Of Monks and Bees

The monastery can be seen nestled in the hills above the ocean

April 14, 2015. Hiking high above the monastery, with expansive views of the Santa Lucia mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. I had been living at the monastery (or ‘hermitage’, since the monks there technically live as hermits) for over a year. My job was to manage their bookstore. But when I wasn’t working, I was hiking in the mountains, communing with the new love of my life, Big Sur nature. This photo was taken at about 2200 feet elevation, where the only sounds were the call of birds and the wind singing mournfully through the needles of pine trees. Until the swarm arrived.

As my hiking partner and I stopped to listen, we could hear an approaching hum that was at once omnipresent and yet invisible. And as we stood on the trail, looking up in awe, the blue sky darkened with the living, pulsing cloud of a swarm of honey bees. Now the winds quieted, the birds hushed, and all creation around us stood still as this amazing manifestation of nature passed over and through us. My first instinct was to run madly for my life, but when I noticed my hiking buddy standing her ground I decided I was at least as brave as her, and held steady. This was when my life took another turn, although at the moment I didn’t realize it. Bees soared above us by 10–20 feet, and bees floated between us, so close I could feel the wind from their wings tickling my ears. They and their queen were on their way to finding a new home, and they had no interest in harming us. But I was engulfed by the magic of their movement and energy; I was mesmerized and transformed, as if each bee were passing through my body and infusing me with their life force. After a few moments, the humming of their wings died down, and all that was left of the living cloud were a few stragglers whose jobs were perhaps to fly the flag of their queen for all who witnessed the parade. The wind returned to the trees, and the birds resumed their cheerful chattering. But I did not return. Not the old me, who never gave a thought towards bees or their mystical nature; who passed by fields of flowers and trees never noticing the electricity of their hums; who knew nothing of the love and sacrifice each bee gave to her sisters, even unto her death. That former me did not survive the swarm.

A honey bee using her tongue, or proboscis, to taste

Skip to February of 2017. I have been an amateur beekeeper now for almost 2 years. The new me, who emerged from that life-changing swarm 2 years ago, has learned a whole new awareness of the bee. And these amazing creatures continue to teach me. A few days ago I was sitting at a fountain on monastery grounds and noticed a bee circling it. I knew she was thirsty and wanted water, but the fountain was off so no water was spilling onto the edges for her to easily access. I got up from the bench and used my hand to splash water onto the fountain lip so she could land and drink. But this bee decided she’d rather drink the water from my hand. As I sat down, she landed on my hand and began to walk around, drinking up what little water was on it. There wasn’t much, so she took to the air and began flying back and forth in front of me.

I took the hint and went back to the fountain and this time cupped water into my palm. As soon as I sat down, my friend landed back on my hand and, using her tongue (which acts like a straw), drank her fill of the water I had cupped. She then happily flew away.

What was her message to me? Not an hour before this amazing encounter, I was sadly lamenting that several of our hives did not make it through the tough, wet winter. It occurred to me this bee was telling me to not give up on them — that they still needed us to help them. I also realized that we both showed significant trust in each other at that moment; she trusted that I wasn’t going to panic and swat her, and I trusted that she wasn’t going to frighten and sting me. When you replace fear with trust, you can experience miraculous things. Trust in yourself. Trust in a power greater than you.

Br. Blaise among his 50+ bee hives in Southern California

Meet Brother Blaise, a monk for 50 years and a bee keeper for 40. Beekeeping and monks have a long history together, dating back to at least the medieval period. Br. Blaise got his start with bees when an acquaintance gave up beekeeping and gave him a hive. That single hive grew into 100 at the peek of Br. Blaise’s bee-tending career, but at 78 years old he’s had to scale back a bit. I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Br. Blaise as he tended his hives, listening to his stories and watching how he spoke to the bees with patience and good healthy caution. He’s been stung so many times that if he comes to lunch without something swollen, the other monks ask him if the bees aren’t feeling well that day. Monks can have a delightfully stinging sense of humor. I did learn some good lessons from Br. Blaise, about 20 of which were quite painful to my ankles and face. But he also taught me about humility, accepting others and life as they come to us, and about kindness. All of this without really saying too much.

And I was able to teach Br. Blaise some things in return. One day he asked if I could show him how to use an iPad someone had given him. Which led to him wanting to know what “Goggle” was all about. So we pondered Google and the amusing fact that it does act as a pair of goggles to view the world with, in more ways than one.

I’ve discovered that, living in the city of Seattle before moving here, I wore a certain set of ‘goggles’ in which to view and interact with the world. Hungrily buying things to make me happy, rushing here and there to experience all that I could during the day, getting high on the sounds and colors and sights of a big city. But also suspicious of strangers at night, protective of my “spot” in rush hour traffic, fearful of things in general because that’s what the news told me I should be, and worried. Always worried…about my job, my rent, my car parked alone at night, being accepted, knowing what to do, and a thousand other things. Sure, I had my serene moments — putting up a bird feeder on my balcony to watch my little friends eat, or going for hikes or scooter rides on the weekends. But they were just that-moments in a sea of noise and illusions.

Big Sur coast…where a continent edge meets an ocean edge

In the wilderness of Big Sur, I’ve let my goggles fall away. I see now how I was fooled before, and how I misled myself. The majesty of Big Sur’s mists, her skies, her creatures, her trees — these have taught me a serenity that I don’t think I can ever lose. It’s not like my life is free of trouble or challenges here; I just know how to put them in context. I see a bigger picture now. A truer picture. Of me and of the world.

Italian honey bees enjoying a drink of water and…a scooter ride

The fountain pictured at left is where I had met the thirsty bee. Bees bring water back to their hives during hot weather to help cool it. The nurse bees use it to help produce the royal jelly that is used to feed the larvae and the queen. I gain serenity by watching these bees, with their social structures and work ethics. I identify with them.

Monks bottling honey from our hives. A partnership.

Here at the monastery we help the bees by giving them a safe place to live and build their colonies, and they help us by pollinating our orchard and garden, and by producing extra honey that we can enjoy and sell to visitors. Monks and bees go back a long ways, a symbiotic relationship that traditionally brought monasteries and churches wax for candles. And the bees help teach monks how to dedicate their lives for the good of the whole…just as worker bees dedicate themselves for the good of their colony and their queen.

Monk in contemplation (photo by Elijah Hurwitz)

I did not come to the hermitage to further my professional career, or make a ton of money, or gain fame or freedom or to retreat from life and retire. I came because my heart called me here, for unknown reasons. And now I am beginning to see why I was called. To heal. To serve. To discover. To see without goggles. To meet myself.

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