The Secret Life of Bees and Images of Mary

Blog Published: November 14, 2008
By Sister Julie

I just saw the movie The Secret Life of Bees. I had read the book by Sue Monk Kidd a while back when it first came out. I loved the book and so I was nervous about seeing the movie because something is always different. But I figured Queen Latifah, whom I adore, was in the movie so it would at least be enjoyable to see her. Still I had some second thoughts, especially after my friends bailed on me. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a movie by myself. Seemed a little weird, but I went with it. In fact this was probably providential because the movie itself went from being a mere movie to something of a meditation for me, something which had I been surrounded by friends or people (there were only 5 or 6 other people there) might not have happened.

The movie, in a nutshell, is as follows:

Set in South Carolina in 1964, it’s the tale of Lily Owens, a 14 year-old girl who is haunted by the memory of her late mother. To escape her lonely life and troubled relationship with her father, Lily flees with Rosaleen, her caregiver and only friend, to a South Carolina town that holds the secret to her mother’s past. Taken in by the intelligent and independent Boatwright sisters, Lily finds solace in their mesmerizing world of beekeeping, honey and the Black Madonna. (source: IMDb.com)

What I love about this movie as well as the book, is the imagery of Mary the Mother of God that pervades and grounds this story. Granted, Kidd did fictionalize a lot of the stuff around Mary lore, but it’s still compelling.

The imagery begins with a line from Lily at the beginning of the movie. (A lily flower, by the way, is a symbol for Mary.) Lily is fascinated by the arrival of bees and even imagines that they are swarming in her room as she lies awake in bed at night. Lily notes, “[The bees] showed up like the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary. I know it’s forward to compare my small life to hers, but I have good reason to believe she wouldn’t mind.”

This reference to the Annunciation when Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God is crucial to understanding the whole movie (from my humble perspective). The wiser-beyond-her-years Lily has an inkling that her life will forever change in the near future, a change that will bring her new life.

Mary imagery appears again in the form of a label for Black Madonna Honey. It this label that leads Lily from the tyranny of her father T. Ray to the home of May, June, and August Boatwright in Tiburon, South Carolina. It’s as if Mary herself is helping to lead Lily and guide her to new life. FYI while the Black Madonna that the Boatwright Sisters talk about is fiction, there really is a Black Madonna, and in fact, multiple ones.

Mary imagery appears yet again when Lily and Rosaleen first arrive at the Boatwright house. In the parlor is a striking statue of the Boatwright’s Black Madonna. I personally missed the original language of the book that referred to the statue as Our Lady of Chains of which August says that the reference to chains is “not because she wore them, but because she broke them.” Lots can be said about this statue. What was most meaningful to me was the focal point of the statue: Mary’s heart. It is Mary’s heart that the Boatwright sisters, and the prayer group “the Daughters of Mary”, touch for healing, for comfort, for encouragement, for connection to the Sacred. In our Catholic tradition we refer to Mary’s heart as the Immaculate Heart of Mary (something which I want to write more about soon).

One of the most profound images of Mary comes in two of the Boatwright sisters: August (Queen Latifah) and May (Sophie Okonedo). Although we don’t hear much about August’s past, her motherly presence is unmistakable. She is a living image of Mary the Mother of God. Her sister May is also an image of Mary but more so as Our Lady of Sorrows. It is May who represents the Mary who “holds all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). She takes in each and every bit of suffering that she sees and feels around her, and holds it in her heart. May’s character is probably my most favorite of the whole movie. She embodies the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the heart pierced by a sword because of the suffering of her child and the suffering of the world.

These are just a few of the powerful images that remain with me from the movie. As I mentioned above, the movie became a kind of prayer for me, leading me to think a lot about Mary (the real one, not the fictionalized one) and about myself as an Immaculate Heart of Mary sister. I will be pondering these things for a while.

Tell me your thoughts about the movie, book, or these reflections …

Archived Comments

katney November 14, 2008 at 12:21 pm

We’re headed to the library this afternoon to gather for our two week camping (yes, camping) and Thanksgiving trip. Sounds like something to check out.

Joan Wester Anderson November 14, 2008 at 2:57 pm

What a wonderful review of Bees. And you filled in a few holes for me too. I had completely missed the meaning of May’s weeping, just thinking of her as a sensitive soul. I didn’t pick up on the connection between her and Our Lady of Sorrows. One of my favorites scenes was of the group of women enjoying a prayer group meeting with Mary as their center. We white women are so used to thinking of black women as Baptists or at least not “into” the Blessed Mother; this was such a beautiful blend of religious and social customs. I felt so at home with all of them. Mary can always bring us together!

Betsy November 14, 2008 at 4:11 pm

I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this movie. I actually saw it last night with my book club – a group of 8 women who have been meeting monthly for over 8 years! I couldn’t have asked for a better group of women to see this with – we range in ages from 36 – 68, married, single and divorced, straight and not straight. Anyway, we read the book several years back and decided to have a field trip last night and WHAT a bonding experience. What would we do without our female friends?

Lucia November 14, 2008 at 2:33 pm

I loved the book. LOVED it. When I have any money that is not in the form of pesos or Israeli new sheqels, I will DEFINITELY be seeing it!

Susan Rose, CSJP November 14, 2008 at 8:39 pm

I LOVE going to movies by myself – although this one I actually saw with one of our Sisters last month when it came out. I too was wary of seeing the movie version, but figured with Queen Latifah & Jennifer Hudson it couldn’t be that bad. I thought they did a wonderful job of capturing the feel of the books, although I wonder if someone who hadn’t read the book would catch much of the Marian imagery.

Ray November 15, 2008 at 2:52 pm

I read this book for our religious themes in literature class but never saw the movie…I also missed the connection between May and Our Lady of Sorrows and thank you for such a great point and analysis.

The Catholic concept of the Immaculate Heart of Mary would definitely be interesting to explore a lot more, as would her depiction across different cultures (Black Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Depictions in Asia and Western European culture). Great post.

Jen November 16, 2008 at 12:52 am

Hrm…might have to look for this one. I wasn’t sure if I’d like it when it came out.

Sister Julie November 16, 2008 at 5:57 am

I didn’t see the image in May until I saw the movie. Incidentally, the month of May is the month of Mary in the Catholic tradition (e.g., May crownings, etc.).

Forgot to mention that the soundtrack was very good. The orchestral music was great as were the various songs throughout. iTunes has the orchestral soundtrack but not the collection of tunes.

Jackie November 17, 2008 at 3:29 pm

Hi Sister Julie! I loved the book too, and like you hesitated to see the movie, but was so glad I did. Thanks for such an insighful post, it added more layers of understanding and depth to the images of Mary. Like the others who have commented, I missed the significance of May and the name Lily. Now I feel like seeing the movie again armed with this additional information One thing no one has said is if they cried during the movie. I sure did! It was so moving.

Sister Julie November 17, 2008 at 7:07 pm

OMG, I wept through the movie. I wept for the characters, for myself, and for people who in real life go through stuff like that. I’m not a weepy person in general, but this story gets to me, in a good way.

Karen November 18, 2008 at 11:23 am

I have not seen the movie or read the book – yet – but am definitely going to do so very soon and it sounds like I’m in for a real treat. I have been thinking a lot about Mary lately and going to her in prayer more regularly. I don’t know why exactly but just feel the need for a mother’s care. So it was great to read about this book/movie since for me it is coming at an opportune time. Thank you for giving such a great description and setting up the story. I can’t wait to read/see it.

Sister Julie November 18, 2008 at 5:59 pm

Hi Karen, Another fictional book about Mary that I rather like is Our Lady of the Lost and Found: A Novel of Mary, Faith, and Friendship. For non-fiction, I highly recommend Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.

Annette April 7, 2009 at 11:47 am

I’m really glad I saw this-now I will read the book first. I never knew there were so many dark madonnas-I grew up in a polish parish and we had Our Lady of Czestochowa featured promminently in our chapel. I love your analysis as well. I love the BVM. My love for her has kept me catholic-no other faith is the same where she is concerned. My episcopalian brother-in-law calls her Saint Mary. Sounds strange no? His Luthern wife calls the Pope the bishop of Rome. We are all Christian and believe a lot of the same things but Mary and transubstantiation beliefs make us differnt. Thank you for posting the other book recommendations.

Linda April 25, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Maybe my all time favorite book. So when I rescued an old outdoor statue of Mary at a garage sale, badly in need of repainting, I’m thinking of painting her like the photo you have posted. I’m far from an artist but I’m going to give it a try. Thanks for the great photo.

Discerninglife25 April 26, 2009 at 9:54 am

I have a question. I read this book in my English class, and I go to a Catholic school. Doesn’t anyone remember reading the part when they are having their “get-togethers” and they offer eachother the bread? They say something like “This is the Body of Mary.” This is almost mocking the Eucharist in a way. Doesn’t that go against the Catholic Church in a sense, even if it does mention our Blessed Mother? Though she is portrayed as a good, strong character– it almost portrays her as a god–which she is not. Not to mention that Christ was never mentioned which is the whole reason why we Catholics give Mary honor.

I completely understand why many Catholics enjoy reading and hearing such good things about Mary, but isn’t the book portraying Mary as something she is not?

Sister Julie April 26, 2009 at 5:40 pm

Hi DL25, I do remember that part. The sharing of bread is a fairly common ritual, though the accompanying words definitely parallel the Words of Institution. Although there was a lot of Catholic imagery, for me it was distinct enough that it didn’t seem to mock or blur the lines. I thought it did well at picking up on the richly symbolic and sacramental feel of the Catholic faith, but you’re right, it’s not a complete or accurate portrayal of the Catholic faith but I don’t think there was ever any intention of doing so. Though using lots of Mary imagery, the author never equates the book Mary (Our Lady of the Chains) with the Catholic Mary. In fact the image of Mary in the book is arguably more of an image of the Divine than an image of the BVM.

jean October 9, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Father John Dear, SJ has been on my mind lately because he was due to speak in a city I was visiting a few weeks ago. I just ordered his book: “Mary of Nazareth, Prophet of Peace”. Looks fabulous. Thought people might be interested in another “image” of Mary.

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