Saturday, February 7, 2009
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.