical or personal.

Out of piety, many of us observe Good Friday with a somber service. Also out of piety, many of us celebrate Easter with a joyful service. Yet what do we do between the two events? The gap between the afternoon or evening of Good Friday and the evening of Holy Saturday or morning of Easter Day constitutes a liminal period. Liturgically speaking, Jesus is dead. We know that he will rise again soon, so many of us jump ahead mentally to Easter. Yet we need to give this liminal period its due.

And, while we do this, we should think of death and resurrection on a second level—that of personal metaphor. Paul did this throughout his epistles, in which the death and resurrection of Jesus were a central theme. Also, he wrote of dying to sin and to self, for example. (Romans 6 comes to mind.) We, like Paul, should move from one reality (the death and resurrection of Jesus) to another reality (the metaphorical truth) in relation to ourselves.

We should celebrate these resurrections. Yet we should understand first what pain and darkness precede them, for resurrection cannot occur without death. A mountaintop experience in the absence of spiritual valleys has no meaning. So, during the liturgical moment between the death of Jesus and his resurrection, we should meditate on the pain and anguish.


1. The contents of this meditation result from nearly two years of digesting and reflecting upon circumstances that ended my life as it had been and necessitated radical, painful, and beneficial changes in my person. The desire to write honestly, without any desire to make myself appear holier than I am, informs this article. I offer to you, the reader, in hopes that it will edify you.

2. I abstain from making many further comments about my time at the UGA Department of History out of prudence and the desire to stay focused on the purpose of this article.

3. I would have preferred a simple dismissal of charges accompanied by an apology in which the prosecutor abased himself before me. That was my fantasy at the time. Given reality and the opportunity to terminate the case without an indictment, however, I accepted the deal the prosecutor offered. I cannot speak to the prosecutor's motivation(s), of course. Also, I would like to think that I had suffered for the sake of righteousness (1 Peter 3:17), but I suspect that my ordeal resulted from the fact that I was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nevertheless, good has resulted from suffering. That is reason for rejoicing.

4. I returned the Bible to the parish office after my liberation, but, upon request, kept the coverless Prayer Book, which remains in my library. As to my desire for vengeance at the time…Psalm 103:14 says that God knows we are made of dust. If God can forgive me for being human, I can extend myself the same courtesy.

5. My aural palate consists mainly of classical music (from the Renaissance to contemporary times) and jazz. In other words, my tastes span from Wagnerian opera to the songs of Billie Holiday. In another matter, I decided not to call the local cable television company when I moved into my new apartment a few months later. I have not regretted this decision, as I read more than I did previously. The choice to get away from television (apart from programming I choose to watch online or via disc or VHS tapes) was related to my jail experiences.

6. Some might suggest that I should have released (by grace, of course) all remaining negative emotions related to my experiences at UGA and in legal jeopardy. That is one ideal. My reality is different, though. I am well-adjusted relative to this matter most of the time. Nevertheless, I feel negative emotions from time to time. Given my slightly obsessive personality, these episodes are intense. Yet I take comfort in a few facts. First, recovery from these events depends on grace, and a will God has given me to strive for His best (Phil. 2:13). Second, grace has carried me far already. A shift from emphasizing free will (hence the illusion of control, to which I had clung) to dependence on grace has been part of my spiritual and theological journey. It contradicts one aspect of our American culture, with its folklore of self-made and independent people who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Yet one should be careful not to permit cultural influences to blind one to theological truth.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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