Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Articles > The Gift of the Call

The Gift of the Call

Christopher Bamford

Draw me, we will run after thee.                          
Song of Solomon 1:3                          

The call comes gradually, or so it seems. We must be called over and over until we hear its whisperings. Then we begin to notice, we begin to respond. Unconsciously, hesitantly, we start to listen. Incrementally, our response deepens. Finally, we realize that call and caller are one in life lived in obedience to the gift of the call; that we ourselves are the call. We come to recognize that we were called from the beginning, “from the foundation of the world,” as St. Paul says. Yet, looking back, we cannot remember a “first” call.

“Behind what we call the ‘first’ always lies a hidden sequence of other ‘first’ experiences,” Allen Grossman writes of the poet’s vocation. It is as if our lives were a palimpsest of memories, each experience collapsing back through other experiences to the beginning of conscious life; and reaching still further back, as Grossman says “to the beginning of the world; and then, at last, to the great receptacle of all there is, the figure of no beginning.”

If the call is without beginning, it is also without end—that, too, is our experience. Every call seems to lie at the intersection of past and future. From one direction, it echoes up through time and memory from our source and origin, defining who we are, alerting us to whom we shall become. From the other, it comes toward us as destiny, drawing us toward an ineffable goal. You might say that to live is itself to be called. Perhaps that is why one of the meanings of anthropos, or human being, is “to look up,” as one looks up when one hears one’s name called. Often, the call sounds first in childhood through nature and the senses, when the world is new, shining with the glory and the freshness of a dream. All then appears strange, inexpressibly rare, and delightful—clothed in celestial light, as the poets tell us. First memories are frequently of light and color, or darkness and light, shadows, moving on the wall, or of pastel silks swaying in the breeze. The world seems luminous, though whether lit from within or without we cannot tell. Experience is unified. There is no need to question. Yet, if I remember it rightly, there is already a sense of a numinous other, though only intuited, not yet known. Beauty lies at the edge of consciousness, in the warm, dark, mothering embrace of a world in which we are one with all there is.

The call of beauty is always intimate, one on one. She is our mother and she gives us gifts. She raises us to our feet, so that we may see her face to face, and we express our delight by running, jumping, climbing. She gives us language and thought, whose first form is imagination, so that we may praise her in our hearts and proclaim what we have found.

The soul herself is a garden, and it is in a garden that we first learn her ways. I loved my garden’s safe, enclosed spaces, filled with worlds and beings, and hidden places to imagine magical encounters and make up stories, spontaneous prayers connecting me to the one whose breathing pulsed in its dark, embracing warmth. It was a complete universe, an inside without an outside, the first home. Here there is no horizon, and the call does not come from anywhere, it simply is.

The horizon, too, is a gift. I remember my first experience of it, standing on a beach, looking out at the vast expanse of ocean disappearing into the sky. At my feet certainly was sand, but it too seemed to extend indefinitely as far as the eye could see. I picked up a handful. Countless tiny grains glistened and sparkled up at me. Everything seemed poised on the cusp between familiar and unfamiliar, near and far, visible and invisible. Awe and an indescribable feeling of friendship flowed together in my heart, and the world shone with an inner light.

Older, I would go into the hills behind our house, passing through a dark copse of oak and pine to reach the gentle curve of the open moors, dense with heather and marked by scattered gorse and stumpy, solitary trees. Strangers may have seen it as an austere landscape, but to me it was filled with elusive presences, appearing and disappearing. I knew that the world was my home and that it was a blessed, sacred, holy place. The air, as Keats says, was my robe of state, the open sky sat upon my senses like a sapphire crown. Tiny rustling streams, silvery in the afternoon light, called me to their serpentine course, beside which I would lie down, eyeball to eyeball with the cascading drops, filled with vision.

We begin in dreams. Then we wake up. The world shrinks to the size of our own little selves. We become egotistic. The isolated, skin-bound, brain-bound, self-feeling being that has been growing within us since we recognized ourselves and proclaimed “me!” takes over. Gradually, the paradigm changes, the call is muffled, the world becomes other. Beauty, herald of the divine, seems to depart, its golden thread sometimes cut by a single traumatic instance, leaving behind only a memory, like a watermark in the soul. Where once as children we knew, growing into adolescence, we struggle to hold to the memory, vulnerable to the vagaries of doubt and despair. Yet the possibility of faith is born in the growing darkness.

If we pay attention and push beyond the “remembered” trauma, we find we can no more locate a “first” fall than we can a “first” call. It seems that that we are not only always called, but also always fallen “from the foundation of the world.” Though each of us experiences the fall subjectively, we also know that we are not alone in our pain. We are hurt but we recognize that everyone else is in pain too, that the world is in pain, and that fallenness is a universal condition. We may feel violated or betrayed in different ways, but whatever the circumstances, we recognize the bitter teaching that the world is riven by violence and deception and that we are all complicit in it.

Fall and call belong together. As the web of deception and death appears and the golden world fades, the memory of that world, which seemed once so safe and whole, continues to call. Nature remains beautiful, and though we no longer see its invisible source, we still intuit it at the edge of our perception. The wonder and reverence that surrounded us, is transformed into curiosity. People draw us. A glance, a smile, a touch are now redolent of the mystery the greater world once held. The wound of our fallenness teaches us sympathy and compassion. This is a time when two phrases, made trite by overuse, become like mantras: “Nothing human is alien to me” and “There but by the grace of God go I.” Art, literature, and music become messengers of the call. Meaning, like the sun on a blustery, overcast day, still occasionally pierces the clouds of fragmentation, drawing us on. The call, which seemed perhaps to echo from the past, now sounds from the future.

Relgion has its part, though at a certain point, each one of us is called to approach God in his or her own way. For to respond to the call is to make it one’s own. For me, there was always the sense of the divine ground, in whom “we live and move and have our being,” and the corollary of this, that divinity “loved us first” and participates in our joys and sorrows. Thus, distorted though it may have been by its inflation and adolescent egotism, I understood somehow that what I suffered was not my own.

My father had been on the first convoy into Auschwitz. Haunted by what he had witnessed, he had learned that human folly and inhumanity knew no bounds. I came to understand the “century of night” that stretched from before Sarajevo through the Holocaust to Hiroshima and beyond: perpetual wars, mass death, dehumanization, environmental destruction, social and psychological fragmentation, domination and manipulation, sheer matter made autonomous, and power given free reign.

The call to transformation and repentance comes as “ego” crashes and a light greater than the ego breaks through the isolation and separation we have created. If the fall into ego lies on one side of the call, the vow to selflessness lies on the other―a vow made not once but in need of renewal with every breath.

Called to a different way of knowing and being, we begin to seek self-knowledge. We want to know what it is to know and whether and how we can change. We seek testimonies of those who have done so. We read philosophy, psychology, history, mythology, and the great texts of the world’s esoteric and wisdom traditions. But such untutored reading, no matter how passionate and committed, is not sufficient. We must learn to read differently. For the world to change, our thinking must become different, selfless, endlessly responsive, ethical. We must learn not to consume a text, but to allow it to call us. We must learn to listen, to receive and respond. We discover that books and written words are only signs, as the body is the sign of the soul. We learn to read meditatively, to rise from the letter to the spirit. As if called by name, we read with a heart filled with empathy and love, straining to hear what is really being said and demanded of us. With each reading, we discover level upon level of meaning, which sinks deeper into our body as we apply it to our lives. We ponder, associate, seeking insight wherever we can find it. Finally, we let go of everything and, enveloped in a vast body of silence and inner peace, rest in emptiness, in pure, listening receptivity. A greater universe of consciousness, filled with beings and their relationships, constituting a lineage and community in which we are called to participate, opens before us.

We discover that, despite its suffering and despair, earthly existence has a meaning. Working through history, the traditions of those who have sought to enhance it now call us one by one. As we are called, we realize the reality of the invisible worlds. For we are called home, and home is not an exclusively earthly place, but more like what St. Paul calls “a cloud of witnesses.” In Christianity, this is called the “community of saints,” a body that encompasses the living, as well as the so-called dead. In Buddhism it is called the Sangha, the community of practitioners; in Islam, the Ummah, or body of believers. Each communion has its own way of speaking of the precious gift of human birth and to what it calls us. Whichever path we take, once we take it, life becomes a pearl of great price, the receiving of which is the giving of ourselves to it.

Answering the call, one becomes a seeker. In my own case, grace taught me much, not the least of which was that human striving is universal and that the call, though it takes different forms, is always one: to realize the unity of creation, and thereby transfigure the world. I learned, too, especially in human relationships and above all in love, that if I become a question, if I shift from being an “I” to become a “who?,” then a path appears. Having been called, one begins to call, and need only pay attention to the little prompting of one’s heart and the apparently trivial events of the day to begin to receive the gift of a response. Until finally all of life becomes one great call.

We seek and we are found. We call and we are called. We give and we are given. Yet there is only one universe, one search, one call, one love, one gift. Returning it in the form of the gift of ourselves, we recover not only what we have lost, but the seed of the world yet to come. Then the way is clear and simple. Chosen from the foundation of the world, we are called to praise “the glory of his grace.”

This article was abridged from a longer work for publication on the Seven Pillars website.

Images: 1) Crystal Cove Beach Sunset by Axion23 via Wikimedia Commons; 2) Statue of Prayer for Peace, Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan by Fg2 via Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Bamford is Editor-in-Chief for SteinerBooks and its imprints. A Fellow of the Lindisfarne Association, he has lectured, taught, and written widely on Western spiritual and esoteric traditions. He is the author of The Voice of the Eagle: The Heart of Celtic Christianity and An Endless Trace: The Passionate Pursuit of Wisdom in the West. He has also translated and edited numerous books, including Celtic Christianity, Homage to Pythagoras, and The Noble Traveller. An essay by Mr. Bamford is included in the HarperSanFrancisco anthology Best Spiritual Writing 2000 by Philip Zaleski.

Read more about Christopher Bamford

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25 August 2015

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Earth, sacred, dreams, soul, faith, compassion, The Great Mystery, The Cry, Mother, inequality,
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