Saturday, February 7, 2009

Plan for Advanced Druidic Study

Since I've formally committed to continuing my degree work within AODA (OBOD's Bardic correspondence course ended up being a bit too touchy-feely for me), I've been giving some thought to what kind of work I want to pursue over the next few years.

Some of it will be guided in part by the AODA Second Degree curriculum, with its focus on the four elements and corresponding emphases: earth: a foundation of continual connection with the natural world and a developing understanding of ecology; fire: more intense and creative engagement with ritual and holy day rites; air: scholarly study of Celtic mythology, Arthurian legend and the history of Revival Druidry; and water: emotional and community development through teaching and mentoring. In addition to these four areas of training, AODA also encourages the development of practical skills in the arts and spiritual crafts by requiring three "spirals" of study in things such as poetry, music, magic, and divination, as well as a "fifth element" (spirit) focus on comparative religion and the theory and history of nature spirituality in particular, in order to develop a broader perspective on the role of Druidry in our own lives and within our contemporary historical-cultural context.

This is all very structured and task-oriented; e.g. "read x number of books on this topic and write an essay y pages long," or "develop n holy day rites and perform them at least z times a year," or "choose a musical instrument and practice p times a week, memorizing q number of songs you feel skilled enough to play in public." In some ways, I very much like this approach, since it sets out very clear, attainable goals to work towards without putting too many restrictions on what exactly each individual will learn from or get out of such work. Of course, there's a general assumption that, for instance, committed regular contact with nature will rub off on a person in terms of appreciation and care, or that the self-discipline required to meditate daily, or the creativity and knowledge needed to write a certain number of self-designed rituals, will have similarly predictable effects, all working together and playing off each other to shape a person walking the uniquely AODA Druidic path while also ensuring they have at least some of the skills necessary to teach newcomers and neophytes, passing the tradition on to others. In some ways, the structure of the AODA degree program works to inculcate and train its Druids in the same way a graduate school program trains its students to become competent professors within the academic institution. (And, as with graduate school, this type of institutional training, despite its benefits, is not cut out for everybody.) Obviously, the part of me that eventually rebelled against the influence of inadvertent or unacknowledged "indoctrination" in my creative writing graduate program struggles, too, from time to time with this aspect of AODA training. However, because I do enjoy the challenge of specific, outlined goals and I believe the process of training and growth in Druidry is valuable in itself, I've decided to take up the challenge and confront whatever obstacles that may come up with a commitment to my own future goals in mind.

As I mentioned, the AODA program is very much task-oriented, and so to help "flesh out" this approach and give it depth, another aspect that will guide my Druidic work over the next few years will be a personal emphasis on "Ovate"-related aspects of spirituality. Although for some reason (not entirely clear to me) AODA very much downplays the traditional (Revival) Druidic division of training into Bardic, Ovate and Druidic levels adopted by groups like OBOD, I feel that these broad categories make a kind of sense to me. Because I first came to Druidry through my "bardic" work with poetry and creative writing (and chose poetry as the "spiral" for my First Degree work), metaphors of music, song, dance, imagery and imagination have echoed strongly through my Druidic study so far. As I continue to explore and grow, however, I find two new interests coming into focus: a fascination with shamanic and trance or dream work, divination and magic; and a growing need to articulate my spirituality in theological and philosophical terms that encompass questions of ethics, justice, politics and metaphysics. These correspond, very roughly, to the emphasis found in Ovate and Druid training. While I will certainly continue to develop the latter on my own (as if I could stop myself!), I've decided that my Second Degree work will benefit from a good dose of shamanic, intuitive exploration. The "spirals" I've chosen (divination, magic and a self-designed "faery spiral") all deal with nonrational, Otherworld aspects of spirituality, learning how to shape consciousness, connect with sacred or trans-mundane beings and energies, and working more closely with liminal experiences in the human life cycle (such as birth, love, grief, death, illness, initiation, etc.).

One way I've thought about this threefold division within Druidry is to imagine the Bards as the poets and story-tellers, the Ovates as what we would think of as "priests" or spiritual counselors, and the Druids as "judges" and advisors in both worldly and spiritual matters. Thinking through AODA's Second Degree curriculum, one thing that strikes me is the important role that mentoring, teaching and group leadership comes to play over the next few years. By the time an Apprentice is ready to become a Druid Companion in AODA, their work has supposedly prepared them for formal ordination and the responsibilities of organizing and leading a chartered Study Group.* The exercises and reading of the Second Degree's Water path place heavy emphasis on encouraging emotional maturity, exploring various models of spiritual development, and learning effective techniques for teaching, coaching and counseling; meanwhile, the Fire path requires students to write, memorize and be able to effectively perform ritual with others (including the Candidate initiation ritual). Once again, in its own task-oriented way, AODA's curriculum works to impart the skills and knowledge a person needs to act competently as a priest or priestess for their local community. Intuitive shamanic and dreamwork seem, to me, to be a natural compliment to these more overt, exoteric leadership skills. After all, how can you help to counsel and guide others without personal exploration and experience of your own.

But this is where I find myself almost immediately running into difficulties. The next two or three years of my Druidic study are fairly well mapped out, with lists of important books, exercises and techniques to pursue and correct, and a given number of hours of "community service" to provide. Not to mention, I have the added benefit of knowing a few people within AODA who have worked through and completed the Second Degree already, who can and often cheerfully do provide advice, encouragement and personal examples from their own lives. But for me, this isn't enough. Instead, I keep asking myself, "What does spiritual growth look like?" There was a time when I thought I knew, or I at least had a kind of ideal to shoot for, to work towards. Now... I find myself honestly unsure. For all its structure and challenge, in many ways the AODA degree program strikes me as imparting barely more than a skill set. Valuable, useful skills, of course, but.... still. I've seen people who can effectively read runes or competently perform moving rituals, but then I've also seen Catholic priests who preach movingly about love and service, and then afterwards go diddle some poor altar boy in the rectory. Not to put too fine a point on it. Certainly, skills are important, but as I read Judy Harrow's book, Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide, for instance, I read again and again about how necessary it is to encourage real, substantive spiritual growth... and yet nowhere do I find any indication of what this might be or how we might recognize it. So I'm left asking (skill-sets, knowledge-bases and charisma aside): what does spiritual growth look like?

* One thing that bothers me about AODA is that Groves can only be established by Druid Adepts, who are initiated based not on a clearly outlined program of study as with the two previous grades, but according to the whim of the Grand Grove and its members, who must approve a self-designed program (or decide to bestow the title honorarily on people who impress them). This is where hierarchy becomes an issue for me. In theory, this "freedom" of study is meant to encourage self-discipline and commitment, demanding that truly serious students of Druidry prove themselves by taking up the responsibility for their own development after they reach a certain level. In practice, however, it seems to work to keep very few people from attaining to the higher degrees. Instead, it seems people at this point more often "take the iniative" by leaving AODA altogether to establish their own groups or groves (and if/when I reach that point, I will most likely do the same). The current archdruid of the Order often seems quite satisfied (almost suspiciously self-satisfied) to allow members "without the commitment" or who take issue with this hierarchical structure to drop away, move on, or simply stay put at their current level. I find this a shame, since it means that AODA's membership (which consists almost entirely of Candidates and Apprentices) is likely to remain fairly stagnant in the coming decades. I can only hope that, as membership grows to include more younger members and the current leaders finally being to retire, a new and more refreshing attitude might take hold that encourages growth both for the group as a whole and for members personally. Since, as part of my Apprentice initiation, I promised to work to help the AODA community, I will continue to try to be part of that more promising trend.


  1. Ali,
    As per usual an excellent entry.

    I think you're approaching things the best way for yourself which is the only real way to do this. The biggest advantage (in my mind anyway) to the pagan paths is that we must bring something to the path rather than enter the ready made religion. I find myself nodding a great deal as reading about your own process.

    I've not committed to a particular organization though I do feel more drawn to OBOD rather than AODA. I'm still trying to figure out a great deal for myself too.

    Best to you on your ever growing and blossoming path.

  2. Ali,

    In my own experience both as a Witch of 18 or so years, and as a recent graduate of a 2 year accelerated associate degree program (at the ripe old age of 36), It is not necesarilly the classes or program you are set to go through but your actions and reactions to them that will result in the Spiritual Growth...

    I learned, in some ways, as much about Witchcraft and Paganism and effective Craft and Priestcraft, in my Restaurant Management program as I did in the 10 years previous of independant study and practice of Paganism.

    It seems to me that as you are looking for it with your instincts, and opening your self to change and growth, you will start to find the path for you.


  3. Your question about spiritual growth is spot on. Developing skill sets is certainly great and very worth while. But it does not accomplish real change. What is the difference? The only thing that I have been able to come up with so far in my own practice, is the *intent* behind my practice.

    Service to all beings, and consciously reminding myself that my practice is meant to serve the world, and every being in it, seems to make a difference. A big one. That is the difference, in my opinion, behind someone like Mother Theresa, and the fondling priest. One person learns skills for greater prestige and power, while the other does it to truly help serve those around them that are suffering.

  4. 1. Design and carry out a challenging course of Druid study and practice which will take you at least three years of hard work to complete. By AODA tradition it should include seven Paths or basic elements, and it should include the work done for previous Degrees as its foundation. Propose it in advance to the Grand Grove for approval. The Grand Grove may accept it as presented, or may request that certain things be added or changed. Once your personal curriculum is approved by the Grand Grove, follow it, keeping detailed records of your practices and experiences in your Druid journal. When you are finished, contact the Grand Grove.

    2. Design a single grand project, one that expresses Druid values and your personal vision of Druidry, and will take you at least three years of hard work to bring off. Propose it in advance to the Grand Grove for approval. The Grand Grove may accept it as presented, or may request that certain things be added or changed. Once it's approved, do it. When it's done, contact the Grand Grove.

    3. Wow us. Do something else so amazing that it convinces the Grand Grove that you're a Druid Adept already, and the conferring of the Third Degree is merely a formality. The AODA Grand Grove has the right to confer the Third Degree on any person who has accomplished the work and demonstrated the qualities that the AODA training program is meant to elicit.

    I hardly think that sounds like "at the whim of the Grand Grove". That third option, if I am not mistaken, comes out of the Masonic roots of AODA; the Master of a Lodge can make any man a third-degree Master Mason on sight, at his discretion.

    As for AODA's membership being stagnant, you may not realize that until the current Grand ArchDruid took the northern chair, the order had been dormant for years, its membership reduced to a handful of senior citizens. It has grown enormously under John Michael's leadership--enormously in proportion to its former size and rate of growth, that is--and I feel confident it will continue to do so.

  5. Mam Adar,

    Thank you for posting the Third Degree requirements here for people to read and decide for themselves. I appreciate that it does not seem at first glance to be unreasonable and there are many benefits of an advanced level of study that is self-designed (as I pointed out in my post). However, I do still have a "gut reaction" to the idea that such courses of study can only be approved "at the discretion" of the Grand Grove, which has in my experience not always been completely forthcoming or transparent in its decisions. If you have had different experiences, then I am certainly glad for you! Having a knack for butting heads with authority, though, I find myself skeptical when I am expected to put my continued study completely in someone else's hands. I think I'd much prefer it if Third Degree programs were shared with the whole community and discussed extensively--not only would this help the one designing and pursuing the program refine and expand on their ideas, but it would provide examples for others hoping to attain to that level of study as well.

    I have no doubt that the number of members in AODA has expanded greatly in the past few years, as have all the major Druid Orders and organizations (I forget where I just saw some information about relative growth of a bunch of different Druidic and Pagan groups... but they all looked very promising). On the other hand, I myself am counted as a member of OBOD even though I make absolutely no effort to be an active participant in its organization. Numbers alone don't always tell the whole story (especially when there is so much overlap in membership). It seems to me that the AODA forum, at least, is often dominated by only a handful of regulars, and I have seen several people who, after attempting to be more active members, have left out of frustration or disagreement. That is where I get my impression that AODA as an organization may stagnate or at least make very slow progress--in attitude and inclusiveness, if not in numbers. Their recent response to my disagreement about how we respond to newcomer's questions--a decision to suspend me pending a decision on a permanent ban--is just one example of why I sometimes feel as though confrontation is avoided at the expense of growth. But of course, that is their decision to make, not mine.

  6. Ali, please don't be excessively discouraged. A temporary moderation period on the public list does *not* mean being banned from it, much less from the Order. It doesn't even mean you're being tossed out of the discussion.

    As for the list being dominated by a few regulars, well, in about ten years of participation in web-based Internet culture, I have found that to be true of every single list I've been on, whether it had to do with druidry, Anglicanism, pet bird care, or X-Files fanfiction. As with a real-life organization--a church parish or a synagogue, say, or club--a small percentage of members invests most of the energy that keeps things running. In some cases that small group can actively try to keep newcomers out (I've certainly seen it in churches), but I don't think that's the case on AODA Public.

    I have a lot of confidence in AODA, Ali, and I think you could get a lot out of it and also contribute a lot to it. Don't give up on Druidry or our Order just yet.

  7. That's part of why I left AODA too skie. I thought everything was going along okay and was into my Second Degree. I would have thought if I was a "poor fit" I would have been told that at the end of my First Degree, if not at the Candidate Stage.

    But instead, the weather just grew chillier and greyer, and suddenly I found myself being "asked to leave" without the AODA hierarchy actually saying so. It was really weird.

    I found myself being moderated all the time, not for being hateful or profanity or anything, but just a difference of opinion, of theological differences. Heck, even the Catholic Church gives heretical theologians a hearing.

    And that was something else. AODA pretended to be all open about one's beliefs, but AODA is as defined in what theological/philosophical alternatives are allowable as ADF is.

    I am not saying they don't have their reasons or rights to believe what they want, or to kick out whomever doesn't fit. But be upfront about it, be forthright. Perhaps some think I was clueless and not reading the subtle signals. Guilty as charged, if that was the case. But it hasn't just been me. Several others have experienced the same thing. This mysterious "moderation" of unwanted conversations.

    One way is to have new AODA folks paired up with a more advanced member, who can say, "hey Fred, you should try to do this or that" or "the archdruids are troubled by your being this or that about things, and maybe this isn't the path for you." Much better than getting a surprise in the form of a bucket of ice water dumped on your head! and then the door hitting you in the butt on the way out! LOL!!

  8. Lance - Thank you for your comment!

    It's funny, I had completely forgotten about this post, and rereading it now I see that without even intending to, I am well on in my two to three years of planned work. At the time of writing this post, I had no idea how I would pursue these goals other than moving through the provided checklist. Now, having chucked the checklist a while back, I see that I have continued that work quite naturally simply by following my own intuition.

    What you describe in regards to the politics and community structure of AODA is very familiar to me - and when I do run into others with AODA experience these days, they often have similar stories to tell. (Not just older, more experienced members either - even neophytes and newbies are apparently being moderated or censored in the Order's public forum these days.) It's been a year and a half since this post, but I still hear from people feeling inexplicably "pushed out" by AODA leadership, and this saddens me. I do think that the Order could provide a very supportive and meaningful community, and much of what appears in the home-study degree work is clearly helpful and intelligent in its design. But as I said in this post, I have been disappointed in the leadership quality (and I find myself resistant to "oaths of secrecy" which would censor or shut down what might otherwise be very productive critiques of that leadership).

    Still, I do not intend to break my promise to help AODA become a better organization. And as was made clear to me, I was only asked to leave the forum, not the Order itself. I'll take them at their word on this, and plan to apply at the end of my Second Degree work to take the test and move on to the next degree. We'll see then exactly how open they really intend on being...