Descending into Darkness with a Christ Enshadowed

In honor of Good Friday, here’s an answer to a Tumblr ask I received last week: “If someone were to ask you what you thought the Christian Gospel was about, what would you tell them?”

I sat on this question for some time, because it’s so…insurmountable. All I can do is bring a perspective, a tiny reflective shard of the mirror of truth to this issue, since there’s no way I can comprehend everything the Gospel is and does, much less fit it into one post. I will say before we begin that I think that God’s activity in the world has numerous facets, and people resonate with some of them more than others. This is why language of ransom, enlightenment, absolution, gift, acquittal, mercy, transformation, rescue, and paid debts clamor against each other in Christian hymns and poetry when people try to describe what the Gospel is about.

Christianity is so many things: a social system that privileges the poor and downtrodden, a flowering philosophical offshoot of the tree of Judaism,a framework of power that orders the universe and our place in it, a liturgical heartbeat of repentance, feasting, fasting, and forgiveness that circulates through the year. But ultimately, I resonate most with Christianity in its aspect as a mystery cult of death and rebirth.

There’s plenty to be said here about the Hellenistic syncretism that led to this designation, and the interaction of Jewish philosophy and Greek ritual piety in places like Alexandria and Antioch, and while the historical-critical elements are important, I’m always going to be most concerned with the stories. The myths (here meaning a story that is sacred outside of its veracity, not one that is inherently false) that underpin the whole belief system.

Christianity is what happens at the intersection of the eternal, unfathomable divine and the mutable mortal body. It’s the story of a God descending into flesh to instruct us and enter into relationship with us from a position of deep empathy. This relationship and instruction brings about transformative, supernatural rebirth in everyone Christ touches, and the Bible talks constantly of putting the old self to death again and again so the new self can rise. The cross is painted as one of the darkest moments in cosmic history, when the veil between heaven and earth is torn violently open, and the natural order of the universe is turned on its head and swallowed up in a lightness eclipse. The cross is the ultimate transgression, the ultimate taboo, the ultimate dark night of the soul. But it’s also the cauldron of chaos out of which new life emerges. There’s explicit, literal regenerative properties to the godly blood that drips from a battered human body, and Christ’s broken corpse is the verdant soil from which the vine of the church springs.

One my pet doctrines is the harrowing of Hell, a sometimes divisive belief that Christ descended into Hell in the period of the time between the crucifixion and the Resurrection to proclaim good tidings to those who died before his incarnation on Earth. It’s an idea that’s echoed in so many other religious and mythic systems worldwide, and something about it resonates deeply with me. Christ is the Lord of light, and of new life, but he is also Lord of death and commander of darkness. Because of this unique nonduality, because God deigns to step down from the numinous and embrace mortality, sensation, anguish, hunger, pleasure, and pain as well as death, mere mortals can transcend the bounds of sin and death as well. The Gospel (and I also think the entire Bible on this one point) is a story about nothing staying dead, everything coming back to life, and God never giving up on the material world. That. to me, is the crux of this whole religion, made perfect in the incarnation.

So yeah. Maybe it’s because I’m a Scorpio and already closely aligned to death and rebirth energy, or because I’ve needed a God in my life that was bigger and darker and more wild and strange than a pastel-colored stained glass man hugging a lamb, but that’s what does it for me. That’s what makes me stay. The promise that death is merely a passage, that evil will never get the last word, that God waits in the darkest places of the world to transform and resurrect us again and again.

Reclaiming Our Attention from the Distortion Machine

This is a reprint of a guest post I wrote for the Fratres Dei blog. Be sure to pay some love forward and check out Rachel’s amazing blog about embodied spirituality and contemplation in the material world!

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Social media is kind of my thing. I met my future spouse through Tumblr, I’m an author who promotes her work on Twitter, and, as some of you may know, I’m the digital communications manager for Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction & Ministries.

Thoroughly a product of the digital age, I’ve been privileged to witness the best social media has to offer. I’ve seen friendships forged, beautiful art created, valuable information exchanged, and online spaces for religious expression blossom. However, I’ve also lost weeks of my life to mindless scrolling, been “dragged” and “cancelled”, participated in unwarranted digital pile-ons I still regret, and woken up in a cold sweat from nightmares about being doxxed.

Sometimes, friends, the internet is bad.

At the start of 2019, I knew that something about my relationship to social media had to change. As an increasingly public figure, I was placing too much of my worth in my public persona. My attention was becoming more and more fragmented, and time on social media was the only “leisure” time I was allowing myself away from my day job and writing, even though I viewed social as just another form of work. I had no inner life I didn’t perform for the internet. My prayer life was nonexistent, because I couldn’t sit still that long, much less devote intentional time to something that didn’t have an immediate material benefit or reward.

But what do you do when the internet feels like an increasingly essential, increasingly centralized feature of the human experience, and if, as for many of us, being active on the web is part of your job?

Common sense advises moderation, but I’ve never been good at finding balance. As I started listening to podcasts about the effects of social media and reading Cal Newport’s phenomenal Digital Minimalism, I realized this isn’t a Sarah-specific compulsion. The majority of Americans have a disordered relationship with social media. Like a gaslighting lover, social demands a glance at our phones every spare moment, yet convinces us to consistently underestimate how many hours a day we devote to the tryst. And as we uncover more about how social media is configured to work on our brains the same way slot machines do, keeping eyes on screens for as many minutes as possible to turn the highest profits for companies, whether or not those minutes wreck our sense of self, warp our view of our political reality, or urge us to throw money down the drain on products we would never otherwise want…The straits get a bit more dire.

As this year’s Lenten season commenced, I felt that gentle nudge, that divine voice in the back of my head saying here’s your chance. A chance to pull the plug on social for forty days and re-set my inner schema. It wouldn’t be a total fast, since I do spend a handful of hours a week managing the Fratres Dei social, but there would be no more browsing, posting, or scrolling from my own accounts for the rest of Lent.

By and large, I’ve taken God up on the offer, and the results have been quietly astounding. First of all, the jittery fear of missing out (on what? Malicious gossip and highlight reel announcements of rivals’ successes and the thousandth click-bait headline heralding society’s demise?) faded in about a week. What followed was overwhelming relief that I didn’t have to care about it all. Human empathy is a divine gift, and social media constantly exhausts it. We swing wildly from outrage to apathy, which makes it hard for us to be attentive and compassionate towards the real needs that surround us. Secondly, I got time back I didn’t even know I had lost. I started finding hours to cook big, wholesome meals while listening to audiobooks, and since I didn’t have the illusion of connection from seeing friend’s Instagram posts all the time, I started calling them a lot more. But most of all, I got my focus back.

The fragmented attention created by the noise of social media is really no attention at all. Conversation with a friend, playing with a child, reading a book, and especially listening for the stirrings of God in our lives require real, sustained attention. Constantly flipping from platform to platform, or article to article, trains our brains to make only the most cursory skim of information. Re-training the brain takes time, but we can start by setting aside hours of our day where we leave our phones on the charger, whether we’re out for a run, meeting someone for coffee, or scribbling idea in a notebook. It’s only in these moments of receptivity that God can press in with soft revelations, interesting food for thought, or divine encouragement.

I observe both the church calendar and the wheel of the year, a cycle of seasonal holidays used by Wiccans and other earthy types. The wheel’s holidays usually involve baking, candle-lighting, handicraft, and other things I love to do but never seem to have time for. But when the spring equinox rolled around during Lent, I suddenly had the time, and without the pressure to post aesthetically pleasing pictures and a description of my practice online for the edification of the masses, I didn’t experience the usual sense of poor planning or inadequacy. So, I pulled out the yellow candles, put a bit of soda bread and calendula tea out on my altar, and said some prayers praising God for light, and for new life. The ritual existed for no one except me and God, and that, I found, was empowering. For the first time in a long time I didn’t worry about how I looked or if I was doing “enough”. I just followed my intuition and listened for God.

Like chocolate, long naps, sex, and whisky sours, social media is good, if used in intentional moderation that doesn’t throw off the balance of the rest of our lives. It should be a tool that we use, not a corporate-run outrage machine that uses us for clicks and buys. Philippians calls the faithful to turn their thoughts towards “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable”. Personally, I find that hard to do when I spend hours a day being fed an inane stream of war crime, advertisement, callout post, wedding pictures, advertisement, human rights violation, cat picture, bad faith political meme, advertisement through my smart phone.

Now, I haven’t jumped off the social media bandwagon entirely. In a move I hope my audience will find charmingly meta I’m currently denouncing social media in a social media post, after all. But for now, I’m enjoying being time-rich and having the space to simply notice my emotions, my relationship to space, and my own breath. I’ve been noticing God a lot more too, not because God wasn’t there when I was scrolling or posting, but simply because I was too tapped in to digital white noise to notice.

Yearning to take better notice of the divine already in your midst? Learn to listen with a spiritual direction session with Fratres Dei.

Happy Book Birthday ROBBERGIRL!

At long last my sapphic Snow Queen retelling is here!  Celebrate Valentines Day with a Snow Queen retelling full of secrets, ghosts, and a disaster bi thief and femme witch falling for each other opposites-attract style.

In a Sweden wracked by war and haunted by folk stories so dark they can only be spoken of in whispers, Helvig has been raised by her brigand father to steal whatever treasure catches her eye. When her men ambush a strange girl on the road with hair pale as death and a crow perched on her shoulder, Helvig cannot resist bringing home a truly unique prize: a genuine witch.

Drawn irresistibly into the other woman’s web, Helvig soon learns of Gerda’s reason for walking the icy border roads alone: to find the Queen who lives at the top of the world and kill her. Anyone else would be smart enough not to believe a children’s story, but Helvig is plagued by enchantments of her own, and struggles to guard the sins of her past while growing closer to the other woman.

As Christmastide gives way to the thin-veiled days when ghosts are at their most vengeful, the two women will find themselves on a journey through forest and Samiland to a final confrontation that will either redeem them or destroy them entirely. It’s DEATHLESS meets FINGERSMITH in this coming-of-age fable! 

KINDLE: http://tinyurl.com/yxf5pa46
PAPERBACKhttp://tinyurl.com/y2bqwsty

GOODREADShttps://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43154099-robbergirl

2018 Wrap-Up: Novella Edition

Ah yes, the drowsy, dark days between the December holidays and New Years, where we all enjoy some well-earned time off work, soak up the love of family, and…panic about how few days there are left hit our reading challenge goals. Not sure how you’re gonna cram all of Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell into these last few twilight days of the year? Never fear, I’ve got a list of all the short works of fiction I read in 2018 so that you can pluck out some gems to affix last-minute to your 2018 reading challenge crown.

Reader, I love the novella. Just long enough to build worlds and characters, just short enough that you’re encouraged to fill in gaps with your imagination, embodying both the sparkling brevity of a short story and the languid embrace of a novel…and, uh, you can read them hella fast. Some of the works listed below are more like long short stories (A Kiss With Teeth clocks in at less than 40 pages) and I would argue that others are pushing the boundaries into novel (The Black Tides of Heaven is 240 pages but worth it). These are all fantasy stories of varying flavors and most of them Tor.com originals, but hopefully there’s a little something here for everyone, and the best part? Half of these are available online for FREE.

SIX GUN SNOW WHITE by Catherynne M. Valente

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I am a consummate Valente devotee, and despite reveling in Space Opera this year, I think I enjoyed this Wild West fairy tale retelling even more. Here, sharpshooting mixed-race Snow White flees her racist step-mother and her poisonous trappings of “proper womanhood”, and adventures through mining towns, refugee camps, and the live-wire wilderness of an America on the brink of industrialization. It has all of Valente’s razor-sharp meditations on gender, race, and destiny, mixed in with her unbeatable prose and divine gift for fable. This one is sure to sink its teeth into your heart and not let go.

THE BLACK TIDES OF HEAVEN by J.Y. Yang

This one has been on my tbr for too long, and Yang’s silkpunk vision of an imperial family torn apart by attempted assassinations, prophetic dreams, and interpersonal conflict is at once epic and searingly personal. This world where mechanical technology clashes with a form of magic known as “slackcraft” is gorgeously realized, along with a society in which all people are born genderless and choose their gender (or lack thereof) when they’re ready. This book with thrill you, break your heart, and leave you hungry for the next installment.

A KISS WITH TEETH by Max Gladstone

This has got to be my favorite Tor.com original story of the year, maybe of all time. This tautly written send-up to the vampire genre imagines what it would be like for an immortal predator to struggle to fit into American suburbia and raise a small boy with his wife. The story is thoroughly fun but never kitchy or cliche, and it explores issues of fidelity, identity, and parenthood with deft insight. The best part? A passionate romance between a married couple. Sign me up.

THE LITANY OF EARTH by Ruthanna Emrys

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Reader, I felt this one in my gut. This is a quiet, misty-edged novelette that perfectly captures the tender, aching start of new life after unspeakable trauma. Our protagonist Aphra, a devotee of Lovecraft’s old gods, has recently been released from the internment camp where she and her family were unjustly held, and is trying to rebuild herself. However, people obsessed with her family’s legacy and religion keep finding her, preventing her from withdrawing from the past forever. This book dives into the intricacies and contradictions of a childhood defined by faith of any kind, and offers a humanizing but still wonderfully weird take on the Lovecraft mythos. I’ll be picking up Winter Tide, the full-length follow-up novel, in the new year.

THE PRINCE AND HER DREAMER by Kayla Bashe

If you need a little sugar-dusted heartwarming holiday cheer, this queer Nutcracker retelling is for you. I’ve been a fan of Bashe’s work for some time, and their prose has only gained more glittering clarity as time has passed. The author’s particular strength for capturing deep romantic friendship between women (and in this case, a nonbinary person) shines through. I adored Bashe’s take on Drosselmeyer and found myself loving and rooting for Prince Mathilde and Clara, despite only having known them a short time.  By and large, the story is easy to follow and thoroughly charming, especially for someone looking for a diverse romance to brighten up their holidays.

THE GIRL WHO RULED FAIRYLAND – FOR A LITTLE WHILE by Catherynne M. Valente

Yes, Valente again. If you’re looking for a shorter introduction to her work, and to her well-loved Fairyland series, this may be a good place to start. Ever-practical village witch Mallow is called into the glittering capitol of Fairyland and, with the help of a flirtatious Jack of the Wood and some wild, gossipy winds, she must uncover the secret behind Fairyland’s inevitable decay before its too late. In the process she will learn the true meaning of sacrifice and responsibility. Like all of Valente’s work, this story is a little bloody, a little quirky, and a whole lot of lovely.

And there you have it folks! Six short titles to kick your reading challenge into gear in these last four days of the year. What were your favorite short fiction works of 2018?

ROBBERGIRL Cover Reveal and Preorder Announcement!

At long last I can unveil the cover for ROBBERGIRL, designed by the phenomenal Lena Yang. This sapphic Snow Queen retelling is possibly even more dear to my heart than my last book, and it’s certainly longer and more jam-packed with mystery, romance, reindeer, and knife fights.

This beauty will be widely available on Valentines Day 2019, so read on for the synopsis and pre-order information!

In a Sweden wracked by war and haunted by folk stories so dark they can only be spoken of in whispers, Helvig has been raised by her brigand father to steal whatever treasure catches her eye. When her men ambush a girl on the road with hair pale as death and a raven perched on her shoulder, Helvig cannot resist bringing home a truly unique prize: a genuine witch.

Drawn irresistibly into the other woman’s web, Helvig soon learns of Gerda’s reason for walking the icy border roads alone: to find the Queen at the top of the world and kill her. Anyone else would be smart enough not to believe a children’s story, but Helvig is plagued by enchantments of her own, and she struggles to guard the sins of her past while growing closer to Gerda.

As Christmastide gives way to the thin-veiled days when ghosts are at their most vengeful, the two women find themselves on a journey through forest and Samiland to a final confrontation that will either redeem them or destroy them entirely.

It’s DEATHLESS meets FINGERSMITH in this coming-of-age fable.

Readers in the US can pre-order their autographed paperback copy directly from me.

I’m happy to announce that shipping speeds and tracking on direct-from-author orders have been improved for this title.Paperbacks and digital editions will become available through worldwide distributors on February 14, 2019.

If you’re not in a position to order a copy right now, sharing this post is a great help to me! If you’d like to donate to my ability to keep writing, considering contributing a dollar or two to my cute bat-themed patreon.

And of course, don’t forget to add this title to your to-read pile on Goodreads!

CATCH ME ON THE LATEST EPISODE OF THE PRAYER TO GO PODCAST!

In case you need a ten-minute shot of encouragement, pop in your earbuds and listen to me talk about writing as a spiritual practice, the catharsis of being angry with God, and good representation in books as a ministry. If you like it, be sure to check out the other awesome episodes in Carolyn’s series on creativity, or her bite-sized prayers for use with yoga, silence, a latte, or a rosary.

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On iTuneshttps://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/prayer-to-go/id1435044569?mt=2

On the PTG Websitehttps://prayertogo.blubrry.net/2018/10/23/024-pen-and-paper-writing-as-a-spiritual-practice/

Author Interview with Nosetouch Press

I had a blast talking church grims, Southern Gothic, religious cultural memory, and pumpkin spice with the editorial team at Nosetouch Press. Full interview below!

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What is your favorite season and why?
Autumn, no contest. The spicy scent of decaying leaves, the spooky stories over spiced cider, the cold-fingered winds, the paper-thin veil between this world and the next…What’s not to love? Then again, my birthday falls on All Saints Day, so I’m partial.

What drew you to Folk Horror?
Historically folk horror has been very concerned with the muddied lines between older religions and newer ones, and the ways cultural memory gets buried only to resurge up in new, unexpected, even horrifying ways later. I love exploring the tangled emotions religious sentiment dregs up in people, and the way our distinctions between “magic” and “faith”, and “paganism” and “civilized religion” are largely matters of perspective. Folk horror has done a great job of teasing out these themes in the context of Western European rural life, and I wanted to bring those questions to the American South, where I was raised.

What does Folk Horror mean to you? How would you describe it to someone?
Folk horror is one of those wonderful genres that situates itself squarely in the natural landscape of its setting, whether that’s an English moor or a Puritan settlement in the New World. Besides this fixation on the (usually cursed and hungry) land, folk horror brings to mind stories about the ways sins of the past haunt communities in the present, the resilience of folk belief against modernism, the power religion has to corrupt, liberate, or annihilate, creeping mass hysteria, and inglorious characters with filthy secrets.

What is the most Folk Horror thing you’ve seen/encountered in your community?
I was once napping on a stone monument in a little graveyard behind a church that had been burned to the ground thrice, and I’m pretty sure a church grim padded up to snuffle at my hand. When I opened my eyes it was gone, but I know I heard it trotting across the dry leaves moments before.

What writing projects do you have next?
I just published a paranormal novella about a marriage between magicians, and now I’m back at work on a fantasy adventure novel about a gang of con goblins, arms dealers, diplomats, and pirates out to bring down the criminal queenpin who screwed them all over. However, I’m also hoping to find time to work on some short queered folklore stories, and the collection of Biblical poetry I’ve been chipping away at for years.

If you haven’t already grabbed your copy of THE FIENDS AND THE FURROWS FOLK HORROR ANTHOLOGY, you can still get your six stories full of malevolent forests, snake handling, and devilish harvests by Halloween! Look for my Southern Gothic story “Revival” at the book’s finale.