A Solitude That Is Not Loneliness: Exploring Polytheist Contemplative Hermitage   9 comments

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.


9 responses to “A Solitude That Is Not Loneliness: Exploring Polytheist Contemplative Hermitage

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  1. I wish you and the Hermitage all the best! I agree very much with your feminist sentiments here. I was wondering, what are the religious reasons you have for head-covering in your Hermitage? How do you feel head-covering speaks to your religious orientation? Just curious, as the only reasons I’ve ever heard for the practice have to do with monotheist or patriarchal concepts, and I am betting your reasons don’t. 😉 I have heard of other polytheist/pagan women who head-cover for religious reasons, but it occurs to me that I don’t really know much about the nature of their religious reasons, either, so I’m curious to better understand this.

    • Great to hear from you, Erin! Thanks for your well-wishes – they are much appreciated. And I appreciate the encouragement regarding my feminist sentiments as well. I plan to expand on these ideas in later writings. In a culture that would conscript us all into lifelong service of capitalism without regard for our own needs except to the extent that we can continue to be “productive,” I think making space for self-care – and I mean REAL self-care, not the toothless corporate PR version of it – can be a vital form of resistance. It is actually quite a radical act. Brings to mind a quote I love from Audre Lorde:

      “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”

      As for my religious reasons for wearing head coverings…I started typing out my thoughts in answer to your question, and it quickly spiralled into a lengthy piece, so I’ve decided to make a separate post on this topic. Thank you for the prompt! More soon. 🙂

    • OK, Erin…I was thinking I was going to make a separate post to answer your query about my reasons for wearing head coverings, but after looking at my planned project list today – which is very, very long – I realized that if I don’t write something about it now, I may not get around to it for many months. So here’s a shorter summary!

      I didn’t receive a direct call to cover my head from any of Those I serve. In fact, most of the original impetus for me to try wearing head coverings came from being a belly dancer who often does devotional dance with veils. I started draping dance veils over my head not just while dancing, but also during prayer times, and found that this practice improved my ability to meditate and to ‘hear’ Them intuitively. Veiling boosted my signal clarity, in other words. Then I read a few Pagan bloggers who wrote about covering their heads for religious reasons, and I thought: oh, yes, that makes so much sense. I need to experiment with that some more. So I did. I found that it consistently improved my contemplative practice, and my gods seemed to approve, so I continued.

      I also cover my head as a way of showing respect and devotion, to remind myself of the importance of my Pagan polytheist religious identity and commitments in a mostly-secular-and-Christian culture, and as an emotional buffer of sorts. I’m an empath through and through (a triple water sign, I’m told), and I often find life in the modern world to be emotionally exhausting. Head coverings sometimes help me feel a little less exposed, and give my crown chakra a little extra protection too.

      Right now, I keep all of my “nun habit” experiments private, including most of the head coverings, because it’s done only for myself and Those I serve. I don’t feel like I’m in a position to wear religious garb publicly without risking scrutiny I don’t want, so at the moment I rarely even wear head scarves in public. If I get a little nudge to cover my head when I leave the Hermitage – like a sudden sense that I’m too “naked” or otherwise uncomfortably exposed without a head covering – I opt for hats instead, or perhaps a pair of wide headbands or bandanas – a choice that allows some hair to show, but still covers my crown chakra.

  2. I recommend checking out A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott. She explores much of the nuance about this subject, in particular highlighting the fact that celibacy has, in many cases, provided its adherents with the freedom to pursue life on their own terms; this has been especially true for women. (She also gives lots of space to topics like forced and coerced celibacy; it’s an interesting book.)

    I also resist identifying with religious celibacy because what my religious celibacy looks like (or doesn’t) isn’t what most people think of when the imagine the term. I’m also not sure how much is choice, how much is inclination, and how much is simply habit. There’s also the fact that sex doesn’t make me happy, and that fact is somewhat outside of these categories altogether. These days I simply identify as nonsexual. It’s a nice generic term that also manages to encompass how I feel about myself.

    I sometimes think that if my life had been somewhat different I might have pursued some degree of monasticism in one tradition or another. However, I find myself disinclined towards communal living and I don’t like waking up early, and both things rather disqualify me for such. But I know why the sanyasis pray for life after life of renunciation and that’s a precious bit of knowledge.

    All my very best to you; let me know if there’s any support I can offer. I owe you a message so I’ll get to that eventually.

    • Oh, thank you very much for the book recommendation! I appreciate that. I see that my local library has it, so I’ve put it on hold. I doubt I will ever identify as “celibate for religious reasons,” especially because I do want to at least remain open to the possibility that Those I serve may have other plans for me at some later date…but for now it feels liberating, because my first loyalty is to Them and to my creative path. If my celibacy continues for the rest of my days – whether it’s through choice, inertia, habit, or whatever – I’m fine with that. This kind of acceptance is a very new thing in my life. I always hoped I’d have a life companion – a loving partner and a happy, strong, passionate relationship. To know that I can experience this kind of joy without that in my life has taken me by surprise…in the best possible way!

      I, too, am disinclined toward communal living, yet I could imagine living in a kind of hermit-friendly co-housing retreat or something like that, if it were properly designed. I don’t think the waking up early thing is a necessary part of a monastic life, although it is probably the norm. I’ve never been an early riser either, although I think that in the right environment, I could become one.

      You’re already offering support – through links, through Patreon, through your comments here and elsewhere – and I am very grateful for all of it. And please, always take your sweet time with any correspondence, now or in the future. We both have a lot on our plates anyway, and I have a leisurely, no-guilt-on-either-side correspondence policy.

      • I think a co-housing situation and/or finding a supportive partner (in one sense or another) is actually quite common among those in paganism/polytheism whose sexuality/intimate relationships are de-prioritized (erm, at least as far as other embodied people are concerned). People have committed roommates, chosen family members, poly collectives, and even just really good friends that take on many of the roles that a normative partner/spouse would have. (Although living alone in a very solitary manner, like I do, is far from unusual I rather think that over time one tends to acquire these supportive others. I wouldn’t say I’m an outlier exactly but most god-spouses I know have some kind of partner and other people in committed relationships with their religion or art have partners that are in similar committed relationships and so understand that person-to-person relationships are deprioritized to one degree or another. I sorta remain open to the possibility that I might have someone(s) like this in my life but it’s never worked out.)

        I find a great deal of freedom living like I do. I think living alone is the grandest luxury; I keep choosing poverty over roommates. I love not having to answer to anyone about how I spend my time or keep my house or cook or anything; I enjoy traveling alone, going to movies alone, dining out alone. I have a few friends who are helpful, loving, and supportive and I try to make time for them so that I’m not a complete jerk. All told it’s been a fantastic way to live. There are days I struggle with the situation and sometimes I get very frustrated with the constraints of having to do everything for myself when I can’t do much of anything at all – but in general it’s been wonderful.

        Heh well yes I guess I am. 🙂 Coming to such a major realization about oneself can be pretty unsettling – but you seem to be doing just fine!

        • I like the idea of finding some kind of co-housing situation that would allow for some of the mutual benefits of community support, yet be respectful of my need for extended, uninterrupted, contemplative solitude. Perhaps a two-witches-in-tiny-houses-at-the-edge-of-the-forest kind of thing, or a less social version of The Golden Girls. I looked longingly at land-dyke and permaculture communities for awhile, but although I am queer-identified, I am not lesbian, nor am I a gardener…plus, I want to live in a place where I can focus on religion. And my experiences with “intentional community” have been, well, not very encouraging, to put it mildly. (I have sometimes said, only half in jest, that I’d be a lot more interested in something like UNintentional community.)

          Two of the things I miss most about sharing a dwelling with a partner are:

          1) Having help with meal responsibilities. I find it so taxing to plan, shop for ingredients, cook, and clean up after meals alone, day in and day out, with no break. I rarely eat out, because I can’t really afford to. Even having someone else to cook for us both once in awhile would be such a blessing.

          2) Having help with paying bills – especially picking up the slack when I get ill and can’t do any paid work. As it stands now, if I have to take a day or two off from house cleaning, I simply don’t get paid at all. Because I’m self-employed and poor and have no savings to fall back on, I end up sacrificing something important (e.g., dental care), whenever I get sick and lose income. Fortunately I don’t get sick often, but when I do, it sure would be nice to have some breathing room financially.

          I did try to find a roommate to share the Hermitage, and through that process concluded that the layout of this space doesn’t really work for two. And because it’s a family-owned place, I can’t really move, either, until my financial situation improves. Portland’s rents have skyrocketed in recent years, so If I weren’t living in this family-owned place with stable rent (as I have been since 2008), I couldn’t afford to live in Portland at all…and given my allergy to animal dander (all my friends have pets) I would be at risk of homelessness.

          Like you, I love not having to answer to anyone about the way I live, and I enjoy going out alone. I will probably live like this as long as I can manage it.

  3. Blessings Danica! Thanks again for sharing your insights! I find it inspiring. While in this lifetime I am not living solitary, I certainly see the incredible need for such a vocation and also hermitage space. It is my hope one day that I can create for myself and others a permanent space that can be used for retreats into solitude that we may find solace and wisdom in taking ourselves “out of the world” for a time to commune with our Selves and our Holy Powers.

    I wish you didn’t live so far away. I would so love to visit you! But perhaps, one day……

    • Thank you, Gerrie! We certainly have similar goals and sensibilities in creating retreat spaces of sacred endarkenment, and I’d love to sit down with you for tea and hear about your experiences with the Black Tent Temple you built. I suspect that our paths will in fact cross one day. Perhaps when the Hermitage finds its long-term home…?

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