An Ancient Perspective
The Supreme Power
We believe that nature is the highest power and that there is no power outside of nature. Nature is a divine, universal entity and the fundamental force that pervades everything that is. It is the sum and all parts of every aspect of observed and unobserved reality, the source of all energy, and a web that connects everything to everything across time and space. We believe that humanity has sensed this force and attempted to understand it, and our role in it, from the beginning of our race. We perceived it for thousands of years before we even began to describe it with the first of countless names that we have given it and long before we created gods to worship aspects of it.
Some call aspects of it God, Allah, the Great Spirit, or Anima mundi. The supreme power, or parts of it, has been called by innumerable names but we find the Hindu Brahman to be very close to our understanding.
Brahman connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. In major schools of Hindu philosophy, it is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists. It is the pervasive, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. (source: wikipedia)
The Church of Pain is not against people calling this force ‘God’ but we believe that giving it a name anthropomorphizes it, makes it a projection of human fears and fantasies, and creates an illusion of a force that humans can know and understand in a way that is currently not possible. For this reason, we often refer to this supreme force as “Nature”. We believe that humans usually see only tiny glimpses of Nature and that—while establishing better contact with nature can create a foundation for greater insight, understanding, and spiritual development—no one has ever had a total understanding of Nature because total understanding of this supreme power lies beyond the human mind and our limited senses.
The Power of Pain
While we cannot experience the totality of Nature, we believe that it is possible to come into closer contact with it. Our method of communion utilizes pain. One of The Church of Pain’s fundamental beliefs is that pain is crucial to being a holistic person with regards to one’s spiritual health, relationship to Nature, and experience of community. In the modern world’s attempt to avoid discomfort, many people have closed off a vital aspect of their humanity. By avoiding the experience of pain, one diminishes their relationship to nature and, thus, their ability to experience positive and negative feelings. Acceptance of pain can, conversely, awaken hidden sides of one’s self and forge stronger bonds to nature, ourselves, and our fellow beings. Facilitation of this type of awakening is the foundational principal of The Church of Pain.
Regardless of whether we are speaking of physical, emotional, or spiritual pain, it is a tremendously strong mechanism that we depend on for our very survival. We believe that, more than that, pain can be a portal to experiencing the force that moves the universe. We know from academic research that pain was used in this way long before the creation of modern religion. The Church of Pain continues in this tradition, using pain as a ritual component and sacrifice, in order to come into closer contact with the supreme power of nature.
Reward or Punishment?
No. And yes.
Unlike many other religions, we do not believe that belief in god is the basis for receiving a reward. Nature has no concept of right or wrong. Nature does not care about what you do or do not do and there is nothing that you can do to make nature behave differently toward you—including using pain as a sacrifice. Nature has no master plan for us, nature merely is.
The truth of the matter is that you are a part of nature whether you want to be or not and the reward for having greater insight into nature is existing more harmoniously with—and within—its power. Consider the difference of swimming with or against the current, of diving under or going straight into an oncoming wave, or of going with or against the wind. The water, waves, and wind do not care that you are there and are not interested in your sacrifices or intentions, but your navigation of these forces is made easier by harmonizing with, rather than opposing, them. The reward is an understanding that you create for yourself. This is true for all things.
A Brief History
From early on, we saw the need for a place where people in the body suspension milieu could feel at ease sharing their experiences and stories with a like-minded community. This fellowship happens to a limited extent at suspension gatherings (and to an even lesser extent online) but we felt that there could be a larger framework around the intermittent fellowship people experienced at suspension events. Over the years, we heard people talk—again and again—about feeling most at home at suspension events and feeling that the suspension community is their ‘family’, we saw people leaving suspension conventions in tears, and talked to friends after an event when they were suffering what some people call PSD (Post-Suspension Depression). In addition to the feeling of fellowship, there is a notion of spirituality (sometimes subtle and sometimes not subtle at all) that has been present in the modern body suspension community from the start.
The spiritual component that runs through body suspension comes from a fascinating mixture of religious sources. The origins of hanging from—or pulling with—hooks are mysterious and lost to time. While considering the incredible breadth of spiritual inspiration, we began to look for a more common denominator. We began to think about pain rituals in a different way, not as an expression of a specific religion or theology but as a form of prayer that had been adapted to the belief systems that used these forms of pain ritual. This realization combined with our understanding of the fellowship and community around body suspension and other pain rituals led us to realize that we are not borrowing or appropriating from established religions as much as we are returning to a much older spiritual expression.
We began talking about something like the Church of Pain in 2013. At first, we did not share our thoughts with more than a handful of people—whom we thought would be good to involve or whose perspective we sought. Almost none of the people who we approached were interested in working with us to create the Church of Pain. Some were supportive but wanted to distance themselves for social or professional reasons, some were just too busy, and some were surprisingly hostile to—and vehemently against—the idea. Of the people who wanted to reject the concept outright, many were opposed to it because of the use of the term ‘church’.
Why, Indeed, a Church?
In that ‘church’ can describe a place of worship, an assembly of worshipers, and a religious philosophy, all at the same time—it seemed a fitting way to immediately present the Church of Pain as a religion. The word church is simultaneously succinct and expansive. We understand that some people have a personal dislike for, or bad associations with, the word itself but it remains a very direct way to communicate that our belief is spiritual, real, and deserving of respect on the same level as other religions.
Here in Norway, religions are registered with the government in two steps. First, one has to establish a non-profit association (which gives the organization certain rights regarding how its activities are taxed). Second, one has to apply to the government for recognition as an official religion (giving the organization the ability to perform rites such as marriage, burial, etc. and receive some financial support for every member who lives in Norway). The Church of Pain registered as a non-profit association in the fall of 2018 and, after that process, quickly submitted an application for recognition as a religion. The regional authorities denied our application on the basis that we did not represent a ‘positive religious belief’ and that our belief was not of a ‘supernatural’ nature. We appealed this decision, providing what we believed was sufficient documentation to point out that our belief does qualify as a positive religious expression and that many other religions share the same understanding of the ‘supernatural’ as we do. Our appeal was forwarded to the Department of Culture and, after several months of delay, denied. The Department of Culture, like the regional government, rejected our application without acknowledging our arguments or asking for a single clarification.
The surprising benefit from this experience is that we had to think of ways to explain the basis of our belief to people who seemingly have a very unsophisticated understanding of religion. We worked for weeks on figuring out how to explain the Church of Pain to someone with a deity-centric perspective of the ‘supernatural’ and, in the process, are now able to more precisely articulate what we believe, why, and how our religious beliefs compare to others—imagine trying to describe a glacier to someone who has never seen a snowflake. While we have not been registered as an official religion yet, we feel that our next attempt should provide the context and basis to allow the government caseworkers to understand our beliefs.
A Place to Breathe
June and Alan
The founders of the Church of Pain are June Ailin Bonsaksen and Alan Louis Belardinelli. Alan was born and raised in the USA. In 2002, he followed love to Norway and is now a permanent resident. June has more local roots. She grew up in Sunnmøre, on Norway’s west coast, and moved to Oslo just before her twentieth birthday. They met in Oslo in 2008 and have been together since.
We both grew up in magnificent surroundings with woods, meadows, and mountains nearby—and in June’s case, literally a stone’s throw away. Being able to be alone in nature from a young age and to feel its power and harmony around us has helped both of us to build a solid, deeply rooted, personal foundation. Having a good relationship with, and deep respect for, nature has always felt like an important part of knowing ourselves.
In addition to a love of nature, we both have an affinity for people who challenge the status quo, try to live on their own terms, and who are genuine. Oslo is a city with an abundance of people trying to do just that. There, via Wings of Desire, we joined the community involved in body suspension and began our journey exploring the power of pain rituals in earnest. Whereas in the countryside we could use the expansive property of nature to learn about ourselves, the city lent itself to an introspective exploration that took us even further down the path to understanding our inner strengths.
Eventually, we experienced a longing to move back toward nature—to a place where we could explore and unite our internal and external understanding and observations. The idea was always to be able to share such a place with our community.
It all came together when we bought our small farm in the municipality of Stange in Innlandet County, Norway. Our property is situated at the end of a road, just far enough from people that you feel you are out in nature but only 90 minutes by train from Oslo and a half hour from Oslo Airport Gardermoen.
At just under 10 acres, Vestrønningen is just the right size for us. Our cozy, white house—built by the original owners, Alfred and Olava, in 1936—a red barn, an ever-expanding vegetable garden, and some small work areas are surrounded by woods and fields on all sides. On any given day, if you are lucky and attentive, you can see moose, deer, hare, fox, squirrel, stoat, and raven, in addition to a rich variety of small birds and other creatures. We can also guarantee that you will have an audience with Vestrønningen’s regent (cat), Lillepus, who keeps an eye on everything that happens on the property and seldom refuses attention.
We moved here in the summer of 2017 and feel that we have absolutely found what we were looking for when we decided to move out of the city. The property is secluded enough that it is an ideal place to perform pain rituals in privacy. In the summer of 2020, we constructed a tripod out of trees harvested from our own forest to help people connect to the energy that flows around and through all of us.
Photo: Church of Pain
The Need for Community and Proximity to Nature
Much of our motivation for starting the Church of Pain and opening our home to others comes from our experience with the people we have met through body suspension. Some people who hang from hooks are (in addition to their own experience) interested in connecting to others. As members of Wings of Desire, we have seen that many people who come back to suspend would like the experience to be more than meeting up, waiting for their turn, and then going home when the suspension is over. For many, experiencing pain in a new way stirs something deeper. For some, this leads to a desire to explore the experience more closely and to be able to share their experiences with like-minded people. A bond often develops between people who come together to help one another accept and work through the pain of a ritual. Additionally, many of the people who participate in pain rituals share, no matter where they come from, a similar or familiar worldview regarding Nature and community. We would like to offer a physical and virtual space to members of this community.
In the same way that we wanted to create a space for community, we wanted to have the opportunity to hang outside in our fantastic natural surroundings. Feeling the sun warm your skin and the breeze on your face, hearing birdsong, and the scent of field and forest during a pain ritual can deliver a much different experience than hanging indoors. Being able to open your senses to the energy inside of yourself while feeling the energy flowing around (and through) you, can give a completely new dimension of depth and power to a ritual.
Obviously, we cannot promise that everyone who comes to Vestrønningen will experience the ideal Norwegian summer day. The breeze might be a little sharp on the day you come to hang or a neighbor may be out in the forest cutting wood for the winter but sometimes unexpected conditions can lead to unexpected feelings and outcomes which are every bit as rewarding—and necessary. There is a different rhythm and sound to the countryside but we feel that it makes it easier to get in touch with what is happening in your body and to access discrete aspects of feelings that are not always easy to grasp in the chaos of the city. This space lends itself to exploring one’s feelings and opening oneself to Nature’s power.