Some of the longest and most vivid passages in The Secret Life of Bees are about the elaborate religious ceremonies and rituals that take place at the Boatwright house. The three Boatwright sisters subscribe to a religion they’ve developed themselves, blending aspects of Catholicism and African-American history.
The Secret Life of Bees makes it clear that rituals and ceremonies are bent and shaped according to the needs of the people who practice them. The Boatwrights, together with the so-called Daughters of Mary, practice a religion in which they worship the Virgin Mary, whom they depict as a black woman. Every week, the Daughters assemble around a small statue of the Virgin and pray to it. August Boatwright’s explanation for the Daughters’ ritual is that African-Americans need a religion that reflects their own culture, history, and even their appearance. According to the “history” of the Boatwrights’ religion, the statue of the Virgin Mary was given to a slave (Obadiah) by Mary herself, inspiring the slave to break free from his chains. In this tradition, the black Daughters of Mary—who, quite rightly, believe that they’re still the victims of white racism and oppression—obey a set of rituals that are designed to respect their own unique history and culture.
This leads to one of Kidd’s most important points about ritual: it’s designed to build a strong community and sense of identity. By assembling in the same place every week, and worshipping a statue that explicitly represents black history, the Daughters of Mary aren’t just reminding themselves of the importance of prayer and worship—they’re reminding themselves that they are strong, and that they are a group bound together by their common history and heritage. Ceremony and ritual don’t just reflect a community—they nurture it.
One natural question, then, is whether or not the Daughters believe in the literal truth of their rituals. The answer is complicated. While the Daughters have great respect for the statue of Mary, and pray before it with a sense of awed reverence, they’re also fully aware that the statue isn’t literally a relic of the slave era, passed down from the Virgin Mary. August makes this clear when she tells Lily that the statue is actually a figurehead snapped off an old ship. The Daughters don’t worship the statue because of its deep holiness—on the contrary, they give it this holiness in the act of worshipping it. (To emphasize this point, Kidd shows us that casual observers such as T. Ray find the statue of Mary ugly and worthless.) This points to the fact that ceremonies are meant to nurture a sense of holiness that’s already within worshippers’ souls. As August tells Lily, the Virgin Mary isn’t a statue on a table—she’s inside Lily already. Lily’s goal when praying before the statue shouldn’t be to find enlightenment in the statue itself. It should be to find this sense of enlightenment already within herself.
Ultimately, Kidd suggests that rituals are designed to help worshippers find their own wisdom, not tell them what wisdom is. The best proof of this is the fact that Lily—a white teenager surrounded by middle-aged black women—is welcomed into the Daughters of Mary. Although worshipping a black Virgin Mary is designed to instill a sense of community in the Daughters, its ultimate purpose is also to help people be at peace with themselves. Lily isn’t black, and hasn’t gone through the same experiences as the Daughters, but because she’s sincere in her desire to be enlightened and happy, she becomes one of the Daughters.
Ceremony and Ritual ThemeTracker
Ceremony and Ritual Quotes in The Secret Life of Bees
The lips on the statue had a beautiful, bossy half smile, the sight of which caused me to move both my hands up to my throat. Everything about that smile said, Lily Owens, I know you down to the core.
I walked the length of the fence, and it was the same all the way, hundreds of these bits of paper. I pulled one out and opened it, but the writing was too blurred from rain to make out. I dug another one. Birmingham, Sept 15, four little angels dead.
“Mary smiled at Beatrix, then led her back to her room and gave her back her nun outfit. You see, Lily, all that time Mary had been standing in for her.”
“The people called her Our Lady of Chains. They called her that not because she wore chains…”
“Not because she wore chains,” the Daughters chanted.
“They called her Our Lady of Chains because she broke them.”
“Well,” August said, going right on with her pasting, “you know, she’s really just the figurehead off an old ship, but the people needed comfort and rescue, so when they looked at it, they saw Mary, and so the spirit of Mary took it over. Really, her spirit is everywhere, Lily, just everywhere.”
“What I mean is that the bees weren’t really singing the words from Luke, but still, if you have the right kind of ears, you can listen to a hive and hear the Christmas story somewhere inside yourself.”
“Egg laying is the main thing, Lily. She’s the mother of every bee in the hive, and they all depend on her to keep it going. I don’t care what their job is—they know the queen is their mother. She’s the mother of thousands.”