Swedenborg’s Sweden: A Pilgrimage – P.1

Rev. Thom Muller

Early this August, I had the opportunity to cross a long-planned pilgrimage off my bucket-list: A visit to Sweden to experience the home of the mystic who, more than any other, has informed and inspired me on my spiritual journey: Emanuel Swedenborg. I had the pleasure of going on this trip with noneother than my father Wunibald, himself a student and scholar of Christian mysticism and Roman Catholic theologian and writer. He was eager to explore the “genius loci” (lat. “spirit of the place”), as he put it, where Swedenborg lived and worked, albeit several centuries after the Old Swede walked the cobblestone streets of Stockholm and Uppsala…

Since our time in Sweden was limited, we focussed on the following sites: Swedenborg’s Garden House, in which many of his spiritual experiences, as well as much of his writing occurred, Swedenborg’s tomb at Upplsala Cathedral, Stockholm’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene, which he likely frequented, as well as connecting with the two Swedenborgian communities in Stockholm at Swedenborgskyrkan and the Swedenborg Forum and Bibliotek. We also visited the ancient religious site of Gamla Uppsala, just north of the city of Uppsala, home of pre-Christian as well as Christian sacred spaces, indicative of the rich and ancient religious milieu which left its imprints on the thought and work of the great mystic.

The Garden House

The most interesting fact about Swedenborg’s “lusthus” is that there are actually two! Well, there is the original structure, which was moved to Skansen, a delightful “open air museum” in Stockholm which specializes in showcasing Swedish architecture from different time periods, and the second, a replica of the building, placed in its original location, now the courtyard of an apartment complex.

Swedenborg’s original “Lusthus” at Skansen

The experience at Skansen was somewhat surreal. The place was bustling with visitors, both locals and tourists, enjoying the beautiful sceneries and family-friendly attractions. Swedenborg’s lusthus, surrounded by a neatly maintained garden resembling the one which would have existed in its original location (and featuring a metal statue of Swedenborg observing some flowers and leaves), is located quite close to the entrance of the campus. The liveliness of the place was enjoyable, but at the same time, I found myself missing the sense of serenity, and even seclusiveness, which must have charactarized its ambience when he occupied the space. Visitors are not allowed to enter the structure (although I was later told that visits of the indoors are possible upon special request), but are able to peek through the windows into a minimalist room, containing his wooden pipe organ and desk. The sign attached to the building also contains a QR code which allows you to read more about it online, as well as play a sampling of what the organ likely would have sounded like. I did chuckle, since the Skansen webpage falsely claimed Swedenborg died in Stockholm (it was actually London, in 1772).

The garden house at Södermalm

The “other garden house”, the replica placed in its original location, Swedenborg’s garden in the Södermalm neighborhood of Stockholm, is now surrounded by an apartment complex. While this may sound like a distraction from enjoying its original aura, I found that it actually does quite the opposite. While the garden at Skansen, beautiful and impressive as it is, was filled with tourists and families, and had an explicitly “public” nature to it, the house at Sodermalm radiates a sense of quiet and reflection, protected, in a sense, from the hustle and bustle of the city by the surrounding apartment buildings. This, combined with the reality of its physical location, made for a truly powerful and contemplative experience.

Another element which enhanced the time we spent at this second lusthus was the oportunity to spend time with some of the local Swedenborgian community, which lovingly maintains the space. Rev. Andrei Vashestov, minister of Stockholm’s Lord’s New Church congregation, which also runs the Swedenborg Bibliotek, (about which I’ll share more soon) had invited us to a gathering and lecture. We gathered as a group of over a dozen people, in front of the garden house, and Andrei delivered an excellent message about Swedenborg and Platonism, followed by fellowship over wine and chocolate. It was one of the highlights for me to be so warmly welcomed by such a wonderful group of fellow Swedenborgians.

Rev. Andrei Vashastov shares about Swedenborg and Platonism at the Södermalm garden house

After the gathering, Andrei and his lovely daughter Cat led us on a little tour of Swedenborg’s old neighborhood. A highlight was visiting the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, likely a church Swedenborg attended regularly. Interestingly, the church was significantly fire-damaged in the “Great Stockholm Fire” of 1759. Swedenborgians may recognize this historical event’s significance, as one of the most famous anecdote about Swedenborg’s psychic abilities includes his clairvoyant description of the fire and its location while being away with company.

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene

Visiting and meditating in several of the beautiful Swedish churches with connections to Swedenborg was a powerful experience. It made me reflect on his own devotional practice (while he rejected much of the theology of Lutheranism, with which the Church of Sweden is alligned, he was known to partake regularly in the sacraments), and its significance to the way the Christianity of his time and social location, including its culture, aesthetic, and tradition, informed his thinking and feeling. Much like the Church of England, the Church of Sweden developed out of a devoutly Catholic cultural and religious milieu, which adapted to the political allegiance of the Swedish crown with the Protestant Reformation. This is beautifully evident in both the architecture and liturgy prevalent now and at the time of Swedenborg, which places a significant role on sacrament and ritual. To him, having developed a profound symbolic interpretation of the Christian rites, participation in the sacraments must have been a deeply mystical and transformative experience…

Click below for Part 2 of this series:

Rev. Thom Muller is pastor at the Swedenborgian Society of the East Bay at Hillside, an Urban Sanctuary in El Cerrito, California, as well as senior editor of Our Daily Bread. His passions include the intersection of spirituality and psychology, interfaith theology, and the Western esoteric tradition. A native of Germany, Rev. Muller was ordained into the ministry of the Swedenborgian Church of North America in 2016, upon receiving his theological education at Bryn Athyn College of the New Church and the Center for Swedenborgian Studies and Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

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