Face to Face with Invisible Honeybees

We are the bees of the Invisible. Passionately, we plunder the honey of the visible, in order to gather it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.

These are the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, from a letter to his friend Witold Hulewicz, 1925.

It has been a life dream of mine to write a book. And in August of last year, I had achieved this dream…almost. I had composed, collected, and refined a book that addressed what I take to be the most timely and most timeless question: what does it mean to be a human being? But my own lofty estimation of this book’s content would not allow me to name it “Untitled,” or “Anonymous.” As the Alaskan summer began to end and as I began to pack up for my return to San Francisco to begin my last year in the PCC Master’s program, I found myself at just such an impasse: I had written a book but I had nothing to call it. It was in this moment of crisis that these words of Rilke descended on my infertile mind, like one of those very gold-stripéd priestesses of Demeter itself alighting on a sunflower:

Transformed? Yes, for our task is to stamp this provisional, perishing earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully, so truly, that its being may rise again, invisibly, in us, as spirit. We are the bees of the Invisible. Passionately, we plunder the honey of the visible, in order to gather it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.

It struck me that Rilke’s words contained the germ of my entire project. Obviously, as human beings, we have a part to play in the Earth community. But we cannot possibly know what that part is before we know what the human being is.
The challenges that we face today—climate change, war in Syria, poverty in the Tenderloin district outside the front door of his building in downtown San Francisco—emerge precisely as symptoms that we have forgotten our role as human beings. When we know how to listen, we can hear in these symptoms the stern voice of angels, admonishing us to remember ourselves—to “know ourselves;” crises speak with the tongues of angels to relay inconvenient truths. One could safely conclude that today, the world is kindly sending choirs of messengers for our edification.

How can human beings re-establish integration in a world whose balance we have disrupted? The chorus of primeval wisdom intones the answer with a clarity undiminished by the ages:

Gnothi Seauton 
“O human, Know Thyself”

This injunction from the Oracle at Delphi is as ancient as history, and never before has it been valued less and needed more. HONEYBEES OF THE INVISIBLE is foremost an attempt to understand this injunction and its meaning for our time. Rilke writes that “We are the Bees of the Invisible.” What is our honey? What is our original gift as human beings? I hope, by the end of this talk, that together we may have lived into the answer.

The honeybee gathers seasonal nectar, reciprocally plundering and pollinating the lily, the apple-blossom, the dandelion. These buzzing alchemists of Nature then transmute this seasonal nectar into imperishable liquid gold—the temporary becomes timeless. As Rilke indicates, in this task, human beings can be their disciples. What the honeybee accomplishes in Nature, the human being is to accomplish in Spirit. For the human being, the Great Work consists in the sacred distillation of our worldly experience into its imperishable tincture, which is to say, its spirit, its meaning, its quintessence. The doorway through which fleeting phenomena reënter eternity is in the human soul.

Consider the rose-bush in winter: to my outer eye, the rose-bush reveals only a bleak and thorny exterior. In this sense, the rose-bush, and all of Nature, hides its entire past and future in phenomenal enchantment—enchantment in plain sight. But when I know it as a rose-bush, a cluster of grey-brown knotted thorns becomes pregnant with invisible sleeping beauty, a secret promise waiting only for the proper season to unfold its hidden mystery. In this way, the human mind is like a spiritual mirror, in whose reflection a rose-bush becomes the Rose, appearance becomes essence. The outer world provides occasion only for what is fleeting. Nature depends on the theatre of the human soul to provide venue for her eternal aspect. Indeed, it is in this reflection that a transient phenomenon may become a thing of beauty and “a joy forever.” One cannot expect honey from a milking cow, and neither is it to be recommended that one try to milk a honeybee. All creatures perform an irreplaceable task in Nature and no other creature besides the human being provides the outer rose-bush with a sanctuary to reveal its inner aspect—as a symbol of immortal Beauty.

The human being is to be the collector of spiritual nectar and the alchemist of invisible honey. Our nectar is outer experience and our honey is inner meaning. Only the human being can behold Nature as a work of art, or as a marvel of incarnate wisdom. This act is to gather the dew of Truth and the nectar of Beauty from the sense-world to return it to the great golden hive of the Invisible. In passing, one may notice that a sip from the cup of this spiritual nectar does not empty the cup, but fills it: “Love multiplies, not divides,” as an old saw expresses this fact. In this way, “extraction of spiritual resources” really has nothing in common with the suggestive associations that this phrase might invite today. Obviously, a survey of the Earth from cosmic space—a view of the oil rigs, skyscrapers, and highway traffic that cover the entire planet— would reveal the trappings of a species more akin to mosquitoes or termites than the honeybees of the Invisible that Rilke describes.

Thus the human being, with the highest potential, often falls the lowest and exploits Nature for his own insatiable craving. Other creatures are blameless in this regard. A honeybee does not see in the sunrise the moving image of eternal Truth and Beauty, but neither does it pillage the Earth for meaningless satisfaction of a rapacious instinct for unbridled consumerism.

One might object that, if the honeybee were to be granted dominion over all creatures of the Earth, that it might actually prove more ruthlessly materialistic than the human being. This is unlikely, though one must concede that it is not logically impossible. Nevertheless, one must also concede that this question conveniently evades our grasp of moral responsibility by sending us in chimerical pursuit of a counterfactual decoy. In this way it defers our attention from the true heart of the issue. The most important point is the Freedom of the human being. Human beings are free to do otherwise—to counteract basic instincts for consumerism, tribalism, and self-preservation. This spiritual Freedom is probably the most sacred possession of the human soul because in Freedom is the latent possibility for spiritual Love—Agapē. Freedom is the esoteric meaning of Prometheus’ fire, and Love is like the rose blossom that, once called forth by the heat and light, appears with the return of Spring. “Midwinter spring is its own season,” writes T. S. Eliot to begin the last of his Four Quartets, and he ends the work with the lines:

Now, when the tongues of flame are folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

This is really the heart of our challenge today: like the fire of physics, and fire of the sun, the secret fire of Freedom can wreak manifold destruction. Indeed this aspect of fire is precisely what burned our bridge from the Eden of Nature in the first place (and placed at the gates “the Cherubim with a flaming sword”). “The tree,” wrote St. Augustine, “which had brought about the Fall and the loss of Paradise, shall be the instrument of redemption.” Augustine is of course referring to the Genesis Creation story, and tasting from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Severance from Nature is also Freedom from Nature, and Freedom from Nature means that we could love Nature, but also injure her. My finger does not love my hand, but neither can it engineer any injury against it. In this way, it would be meaningless to speak of spiritual Love so long as the human being remained in the state of pre-reflective original participation in the womb of Nature. “The tree which had brought about the Fall and the loss of Paradise, shall be the instrument of redemption.”

What is this redemption? The Chorus Mysticus declares the following lines at the end of Goethe’s Faust:

Everything transient
Is but a metaphor.

Actually the word in German is Gleichnis, which literally means “likeness.” It is not uncommon to find this word translated in English not as “metaphor,” but as “parable.” Until now, we have considered transient experience as a metaphor, as when we imagined the appearance of the rose and contrasted this to the being of the rose. So while we have first considered how everything transient may become a metaphor for eternal Truth and Beauty, here we can consider everything transient as a parable to teach us Goodness. Everything in the world is fleeting, and the soil to sustain new life is provided only by the continual dying of the old. Everything offers itself to be trodden under foot, and we live only by the grace of Nature’s loving sacrifice. In this way, all of life becomes a parable to teach us Goodness, selflessness, Love.

With this point I have transitioned into subject-matter so full of meaning that my cup runneth over into a second book. If Honeybees of the Invisible sought to establish that human beings are Honeybees of meaning, BUT NOW FACE TO FACE explores the highest meaning of all: Love. I am indebted to Rilke for the title of the first book, and for the second I am indebted to Saint Paul. In particular, the title comes from his famous letter to the Church of Corinth:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Love in Saint Paul’s meaning is a question of relationship, and it is a question of a specific quality of relationship: namely, relating to another on his or her own terms rather than through the glass of our own self-concern. Love is the one thing that cannot be possessed; love is gained only in the giving it away. In this way it is the only antidote to materialism. To meet one another “face-to-face” is, perhaps, a distant ideal, but it strikes me that it may be the most important ideal in the world today. I wrote most of the content of this book in the months leading up to the Presidential Election in November. During that time, it became more obvious every day that we never meet one another face to face, but only through the reflection of labels, prejudices, and preconceptions, which is to say, “through a glass, darkly.” This book was an attempt to understand and to overcome this fragmentation.

Let us again invite the image of the rose-bush into our mind’s eye and then inquire: Where is the flower in January?
It’s nowhere in manifest space—this is precisely the point. Instead, the rose in full flower hovers outside of space, as an idea, a potential waiting to be born. This incarnation into space and time depends on the necessary conditions of spring rains and summer sun, the marriage of water and fire. If the rose should bloom, the sun and the rain did not cause the rose to bloom. They were, however, necessary conditions for its appearance. The true and final cause was the spiritual germ, the Lógos, the Invisible Idea, only waiting for the proper season to be made manifest.

So likewise, But Now Face to Face affirms Love as the sublime potential waiting to incarnate in the heart of humankind. It is like the Invisible rose in winter: imminent, eminent, immanent,…It is there, but unmanifest, invisible, hiding behind space in a firmament of simultaneous time. Indeed Love awaits only that we, as human beings, fulfill the conditions for its birth. This is an alchemical wedding, a marriage of fire and water,
the Sun and the Moon—
pater eius est Sol, mater eius est Luna—
the wedding of Will and Wisdom,
The Outer and the Inner,
Osiris and Isis,
the sunlight of Freedom with the rain of understanding.

My inspiration behind these books and behind this talk today is to offer my small contribution towards this Great Work of humankind on the Earth.

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