The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd was recommended to me by my Dad’s co-worker, a Catholic chaplain at a federal prison. At a Christmas party, we were chatting about authors who wrote on spirituality (like Thomas Moore, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Henri Nouwen) and he suggested that I might like The Secret Life of Bees.
I’ve never spent much time contemplating Mary, the mother of Jesus. Growing up, Mary was part of the Christmas story and didn’t show up the other 11 months of the year. Yet in Catholic traditions, she is part of everyday life. I think I like that: having a spiritual woman part of my everyday life. Reading The Secret Life of Bees truly made me grateful that I am a woman, and that doesn’t happen too often. The love, joy, forgiveness, and genuineness that Sue Monk Kidd creates within and between her characters had me mesmerized. Lily, a young teen with a dead mother and an abusive father, saves her housekeeper from jail and they run away together and into the lives of three extraordinary women: May, June, and August. These three sisters keep bees and sell honey, yet they have also created a community around the tradition of a black Mary. These women support each other and have true friendships that uplift and challenge each other to love more.
Monk Kidd’s novel tackles racism, abuse, sexism, and depression. She does not shy away from issues that most people like to ignore. In the novel, she creates situations that seem so outrageous, yet most likely happened. Situations of black women being beaten in prison by their white male accusers. White people standing in the way of black people registering to vote. Black teens being arrested for throwing a coke bottle at white men. Yet the three sisters–May, June, and August–are strong and they gather other women around them to encourage them and support them. Lily, who has run away from home, is treated with kindness and love, and with a patience that seems unworldly. As she works with the bees, she learns more about herself and about reality:
“The sting shot pain all the way to my elbow, causing me to marvel at how much punishment a minuscule creature can inflict. I’m prideful enough to say I didn’t complain. After you get stung, you can’t get unstung no matter how much you whine about it. I just dived back into the riptide of saving bees” (pg 167)
I love Lily’s attitude. Stung, yet dove back into the work and didn’t get angry or upset at the bees. August keeps reminding her to send love to the bees and to remain calm and observe. Life lesson!
Lily isn’t always calm and patient, and has some fantastic moments of rage and pain about how life has treated her. We follow Lily’s progression from an angry, confused girl, into a young woman who is learning that the most subversive thing a woman can do is love herself. As Lily helps the sisters care for the bees, she learns a lot of about herself:
Her hands stayed where they were but released their pressure. “And whatever it is that keeps widening your heart, that’s Mary, too, not only the power inside you but the love. And when you get down to it, Lily, that’s the only purpose grand enough for a human life. Not just to love–but to persist in love.”
She paused. Bees drummed their sound into the air. August retrieved her hands from the pile on my chest, but I left mine there.
“This Mary I’m talking about sits in your heart all day long, saying, ‘Lily, you are my everlasting home. Don’t you ever be afraid. I am enough. We are enough.'”
I closed my eyes, and in the coolness of the morning, there among the bees, I felt for one clear instant what she was talking about. (Pg 289)
Lily learns something that most people struggle, not only to say, but to believe: I am enough. The three sisters have a statue of Mary that was inspirational to many black slaves in the area and they continue to draw strength from this statue. Yet in this conversation with August, Lily tries to find strength from outside of herself and August reminds her that Mary is there to draw out the best: Mary’s power doesn’t come from her statue, but instead comes from empowering others to see the beauty and love in themselves.
I found this book refreshing: looking at spirituality, Christianity, from a female perspective. And a wonderful reminder in Lent that yes, I am enough!
“Our Lady is not some magical being out there somewhere, like a fairy godmother. She’s not the statue in the parlor. She’s something inside of you. … You have to find a mother inside yourself. We all do. Even if we already have a mother, we still have to find this part of ourselves inside.” (Sue Monk Kidd)
“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with you.” (From the “Hail Mary” prayer)