Life in a cell/cell/cell

by Shappa, Journeyman Beekeeper at Airway Heights Corrections Center. Shappa wrote this piece in response to a call for writing on “science in prison.”

Living in a prison cell is a combination of living in a honeybee hive and a monastery: a place where active growth where peace and contentment can be attained once you realize your vocation in life. In all three — prison, hive, and monastery — there is growth in a small space for each transitory life (inmate, bee, and monk) living in the cell. All are organized, by either custody level, colony, or community, in a structured, and hopefully disciplined way. One of the strangest and yet unsurprising aspects of each is the frequency of death, disorder, or disruption.

A queen bee (marked by a pink dot) is surrounded by worker bees in this healthy hive. Photo by Rachel Friederich.

The lives of honeybees are spent mostly working and living in a colony, or a hive, that has combs consisting of numerous cells. Their lifespans are short: 3-5 years for the queen, about 6 weeks for the female workers, and only 3 weeks or so for the males, called “drones.” The queen governs her colony, but she can and will be replaced if she’s not healthy enough or some other deficiency exists as determined by the worker bees. After mating with several drones, the queen lays hundreds of eggs daily, and the hive’s operation produces honey, wax, pollen, and royal jelly. In each magnificently-engineered comb (every cell is perfectly constructed at 70° angles), a honeybee’s life begins, honey is stored, wax is produced, and workers function in many other ways to furiously try to keep pace with a healthy queen in her hive.

Recreation of a monk’s cell in the Museum of the Sierra Gorda in Mexico. Photo by AlejandroLinaresGarcia.

Monks live in cells within a community where efforts to “die-to-self” begin. An abbot or prior manages the monastery; he instills obedience and becomes, in most cases, a spiritual counselor for the monks housed there. The monastery is a place of spiritual growth through prayer and work, referred to by Benedictine monks in Latin: ora et labora. It is a world far removed from secular society where a monk can fine-tune his prayers from the heart and hone skills of contentment and discernment using solitude, silence, and stillness. The unsatisfying, competitive consumerism of the world is abandoned and replaced when the monk surrenders to his higher authority, even at the cost of needed sleep when he’s called upon by God (or his abbot) to asceticism and self-sacrifice: intercessory prayer day and night can help those suffering; fasting can discipline oneself to exercise self-control over the flesh and build the virtue of temperance to overcome sin; and other forms of penance can excise vices. The consecrated life of a monk includes the three evangelical counsels: vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. A vow of stability is also included for Benedictines. Contemplative prayer, humility, and obedience — even in solitude when the monk is quietly alone with God and only God — are critical components of spiritual growth and heightened discernment, which is granted to the ones who have experiential encounters with Christ in the ineffable mysticism discovered in his cell.

Inmates live in a prison where they’re assigned to a cell: the place where you flourish, fail, or die depends on the choices you make. Prison is controlled and managed as a quasi-military organization with teams of officers who respond to situations ranging from an emotionally disturbed patient’s hurt feelings to hostage negotiations. Sometimes it’s a hostile battlefield where small wars erupt, both within oneself and without engagement of the mind. Other times it’s just an overflow for Eastern State Hospital. For the man who’s willing to honestly assess himself, put in the often difficult work necessary to change, start to properly order his life in a healthy way and answer his calling, there’s plenty of time and available resources to better their lives with spiritual enlightenment and enhance the future for themselves, their family, and their community.

Beekeepers at Airway Heights Corrections Center pose with their hives. Photo courtesy of Kay Heinrich.

An incubation period is always good for growth, whether it’s in a honeybee hive, a monastery, or a prison.

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