For many years now, St. Paul, like the county courthouse on the square and other historic buildings in town, has shared its sacred space with honeybees. At the rear of our church building, near the gutter, is a beehive that has been living and active for more years than anyone seems to remember. On a number of occasions in the past, the leadership of our church has discussed the presence of these bees. We've brought in experts and hobbyists alike, trying to figure out the best course of action for the bees and the humans with whom the bees share space. And every time the topic has come up, the conclusion has remained the same: We will learn to coexist with the bees.
Interestingly, there is a spiritual connection to bees and their hives. In many Christian texts, the human heart was often referred to as a honeycomb. It is a place where sweet things, and not-so-sweet things, are stored away. All kinds of things get stored away into the honeycombs of our hearts.
Celtic Author Justin Coutts, tells the story of John Cassian, a monk who travelled throughout the Egyptian wilderness learning from the desert mothers and fathers. Cassian wrote down what he learned during his time there into two books which shaped the future of Western monasticism in general and Celtic monasticism in particular. In his book Institutes, he spoke about the honeycomb of the heart in the following way:
“The monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it more intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate.”
In other words, the vices and virtues which we gather from the people around us are stored up in the honeycomb of our hearts. An old Irish prayer associates this honeycomb of the heart metaphor with the beeswax of the candle. When we light a candle, this prayer submits, we are "inviting the Holy Spirit to cleanse the honeycomb of our heart. When the candle is lit, we set our hearts on fire along with it."
Which begs the question, what's taking up space in the honeycomb of your heart? What, in the very center of who you are, needs to be set on fire in such a way as to be purified or refined? What are you gathering up from those around you that isn't serving you or isn't helping the honeycomb of your heart thrive and grow and love? What sweetnesses are missing from the very center of who you are? What would it take to light the fire of your heart again so that renewal and growth might take place?
I wonder if we might learn to better coexist with one another, Creation, and the "me" each of us is away from all of the have to's and should do's and supposed to's of our lives? I wonder if we might learn a thing or two from the "St. Paul bees?"
Learning to navigate the honeycomb of our hearts with you,
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.