I am very happy and proud to announce that one of my neophytes will be taking her First Degree, once she has chosen a time and location, and my First Degree student will be taking her Second Degree on February 17th. We have made much progress over the course of the last year, and I am glad to see that we are moving forward.
In light of this, I have been very reflective about the Wiccan degrees, at least as it regards my coven and tradition. Like many traditions, we do not accept self-initiation. Some don’t even accept self-dedications, though we do. We accept the self-dedication in recognition that the choice to study Wicca and follow the gods and do Their work is deeply personal. No person on the outside can, or should, force another into practicing Wicca. Proselytizing has always left a bad taste in our mouths, from all religious paths, and one of the most common complaints from Pagans is how other people “shove their beliefs down our throats.”. Personally I’m always happy to discuss different paths, and I’m mildly amused when the conversation tries to turn toward “saving my eternal soul”…well no, that’s not fair. Sometimes I’m amused, but depending on the source, I’m usually deeply touched that a friend or family member would express that kind of love and concern for me. The amusement comes into play because it’s just not going to happen. Other religions are beautiful to me, but they don’t touch my soul. Furthermore, I am a third degree, and in my tradition this means I’m forever entitled to the rights and privileges associated with that title. I can leave Wicca, but as far as my coven is concerned, I will still be Lady Ariawn. I think part of that has to do with initiation actually so as not to invalidate initiations I have performed.
I’m getting sidetracked.
Recently I got a reply from a neophyte that was very honest, and I am grateful for it. Essentially it boiled down to the uncertainty some of the newer members were feeling because they were not as well-read as some of the other members. They were unsure that their opinions and contributions mattered because they came from a place of intuition. I reassured them that their feelings and intuitions were just as valuable as any research based occult education, but I also recognize that this means they need more “book learning” to help make them secure in their knowledge and practice. They are worried about saying the wrong thing or “making mistakes” in front of the others—which is not the atmosphere I want. Like any educational setting, we should not be afraid of mistakes, but rather open to the opportunity to improve our skills and knowledge. As I pointed to out to them, though, this is not what we are taught in society. Our schools are punitive. If you “fail” a test, it’s rarely treated with kindness or as an opportunity for focus and improvement. Rather, we suffer the shame of disappointing our parents, our teachers, our friends label us as “stupid,” and we get held back instead of moving forward.
I had a professor in college who made a profound impact on my view of education—I only wish it hadn’t been in the last semester of my senior year. I was doing a presentation, unaware that there are two pronunciations for “Augustine” depending on context. When I used the wrong one, he quickly but gently corrected me. I was, naturally, embarrassed, and I stammered an apology to the effect of, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” He responded, “It’s okay, that’s why we’re all here—to learn. Continue.” Flustered, I made it through the rest of my presentation, stumbling here and there but gaining confidence with each encouraging nod and gentle guidance from him. Never once did he belittle me—nor did he mark me down for it. By the end of the presentation I had gotten it straight, which showed learning, and that’s what mattered to him.
That class was the proudest A- I’ve ever gotten, even though it’s the one that kept me from graduating summa cum laude. Fr. Ryan was…I’m struggling right now to come up with right work to describe what it was like being a student in his class. He is one of those professors who leaves a handprint on the shape of your mind all the days of your life. I am not just a smarter person, I am a better person, for having taken his class.
Getting sidetracked again.
Following this realization that my neophytes needed something more, I was discussing initiation with someone else, and they made an interesting point. They admitted that when they first started practicing with a group, they felt very competitive. “Oh, if that person gets their initiation before me, does that mean I’m not as good as them? What if I don’t get one? Etc. etc..” It took about a month for it to click with them that it wasn’t a competition at all, it’s spirituality, and they snapped out of that kind of thinking.
But we as humans tend to be naturally competitive. Not everyone, of course, but plenty of people are, especially in American society where it’s all about the “dream,” and you’re a success if you reach your dreams…but what are you if you don’t? Some people feel like a failure, and it usually takes hundreds of dollars and therapy, or a really good mentor, to help us realize we don’t have to be rich to be worthwhile.
The degree system sets us up for this kind of competition. The degrees are hierarchical by nature. First degrees practice, but do not teach. Second degrees teach, but they do not initiate. Third degrees get the whole kit and caboodle. They are the leaders. In the circle the word of the High Priest and High Priestess are LAW, or so it is for our tradition. Even though Wicca is about spirituality and personal growth, and it is easy to see the degrees as “levels” and to feel like you’re somehow less-than as a Witch because you have a lower degree.
We need to change our thinking about this, however. As my friend did, we need to realize that the degrees are not meant as divisive levels. They are mile markers on one’s own personal journey. Just because a Brother or Sister gets their initiation first does not mean they are more spiritual, or even more educated, or more powerful, or more anything—it’s an outward recognition of their personal development. And we are all on unique journeys. It took me twelve years to get my Third Degree—and my High Priest got his in three. I was a teenager still trying to find myself, he was a divorced man in his 50’s with a lifetime of experience and spiritual study under his belt. Just because one member is a Second Degree does not mean you cannot also be a Second Degree either. The degrees, truly, mean nothing outside of the context of a group anyway. They are external recognitions for what is happening internally, and what is important is that your needs are being met, not that I, or anyone else, have passed judgment on your supposed level of achievement.
The competition, then, is not with our brethren, but with ourselves. What are we doing to better our minds, our bodies, our spirits? Are we somehow lesser for taking more time? Absolutely not. We have the unique task of identifying and addressing our own needs, which are never the same as someone else’s. Is it truly even competition then? Only if the battle is between who we were and who we want to become. In the spiritual realm there is no time. There is no distance. There is light—let yours shine bright.