Heathen Monasticism: The future of the Hermitage in Sweden

The Winter Solstice is my favorite holiday. It’s the perfect time to announce that the Hermitage is hatching a plan to move to Sweden!

In November, while I was in Sweden, I made a pact with my longtime correspondents and dear friends Birka and Räv Skogsberg to relocate the Hermitage to the beautiful village of Fengersfors, where they live, and begin the process of founding a Norse polytheist monastery.

Birka and Räv are affiliated with Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige, a registered religious organization with roots in Nordic heathen and folk customs.

To properly tell the story of how this came about, I must start in 2006.

That’s the year I discovered a FAQ about Pagan monasticism written by the Order of the Horae, a polytheist religious order. The discovery of this FAQ marked the first time I learned that there were other polytheists out there who were interested in monasticism. Something inside me instantly and enthusiastically responded: “Finally! People like me!”

I had heard about the Matreum of Cybele, the very first Pagan convent, and to this day it remains the only one in the US. But the Pagan monasticism FAQ spoke to my latent needs more deeply.

That FAQ provided me with endless food for contemplation, and I came back to it for reference many times in the ensuing years. I’ve never met any of the folks involved in creating it, but I’ll always be grateful that they put it together, and that I discovered it when I did. It opened my mind to the idea that polytheists could start monasteries, and that said monasteries wouldn’t need to be modeled on those of other religions…meaning that one day, there might actually be a place in a monastery for me. I knew, even then, that this path was for me. It took me years to work up the courage to talk about it publicly, though.

I later found out that Birka also discovered the Order of the Horae FAQ around the same time I did, and it was also what originally got her thinking about monasticism in a Pagan & polytheist context. She told me that she and Räv have carried on an ongoing conversation about polytheist monasticism ever since they met in Sweden in 2006, and adapted some of their ideas to build their own practice.

Halfway around the world, I’ve been following a similar and compatible path since 2006, quietly experimenting to build my own monastic practice, unbeknownst to them.

I did not breathe a word of this to anyone for years. I knew this nascent venture needed to be developed in complete secrecy, lest it be derailed before it had taken root. I was not prepared to deal with naysayers. (And since I’ve been Pagan for over 20 years, I knew there would be naysayers. There are always naysayers.)

That FAQ marked a turning point for me. As I’ve written elsewhere, though I’ve identified as some flavor of Pagan since the mid-1990s, my first forays into Heathenry came about in 2004 through three vectors: reading, music, and mystical experience.

I had been reading voraciously about radical-left and anti-capitalist politics, queer feminism, deep ecology, permaculture, and indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and decolonizing movements. As part of that autodidactic process of re-evaluation, I asked questions about my own spiritual heritage. My ancestry is half Swedish and half German. I thought: “Although I was born and raised in the USA, my ancestors must have once been indigenous somewhere, and surely there must have been some kind of land-based spiritual practice that arose from those places…”

That process of inquiry was followed by a mystical experience that led into a devotional relationship with Skaði, the Jötunn and huntress of the northern lands, Whom I have served faithfully for over ten years now.

My other gateway was music. The first albums that shaped my Heathenry were Volven by Hagalaz’ Runedance (also known as Nebelhexë), Nordland by Apoptose (I still have the original 2000 version on CD), and Eliwagar by SkadiCathedron by Sephiroth and Deadbeat by Desiderii Marginis also played a role, since I discovered dark fusion bellydance (a.k.a. gothic bellydance) around that time and these were the first albums that inspired me to take up devotional dance to dark ambient music.

The seeds had been sown. I continued learning about Sweden and Germany, my ancestral motherlands. In the 1990s I had legally adopted my mother’s birth name, Swanson, as a way of deepening my connection to the accomplished women of my maternal family line. I decided to keep this surname for life.

In 2007 I enrolled in a Swedish class and started planning a genealogical trip to Sweden.

In 2007 I also suffered a devastating blow: an excruciatingly painful divorce. The divorce cost me not only a 14-year relationship, but also my dream home, my health insurance, all my savings, and an entire circle of friends.

I spent the next few years snowed under by grief, rage, and mourning, while Skaði helped me rebuild my life from scratch.

In 2011 I received an exquisitely beautiful and inspiring vision of The Black Stone Hermitage. It compelled me to take this monastic thing much more seriously.

Shortly after the vision, I started the first blog for the Hermitage (blackstonemonastery.wordpress.com).

At this point, I knew I was some kind of fledgling nun-in-training, but I had no intention whatsoever of starting a convent on my own; that sounded like far more work than I could ever handle, and I doubted it would even be taken seriously. I was hoping to join forces with an existing group of some sort, and attach my Hermitage project to an ecovillage or something. It didn’t sound ideal, but what other options were there? I didn’t find any interfaith monasteries appropriate for polytheist Heathens.

I did look, though. I investigated many available options for would-be monastics in other religions. I quickly figured out that I could never do monasticism within a Christian or Buddhist context, even with an open-minded priest.

Eventually I figured out I couldn’t do it within a mixed Pagan or occultist context either.

I needed structure. Organization. Clearly defined boundaries. I wanted to kneel in prayer. I wanted a place to worship. I wanted religious vestments, votive offerings, and contemplative practice. And I was thoroughly claimed by Team Norse, as clearly as if there were a flashing neon sign on my forehead reading: “Back off, other gods. She’s marked as Ours.”

So I needed a place with a Norse-focused religious mission, or at the very least a place located near other polytheists who would understand the needs and habits of someone devoted enough to her religion to call herself a monastic even though no one in her religion had built any monasteries yet.

I also needed feminism. I have long believed the world needs non-patriarchal, feminist forms of monasticism. Nuns in other religions are routinely denied essential resources and support, outright banned from becoming monastics, and even evicted from their monasteries. Polytheist nuns, myself included, would need a place where they were valued and supported as Heathen women. Not just as lip service for PR purposes, but for real.

Finally I decided I had no viable choice but to try to build what I need in a polytheist context, even though it might take me a lifetime. So, in 2011, that’s what I decided to do – starting right where I am, in my live/work studio in downtown Portland, on the seventh floor of a condo building.

It was slow going, mostly for reasons beyond my control.

Somewhere around 2014-2015, I followed Samfundet Forn Sed Sverige on Facebook and YouTube so I could keep tabs on what Swedish Heathens were up to, and a little later, Birka followed the Black Stone Hermitage on Facebook. Birka is pictured as gydja in a photo on the Wikipedia entry for FSS, so I knew who she was, and it was a pleasant surprise to discover she was following my work.

At first I thought she had found my blog through likes and comments I had been leaving on the FSS Facebook page. But I later learned that Birka originally discovered my Hermitage blog because she had been searching for Pagan monastics. Meanwhile, I had been searching for Norse polytheists in Sweden who might understand my religious mission to start a monastery, and might understand why I felt a religious calling to return to my ancestral motherlands.

I think it’s remarkable that we each found the other’s work independently, and for such perfectly compatible reasons.

I do not believe that was a coincidence. Not even for a moment. There were many other signs; what I’ve written here is just the tip of the iceberg.

In September 2016 Birka and I became friends on Facebook. Shortly afterward I became a co-admin for the newly founded Pagan & Polytheist Monasticism discussion group, where Birka and I got to know each other better. I remember being surprised when she chose to join the discussion group, because at that time I wasn’t yet aware that she was interested in polytheist monasticism.

By November 2016 she and I were both sensing that we had stumbled onto something significant. A snippet from our conversations that month reads:

Me: “Perhaps we should start talking more about finding a monastic purpose for those hermit cabins that are near you in Sweden.”
Birka: “… yes, I think we’re on to something here.”

In November 2017, I stayed with Birka and Räv at their home in Fengersfors, attended their Alvablot in a shrine space they built in the forest, and fell in love with the village. We did exactly that: talked about finding a place that would be suitable for a monastery. While I was in Sweden, I made a reciprocal offer to the deities and guardians of the land in Fengersfors. If They would accept me and help me find the right way to relocate there, then I would honor Them and offer my service. If They are willing and I am able, I told Them, I will establish the Hermitage there as a nunnery focused on the mysteries of the Ásynjur, dísir, and other Powers according to Their specifications.

Now we’re jointly hatching plans to carry it out. And now that I have a location-independent source of income as a professional freelance writer, leaving the US and moving to my ancestral motherlands has become a realistic possibility. Legally speaking, however, things aren’t so straightforward. Immigration and tax law have not caught up with “digital nomads,” and I doubt I could live in Sweden long-term while working full time for US clients as I am doing right now.

However, while I was in Sweden I also received a tentative job offer from a potential Swedish employer, and I have recently taken on some new freelance writing work for Swedish clients. If I were to take a job with a Swedish employer, or if I could establish a steady clientele as a freelance writer in Sweden, I could qualify for a work permit – either as an employee or a self-employed person.

Räv even talked with the Swedish immigration authorities while I was there about the possibility of bringing me from the US to Sweden on a religious mission for the specific purpose of starting a monastery. They already have explicit provisions for visitor permits to work at Swedish monasteries. Might this be applicable for immigration purposes? Ah, but it seems they mean existing monasteries. And we don’t have any of those established. Yet.

So at this time, it’s unclear which immigration route I will take. In any case it will take me awhile to prepare, since I’ll have to sell or donate most of what I own, find a place to live, work out all the legalities, and so on.

So what might this future nunnery look like?

When I started the first blog for the Hermitage in 2011, I started keeping something I call the master playsheet. It’s a kind of journal I use for purposes of sketching out, recording, developing, and refining any visions, dreams, nudges, or other communications I receive from Those I serve that are pertinent to the future of the Hermitage. Here’s a peek into some of those notes. Most are written in the present tense, as if the Swedish Hermitage already exists on another plane and now it’s “just” a matter of bringing it to fruition and rooting it in the earth.

Black Stone Hermitage is a house of worship.
In some Pagan and Heathen circles, worship is treated as a dirty word, as if it reeks of latent Christianity. Some people even take potshots at polytheists, shaming or mocking them for the way they address the deities: “I address Odin as I would a friend, not with all that haughty, pretentious “Oh, High One…” stuff.”

Others are free to address deities as they wish, of course. Sometimes I address Them casually myself. But I also worship. I kneel and prostrate myself before Their shrines. And I am not ashamed of it. To the contrary! Worship is joyful!

Black Stone Hermitage supports contemplative practice.
The Hermitage is a refuge, a place to withdraw, and a place to develop a mature contemplative practice. In some circles, withdrawal and contemplation are denigrated as “doing nothing.” At the Hermitage, I take the opposite approach. Nuns need time for leisure. We all do! The Puritan work ethic is so deeply ingrained, even in our religious pursuits. Especially in the US, we live in a busy, distracted culture that demands we push ourselves past our limits: “work hard and play hard.” (Even when we PLAY we’re supposed to take a perverse form of pride in doing it “hard.”)

Withdrawal is an ancient and widespread spiritual practice for good reason. The Hermitage is a space for contemplation, deep rest, deep listening, incubation, slowing down, enjoying leisure, and refusing to feel shameful about it.

As Paul Kingsnorth puts it:
“Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction.”

Black Stone Hermitage supports developing distinct forms of religious dress.
When I started to experiment with monastic garb, I was taken aback by how deeply I appreciated having my body covered with loose, flowing clothing – nothing binding, nothing revealing, and nothing that made me body-conscious in ways that were driven by the internalized male gaze. It freed up a great deal of emotional energy – energy that I could now devote to religious practice. Habits, robes, scapulars, head coverings, prayer beads, and all forms of religious clothing serve important purposes at the Hermitage.

Black Stone Hermitage hosts a subterranean shrine room.
Deities with shrines here include Skaði, Móðguðr (Mordgud), Frigg and Her court (Handmaidens), and Mengloð and Her Nine Maidens at Lyfjaberg. None of these deities are particularly well known, but at the Hermitage They are honored regularly. (I wrote up a more detailed description of Skaði’s shrine room in an earlier post.)

The subterranean space honors deeper callings literally, as well as figuratively. The Hermitage takes advantage of the unique acoustic and geomantic properties of subterranean structures to facilitate its work.

Black Stone Hermitage offers dedicated space for incubation.
Incubation, from a Pagan perspective, is a ritual practice of lying down within the deep Earth, and either sleeping or entering a state described as “neither sleep nor waking,” in order to receive healing dreams and visions through forces inaccessible through waking awareness. It’s among the oldest of ritual practices, and the Hermitage seeks to revive it and adapt it for modern monastic use via The Black Tent Temple Project.

From the project description page:
“Free of all talk of “love and light” and New Age transcendence, the Black Tent Temple is an invitation to contemplate the receptive power of Holy Darkness. If you instinctively gravitate toward enclosed, intimate spaces over expansive, sweeping vistas, the Black Tent Temple may have gifts to offer you. Too much light can be blinding, after all. In an overworked and overstimulated culture, we have precious few places for the kind of deep self-care and healing that can be found through extended time spent in solitude and darkness.”

Black Stone Hermitage uses inclusive language.
Folks are welcomed with proper pronouns, religious titles, honorifics, prefixes, and so on. For example: Sr. for Sister, Sb. for Sibling, and Mx. for non-binary. The Hermitage aims to be a welcoming space for the marginalized, especially women, femmes, LGBTQIA+ folks, and gender non-conforming folks.

A recent discussion on the Pagan and Polytheist discussion group about gender-neutral terms for monastics introduced many of us to a term we love: votary. (Thanks to Caer Jones for this idea!) According to one dictionary I consulted, a votary or votarist is “a person who is bound by solemn religious vows, as a monk or a nun; an adherent of a religion or cult; a worshiper of a particular deity or sacred personage; or a devoted follower or admirer.”

Black Stone Hermitage hosts an in-house library.
Over 900 well-loved books – many of which are long out of print and hard to find – live at the Hermitage. Reading-and-contemplation days are hosted for the community by appointment, so that visitors can come and browse the library at leisure, relax with books and tea, and enjoy the contemplative atmosphere. Study tables and a separate enclosed space for private lectio divina are available.

Black Stone Hermitage features stained glass windows of Norse deities.
The window you see here was commissioned by William Morris, in the early 1880s, and designed by Edward Burne-Jones. (If I had the means and the right location to put them to good use, I’d probably commission artists to make these for Everyone in all the nine worlds.)

Black Stone Hermitage supports the development of Norse polytheist liturgy.
Slowly but surely I’ve been working on a liturgy focused on the Ásynjur, including a breviary or book of the hours – liturgical poetry, hymns, and devotionals for singing, chanting, and dancing. It’s little more than an outline at this point; I’m sure it will take many years to mature. As it turns out, taking inspiration from pre-Christian folk and religious practices to build a monastic practice within a modern religious movement is very much a trial-and-error process at best. Nevertheless, the process has been set in motion.

For liturgical music, I often use Seiðlæti – Þagnarþulur (Songs for the Icelandic Goddesses). The whole album is fantastic, but my favorite tracks for the veiled style of devotional dance I do are “Frigg” and “Eir.”

I also frequently use music by the brilliant Ulf Söderberg (a.k.a. Sephiroth) for meditation and worship, and I create custom playlists of “monastic dark ambient” (and other themes) through my Chthonic Cathedral Project.

Black Stone Hermitage offers private space for meditation and restful yoga practice.
Meditation need not involve sitting in lotus position on a cushion. There are many ways to meditate, including walking, performing manual labor, and one of my favorites: deep listening to dark ambient music. Restorative yoga and Scaravelli-inspired yoga is also done to dark ambient music, in an endarkened space.

Black Stone Hermitage features monastic dark ambient music in an acoustically enhanced space.
Few people know how effective dark ambient music can be as an aid to meditation. I have long wished for an expanded subgenre of dark ambient music called “monastic dark ambient,” and a properly designed place in which to listen deeply to it. I love chants, chimes, choral voices, church bells, orchestral elements, and even guided meditations set to dark drone music. Ritual dark ambient is a great start, but the Hermitage also needs something more specific.

I have it on good authority that a project I respect will be recording an album of dark drone music with guided meditations in the not-too-distant future; it may even be completed already. Can’t wait!

Black Stone Hermitage is designed and built using principles of sacred space.
I’ve been inspired by books on creating small-scale sacred spaces, such as Chuck Pettis’ (founder of Earth Sanctuary) Secrets of Sacred Space and Anthony Lawlor’s The Temple in the House: Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture. Sacred space design principles are involved in everything designed and built for the Hermitage.

Black Stone Hermitage offers silent forms of religious practice.
The Hermitage is designed to enhance appreciation of silence. Silent tea rituals, silent meals, and silent processionals through sacred sites are practiced.

Black Stone Hermitage offers opportunities for deep nourishment.
Deep nourishment is comprised of at least five interrelated components:

1. bodily nourishment
Examples: healthy food; fresh water; oxygen; movement; relaxation; deep rest and leisure.

2. emotional nourishment
Examples: acceptance of downward-moving emotions; avoiding “love and light” spiritual bypassing.

3. spiritual nourishment
Examples: prayer; sharing meals in silence while listening to religious writings; making offerings; contemplative practices.

4. ecological nourishment
Examples: forest bathing; connecting with plant intelligences.

5. sonic nourishment
Examples: dark ambient music in acoustically enhanced space; deep meditative silence; deep listening.

And perhaps most importantly…

Black Stone Hermitage recognizes and values unpaid labor, especially emotional and caring labor.
A properly supported contemplative practice, in a feminist context, can provide a measure of respite from unreciprocated, uncompensated emotional labor for women and other marginalized folks who bear a disproportionate burden of this labor. It can provide space to withdraw some of our emotional labor from being co-opted by the dominant culture for its purposes without our consent. The Hermitage encourages recognition, proper valuation, and reciprocation of emotional labor.

There are very few places for women and marginalized folks to escape the constant demand for unpaid, unreciprocated emotional labor. In a culture overrun with patriarchal religious attitudes and structures, providing a religious space (or any space, really!) where unpaid labor is properly valued and reciprocated is an extremely valuable service. This work at the Hermitage is conceptualized not as a panacea, but as a form of harm reduction. It can open a space for us to take in proper nourishment, once we are no longer being constantly drained. The leak must be fixed before the vessel can be filled to capacity, after all.

And there you have it, folks. The Hermitage is hatching plans to move to Sweden. We don’t yet know how it will happen, but that’s OK, because we do know why this needs to happen. When the time is right, we will follow the guidance of Those we serve to accomplish the how.


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