Politics, Brawlings and Benedictine Bees

Our country has slogged through a two year political season. Mercifully, the election at least, will soon be over.  I’m still trying to figure out how to think about this time. It’s felt like a great big public brawl. The kind where we are down in the mud with each other. It’s plowed up things we’d rather not talk about in polite society. Racism. Sexism. Classism. Corporate elitism. I have to say, it feels like a national enema. As stuff is getting cleaned out of the system, I hope and pray for social transformation on all levels. The Benedictines can teach us how to navigate these dark times in our national conscience, when, as I’ve heard it said, “It is darkest just before dawn”.

During the Medieval period, the Benedictine communities scattered throughout Europe helped humanize a time when all manner of wars, religious superstitions, economic disparity, inquisitions, and diseases were unleashed upon humanity. They became oases of peace and civility.

According to a monk I spoke with, villagers would literally build their homes around the monastery as a place of safety amidst the turbulence and social disruption.

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Honeycomb insignia etched in the chapel doors

The Rule of St. Benedict was a tool of gracious living and spiritual enlightenment. I first met the Benedictine monks in the high desert of New Mexico. They were beer makers, soap and candle artisans and hospitality keepers.  But here in Minnesota, on both the sisters and the monk’s campuses, I see beehive themed windows, doors, art and buildings. Everywhere I go there are the bee themed hexagon shapes of the honeycomb.  The fact that I have landed here, writing about bees suddenly hits me as Providence. Yes, there is a bee angel.

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Chapel of St. John’s Abby, architecture by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981)

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Chapel at St. John’s Monastery

When I asked Abbot John whether the honey comb/ beehive theme was part of the whole Benedictine order or particular to St. John’s, he looked at me with a smile, his eyes lighting up when he found out I was a beekeeper. “It’s particular to us”, he said. There were interesting politics about how the bee themed architecture came into being,which I won’t go into. But based upon my observation, the monastery is an important symbol of a healthy community. Everyone has a valued place, diverse interests, specialized labor and creativity flowing, (Gardening, teaching, healthcare, beekeeping, candle and jam making, pastoring, to name a few). All are ultimately striving for the common good.

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Rule of St. Benedict

We are a people living in the Pleistocene Age, and the last gasp of the fossil fuel age. We have reached the limit to our destructive human lifestyles on this planet. The returns of our activity is no longer serving the good of all living beings. We have only a climate and economic debt to hand our children. We are all living on borrowed time.

News from my beekeeper friends in Albuquerque remind me that creatures are also living  on the edge of collapse. Nectar has been scarce. They will eat up everything they bring in immediately (pollen, nectar) and feed it to their brood, just to survive the day. They will put up nothing for a rainy day. That means an empty bank account come winter.

Humans aren’t much different. Many individuals and countries (including the U.S.) are living on borrowed credit—maximizing debt to live in the present. The rich are getting richer off the backs of the poor becoming poorer. Many around the world are living in war zones, hoping that the world will see their suffering and stand up to speak out or reach a steadying hand so more don’t perish.

These are desperate times. These are transformative times. Dickensonian in many ways. The best and the worst…

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Meanwhile, there is a light on the horizon. Daily newsfeeds of water protectors popping up everywhere, shutting down fossil fuel pipelines—from Indigenous nations at Standing Rock to regular everyday people in Washington State, Minnesota to Canada, southward and around the globe. They are getting in the way of earth and people exploiting corporations and their massive profit driven projects that are destroying our very lifeline. We see Black Lives Matter rolling forwards. We see women standing up and speaking their truth.

This Rule could help us in this time of political and social upheaval, with the great cleansing we seem to be undergoing. It is a time of suffering. It is a time of healing.

The Benedictines chose to become oases of peace, hospitality and love.

May our time also choose this.

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