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The Sweetness of Service

There is an ancient tradition of beekeeping in monasteries. Hazel Sillver visited modern-day beekeeper Abbot Dom Cuthbert Brogan at Farnborough Abbey to learn about this humble and peaceful craft.

odern life sometimes seems berserk. Driving through the ring roads on the Surrey-Hampshire border, recently, I felt as if I was in a kind of hell. All around, traffic crawled past the endless industrial estates and retail parks, horns beeped impatiently and there was barely a tree in sight. Luckily for me, my destination was very different!

St Michael’s Abbey is a sanctum of greenery and peace in the midst of all that madness. Turning off the hectic road, a drive leads to the hidden-away monastery that sits in an oasis of woodland and fields. What a relief!

‘When the Abbey was first built, Farnborough town didn’t exist – all this has built up around us,’ explains St Michael’s Abbot, Dom Cuthbert Brogan. ‘It is our role as monks here to preserve the peace, to savour the presence of God and to serve as guardians to nature.’

Being such a huge chunk of greenery in an urban area, St Michael’s has been referred to as ‘the lungs of Farnborough’. As well as the trees and the fields, the Abbey is also rich in wildlife – in particular bees. Situated next to the community’s sheep and chickens, is a gaggle of colourful beehives.

‘Most English apiaries consist of unpainted wood hives,’ says Dom Cuthbert, who is the Abbey’s beekeeper. ‘I painted ours after seeing the colourful hives of Slovakia when travelling there. In fact, the colours help the bees to identify their hives when they live in a large apiary.’

This is not the first foreign influence on Farnborough Abbey, which was founded in 1881 by the Empress Eugénie, as a mausoleum for her late husband Napoleon III. In 1895, she brought a community of French Benedictine monks to live and serve here.

Since Napoleon’s symbol was a bee, there have always been hives here and depictions of the bee adorn different parts of the Abbey. As a wider history, it is traditional for monastic communities to keep honeybees. During the Middle Ages, they provided monks with beeswax, with which they made candles. In more modern times, it is the honey that has become the key product. But whatever is harvested, there is a deeper holy relationship between a monk and his bees.

abbots‘I can understand why monks and bees go together,’ says Dom Cuthbert. ‘Being a monk is all about service and tending my bees, I am serving nature and thus serving God. Plus a beehive is very similar to a monastery! Like us, everything in a hive is beautifully ordered and structured, and each bee in the hive has a different service role: some are workers, some are undertakers, others are guards, and so on. I find bees fascinating!’
As a novice at St Michael’s, Dom Cuthbert helped the late Prior look after the bees, and gradually learnt the fine and ancient art of beekeeping. Today it is his passion: ‘Time flies when I am with the bees,’ he smiles.

As well as its honey, St Michael’s is renowned for its hospitality (retreats are on offer here) and for its music and song. The liturgy is sung in Latin and Gregorian chant. The monks also restore books, make cards and run a publishing house. The Abbey was built for just five monks (a number it retains today) and has always been an enclosed community of prayer, work and study. It is a peaceful place.

PICT0308‘I was never drawn to the traditional UK Benedictine communities, which usually revolve around a school,’ recalls Dom Cuthbert. ‘Somebody advised me to seek out the more contemplative continental monasteries. So in my late teens I visited Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, which has a French history, and then I came here. The monks were reluctant to take me in at such a young age (I was only 18), but I was very insistent!’

Today, tending his bees is a labour of love – as well as being fascinated by the honeybee, he understands the sudden importance of his role. ‘Beekeeping used to be regarded as akin to trainspotting,’ he laughs. ‘Nowadays, with honeybees under threat, people are very interested. It’s no small thing. Bees pollinate our food – they’re essential for humankind!’ Dom Cuthbert thinks the theory that farm pesticides kill bees is true because his bees (which forage on urban flowers rather than farmland) have never been sick.

The duty we all have to the environment is greatly tied to religion for Dom Cuthbert. ‘Living in tune with nature gives us a sense of peace, allows us to do God’s will and humanises us,’ he says. ‘As Abbot, I can find myself drowning in paperwork, but when I’m with the bees, everything feels as if it’s in its rightful place.’

As I drive out, back into the madness of ring roads and urban sprawl, I know he is right. Can we call ourselves devout without a greater respect for nature? A return to the simplicity and kindness of a nature-tied life is the only way forward.

To find out more about Farnborough Abbey, and for Mass times, go to farnboroughabbey.org or call 01252 546105. There is a tour of the Abbey church every Saturday at 3pm. You can purchase St Michaels’ wonderful products (including books, cards and, of course, honey) at the Abbey’s online shop: theabbeyshop.com.

Apiarist and frame with bees, horizontal photo.MONASTERIES WITH BEES

Farnborough Abbey, Hampshire – Dom Cuthbert’s fascinating Benedictine monastery with its ornate church is home to several beehives, and you can buy honey when visiting for Mass. farnboroughabbey.org

Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight – You can do courses in beekeeping with the IOW Beekeeping Association at Quarr and buy the honey harvested in the Abbey’s farm shop. quarrabbey.co.uk, iwbka.org.uk

Buckfast Abbey, Devon – Home to the most famous monastic apiary in the world, Buckfast was once the Abbey of beekeeping authority Brother Adam. You can now do beekeeping courses here. buckfast.org.uk

Pluscarden Abbey, Morayshire – Situated in a secluded glen, this medieval Benedictine monastery offers retreats for men and women. Bees are kept here and the monks make several beeswax products. pluscardenabbey.org

 

Berries-and-BeesHOLY WORDS ABOUT BEES AND HONEY

‘Eat honey, my son, for it is good; honey from the comb is sweet to your taste. Know also that wisdom is like honey for you: if you find it, there is a future hope for you’ – Proverbs 24:13-14

‘Just as the bee extracts honey from plants and has no use for plants save for that purpose, so the soul, with great facility, extracts the sweetness of love that is in all things. It loves God in each of them, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant’ – St John of the Cross

‘So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey’ – Exodus 3:8

‘Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue’ – Song of Solomon 4:11

‘Humility must always be doing its work like a bee making its honey in the hive: without humility all will be lost’ – St Teresa of Avila

‘Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones’ – Proverbs 16:24

‘Delight in devotion and become a river of honey’ – Rumi

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