As part of my hospitality and outreach service work at the Hermitage, I have occasionally hosted experimental retreats centered around the concept of sacred endarkenment. They are designed for polytheists, Heathens, and Pagans interested in exploring the possibilities of contemplative monasticism.
As of June 2017 the retreats are on hiatus for the time being, due to my demanding new day job. But I am working toward a long-term home for the Hermitage that will permit me to begin hosting retreats again.
What do you do in a Paths of Sacred Endarkenment retreat?
The short-and-succinct answer:
Listen. Pray. Meditate. Surrender. Yield. Contemplate. Discern. Appreciate. Un-do. Slow down. Cultivate patience. Enjoy companionable silence. Find the sacred in the everyday. Incubate. Learn how to approach contemplative practice with “infinite time and no ambition,” as Vanda Scaravelli wrote of her approach to yoga.
The long-winded answer:
I prepare for retreat time by designing and arranging meditative atmospheres and incubation spaces suitable for spiritual nourishment through sacred endarkenment in the context of everyday life.
The word nourishment is most commonly connected with food, but proper nourishment has many aspects; food is one, but restful sleep, movement, emotional nourishment, and sacred space are others. Sacred space is what I focus on at the Hermitage.
With prayerful intent, I create a container – a holding space for the sacred – and provide a general structure and some basic guidelines. As past visitors can tell you, however, it is usually the incubation space itself, and the dynamic interactions that happen within it, that will ultimately determine what takes place during retreat time. Sometimes the dynamic that emerges among host, visitor, and deities/spirits lends itself to spending most of the retreat time in lengthy companionable silences, for example; other times the focus shifts toward conversation.
One of the most important aspects of sacred endarkenment is deep listening. Dark ambient music, which can be a very effective facilitator of contemplative practice and creative flow, is the main tool I use to encourage attentive listening. But deep listening also points to something more subtle: listening intently for signs of what “wants” to happen of its own accord, and yielding to that, instead of attempting to control or force things through the conscious mind in any way. If you have a streak of control-freak in you, as I do, this kind of surrender may not be easy! When I create space for this kind of non-coercive flow, my role is to resist any temptation to control or direct what takes place with my conscious mind. I only serve what emerges by doing my best to remove whatever obstacles keep it from happening.
As an example, when I first started meditating I often clung to my mental images of what meditation was “supposed” to look or feel like, and would push myself in unhealthy ways. But eventually I learned that meditation can happen in all kinds of ways, and there’s no need to push. In fact, if I introduce any kind of coercion to my practice, no matter how trivial or unintentional, then sooner or later the practice I’ve built that way will fall apart. So if, say, I find one day that sitting on a meditation cushion isn’t meditative, but I’m able to do the dishes in a meditative way, then I get up and do the dishes. And that becomes my meditation, just as much as sitting on the cushion and doing kirtan kriya (my favorite meditation).
I put together this website through a similar creative process of surrender. There were elements that emerged and made themselves known as “the right thing” while my conscious mind was completely occupied with something else. Each time this happened, I yielded to it, and shifted my course to incorporate the new elements. If I had insisted on sticking with my conscious mind’s agenda, the final results would probably feel flat. The writing might be technically acceptable, but it would lack the feeling tone of writing that emerges through the process of yielding to sacred endarkenment.
This deep listening/sacred endarkenment approach can be applied in all kinds of artistic and spiritual practices. I consider Vanda Scaravelli’s “undoing” approach to yoga, for example, to be a deep listening practice because it calls for “infinite time and no ambition,” and cannot be codified into a method. That’s how I approach sacred endarkenment as well. Infinite time. No ambition. Undoing.
“In one sense, at least, you don’t do anything; rather you cultivate an ability to observe the body; you wait, you don’t hold, you wait, you release tension; you wait, you soften, you wait, you resist the temptation to brace the body and then see what happens. You must learn to be patient – very patient, you must learn to be quiet – very quiet, so that you can listen to what is within you – whatever that might be. You have to allow things to happen and to learn how to stop preventing things from happening. For example, you don’t do anything special to feel gravity: you let gravity affect you. And if you don’t have a clue what that means, then you become curious about what it might mean and look forward to a time when the words might resonate with you.”
All of that said, I center the monastic retreats around these overlapping spheres of contemplative practice:
- Deep listening. For retreat time, this mostly means 1) attentive listening to dark ambient music (I will tailor playlists to your preferences), and 2) discerning what wants to happen and yielding to it. I also include lectio divina (sacred reading) in this category.
- Meditation. My practice includes kirtan kriya, meditative chants to Skaði with prayer beads, silent tea meditations, walks, hiking, yoga, and dance. Manual labor – i.e., cooking, housekeeping, cleaning – can also be considered part of this category.
- Prayer. I address Skaði and Moðguðr (Mordgud) regularly in prayer; you are welcome to pray and make offerings at Their shrines during retreat time. I also keep an open space for visitors to place their own deity or spirit idols and invite Others to join us for the duration of the retreat.
- Incubation. When I go into incubation space, I lie down within the Black Tent Temple, get comfortable (pillows, blankets, music, whatever I need), and simply wait. Since I’m a writer, frequently what comes to me when I do this is a flood of words, and when that happens I get up, sit in front of the computer, and pour them out. What happens to you in incubation space may – and probably will – be different, especially if you are grieving. I do the best I can to make room for whatever emerges.
My general aim is to provide a space of refuge and contemplation specially designed for the needs of introverted polytheist mystics. What I do here is quiet – subdued – and intended to remain so. It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from Pagan festivals and Dionysian ecstatic ritual. I create moods and atmospheres that are rich in texture and subtle details that reward sustained attention. I also approach all my artistic and service work with respect for the innate intelligence of emotional processes, and the wisdom of embodiment in general.
At the Hermitage, there is no need to be “on.” Leisurely meditative approaches are welcome, because there is nothing that must be achieved. In an achievement-driven capitalist culture where we internalize ideologies that equate our value as human beings with getting things done, it can be challenging to find space for the kind of deep incubation that brings forth direct mystical insights and experiences, and shows us things that have been out of range of our usual range of perception or otherwise shrouded in obscurity. It is my hope that Paths of Sacred Endarkenment retreats can provide that deep incubation space.
It’s perfectly appropriate — and in fact required, if you follow the model Peter Kingsley describes in his wonderful book In The Dark Places of Wisdom — to do absolutely nothing. You can just sit or lie down in the space, secure and unseen by outsiders, without a conscious agenda of any kind. Spaces of sacred endarkenment, hidden away from the insanity of the world, are there to provide opportunities to experience the power that can emerge through this kind of surrender and receptivity.
As I’ve written elsewhere, sacred endarkenment is also about resistance. It’s a quiet – but nonetheless powerful – form of home-and-hearth-based resistance to the countless cultural forces that dull our awareness of our embodied wisdom and inner guidance, or sabotage our ability to trust this guidance. Intuitive wisdom can be dulled with alcohol, work, sex, shopping, relationship melodrama, spiritual escapism…almost anything. When we deliberately carve out time for leisure and true self-care – right smack in the midst of a culture that values these things only inasmuch as they contribute to furthering productivity – we are improving our ability to resist capitalist mandates equating our value with our productivity, and allowing room for receptive forms of wisdom to emerge.
Another thing I usually do during retreat time is experiment with dark-colored monastic garb that might be appropriate for a polytheist whose work is centered around sacred endarkenment – head coverings, veils, tunics, long skirts, robes, cloaks, prayer shawls, and prayer beads. If you’re on Pinterest, you can look at my Pagan monastic garb inspiration board or under the cloak and veil for some of my inspirations. You are welcome to dress in experimental monastic garb also. It isn’t required, but I’ve found it to be much more powerful than I expected in deepening my contemplative practice.
I also have a small walk-in closet space inside the Black Tent Temple that I was using experimentally as a psychomanteum for several years. In practice, it has not served that purpose well, so I decommissioned the space and retired it from its previous use. Skaði then claimed it as one of Hers, so it now serves as a simple meditation space – with a small shrine featuring a statue of Her – that permits full privacy. There are black velvet curtains completely covering the walls, floor, and ceiling, so it is pitch-black in the space – perfect for those who prefer to meditate in complete darkness. For those who prefer soft light, however, there is also a small lamp inside the space with a low-wattage flickering bulb.
How long can I stay?
I host day retreats, overnighters, and weekend stays for local folks as well as those who are visiting Portland from out of town. Because this is my personal living space as well as a space I use for my service work, I only host retreats for folks I already know, or folks who can be vouched for by someone I know. If you are interested but are not part of my extended circles, please write to me at shrine.of.skadi AT gmail dot com and introduce yourself. If you’re in the Portland area, I will meet you in person for tea or coffee before booking the session or retreat time. For out of town folks, I can set up chats on Skype or Zoom.
Once I’ve confirmed that I’ll be able to host you, and you have reviewed the visitor information page, you can reserve time for any or all of the following:
- a library reading and study session (3 people max)
- a visit to the geomancy reading and study group (5 people max)
- a Paths of Sacred Endarkenment retreat (1 person)
What if I have special music requests?
With 2-3 weeks’ advance notice, I can create a custom dark ambient music playlist for your visit, tailored to your preferences. See my Chthonic Cathedral Project page for details. You can also choose from my existing playlists.
Can this really be called a monastic retreat if it’s happening in a personal living space?
Well, given that there are no existing polytheist monasteries that I know about (other than the Maetreum of Cybele), I don’t have any other option than to carry out the work I’ve been assigned in the space I’ve got, as an experiment. I’m not a shaman, diviner, ordained clergy member, or religious authority of any kind. I do service and hospitality work. I hold space for incubation. I’m a contemplative polytheist. I’m calling these efforts monastic, but you don’t have to!
Many monasteries in other religions have something called discernment – a period of time spent at a monastery to help determine whether you are called to the monastic life. For now, what I’m doing is a trial-and-error process. Over the long term, as I learn what works best and discard whatever doesn’t work so well, I hope to develop Paths of Sacred Endarkenment retreats into a more structured form of monastic discernment. This type of awareness often “resides” in the body and shows up in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, after all, and cannot necessarily be found through the kind of conscious intellectual processes we so often rely upon.
And for this deep awareness to emerge, most of us need time. Lots of it. We need unhurried, unscheduled, open blocks of time. This is part of what I think Vanda Scaravelli may have been getting at with her “infinite time and no ambition” approach to yoga. “One cannot seek endarkenment with the clock ticking or the timer going off,” writes Sarah Sadie, and I agree wholeheartedly. She also writes of “listening into the dark,” and adds that “slow motion living is how the deeper wells of being get stirred.” This is one of the reasons my religious mission at the Hermitage involves creating space for leisure: without leisure, there is no room for sacred endarkenment.
Stirring those deeper wells – or providing the opportunity for them to be stirred, at least – is what Paths of Sacred Endarkenment retreats are about.
One of my inspirations for this work is the darkroom retreat movement, which came to my attention through the work of Andrew Durham. He describes darkroom retreating as “deep rest for the self-healing psyche.” Or, in more detail: “resting in an absolutely dark room for days, alone, with food. Why do this? To recover psychic balance, taking refuge from the sensory over-stimulation of civilized existence.” One day I hope to have a space suitable for designing and building a full darkroom retreat, and making it available for the use of the communities I serve. In the meantime, I work with what I’ve got.
There is healing to be found in darkness, and I think many of us have an instinct that leads us there for restoration, renewal, and incubation. As I see it, providing space for this in a religious context is a form of monastic service.
Do I have to be a Heathen, Pagan, or polytheist?
You are free to identify however you wish. I use Pagan, Heathen, mystic, and/or polytheist to describe my own religious practice in context-dependent ways. Even within Heathenry alone there are all kinds of different “branches.” But I’m not too concerned with what label you use.
That said, the focus of Paths of Sacred Endarkenment retreats is religious. The foremost purpose of this project is to provide incubation space for would-be polytheist monastics who are interested in contemplative practice and want to experiment with it in a context designed for it, free from the worry of being judged by secular culture as “religious nuts” or some such. I cater to the needs of polytheist mystics and hermits who relate to deities and spirits through devotion, praise, worship, and contemplative practice, as these needs often go unmet elsewhere. The Hermitage is in service to Skaði and Moðguðr. It is a house of worship. I kneel and prostrate myself before Their shrines. I pray to Them, silently and aloud. I chant “Hail Skaði” and “Hail Moðguðr” while counting the hails on a set of prayer beads. So if any of this makes you uncomfortable, the Hermitage is not the right retreat space for you.
There are many occult groups, magical lodges, Pagan gatherings, festivals, esoteric conferences, Heathen kindreds who offer blót and symbel, holiday observances, goddess circles, public rituals, etc. As far as I know, though, there are few or no meditative retreat spaces of worship and prayer designed to meet the religious needs of polytheist contemplatives and hermits who are drawn toward paths of sacred endarkenment. So I created one, in my own home, using the tools available to me.
I do host guests from my extended communities who simply need a quiet, introvert-friendly place to stay while traveling for events or performances, though, whether or not they have any interest in my spiritual practices. See my services page for more info.
One thing you do have to be if you want to schedule a retreat at the Hermitage, however, is anti-bigotry. Bigotry of all sorts is unwelcome at the Hermitage. Racism, sexism, fat-phobia, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, etc. are all grounds for refusal. The Hermitage has always been, and will always be, a welcoming space for LGBTQIA+ folks, people of all ethnicities and body types, and people who wear head coverings. I will stand with you against all forms of bigotry.
Where can I learn more about Heathenry and devotional polytheism?
If you’re completely new to Heathenry, and want just the basics, you could start with the Heathen Resource Manual designed for military chaplains by the members of the Open Halls Project Working Group.
Heathenry as a modern religious movement is growing by leaps and bounds in recent years – especially in Iceland, due to the public temple being build by the Ásatrúarfélagið in Reykjavík, and the public interviews done by musician Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson who is allsherjargoði (high priest) of the organization. Many years ago I predicted that Heathenry would experience rapid growth one day. I’m glad that the temple in Iceland is now at the forefront of the mainstream media coverage of Heathenry. I think outsiders are finally starting to take it more seriously as a religion now that a temple is being built. And I’m also very glad that anti-racist Heathens seem to be getting more media coverage these days than the white nationalist types.
I’m sure the popularity of mainstream media influences like the TV show Vikings and Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology play a part as well, at least in terms of helping to fuel interest in Norse mythology and culture.
And there are a number of modern Heathen electronic, dark ambient, and folk music projects that are helping to boost interest, too, such as Wardruna, Draugurinn (and another album of hers), Eliwagar, Heilung, Forndom, Nytt Land, and Danheim.
There’s also a new (feminist, anti-racist, LGBTQIA+ friendly) conference for Heathen women that is starting in July 2017 in Asheville, North Carolina. I won’t be able to attend, but based on some communication I had with the folks involved, it sounds like the location will be changing each year and there’s a possibility that it will happen in or near Portland someday. Definitely an encouraging development, in any case! I would have been thrilled if something like this had been around when I first discovered Heathenry in 2004.
And there’s a great e-booklet by Lucy Valunos that I recommend called One Heart, Many Gods: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Devotional Polytheism. It’s a great place to start for those new to polytheism – and it’s available free!
Where can I learn more about this deep listening approach to yoga that you mentioned?
For many years the go-to text on Vanda Scaravelli’s approach to yoga has been her book Awakening the Spine. I have the 1991 edition at the Hermitage. I’ve read everything I can find about Scaravelli-inspired yoga, and my own practice is very free-form; it looks something like this video by Darlene Bink, and it’s set to dark ambient music.
This year a new book has been released – Notes on Yoga by Diane Long and Sophy Hoare – that explains Scaravelli’s approach in full. I’m excited to read it, and have ordered a copy for the Hermitage.
“Vanda Scaravelli’s truly revolutionary yoga demands a much more intelligent and subtle way of working with the body, a way that does not involve pain, punishment, aggression or a determined will; a way of working that does not cause stress and damage to the body, but that nevertheless requires a deep way of working that has the potential to satisfy both body and mind.
“In one sense, at least, you don’t do anything; rather you cultivate an ability to observe the body; you wait, you don’t hold, you wait, you release tension; you wait, you soften, you wait, you resist the temptation to brace the body and then see what happens. You must learn to be patient – very patient, you must learn to be quiet – very quiet, so that you can listen to what is within you – whatever that might be. You have to allow things to happen and to learn how to stop preventing things from happening. For example, you don’t do anything special to feel gravity: you let gravity affect you. And if you don’t have a clue what that means, then you become curious about what it might mean and look forward to a time when the words might resonate with you. To do that you need to have faith in the process in which you are engaged, for this way of working demands something different from, and of, you. You need also to become more imaginative, experimental and creative; approach your yoga practise as an artist or a musician might approach their art; in the knowledge that it is both basic and complex, profound and yet simple. […]
“…human beings have lost much of the contact with the earth that they used to have: – we sit for long hours in chairs hunched in front of a screen, we wear uncomfortable and constricting shoes and clothes, we don’t move around as much as we should and our breathing is often shallow and therefore does not benefit us as it might. As a result we have become used to holding our bodies in tension and with tension. It’s become so normal to us that we’re no longer aware of it; we’re not even aware that we are ‘doing’ it. So the task is to first become aware of what we’re doing with and to our bodies and then begin the long process of letting go of the tension and stop holding ourselves in ways that prevent a deeply satisfying contact with the earth.”
And in closing, I’ll let Sarah Sadie and previous guests at the Hermitage have the last word.
“…silence can be a gift we give each other that allows us to more fully feel. A loving silence can nurture tentative growth which might freeze or fizzle under a barrage of questions and suggestions.”
~ Sarah Sadie, Creative Endarkenment: Embracing Silence
Words from previous visitors
“…how amazing the Hermitage, as a concept, and a physical place, really is…I had to be there to appreciate all of what she’s trying to accomplish and how well she’s doing it given the limitations of apartment living…
“Every square inch of the place was painstakingly planned and curated to cultivate an atmosphere of darkness, introspection, and hibernation, from the smallest accouterment to the largest piece of furniture. She lives, breathes, and exudes monasticism; she lives her service to the Gods. And the Hermitage is a rare place that has been built to serve both Them and us – though it is also her home, it is a space for our community to visit and utilize. They’re going to get something powerful there that they can’t anywhere else right now, I guarantee that.
…I really want to see Danica continue the work she’s doing because it is unique and it is of immense value to us as polytheists.”
~ Lo Baker of rotwork
“The Black Stone Hermitage is a unique and engaging space. Danica has gathered and curated furnishings, decor, music, tea (her tea collection is awesome), everything to create a setting that feels almost subterranean. This is a sacred space that will hold you while you do profound inner work.”
~ Ealasaid A. Haas, The Book Roadie
“The Black Stone Hermitage anchors in the liminal; a space that exists at the very threshold of the mystical and the mundane. Stepping through the door of this sanctuary in the city, you are immediately enfolded in sacred space. Somehow, whatever was weighing on you seems lighter. The air itself seems to soothe you. As you settle into any of the welcoming seats, the Divine feels much closer. Surrounded by shrines and soft, dark draping, you find yourself sinking deeper into your self. Danica has crafted the hermitage to support sacred work, and expertly and lovingly holds that space for you. Her devotion imbues the space with a divine hum. Her work deserves recognition, and I hope to see her vision continue to grow and inspire others!”
~ Syren Nagakyrie of Many Gods West