One of my family’s favorite summer dishes is ambrosia, a mixture of fruits, coconut flakes, mini-marshmallows, cherries and whipped topping. While the sugary additions diminish the healthy aspect, my sons will fight over the last bowl and have always agreed to the meaning of ambrosia as “nectar of the gods.”
A summer reflection on St. Ambrose and the bees
I’ve recently discovered that ambrosia is also the term used for a mixture of pollen and nectar that worker bees feed to bee larvae and has an additional significance because St. Ambrose is a patron of bees, beekeepers and candlemakers.
When St. Ambrose was a baby, so the legend goes, a swarm of bees landed on his face, leaving a drop of honey before moving on to their hive. St. Ambrose’s father was convinced that the honey was a symbol that his son would be blessed with a honeyed tongue, and as it turns out, he certainly was.
St. Ambrose was a prolific preacher, a doctor of the Church, and one of several saints who are connected with bees, beehives and honey, all of which played a part in the early symbolism of the Church. St. Ambrose saw the beehive, where there is a shared devotion, work and effort for the good of the colony, as a symbolic of the Church.
Certainly, bees, particularly honeybees, have a number of admirable characteristics that can serve as a model for us as Catholics.
They are a symbol of strength and endurance. Given their aerodynamic deficiencies (chubbiness), honeybees are a marvel of flight. Bees have an incredible ability to carry more than 100 times their weight and can find their way back to the hive more than eight miles away carrying their weight in pollen.
They act as communicators. Good communication is essential to the survival and productivity of the hive, just as it is in the world of human relationships. Bees communicate through releasing strong-smelling pheromones, by carrying the scent of flowers back to the hive so other workers can find food sources, and through dancing. Fortunately, God has blessed us with the gift of speech.
Bees are collaborators, they are hustlers, but they don’t hustle for themselves, they hustle for the hive. That’s an interesting image for us as members of the larger Body of Christ, living the Gospel and working together in service to others.
For bees, the fruit of their efforts is sustenance. Bees create honey for the life of the bees in their hive, and fortunately for us, they make more than they can eat so we benefit from their efforts. Honey is not only a food, but has healing properties as well. So much of what we, as Catholics, are called to do is provide sustenance for body and soul to others, and in the process there is often healing.
Scripture reminds us that all of creation serves as a revelation from God. There is much that can serve as a focus for our prayer and reflection, especially with the many blessings of summer. If you use a candle for private prayer or meditation as I do, consider making it a beeswax candle and remember the words of another saint who appreciated bees -- St. Augustine: “All of you who stand fast in the Lord are a holy seed, a new colony of bees.”
Mary Morrell is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Spirit, Diocese of Metuchen.