Lea Schweitz is one of four participants in the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers program. The emerging writers will have articles on Bearings Online every other month for the 2020-2021 year while receiving mentorship by Michael McGregor.
In late July, when I rolled into a workday as an apprentice beekeeper, the master beekeeper said: “Today’s the day!” We had been watching for the right combination of wind, clouds, and cool temperatures to treat our bee colonies with an organic compound that would help the hives fend off lethal Varroa mites and survive the Midwest winter. We were ready with a car battery to hook up to a vaporizer, beekeeper veils, and a smoker, but we couldn’t know ahead of time when to schedule the task. We couldn’t make an appointment to treat the hives the following Tuesday at 1:30pm. Instead, we waited. The day would come, but we needed patience and openness to be ready when it did.
Four months earlier, this scene would have been unimaginable to me. I was a tenured seminary professor, an administrator, and mom of two young boys. Everything was rigorously, meticulously scheduled ahead of time. Our family calendar looked like a Jackson Pollack painting with meetings, practices, and deadlines in color-coded categories splattered across the month.
The day would come, but we needed patience and openness to be ready when it did.
When I applied to become an apprentice beekeeper, I needed a time-out, but that’s not the reason I applied. I told my dean that I was applying to become a beekeeper to support my research. The story I told her was that working with bees in community gardens and city lots on Chicago’s south side was a perfect case study for theology, urban nature, and environmental racism, all of which was true. The story I told my family was that beekeeping would be a way to explore parks and gardens with my kids. Also true.
What was also true was the story I told the master beekeeper: that I remembered feeling whole when I was in the tallgrass prairie as an ecology major in college. The deep roots of the Little Bluestem grasses anchored me. The sparkling green Tiger Beetles captured my imagination. The Red-winged Blackbirds refused to be ignored. I wanted to teach my kids to feel the connection and expansiveness of the prairie. I didn’t know how to do that in the city, but becoming her apprentice would help.
How I came to apply for the apprenticeship is a story in itself. I had already applied for a new job that I imagined would return me to my rural roots, move my research explicitly into public health, and bring relief from the distracted, abstract expressionist style of my calendar in Chicago. The same day I received the search committee’s rejection letter for that position, I also received the posting for an apprentice beekeeper. I crafted a way to add a beekeeping apprenticeship into my schedule, and I applied from my phone while I lay in bed beside my preschooler who was fighting a nap.
Looking back, the confluence of the rejection letter and the apprenticeship job posting was a kairos moment. Kairos is one of two theological ideas of time imported from Greek sensibilities; kairos lives in a pair with chronos. Chronos is ordinary, calendar time chopped into months and minutes. Kairos is the extraordinary time of the fulfillment of God’s ways in the world. Kairos overflows into chronos time. Kairos moments happen on God’s calendar in those moments when God makes a way out of no way.
Kairos is the extraordinary time of the fulfillment of God’s ways in the world.
The kairos moment that drew together a rejection and an application, and my subsequent acceptance as a beekeeper apprentice, was just a glimpse of what was to come. During my apprenticeship, the bees taught me a new way to be in time as I learned to spot a queen, check for eggs, and place stingless drones in the hands of frightened, curious, giggly neighborhood kids. I knew how to march in time, but the honeybees showed me how to dance to the rhythms of nature in the city. Bees don’t track hours and minutes. They waggle to sing pollen levels, beard to cool off in the heat, and somehow know to take cover before a thunderstorm. I had to let go of my calendar in order to learn how to be more like the bees and the honey farmers who care for them: Make honey while the sun shines! I learned a creative, connected way to be in time, co-creating time to the rhythms of the Holy Spirit in the wind and the rain and the trees and the bees.
I knew how to march in time, but the honeybees showed me how to dance to the rhythms of nature in the city.
Maybe we need to make up a fancy term, like phenological time, for this way of being with God in nature. Phenology is the study of the timing of nature’s cycles according to the climate and rhythms of the seasons. So, phenological time describes the spiritual practice of aligning with the repeated, connected cycle of change in the natural world. It indicates a way of being present with the natural world and the Creator God within it. It’s the way my son knows his birthday is coming because the Black-eyed Susans are blooming. It’s planting tomatoes and watermelons when the moon is waxing. It’s knowing that bedtime is after the fireflies go dark.
On a late spring afternoon, more than a year after my beekeeping apprenticeship ended, my family was hiking at a nearby wet prairie at Illinois State Beach Park, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. My oldest son casually called out, “Hey Mom. It’s an Ohio Spiderwort.” It’s not remarkable that he knows this flower because we have some planted near our home, and I greet them by name, like a neighbor, as we come and go. “Good evening, Spiderwort! See you in the morning.”
What is remarkable is that we caught one blooming in the wild. The Ohio Spiderwort is a sweet little blue-purple prairie flower with a triangular trinity of petals that open at dawn and then wither as the day heats up. On a Midwestern summer day, they shrivel and melt by mid afternoon. Everything had to align for my family to be in the prairie in June, after weeks of pandemic sheltering-in-place, at the right time. And, my son could only recognize this flower and call it by name because of the regular, repeated neighbor-love we have shared with the Spiderworts in our yard.
Spiderworts bloom like bees make honey. They are on God’s phenological time, and on that family hike we got to be in time with them through the spiritual practice of continual, cyclical, noticing, naming, and caring — especially caring — of the natural world. Greeting Spiderworts in my city yard is not unlike tending urban bees. They show me that the spirit moves not just in chronos months and minutes or kairos moments, but also in the connected rhythms and cycles and phases of nature. I am still an apprentice to this way of being in God’s time, but I am learning.
Spiderworts are on God’s phenological time, and on that family hike we got to be in time with them through the spiritual practice of continual, cyclical, noticing, naming, and caring.