Saturday, December 17, 2011

Benedictines and Bees

While on retreat this summer in Minnesota, I was delighted to learn of the connection between Benedictines and bees.  The abbey church features a wall of stained glass sectioned off into a honey comb pattern.

From the outside, the window resembles a giant Lite-Brite toy.

On the inside the color explodes, and it is easy to spend much of prayer time looking back at the bright liturgical colors.

For the men at St. John's the comb pattern takes on special meaning since honey was one of the things that constituted the diet of John the Baptist, for whom the abbey is named.

Meanwhile, a short drive away, the women's monastery also features the honey comb in their windows, but without the massive size and color.  For the women of St. Benedict's, the honey comb pattern stands alone.

The symbolism is rich for the women as well...monks, like bees, do not live individualistic lives, but focus on community life.  Most of the Rule of St. Benedict, the ancient guideline for Benedictine life, revolves around the ins and out of a spiritual life practiced in the context of the practical concerns of playing nicely together.  The comb of the hive represents both home and sustenance.

My friends told the sisters at St. Benedict's that I was a beekeeper, and the two women who had kept the bees for many years insisted on giving me a tour of their hives. 

It was great fun to swap bee stories, and to hear about the ways their bees have enriched their community sponsored agriculture (CSA) project.   We broke one of the sacred rules and were late to evening prayer, but no one said a word about our late appearance.  When beekeepers and gardeners get together, sometimes the schedule suffers a bit.

My favorite modern explanation of the Rule of St. Benedict is Joan Chittister's devotional book, "Wisdom Distilled from the Daily."  It has helped me deal with the frustrations of working with ornery human beings and the complexities of trying to be community together.  Good stuff.  Not much on beekeeping, but one can't live by honey alone.