My Polytheism: Contemplative Solitary Monastic Practice
This piece started out as a list of my contemplative practices, but then expanded into a contribution to the My Polytheism project, which was recently launched by Jolene Dawe to celebrate diversity in polytheism. Yay! If you haven’t seen the blog yet, I recommend you go check it out! I love this whole project, but especially this:
“Sacred Hospitality. This is the common ground our communities need to be built around. Not same-ness. Not dogma. Not gate-keeping. Hospitality. What good is the hospitality we extend to our Spirits, Gods, and assorted Powers, if we are utter shit to our fellow humans? We have to build up. We have to be approachable. At least, I want us to be approachable. And, if you’re here, I’m assuming you do, as well.”
YES YES YES.
And with that, here is My Polytheism.
My polytheism calls me to a monastic path of service — to deities, spirits, land, and community. I describe The Black Stone Hermitage, where I live, as a contemplative polytheist sanctuary creating atmospheres of sacred endarkenment. I am the resident hermit and anchoress of the Hermitage. While I don’t actually live in seclusion in a polytheist monastery — after all, it’s not as if there are many available options for those of us called to that sort of life — I do feel a calling to make inroads in that direction. I do the best I can, within the constraints of my situation, to live as I would if I had taken a religious vow to live and serve as a Sister in a hermitage affiliated with a recognized polytheist monastery. I live a solitary life in a small live/work studio in the Pacific Northwest. I earn income through self-employment, as a house cleaner and freelance writer.
Long before I even understood that I could take conscious, intentional steps toward a Pagan monastic life, there were signs that I was being called in this direction. I knew from the time I was very young, for example, that I did not want to be a parent — and thanks to my feminist foremothers, who fought for women’s access to birth control, that was a possibility for me. I stopped watching movies and TV, as I’m a sensitive empathic softie who can’t handle movie violence and cruelty anyway. I often found myself on the verge of constant overwhelm due to the fast pace of modern urban life; I was a quiet youngster who always enjoyed solitude and preferred to retreat to a library with a stack of books and some immersive music. When I was in college I developed allergic reactions and other sensitivities that forced me to give up alcohol, and to learn how to clean my house in non-toxic, fragrance-free ways. Later in life I became a non-driver — first by choice, and eventually by necessity as my divorce and my failure to find a conventional job forced me to learn to live on very little income.
I don’t think poverty or celibacy would necessarily be required for polytheist monastics, but for a variety of reasons, both of those apply to me right now. As far as I can tell, it isn’t that Those I serve “want” me to live this way; it’s simply that there are only so many hours in a day, most of which are consumed with earning a living, and if I’m going to devote myself to monastic service, then something else has to go. So I don’t have much room in my life for anything else at the moment.
As a confirmed introvert, I’ve never felt particularly drawn to practices like public ritual, or any kind of public-facing role. My spiritual practice has always been more focused on home and hearth, and on meditative pursuits. There have been times when I haven’t even left my home for an entire week, and I have never found that confining — quite the contrary, in fact. I savor it!
In some ways, I see my contemplative practice as an extension of what I’ve been doing in and around my home for more than 20 years: writing, meditating, building shrines, praying, studying, keeping house, making offerings, and designing endarkened sacred spaces. Eventually I started feeling the need for more structure, and became interested in joining forces with other polytheists called to monastic life. I was hoping to find some sort of co-housing permaculture eco-village that would accommodate and respect the needs of those called to religious solitude. Having a built-in, collaborative support structure that would provide for regular shared meals, worship services, and so on is attractive to me, in part because it could reduce the cognitive load of having to handle the design, planning, financing, and execution of all these things myself. In fact, one of the general hopes I have for polytheist monastic life is that it will help reduce the burden of emotional labor and other unpaid work that is disproportionately borne by women.
When I went looking for this sort of structure in 2011, just after I received the Hermitage vision, I couldn’t find any groups doing anything close to what I needed to do. There were a few Pagans writing about monasticism online, but none who were located anywhere near me, so I decided to go it alone. Building up a polytheist monastic lifestyle from scratch, with no established models to follow, is challenging, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. It’s very much a trial-and-error process. But without any real alternative, I simply learn to live my calling as best I can.
I maintain my Hermitage as a place for quiet meditation, devotion, prayer, study, and hospitality. I consider hospitality to be important for a Pagan monastic — particularly an anchoress — in part because modern revived polytheism is still in its infancy. So few of us are doing this work right now that it’s helpful just to get word out there that polytheist monasticism is a thing. Right now, I host visitors on a gift-for-a-gift basis for leisurely library reading sessions and a geomantic divination study group, as well as for overnighters and weekend spiritual retreats focused on contemplative practices in spaces of sacred endarkenment. In a larger space that allowed for more separation between my personal living spaces and the spaces I make available for community use, perhaps I could organize longer intensives focused on contemplative practices one day.
In recent years, interest in monasticism has been growing in our communities. At the Many Gods West conference this year, I was approached several times by people who expressed interest in polytheist monasticism. I’m now seeing evidence that there is sufficient interest in polytheist monasticism to sustain a fairly sizable online discussion forum, at the very least. (Too bad my hands are full enough with unpaid labor elsewhere that I don’t have sufficient time to start and maintain one!)
So what do I actually do at the Hermitage, then? Here are my contemplative practices:
At the Hermitage, I listen to dark ambient music in a space that is as acoustically immersive as I can make it, and I allow myself to be deeply drawn into the inner journeys the music inspires. Through my Chthonic Cathedral Project, I also provide custom themed playlists of dark ambient music for rituals, events, and yoga classes; this is a service project designed to help foster music-based contemplative practices in the communities I work with.
The word geomancy is used for both a system of earth divination (and a very under-appreciated one, if you ask me — there are many Tarot readers, but few geomancers) and a form of working with Earth energies through methods such as dowsing and “solar geometry”. I study and practice both of these. Dowsing relies on developing awareness of body sensations as a reference point and as feedback, which to my mind makes it a contemplative practice. I also consider dowsing with L-rods to be a form of deep listening to the Earth, so this overlaps with #1 above.
Sacred space building
Through my Black Tent Temple Project, I design and build shrines and spaces of sacred endarkenment using intuitive and contemplative methods. I combine visual, architectural, auditory, spatial, and olfactory elements to construct emotionally engaging religious spaces. Placement of objects, selection of colors, and use of space are all guided by embodied awareness, geomancy, and deep listening. One day I also hope to have a space appropriate for building a full “darkroom retreat” using Andrew Durham’s DIY plans.
I have a special space set aside in a corner of the Hermitage for a polytheist version of lectio divina (sacred reading) practice. I usually use Pagan devotional writings, prayers, or folk tales in Swedish for this purpose. I am learning the Swedish language in preparation for a pilgrimage to the lands of my Swedish ancestors, and I can’t help but read this material at a leisurely pace because I’m still at a beginner level of reading comprehension in Swedish.
I consider writing — mostly non-fiction book manuscripts, essays, correspondence, and blog posts — to be one of my most important contemplative practices. Sometimes I combine writing with deep listening and work in a light trance state, since I’ve found that dark ambient music facilitates my creative flow beautifully.
My solo house cleaning business got started because it was the only kind of paid work I was able to find after I was hit by the one-two financial punch of divorce and the Great Recession. However, over time I’ve come to realize that house cleaning is excellent work for a monastic, and on good days it can even be meditative. (Gardening could also fit this bill, but sadly I have no space and time for gardening at the moment — not even container gardening!)
I do two daily meditations: Kirtan Kriya, a 12-minute meditation (colloquially referred to as “sa-ta-na-ma”), and a 30-minute tea meditation of my own design, accompanied by dark ambient music and a set of prayer beads I made for Skaði. The Hermitage also has an official tea consultant, David Galli, with whom I plan to work eventually to improve the tea service offerings for visitors. There are good reasons so many monastics drink tea! It’s a leisurely and meditative brew that promotes clarity of mind and deepens the inner vision.
I’ve been a dancer for most of my life. Up until recently I had two devotional and ritual dance projects (Shrine of Skaði and Drinking the Tears of the Earth) that functioned as contemplative arts, and embodied ways of knowing. A few months ago, I sustained a musculo-skeletal injury that has mostly sidelined my dance practice, and as a result I am not sure what role dance will play in my future contemplative practice. Fortunately, however, there’s yoga — I have a Scaravelli-inspired earthy yoga practice which is at a beginner level. I consider some form of movement practice to be essential for my polytheist monastic life.
Prayer and Worship
In addition to my ancestor work, regular prayers, and small daily devotions, I perform a full devotional worship service on a monthly basis for Skaði — dressed and anointed candles, a thurible filled with spruce resin incense, offerings, prayers, petitions. In October I perform a devotional service for Móðguðr as well. I maintain a shrine for Santa Muerte where I pray and worship also, and am planning to expand the work I do for her in the future.
Future hopes, plans, and dreams for expanding my contemplative practices include studying kyudo (contemplative archery), working with conifers to make incense, and building an enclosed sacred garden (including statuary) with a labyrinth for meditative cloister walks.
Other things I do at the Hermitage that facilitate my polytheist contemplative practice:
Keep things clean and organized.
I maintain cleanliness and order in my anchorhold. Clutter and disorganization are drags on my attention, which is detrimental to my practice. Besides, being well organized is the only way I can fit a library of 900 books, a Black Tent Temple space including a tiny darkroom meditation retreat, and several large shrines into the same 550-sq-ft space I use to live, write, and run my house cleaning business.
Experiment with monastic garb.
Bit by bit, as I gather ideas from nuns and monks of other religions, I am trying to put together a nun’s habit and other forms of clothing that would work for me as a polytheist monastic. Being mindful of what I wear and dressing modestly is more than a preference; it helps me focus on contemplation. It accentuates the commitment I’ve made to making inroads toward this way of life, and it serves to encourage me in my practice by providing a tangible reminder of that commitment.
Reduce cognitive load whenever possible. Modern life often feels like an onslaught of competing demands for my attention, which makes it that much more difficult to even maintain a basic contemplative practice, let alone deepen it. When things like social media fatigue or other forms of overwhelm set in, I disengage or do whatever else I need to in order to preserve sufficient physical and emotional energy for my practice.
Engage in activism for social and economic justice.
Through my Rethinking the Job Culture project, I encourage critical thinking about “earning a living” and the Protestant work ethic, and encourage leisure as a form of resistance to capitalism. Why is this sort of activism relevant for contemplative monasticism? Well, for one thing, it’s a whole lot easier to devote your time to study, prayer, service, and meditation when your needs for housing, health care, and food are met in ways that don’t require 40+ hours a week of wage labor just to survive.One of the reasons monastic life appeals to me is that, although I’ve never wanted a conventional wage labor job, I love to work. I love housekeeping. I love to build and tend shrines. I love to design and decorate spaces of sacred endarkenment. I love to write. I want to use my creative talents in ways that serve our communities. And one day, I hope to leave behind The Black Stone Hermitage as a physical space for others to carry on their polytheist monastic practices after I pass on.
For over 15 years I’ve been trying to find a small and ecologically responsible home for the future Hermitage, with access to subterranean space and a small private fenced garden space. Unfortunately, that has proven to be frustratingly elusive in the United States, especially after my savings was wiped out in my divorce. I’ve also seriously considered moving to Sweden — the lands of my Swedish ancestors — to try to do it there. So far, neither one of these plans has worked.
For now, most of us who are interested in monastic life must rely on day jobs (and/or spouses or partners who have jobs) as our main source of support. We’re still in the early stages of our development as a religious movement, so that isn’t too surprising. But I am driven to do my part to help move us all toward a world where wage labor for basic life support becomes less and less necessary. I would love to live in a world where the work done by polytheist monastics could be supported on a gift model, directly by the communities they serve — and that path leads away from wage labor as we currently know it. As I have written elsewhere, I am a conscientious objector to “earning a living.” I firmly believe that requiring people to “earn a living” through wage labor is a violation of the spirit and a form of structural violence, however widely condoned and culturally sanctioned it may be.
Prayer, creativity, service, work, and leisure are all important spheres of the monastic life I am called to live. Wage labor, however, is not. And while I’m at it, I don’t think a polytheist monastic life should require toilsome work and harsh, nose-to-the-grindstone discipline. We don’t need to suffer to be “real” monastics. When “earning a living” consumes most of our time, there’s little left over for all the rest of our human needs. I can’t help but think about all the wonderful things our communities are missing out on because so many of us are stuck in day jobs we don’t care about just to pay the bills, or are shouldering more than our share of the burden of unpaid labor. I started Rethinking the Job Culture because, as feminist writer Sonia Johnson has written: “I am determined to live in a world where “earning a living” seems as bizarre and sad to everyone as it has come to seem to me.” And I consider it a form of devotional work, just as The Black Stone Hermitage is. I want to see more of us freed from jobs so we can do our Work.
One hopeful development — the most hopeful one I’ve seen in my lifetime, in fact — is the rise of Patreon. I love Patreon! I see it as a possible springboard to building a financial support network that can play a vital role in sustaining our communities. As more and more polytheists receive patronage for their creative work, more of us are enabled to spread the wealth around to one another, which ultimately enriches us all.
And maybe, one day, we will have the financial and organizational backing to support Orders of polytheist nuns and monks, and we will build co-housing communities of monastic Hermitages, and affiliate ourselves with polytheist religious congregations, and thereby ease the way for future polytheists called to monastic life.
Danica Swanson is a freelance writer, dark ambient music nerd, dark fusion dancer, and amateur polytheist nun. She is CEO (Creative Endarkenment Overseer) of The Black Stone Hermitage, co-admin of the Pagan & Polytheist Monasticism discussion list, and a co-founder of LANMIPP (Loosely Affiliated Network of Monastically Inclined Polytheist Pagans). Her first forays into Paganism began in 1995; she has been a devotee of Skaði and other Holy Powers of Yggdrasil since 2004. She also writes under the name D. JoAnne Swanson for her other main project, The Anticareerist (formerly known as Rethinking the Job Culture; originally known as whywork.org). Her life of contemplative solitude is made possible only by a web of thriving community relationships, human and non-human. She lives by the hands of the deities and spirits in all of her endeavors.