Monday, October 6, 2008
Therese of Liseux and Bee Bomb Sniffers
One of the strangest things I have ever done perhaps did not look all that strange. But it was. All I did was drive a few miles north on Route 9 to the Church of the Transfiguration in Tarrytown. And what was there? The corpse, the incorrupt body, of Saint Thérèse of Liseux, making one of its numerous stops on its endless journey around the world to be displayed to the faithful. For reasons best left unexplored I am fascinated by the Catholic cult of Incorrupt saints, those whose bodies did not or have not decomposed, as is the generally approved norm. Hagiography is full of bodies that were found intact after years underground, corpses that smelled like flowers, en-vialed blood that liquefies annually, for centuries after the saint’s death. I cannot begin to explain these things, but the fact that there are so many instances of Incorrupts and they are often extremely well documented, gives pause. (More than pause. See my new novel, Absent a Miracle, for more bizarre happenings.)
Thérèse of Liseux, who died in 1897, is still making the rounds. She was one of 5 living daughters of a French watchmaker and a lacemaker. In the end, all 5 daughters entered the Carmelite convent, for which the parents are much honored, but it always seemed to me terribly sad, to think that all of one’s children chose a cloister over procreation and domestic bliss.
Thérèse's life in the Carmel at Liseux was about simplicity and directness. When urged by her superior to write a spiritual autobiography, the resulting book, The History of a Soul, was so well-received and beloved because it spoke so directly of her love for God and the struggles and ecstasies of a soul. There is nothing much about the body. Yet it is her body circumnavigating the globe.
One of the more remarkable things about Thérèse is that she deliberately set out to be a saint("I want to seek a way to Heaven, a new way, very short, very straight, a little path....I would like to find a lift to raise me to Jesus, for I am too little to go up the steep steps of perfection."), which goes against all the conventional wisdom about sainthood and the insanity plea.
And there I was in this 1960’s round brick Carmelite church, guiltily getting in line with true believers to walk past the glass encased body of Saint Thérèse, who died at the age of 24 of TB. This is not the coffin I saw, but it gives you an idea of how such a thing looks.
How does this bring us around to bomb-sniffing bees? Only in my mind.
You probably associate Los Alamos with all things nuclear. But there is more to Los Alamos than that. Researchers there are experimenting with and constructing a portable detection unit that will sniff out bombs and drugs. According to the September issue of Science News, with a “just a few minutes of training” undercover bees can learn to detect a wide variety of smells from TNT to methamphetamine to aflotoxin, on the general theory that “if it smells….”
This is not the first time bees have found themselves drafted into military service. The Romans catapulted beehives (Yes. Those exquisitely crafted perfect hexagons of wax were turned into weapons of mass destruction, or much annoyance.) over the walls upon their enemies, and as recently as WWI beehives were rigged with tripwire against an enemy approach.
You may well ask: how do the bees tell their handlers when they have sniffed something? Apparently – and I do not say this from personal observation – when bees approach nectar they stick out their tongues in anticipation of the pleasures it affords. This is called the “proboscis extension reflex” and using those tried and true Pavlovian techniques, bees can learn to stick out their tongues when they smell a bomb or drugs.
Do I object to bees being re-programmed in the service of human military or political goals? I have not given it much thought, not enough. But I have thought much and often about the apian social structure, about the remarkable way in which a bee, throughout her lifetime, will perform a series of tasks perfectly, all geared to the well-being and perpetuation of the hive. Already they make honey and wax which have been of enormous value to humans for millennia. Certainly they are the only insects who make food for humans. (I am not counting the maggots eaten in times of starvation, or by deranged collegians.) So are we pushing our luck?