There are cyclamen growing wild beneath the trees and the canopy of the forest begins to turn from deep green to burnished red and gold. It is misty in the morning and at twilight, when a parliament of owls begins to hoot. Of the real Parliament and the busy world, I am blissfully ignorant. I am in the depths of the New Forest in southern England and I am preaching a retreat to a community of Dominican contemplatives.
This feels a little like being asked to take spiritual coals to Newcastle, or, as I tell them, like being a GP invited to address a conference of consultants on their specialisation. And then I remember that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple would be all for this. I am sure in one of the books Mrs Somebody’s little Timmy was given a lot of expensive ointment for a rare skin condition by a leading dermatologist to absolutely no avail, until Miss Marple’s own doddery GP correctly diagnosed measles. I am hoping that my lack of specialist knowledge of contemplative life may serve to give me a different perspective that will be of some use to someone.
I have proposed for our eight days of prayer, silence and liturgical celebration a phrase from the Song of Songs, “He led me into his banqueting hall, and his banner over me is love.” I am not even sure what “His banner over me is love” means at a literal level, but that’s OK. I imagine that it is like a dais or throne which has a canopy over it, or like the stalls in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, which have the banners of the Knights of the Garter over them.
But I want the meaning of this banner meaning to unfold (no pun intended) as the week goes on. Because it is easy to think of a retreat in terms of redoubling my own efforts to seek the Godhead, whereas the image of sitting in a place he has reserved for me and marked out with his love is perhaps a better one. A receptivity and a growth in acceptance of his love is what a retreat ought to be. His banner over me suggests protection, pride in his beloved, a symbol of wanting to declare possession, ownership, of having conferred dignity and nobility.
I always remember hearing a serving military officer talking about what he would do in the event of a fire in the barracks. His first duty, he said, would be to save the regimental colours, the banner that they would originally have carried in battle, because it symbolised the regiment’s history and the commission of the sovereign. It is marked with the battle honours: those moments in which the regiment’s identity and history was formed. In battle itself, a retreating army would rally to the banner.
If the Lord’s banner over me is love, then, analogously I call fall back to this as what express my truest identity, and I can rejoice in the history of the honours he has bestowed in calling me in baptism and in religious vocation and all the blessings of my life.
For all that, it has a deeper symbolism which was borne on me when I was doing some preparation for the retreat on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The ancient hymn for that day describes the cross as a “royal banner”, which goes forth in battle. His banner over me is love. His cross is the unfailing sign of his self-gift to me, his love being stronger than death, and the token of his desire to save me. Under this banner is love and protection, and the pledge of my loyalty.
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