In August last year Mary and I visited the glorious Gothic cathedral in Strasbourg, France. The term ‘Gothic’ was given by the succeeding era, the Renaissance, which saw these architectural behemoths as ugly and barbaric whereas to
us they are imposing, spectacular, and awe-inspiring - literally, as they were meant to be.
These sacred structures are rich with allegory. For example, the European cathedrals all face east so that the rising sun shines through
a magnificent rose window high on the eastern facade, the center of which is the Christ figure itself. Entering from the west, into darkness, the supplicant is suddenly blinded by the light. The message is obvious.
Similarly, in a population that was essentially illiterate, the stained glass windows, art work on the walls and sculptures told a story, the Christian story. It was the classroom of the masses.
In his inspirational book, The
Cathedral Within, Bill Shore uses cathedral building as a metaphor for how our society can martial resources to best help children. Certainly there were some critical architectural inventions in the medieval period (pillars and vaults supporting the
roof so that the wall space could be filled with stained glass windows, for example) but more important was an understanding of the human spirit that allowed traditional materials to be used with new designs to create something lasting and magnificent.
For the architects and builders the cathedral was not a fringe benefit of their work; rather it was the core purpose. Faith and inspiration were the essential ingredients of the whole design. Those who began the project knew they would
not see the final product; rather they believed in it so deeply, so resolutely , with such authenticity, that it resonates in our hearts even today.
The building itself required a sharing of strengths and resources of materials,
skills, labor and finances drawn from across Europe. “Somehow,” writes Bill Shore, “it had been both communicated and understood that it wasn’t just that building a truly great cathedral would require everyone to share their strength,
but rather that everyone sharing their strength would result in a truly great cathedral.”
And I have to say one is struck by how the locals who have grown up in the shadow of these edifices take their presence for granted,
walking alongside them without a second glance.
Just as the Gothic cathedrals were an analogy for the Christian journey and the human spirit, as well as visions of hope and comfort for the late medieval people who lived in such overwhelming,
harrowing conditions, so are they an analogy for our current times and the choices we face. Climate change, for example, is much in the news, with the underlying message that our current life style is unsustainable. We need to redefine our expectations
and our definition of ‘progress;’ we need to combine traditional materials with new designs drawing on the strengths of all, knowing that we will not live to see the ultimate benefits.
The future cannot be a fringe benefit
of our work; rather it has to be the core purpose. We need faith in sustainable practices and the human spirit, we need a conviction so deep, so resolute, so authentic, that it drives all of our daily actions and choices. And we need to share our
strengths and resources so that we can build ‘a truly great cathedral,’ our planet.
At one level, this is what honey bees do every day and it is interesting to read the above with a colony in mind. They
have a vision that is constant and has lasted for millions of years. Tom Seeley has shown that given choices of potential homes the bees will invariably choose the most suitable habitat, which means that they must have an ideal against which to measure
each home that they investigate. He describes too how, operating under pressure of time, they report back to each other on the surface of the swarm, investigate what others enthuse over, and use a quorum to make a decision that will determine their
I doubt that any individual bee measures her work rate against that of her sisters; it is her contribution to the greater whole, the over-riding vision, that is vital. And the final result of that combination of
inspiration and intuition is the green cathedral that we call a hive.
Honey bees realize too that diverse resources need to be integrated into an architecture if it is to function and survive, and that all of the materials
are needed, whether it be nectar, pollen, propolis and water, or the various house duties of the young worker bees integrated with the bounties of the older foragers. There is a recognition that everyone has value to add, everyone has a strength to share,
even the drones.
My guess is that the same attributes apply to a successful beekeeping association. And just as the public too often takes the gifts of the honey bee for granted, so too we can easily assume that a good meeting or
rewarding council somehow just happens.
Whether it was the architects and laborers of the Middle Ages, the honey bees or each of us who has responsibility for the quality of this planet, the devotion to a task that might seem
over-whelming must span an entire career because the challenge cannot be accomplished in less than that time.