Book of the Bee

As I’ve mentioned before, the honeybee is admired by the Fathers of the Church, and used as an example and metaphor for having a good spiritual life.  We have in our Orthodox tradition prayers for bees and for their hives.

St. Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) uses the bee as a model for moderation in wisely developing a virtuous life.   Unlike a body builder who might do countless reps of a single exercise to develop bulging muscles, St. Gregory teaches that we must more daintily approach the virtues, like a bee, taking a small amount from each and many virtues “what is most profitable.”   Developing virtues requires wisdom – developing them in a right quantity, extracting from each what we as an individual are capable of benefiting from, and this will not be same for each individual since each person is differently gifted by God.

“Like a bee one should extract from each of the virtues what is most profitable.  In this way, by taking a small amount from all of them, one builds up from the practice of the virtues a great honeycomb overflowing with the soul-delighting honey of wisdom.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 83500)

As the honeycomb is built by the entire colony of bees receiving the nectar of a great many bees from a diversity of flowers, so too all the virtues are needed to develop the spiritual life.  One must be like a bee collecting nectar from many flowers, partaking of the different virtues to gain from each.

One can see how popular the bee was in the metaphorical thinking of the fathers in how they refer to the bee.  The Book of the Bee is a Syriac Christian Text written by the bishop, Solomon of Akhlat,  in the 13th Century.   It is a summary of basic Syriac Christian beliefs using excerpts from the books of the Bible, Christian theology and Syriac history.  The book serves as a catechism, which Solomon dedicated to the bee.  He explains:

We have called this book the ‘Book of the Bee,’ because we have gathered of the blossoms of the two Testaments and of the flowers of the holy Books, and have placed them therein for thy benefit. As the common bee with gauzy wings flies about, and flutters over and lights upon flowers of various colours, and upon blossoms of divers odours, selecting and gathering from all of them the materials which are useful for the construction of her handiwork; and having first of all collected the materials from the flowers, carries them upon her thighs,

and bringing them to her dwelling, lays a foundation for her building with a base of wax; then gathering in her mouth some of the heavenly dew which is upon the blossoms of spring, brings it and blows it into these cells; and weaves the comb and honey for the use of men and her own nourishment:

in like manner have we, the infirm, hewn the stones of corporeal words from the rocks of the Scriptures which are in the Old Testament, and have laid them down as a foundation for the edifice of the spiritual law. And as the bee carries the waxen substance upon her thighs because of its insipidity and tastelessness, and brings the honey in her mouth because of its sweetness and value; so also have we laid down the corporeal law by way of substratum and foundation, and the spiritual law for a roof and ceiling to the edifice of the spiritual tower. And as the expert gardener and orchard-keeper goes round among the gardens, and seeking out the finest sorts of fruits takes from them slips and shoots, and plants them in his own field; so also have we gone into the garden of the divine Books, and have culled therefrom branches and shoots, and have planted them in the ground of this book for thy consolation and benefit.

To approach each book of the Bible as if it were a flower full of sweet nectar, and to enjoy the blessing from God, is such wonderful imagery of what Scripture reading should be to us.  It is work, but sweet and nurturing.

And interestingly, the bee does not leave the flower untouched, for it pollinates it.  This is the synergy between the Word of God and the reader of the Word.  We interact with the Word enabling it to bear fruit.  Our hearts are the fecund soil which bear fruit to God.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  (Isaiah 55:10-12)