The word “bee” and the word “leisure” don’t seem a natural pair. A foraging bee in full worker mode can wear out its ever-beating wings in a matter of weeks. Its single-minded focus on its given task—carting back its minuscule 40-milligram loads of nectar for the hive—is legendary. But the work of the bee does not stop here: once the nutrient has been gathered in, it must be turned into honey, a lengthy process that requires swallowing and regurgitating the sugary nectar over and over again until the water content is reduced from seventy percent to twenty. Only when this bacteria-resistant new food has become thick and golden and sweet, redolent with the scent of flowers, does the bee store its tiny offering in a wax cell against the coming of winter.
Ancient monks saw the bee as emblematic, especially in regard to their daily practice of lectio divina, a slow and meditative reading of the scriptures. One important phase of lectio involves the deep pondering of a single word or phrase for the purpose of extracting every possible bit of spiritual nutrition. Over and over, the word is “swallowed,” digested, and brought back up again for what is known as “thorough consideration.” According to Innocenzo Gargano, a Camaldolese monk and long-time practitioner of lectio, the phrase “thorough consideration” has its deep root in the Greek term for “storing honey.”
Benedictine monks and nuns have been practicing lectio divina for 1500 years by now. They know from long experience that it is only possible to ponder on this level if there is enough available open mental space. Hence their commitment to “holy leisure,” by which they don’t mean golfing, wine tasting, or tanning on the beach in Maui. Instead, they are referring to the fact that though they work hard each day running their guesthouses, counseling visitors, giving retreats, or keeping the books, they refuse to allow that work to enslave them. And thus their minds are kept free for turning what they hear, read, and experience of life into golden honey to store in the cells of their hearts.