I’ve always wanted to be a monk. It started in college when I read Beat Generation authors with their focus on Eastern thought or books like Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov.” Celibacy sounded like a bummer, but I just really liked something about the idea of simple, communal living and the chance to grow in personal insights through meditation and spiritual practice.
In my wayward 20s, I launched out on my own spiritual quest. That started with a course in Transcendental Meditation, and later a job teaching English in Japan that eventually lead me all across East and Southeast Asia looking for Jack Kerouac’s “pearl” of wisdom and insight.
I once stayed at a Zen temple in Japan for a vigorous “Rohatsu Sesshin” period in winter, sitting stock-still for long hours in freezing temperatures. I explored Vipassanā, or Insight Meditation practice, in Thailand, Burma, and the US and I practiced yoga in India. And the most life-changing experience was the pilgrimage I made in 2001 to the 88 sacred temples on the Island of Shikoku in Japan.
I’d been looking for something for years, and really only found it in my 40s when I got my first hive of honeybees. Anyone who has sat for hours watching bees take off and land from their own backyard hive knows what I’m talking about.
Bees are revered in many religious traditions, from the ancient Egyptian and Hindu gods associated with bees to the modern-day shamans who harvest “mad honey” from cliff hives in Nepal.
The apiaries of the Benedictine monk Brother Adam of the Buckfast Abbey in England were the genesis of the hearty Buckfast stock of bees popular the world over, and we can find examples of monks working with bees and making mead dating back centuries.
And the connection betweeen monks and bees makes sense: communal living in a monastery looks much like life inside a bee hive, although a nunnery is really a more apt comparison because all the worker bees are female.
Bees, like monks and nuns, work for the collective – each individual laboring to serve the group.
There is an inborn selflessness to the life of the bee. Each bee acts more like a cell in a body than an individual with free will. And so it is in monastic life, where the most humble of tasks helps maintain the life of the whole.
On one of my journies I remember arriving at Wat Suan Mokkh, a retreat center near Surat Thani in the south of Thailand. A young German guy arrived right after me and was keen to find out what was still available on the work detail list.
“Has anyone signed up to clean toilets yet?” he asked.
When the retreat coordinators told him the job was open, he was elated. Being my first retreat, I had to ask him why.
“It’s the most humble job you can do here,” my new friend said with a big grin. “It’s the one thing that no one wants to do but it is vital to the success of the group. That’s what it’s all about!”
Inspired by his enthusiasm, I signed up for the second slot as a toilet cleaner, and in the 10 days of silence, meditation, and daily rounds of joyfully scouring rows of porcelain thrones with my new German friend, I found a unique peace in serving the collective.
And so it is with beekeepers, I think. We not only undertake the sacred duty of serving our own miniature monastic communities in our backyards and apiaries, but connect with one another in a beekeeping community that spans the globe.
Just watch two beekeepers meet for the first time and dive into conversation over bees and beekeeping – we are a worldwide fellowship on a sacred mission. Glad to be among y’all!