Call and Response

Ananya Sri Ram – USA

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The evenings at Krotona in Ojai, California often take on a magical effect. As the sun sets in west, the mountains reflect the fading glow, turning a beautiful pink hue. The light in the air grows dimmer, and a stillness begins to descend. It feels like the divine is pulling a warm sheet over everything, calming the physical world and readying it for sleep. One is transported into a bed of quiet. And then the owls begin their song.

Like Ravel’s Bolero, the call begins softly. First there is just a steady hoot without much response. The call patiently continues without hesitation or delay. There is no longing for a response. The call is whole in itself. Eventually after some time there is a response of another owl in the distance letting its friend know: “I am here.” For a while it is just a steady call and response between the two owls and then another owl interrupts with its own particular call. The others respond in their own time. The orchestra begins.

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"Angels" - A Call and Response Hymn

To listen to this song, click on the photo, you might have to skip an ad

Call and response are often found in indigenous music, Indian chants, as well as other non-English speaking devotional music. In many, one person begins with the call and others respond by repeating the phrase of the call. The well-known kirtan vocalist (devotional Indian chants) Krishna Das helped popularize kirtan in the West through his songs with this particular pattern.

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Krishna Das

To listen to this song, click on the photo, you might have to skip an ad

The songs are a call to the divine and as one sings, one may find the divine responding and calling back. After some time, the question may arise as to who is the caller and who is it that responds? The melding of the physical with the divine creates an energy too difficult to separate. A union takes place where what we call self, identity, etc., no longer exists.

If one pays close attention, it becomes clear that call and response are everywhere around us. We don’t always recognize something as a call. Nor do we see things sometimes as a response. We often see a response when it is either very deliberate or blatant. Some actions are clearly a call for response---the cruel injustice of another, continual attack on a community, the authoritarian control of a population and so on. We see this so often in the daily news. It is as though we are being called to stand for what is right, what is helpful, what is kind, and what is true.  Our courage and strength are tested. We must regularly ask ourselves “how did I respond?”

This test becomes more difficult when we move from the physical realm to the spiritual. It is important here to decipher between spiritual and religious. So often in religion, there is someone who guides the way of the petitioner, the one who asks, who calls. It is this guide that the caller looks to for a response as well. In the spiritual life, Spirit calls. If we are perceptive, quiet, and receptive, we may feel the calling. This does not mean that a person who practices a religion cannot have a spiritual experience. But just to state that the spiritual experience is an occurrence that happens from within. No one can make it happen for you.

Calls from Spirit can take various forms. What may call one to respond, may be completely ignored by another. The call is unique for each of us, just as the response will have its own flavor depending on who is answering it. There is no right or wrong, no good or bad, and nothing that qualifies a spiritual calling more spiritual than others, provided it is true spiritual calling. So, what qualifies something as spiritual?

As the word “spiritual” comes from the Latin word “spiritus” meaning breath, perhaps we can ponder what this actually entails. Breath in itself, could be viewed as something which is conscious. It is the Great Breath which makes the unmanifest, manifest. It reveals the unseen to be seen. It is breath which brings forth the unknown, making it known.

Breath is also something which cannot be contained. No different than spirit itself. As individuals, it is through breath that we know we are conscious. Is it fair to say that it is only by breathing that we come into touch with consciousness? How else would we understand consciousness if we were not conscious in the first place? Therefore, it may be safe to say that what lies within us and around us is consciousness, which is breath, which is spirit itself.

So perhaps what qualifies a calling as spiritual is that which makes us more conscious, in other words, more aware. It causes us to move outside of our half-awakened state of self-centeredness to one more aligned with the vibrancy of life itself. Our energy has a stronger tether to that abundant source and we know that our life is not for us, but for all. It is almost as though a hand is being stretched out to us to join in the dance of the divine. Without question, we respond, taking part in this wonderful invitation.

The difficulty for many of us is that while we are so happy to respond to the call, we unfortunately get pulled back into the chaos and strife of the physical world. We lose a loved one unexpectedly or are suddenly diagnosed with a serious health issue. Or perhaps we lose our house or job. So quickly what was beautiful, expansive, and joyful seems like a dream. “What happened?” we ask ourselves, confused and unable to understand. “Everything was full of light and now things are so dark. Why has the divine left me? What happened to my spiritual calling?”

It is during this time, especially in these moments, that we need to be like the owl who sings without response. The call out to the impending night continues with patience, knowing, and trust. We really are no different. Owls know there are others who will respond. We must have trust that the difficulties we experience does not mean that we no longer dance with the divine. Again, we must ask ourselves, “how did I respond?”

Difficulties arise to give us opportunities for growth. In the midst of our sorrow, confusion, panic or fear, the divine is asking you, “how will you respond?” It is calling to us not to forget that the dance continues. We just need to breathe through the heartache. We must use our spirit to connect with Spirit. The divine is calling to our own divine nature, reminding us to let these human experiences enhance us and make us whole. Reminding us again and again that we are divine beings in human form, preparing for the ultimate call back to the Source from whence we came.

How will we respond?

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