Ritual, Rosaries, and Prayers Written in Flesh

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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I was raised in a spiritual tradition almost entirely bereft of embodied ritual. This wasn’t necessarily my parent’s fault: I was very fortunate to grow up in a household that was supportive of both my Christian faith and of my asking tough questions. My parents always supported me whatever church I decided to attend or not attend, and I had room to grow and explore. So it was of my own volition that I delivered myself into the hands of the non-denominational evangelical cultural conglomerate that ruled much of early aughts Christianity.

If you were a passionate, spiritually-minded teen in 2008 it was hard not to get pulled into the religious force behind WWJD bracelets, the CCM music boom, purity rings, and flagpole prayer circles. This hyper-Americanized, hyper-Protestant form of Christianity focusing on individual salvation, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and increasingly creative evangelizing of one’s neighbors was almost ubiquitous. I’m being general in my description of the movement because I know that my teenage brain flattened nuanced doctrines and my faulty memory has lumped the many, many churches I attended in together. I’m more interested here in expressing the theological impact these experiences had on me than cataloging them perfectly, so I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. 2000s evangelicalism was the wide gate through which many entered into their own spiritual journey, and not every cultural contribution of the movement was negative. But hindsight gives us the maturity to see the holes in the fabric of our religious traditions, and for me, those holes were the absence of ritual.

In my teen years, church service followed a general formula: a half hour sermon on whatever the preacher felt like bookended by modern praise and worship music. There was the passing of the offering plate, and sometimes testimonies or announcements, but that was it. During church, the body clocked out. You were supposed to sit still, listen, learn, and most of all, believe. The believing was paramount; at the end of the day it was the only thing that mattered. You could live a holy life (mostly defined but what you abstained from) and do good works of kindness and charity (advisable but not grace-administering), but right belief was the stuff of a true Christian. And while I do think that belief is a cornerstone of Christian life, the churches of my youth pursued right belief with absolute, idolatrous abandon.

This dominant theology made seasons of religious doubt especially gutting, and when I grew frustrated with wanting more of religion, with wanting ways to do religion in my body, to touch it and taste it and hold it for myself…there was nothing. The only reprieve I had from total alienation from the body was the rock band praise and worship nights I occasionally attended. They were the only religious spaces in which I could cry or raise my hands or dance myself into an ecstatic state that purged me of all the pent-up emotion from months of stillness.

I could have sought out different spiritual practices to fill this gap, but for a long while, I didn’t. Churches with more ritual structure veered dangerously close to Catholicism, that seat of superstition and corruption I had been taught to distrust, and other spiritual practices of embodiment, like meditation, sacred movement, or labyrinth walking, were demeaned as gateway drugs to the occult new age. So I lived in a place of fear and increasing frustration, traversing the same dead-end paths of circular logic. I tried in vain to shake myself out of spiritual stagnation with more Bible study, more attentive listening, more holiness. Nothing worked. All the while, the trappings of other religions, the ancient blessings and the prayer beads and the breathwork and the candles and the holy oil called my name.

In college, I pressed as hard as I could into the world of nondenominational Christianity before realizing that tree would never bear enough fruit for me to live on. So I evaluated my options. I explored Judaism and Wicca, ever seeking out that sense of sacred time and religious ritual that drew me undeniably, and I attended services in other denominations, starting small with the Lutheran church before working my way up to that terrifying and beautiful taboo, the Catholic Church. While I was studying for confirmation in the Episcopal Church, I was also learning about the magical practices evident throughout Christian history in both folk religion and the faith of monks and mystics. All the while, I dismantled the walls of fear I had built around my faith brick by brick, with probably more agonizing than was strictly necessary. I let my body take the lead in this task, prayerfully following my natural worship inclinations.

As a child, I had been possessed by the urge to kneel or cross myself in church. So I learned the form and function of the traditional mass, and all the bodily congregant responses. I armored myself with the rosaries and candles that had bewitched my young imagination. I learned the names of the saints and a few credal prayers, since my tongue ached for holy incantations to speak times of trouble or need, and I used folk charms to bless my home and ward my friend’s bedrooms from nightmares, since my hands itched to make manifest God’s protection in the material world. Despite what evangelicalism had taught me, these spiritual practices didn’t alienate me from God or lead me down a path of superstition. On the contrary, my new embodied rituals were empowering and balancing. They helped me quell the obsessive moral anxiety a lot of us pick up during a childhood spent in Awanas and Friday night lock-ins, and they deepened my respect and reverence for God considerably. I felt like I had been trying to carve out a spiritual life on stone with a blunt chisel, and someone had just handed me creamy sheaves of paper and fountain pens, pencils, and watercolors in every shade. With the right tools, so much more was possible.

When I started on my journey into embodiment, I was so afraid that my body would betray me. I had been taught that she was an ugly byproduct of our fallen nature, that she was a hysterical playground for the devil’s deception. I had been taught that only the rational, unemotional mind could be trusted to steer a faith life, and that religious experiences should be subjected to constant scrutiny lest they deviate from right belief in any way. And while I am a proponent of spiritual discernment and slow, prayerful spiritual growth, I think that we’ve been taught to sell our bodies short.

Much of the ministry of Fratres Dei is focused on embodiment, on tapping into the natural giftings and inclinations of our bodies and listening to them. This flows from a theology that sees the body not as a ball and chain our soul drags around, but as an inherent, essential expression of our spiritual reality. When I had the pleasure of seeing Rachel, our resident spiritual director, last week at a wedding, she led us in an unbridled dancefloor experience that can only be called spiritual. I was once again reminded of how right and good it is to express our shameless joy and celebrate loved ones with our whole might in the bodies that God has given us. It’s a journey that I’m happy to be on, late on arrival or not, and I look forward to all the things I’m going to experience and learn in this body as I grow.

If you’d like to get in tune with the stirrings of your soul in your own body, Fratres Dei offers personalized spiritual direction sessions and monthly ecstatic dance meetups for that very purpose. We’re excited to meet you and learn more about the wisdom your body brings to the conversation.

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.

On Writing Southern Gothic

Today over on tumblr, someone asked me for “tips for writing about those foggy marsh drenched southern gothics”, and I decided to share what I had to say with ya’ll as well.

Gothic genres are squarely situated in their geographic locations, so the best way to get a feel for a Gothic genre is to get a feel for the land. If taking a trip to the bayou or Piedmont is prohibitive, read the greats. I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s entire body of work, the Anne Rice novels set in New Orleans, and Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.  You can also check out  My Blood on the Scrarecrow Southen Gothic inspo tag.

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Photo courtesy of Rodney Harvey

As far as craft advice goes, avoid dialect. Dialect is phonetically rendering words the way they may sound in an accent (nuthin’, wassat, sho’nuf) and it tends to be distracting to the reader and insulting to the speakers of the accent you are invoking. You can invoke an accent through word choice and placement instead (see my use of vernacular terms like “best believe” in the prompts below) and the best way to learn these turns-of-phrase is to listen to native speakers

Similarly, steer clear of tropes that have now crossed the threshold into hurtful stereotype such as the ignorant redneck, “magical negro”, Jezebel, mammy, or in-bred mountain family, unless you have a very good reason. Odds are, unless its intelligent subversion, your reason is not good enough.

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Still from AMC’s Preacher.

I still feel like my Southern Gothic writing is bit of a caricature in many ways, because the first breath I took wasn’t muggy and magnolia-sweet, but after a decade of my formative years spent in the mountains of western North Carolina, I’ve got an inkling. Here are some jumping off points for you:

  • If you don’t leave this town by nineteen years old, you won’t leave at all. If you try, you’ll find all roads lead back to your now-abandoned high school.
  • You can do all the brutalizing, cheating, and bloodletting you want inside this house, but God help you if the neighbors hear about it.
  • The forest takes a couple of human sacrifices a year, lost hikers or fresh graduates who had a little bit too much to drink at the homecoming party. It’s simply the way of things.
  • The cicadas do the screaming for every neglected child, battered wife, and dispossessed son who can’t shout for themselves.
  • Everyone sees the sinful things their neighbors drag across their backyards in the middle of the night. They just have the good sense not to go around letting on that they know about it.
  • Heredity is horrifying. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of things you can inherit.
  • You’d better not break the heart of the wrong local girl, because there’s a good chance she’s got a granny witch living up in one of the hollers who’ll stick your name in a mason jar with some piss and pins and make your life a living hell.
  • If you cut the magnolia trees, they’ll bleed red as you or me.
  • It’s not a matter of if the preacher man has seen the devil, it’s a question of whether or not he greeted him as an old friend.
  • When you finally meet Jesus, you best believe he’s going to be carrying a list of crimes for you to answer for.

If you’d like to hear more of my  overgrown,God-haunted thoughts on the subject, check out my Southern Gothic story REVIVAL in the Fiends in the Furrows anthology! This story is my homage to the South, and it’s got snake handling, brave little girls, and fiendish prophecies in it.

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4 Reasons to Hop on the #ReadWhatYouOwn Bandwagon

I’ve known for some time that my book acquisition habits needed an intervention. What can I say? I’m spoiled and decadent in my bookish ways; I live near one of the coolest used bookstores in the country, I spend my workdays at an audiobook publisher finding new authors (and adding their books to my TBR), and I also get free paperbacks and audiobooks as part of my job. I’m so book-wealthy my house is beginning to look like a Versailles of fantasy ARCs, paperbacks I slipped into my purse on my way home from the office, and buzzed-about debuts delivered straight to my door courtesy of prime shipping.

It’s gotten…a little out of hand.

Take it from someone who spent last night building yet another bookshelf to house her thrift store scores and Barnes and Noble impulse buys; it’s possible to lose some real gems in the book avalanche.

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Don’t mind me I’ll be here…digging myself out with a shovel.

That’s why I’ve decided to institute a no-new-books ban through the rest of 2018. That’s right; I’m going to abstain from buying or renting any new books through the rest of the year! I was inspired partly by the September #readwhatyouown challenge started by instagrammer ANovelFamily.  So without futher ado, here are my top reasons to join me on this book-buying cleanse!

  1. It reassigns your money value. Those books tossed on your bedside table or shoved into your backpack had enough value at one time that you were willing to pay good money for them! Honor you past self by getting your money’s worth out of those pricey little acquisitions.
  2. It helps you de-clutter your home. Could you imagine how much more room you would have in your living space if you got rid of books you read and had no intention of reading again? I know it can be difficult to let go of books, but be judicious about which ones you keep after reading them during the challenge!
  3. It resets your attention span. I know as I’ve gotten older and more absorbed into social media and multitasking culture, its gotten more difficult for me to be still and devote myself to a single story. When I can’t hop from free audiobook to free audiobook with my mood, I’m much more likely to commit to that sweet sweet book monogamy. Lately, I’ve been tucking into Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, a book a bought myself as a payday present last month, and Her Perfect Match by Jess Michaels, a steamy historical romance I snagged from the free shelf at work. I’m further along in them than I ever would have been before #readwhatyouown.
  4. It helps you feel better about what you choose to read. A fatigue of choices can happen when you have unlimited stories at you fingertips through online shopping (multiply this by 100 if you have a E-reader or Audible subscription). It can make whatever you choose feel disappointing, or distract you from enjoying that book you really wanted because there’s a new release to lust after. Picking what to read from what you already own helps with satiety and satisfaction.

A #ReadWhatYouOwn Protip: Know when you need to bend the rules! Really wanting that hot YA debut is not a good enough reason to cheat on your challenge, but if you promised to beta a friend’s novel, or if you have to buy new books for your fall classes, work those into your reading plan ahead of time! I’m currently writing my next novella, a retelling of the Snow Queen story, and I know I’m going to have acquire and re-read the Hans Christen Anderson original as well as snag some library books on Scandanavian folklore and history for research.

Feeling inspired? Who’s going to go on this #ReadWhatYouOwn journey with me?