A sunny outdoor Mass in the Yakima Valley in May is graced with surprise visitors.
I was in Prosser, in the Yakima Valley, on the last weekend in May for the wedding of my niece Bryn to Oliver, a fine, entrepreneurial young man with origins in New Zealand.
The home of Bryn’s parents, Bill and Lynette, is situated on the edge of town just above a bird sanctuary on the Yakima River. For 30 years, as all five of their children were growing up, they managed with one, solitary bathroom. Now for the wedding of the youngest, they had remodeled and expanded to include three full bathrooms.
In addition, a new, expansive stone patio extends from the house to the edge of the bank above the river. And my brother Bill, who’s a huge WSU fan, had the Cougar logo embedded in the patio in red stone. Lynette started planting lupine, wildflowers, sweet williams and new roses as early as last fall.
This was the setting for the Mass that I celebrated on Sunday, the day after the wedding. It was Pentecost Sunday, the liturgical celebration for the “descent of the Holy Spirit,” 50 days after Easter. It was a brilliant, sunny day with a cool breeze.
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For Mass, we set up a semicircle of chairs for 35 people around the makeshift altar. I sat at the altar with my back facing the river so that the little congregation gazed out beyond me to view half a dozen pelicans diving for the smolt (young salmon) scurrying downriver to the sea. They could see a couple of swans gliding in the distance, and across the river four mares nuzzled their frisky colts recently born.
All of nature seemed to conspire to celebrate this Sunday of “recreation,” this new life in the Spirit.
About two-thirds of the way through Mass, we were about to exchange the Kiss of Peace when suddenly hundreds and hundreds of bees invaded our idyllic reverie.
Initially fearful, I suddenly realized what was happening. A nearby beehive, likely in my brother’s orchard, had swollen to a size too large and was splitting. The worker bees had created a new queen, and now half the hive was on the move. They were swarming. I detected a harmonious buzz, not the high whine of an angry bee about to sting.
In a firm voice, I said, “The bees are swarming and looking for a new hive. They’re perfectly safe because they’re pacified. They have drawn in as much honey as they can carry to build a new hive.”
Sure enough. No one was stung. But the bees continued to dance just above us all through Communion time — as if they, too, were exchanging a kiss of peace and communing with each other.
Then, just as suddenly, right at the end of Mass, they started gathering on a branch of a nearby apricot tree. All five of the little children, ages 2 to 5, sat down on the edge of the patio, fascinated as the bees bundled and grew into a furry, brown, vibrating mass. Within 20 minutes they had formed a temporary, cone-shaped hive.
As the bees settled down, little Alison, my 2 ½-year-old grandniece, quietly came up to me and asked, “What does pacified mean?”
Mildly stunned that she so clearly remembered what I had said, I explained, “The bees are full of honey, so they are peaceful and gentle — just like you, Alison, after you have a candy bar. So they are pacified.” She seemed satisfied.
One of our Methodist friends from New Zealand said, “It wasn’t the descent of the Spirit in tongues of fire, but it was the descent of the Spirit in the form of bees.”
We all felt it was a specially graced moment. The divine, the human and nature gathered and danced in one ecstatic celebration.
Fr. Patrick Howell SJ is the rector (religious superior) of the Jesuit Community at Seattle University and professor of pastoral theology. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org