On the last day of September, 10,001 newcomers arrived at the Carmelite Friary in York, More House. Only one of them, Brother Andy Joyce, will live in the house itself. The other 10,000 will live in a beehive at the bottom of the garden.

photo taken in garden of Carmelite Friary in York

Brother Andy has moved to the community in the York suburb of Heslington having completed his year as a novice friar at Aylesford Priory in Kent. Originally from nearby Bradford, Andy will be working as a pastoral assistant at the University of York Catholic Chaplaincy (based in More House), and the Chaplaincy at York District Hospital, both entrusted to the Carmelite Friars by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough. He will undertake various courses of study, like fellow community member, Brother Gerard Walsh, who lives in More House when not studying in Dublin.

photo of some of the 10001 new residents at York's Carmelite Friary

Like Brother Andy, the 10,000 bees, which arrived the same day, have come from a religious site, namely a churchyard in Naburn, a village not far from Heslington. The Carmelite Friars decided to give them a new home thanks to an encounter with bees earlier in the summer. Hospital Chaplain, Fr Pat O’Keeffe, noticed two swarms of bees in the garden that he tends at More House. They were taken away safely by a local beekeeper, David, who offered to come back and teach the friars how to care for bees. The friars eagerly agreed, and have set up a small gravelled area where the bees won’t be disturbed by the many people who use the garden for reflection and recreation.

photo of hive being installed at York Carmelite Friary

The Prior of the community, Fr Tony Lester, is ‘buzzing’ with excitement about the new arrivals:

Bees are fascinating creatures, and we’re really looking forward to having them here and learning how to care for them. There’s already a hive of wild bees in one of the chimneys here, and Pat keeps the flowerbeds and lavender so beautifully, the bees should find plenty to feed on. Bees play an essential role in our ecology, and with numbers in decline, it’s important that we support them as best we can. As part of our Justice and Peace work, the Carmelite Order worldwide is committed to promoting the responsible care of God’s Creation, and keeping bees is a well-known part of the heritage of religious orders. I don’t know whether we’ll get enough wax for candles in our chapel, but we might get a few jars of honey.

photo of Carmelites about to release 10000 new residents in York

Since the early days of Christianity, spiritual writers have seen bees as an allegory of religious life, particularly because of their industriousness and co-operation. One of the first observations made of the Carmelite Order was by Jacques de Vitry, a theologian interested in the history of the Holy Land. Writing in the thirteenth century about the Carmelite hermits who wore striped bee-like cloaks, he said they lived ‘in imitation of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, where in little comb-like cells, those bees of the Lord laid up sweet spiritual honey’ (History of Jerusalem, Chapter 27).

Carmelite friar, Blessed Titus Brandsma, reflecting on Jacques de Vitry’s image, wrote in the 1930s:

All the simple duties of our daily round, done in the spirit of love and penance, bloom along the autumn moorland of our lives. They are rich with honey. So like the busy bees, let us build up our spiritual store from the actions of our daily routine.

In the coming days, More House will be a hive of activity as the University of York prepares to welcome several thousand students for the new academic year.

To read a reflection on the spiritual symbolism of bees by Pope Piux XII click here.

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