Monday, May 25, 2009

Easter Bees

In this, my blog’s latest installment of commentary on De Virginibus, St. Ambrose compares consecrated virgins to bees, taking his inspiration from the honeycomb mentioned in the Song of Songs 5:1.* (For previous entries from this blog on De Virginibus, see here, here, and here. To read Book I of De Virginibus in its entirety, click here.)

At first, I thought that this seemed like a weird metaphor—I for one would not have thought to compare consecrated virgins to insects!—and saying that it was implied by the honeycomb in the Song of Songs seemed like a bit of a “stretch.” But in some ways this particular section seemed very appropriate to post while we’re still in the remainder of the Easter season. Specifically, because bees also find their way into the Exultet, perhaps the most magnificent and moving of the Church’s Easter hymns, which is sung in conjunction with the lighting of the Pascal candle.

The Easter bees are unfortunately lost in translation right now, (though this might change when the new English translation of the Liturgy comes out) so you probably didn’t hear about them when you went to the Easter Vigil this year. However, here is an English translation of their mention in the Latin Exultet:

Therefore, in this night of grace,
accept, O Holy Father, the evening sacrifice of this praise,
which Holy Church renders to You
in the solemn offering of this waxen candle
by the hands of Your ministers from the work of bees.

We are knowing now the proclamations of this column,
which glowing fire kindles in honor of God.
Which fire, although it is divided into parts,
is knowing no loss from its light being lent out.
For it is nourished by the melting streams of wax,
which the mother bee produced for the substance of this precious torch.**

Here, bees are beautiful because they are fruitful, and their fruitfulness comes to serve an exceptionally noble purpose—namely, the praise of God. Thus in this section of De Virginibus, St. Ambrose describes consecrated virgins as being like these “Easter bees” in their life of prayer. Emphases, in bold, and comments, in red, are mine.

Taking the passage concerning the honeycomb in the Song of Songs, he expounds it, comparing the sacred virgins to bees.

40. Let, then, your work be as it were a honeycomb, for virginity is fit to be compared to bees, so laborious is it, so modest, so continent. The bee feeds on dew, it knows no marriage couch, it makes honey. The virgin’s dew is the divine word, for the words of God descend like the dew. The virgin’s modesty is unstained nature. The virgin’s produce is the fruit of the lips, (i.e., prayer) without bitterness, abounding in sweetness. They work in common, and their fruit is in common. (Although some consecrated virgins of St. Ambrose’s time did live together in sort of proto-convents, they do not seem to have had the emphasis on the “common life” the same way that later, truly monastic religious Orders like the Benedictines would. So I think that the common “work” and “fruit” mentioned here probably represent the prayer of consecrated virgins. If consecrated virgins were charged with liturgical prayer in St. Ambrose’s day as they are now, then this common work and fruit could refer to the unity of the voice of the Church at prayer.)

41. How I wish you, my daughter, to be an imitator of these bees, whose food is flowers, (“Food” here probably means the contemplative reading of Scripture) whose offspring is collected and brought together by the mouth. Do imitate her, my daughter. Let no veil of deceit be spread over your words; let them have no covering of guile, that they may be pure, and full of gravity.

42. And let an eternal succession of merits be brought forth by your mouth. Gather not for yourself alone (for how do you know when your soul shall be required of you?), lest leaving your granaries heaped full with corn, which will be a help neither to your life nor to your merits, you be hurried thither where you cannot take your treasure with you. Be rich then, but towards the poor, that as they share in your nature they may also share your goods. (Here is a call for consecrated virgins to live a life of generosity. I think that modern consecrated virgins—even when they are full-time graduate students and therefore somewhat materially poor!—can still be generous with their time, prayers, concern for other, and friendship. In my own life, I find that it’s important for me to renew my decision to “give of myself” every day.)

43. And I also point out to you what flower is to be culled, that one it is Who said: I am the Flower of the field, and the Lily of the valleys, as a lily among thorns, (This seems like an allusion to the Eucharist) which is a plain declaration that virtues are surrounded by the thorns of spiritual wickedness, so that no one can gather the fruit who does not approach with caution. (I’m very glad that St. Ambrose makes this last point. I think you could read this line as a reference to the persecution from “the world” that those truly striving for holiness will inevitable face at some time. But my though is that St. Ambrose is actually trying to draw our attention to the fact that attempting to scale the heights of virtue leaves one with the danger of potentially having farther to fall. My thought is that this is partially why consecrated virginity requires a very solid “human formation.” That is, if a person is not well-balanced on a natural level, then the practice of the supernatural virtue of virginity is likely to exacerbate that person’s emotional, human problems.)

—St. Ambrose, De Virginibus; Book I, chapter 8

* I’m linking to New Advent’s copy of the Douay-Rheims version, instead of my typical practice of referencing the USCCB’s New American Bible, because the N.A.B. for some reason doesn’t include the word “honeycomb” in its translation!
** From “
What Does the Prayer Really Say?”

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