A Solitude That Is Not Loneliness: Exploring Polytheist Contemplative Hermitage

Danica Swanson, polytheist contemplativeAs things stand today, there is no organized monastic tradition in Paganism or Heathenry, and polytheists interested in monastic life seem to be few and far between.  There is only one legally recognized Pagan polytheist convent in the USA (The Maetreum of Cybele), although there are a handful of folks making inroads in similar directions.  Nonetheless, I often describe myself as a Pagan nun, even though I currently have no viable options for formal organizational support along this religious path.

I identify as a polytheist, animist, and witch who is called toward religious hermitage and a life of extended contemplative solitude, creativity, worship, and service.  When I am in private, I often wear something resembling a nun’s habit – including head coverings – for religious reasons.  I think of myself as a Sister, a “woman religious,” and an anchoress-in-training, even if I don’t yet present myself that way in public.

Even if Pagan and Heathen polytheist monasteries become a reality one day, though – and I do believe they will – it may be that I will visit, but never actually live in one.  Why?  Because I have learned that I thrive in solitude.

For me, healthy solitude – “a solitude that is not loneliness” – is more than just a lifestyle preference or a tendency toward introversion, although both of those apply to me.  Solitude is what enables me to give the gifts I have to the world.  It’s what permits me to reach deep inside myself, clarify my religious visions, and offer the best of what I can do to the gods, spirits, and communities I serve.  Without regular, uninterrupted, contemplative solitude, I wither and wilt.  I shrink and contort into a mere shadow of the person I am meant to be.

I find great richness and fulfillment in the gifts of solitude.  Hidden reserves of energy and attention are freed up.  In solitude, I take silent, profound joy in the simplest of pleasures – arranging the table for tea, for example, or polishing the mirrors.  I become more deeply respectful of the immense power of self-restraint in speech and action.  I can better perceive the sacred in the “mundane,” and better understand that these are not separate.  I can dig into my inner wellsprings, better perceive the promptings of the gods and spirits, and find reservoirs of strength and self-acceptance that don’t depend on what I look like, how much money I have, or my relationship status.  And Virginia Woolf certainly knew what she was talking about when she recommended a room of one’s own for women who wanted to write on their own terms.

It would be an understatement to say that healthy solitude is undervalued in American culture.  Those who seek solitude tend to be viewed with thinly veiled suspicion.  Are they just selfish navel-gazers?  How can they just go off into their caves or mountaintop retreats and meditate when there is so much urgent ecological and social justice work to be done?  And of course most of us – especially women, who do a disproportionate share of emotional labor – can’t just slow down our lives to make space and time for solitude because we decide to.  We are expected to make ourselves available to tend to the needs of our partners, families, and loved ones first and foremost.  American culture simply does not make room for women who crave solitude.

As a feminist, recluse, and creative writer raised in a culture that makes few provisions for people like me – and seems hell-bent on stealing my time for purposes that force me to contort myself into molds that don’t fit – I’ve spent a great deal of effort defending my solitude against intrusions.  Finally, in my late forties, I’ve come to realize that the only way I will be able to fulfill my religious calling of monastic service, and write what is in me to write, is to preserve my solitude as much as possible.

I am well-positioned to live a solitary contemplative life for a variety of reasons, one of which is that I am not a parent.  I was raised in a time and place in which reliable birth control was readily available to me when I was younger.  (Thank you, feminist foremothers!)  Remaining child-free by choice is one of the ways I’ve been able to preserve enough time, energy, and solitude to develop my craft as a writer.

I’ve also come to realize, after a great deal of introspection, prayer, and soul-searching, that it’s unlikely that I will ever be truly happy or operate at my best in a “normal” romantic relationship.  This past week, in fact, I broke up with my partner of three months, because this truth about who I am has become clearer than ever before.  I simply do not have it in me any longer to give what a committed romantic relationship requires without sacrificing something deeply important to my religious and creative work.  So I have now become celibate by choice.

Though I’m sad that this decision hurt someone I care about, I also can’t help but feel excited about this new development in a way that I never imagined I could.  It feels like an affirmation of who I am rather than a sacrifice.  It will enable me to give more of what I have to give in religious and community service.

I hesitate to say that I’m celibate for religious reasons, though, as this could be misleading.  Celibacy isn’t necessarily required for Pagan monastics, and in fact a case can be made that romantic and sexual relationships may be an important component of a Pagan monastic path.  I have no doubt that it can work that way for some.  But I also know that having a mortal lover and romantic partner is not the right path for me at this time.

(For what it’s worth, I have sometimes said that, while I am not a godspouse, I am so passionately in love with my vision of The Black Stone Hermitage that it’s as if I have a lover on another plane.  I would go to the ends of the Earth to bring this vision to fruition, if it were necessary and in my power to do so.  And for someone who is a dyed-in-the-wool homebody and hates to travel, that’s saying a lot.)

Accusations of “selfishness” have followed me throughout my life in various ways, as they often do for women who resist conventionally approved life scripts and insist on carving out space to live on their own terms.  However, I seek solitude not as selfishness, but in affirmation of the need for self-care.  There is little room in this culture for women to care for their own needs generously.  When I make room for true self-care, free of guilt and shame, I often find that a genuine caring for the welfare of others wells up in me, unbidden.  A recognition arises that, in having been so blessed with time and space for self-care, I have also been entrusted with a responsibility to use my gifts and talents to serve the world that has made this self-care possible for me.  After all, hermits are sustained and supported by their networks, human and non-human.  And my solitude certainly does not reduce my interest in friendship and community.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Some of my friendships have deepened and strengthened – in part because, having cared for my own needs, I am in turn able to give more to my friendships.

In order to perceive this deeply reciprocal gift relationship and the way it drives my work, though, I had to first untangle and sort through a lot of cultural baggage.  Writing, for example, is often dismissed as a frivolous and self-indulgent pursuit, rather than a form of religious service and social justice work.  But for me, writing is a calling, and is one of the ways I serve the gods and spirits.  It’s a form of activism.  I want my writing – and all my work, for that matter – to help build a world in which ‘earning a living’ is a thing of the past, ecologically responsible ways of life are practiced, and emotional labor is recognized, appreciated, and properly valued.

I think of the studio unit where the Hermitage currently lives as my anchorhold – a small enclosure inhabited by a person dedicated to a life of religious solitude and prayer.  I cherish this space, and decorate it lovingly.  My anchorhold provides opportunities for me to engage in many forms of monastic service beyond my writing: I host visitors for tea, worship and offerings, meditation, incubation sessions, music consultancy services, brainstorming sessions, and contemplative practices.

One day I hope to find a long-term home for the Hermitage and establish it through a permaculture community land trust or similar legal vehicle so that when I die, I can bequeath the space to others for religious and ecologically responsible purposes.  My hope is to create a space that will help provide for future generations of polytheists who feel called to solitary monastic paths of service, devotion, and contemplation.  I do this work as much for those who will come after me as for Those I serve right now.

Sometimes, when I crawl under the covers of my comfy bed alone on cool nights, I become acutely aware of how much joy lives in my heart and bones and flesh.  I don’t mean that I never feel sorrow or loss or feminist rage or whatever.  I feel all those things, and very deeply, I might add.  Yet nonetheless, I’ve somehow managed to build a life that I find spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally fulfilling in ways I never expected I would.  Joy bubbles up from deep in my cells, as if my life has been blessed with a giant, endless breath of fresh, oxygen-rich forest air.  I inhale this breath of fresh life-giving air deeply, at leisure, and find myself filled with gratitude and appreciation so profound that it erupts into irrepressible laughter.

‘Tis a far cry indeed from the days when I was severely depressed, thinking about suicide often, and grieving the loss of my 14-year marriage and my former life.  In those days, I remember that I clung to some ill-advised friendships, just to feel a sense of belonging and attempt to assuage the emptiness I felt.

If present-day me had tried to tell me-who-was-grieving-her-marriage that I would feel this joyful one day, she would never have believed it.  Never.  Not even for a millisecond.

And yet, here I am, living a more joyful and contented life than I’ve ever before known.

It’s difficult even for me to believe I’ve found this level of contentment in solitude, and I’m the one who’s experiencing it!

There’s also a feminist component to this joy.  In taking such unapologetic pleasure in solitude as a woman, I’m shamelessly defying the patriarchal (and near-ubiquitous) cultural expectation that women should make themselves readily available for others in ways that disregard their own needs.

My rebellious inner fifteen-year-old is quite pleased.

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