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Sermons

"The Country of My Heart": A Memorial Tribute to Helen Adams Keller

September 14, 2003

Bible Reading

The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man's parents. "Is this your son?" they asked. "Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?"

"We know he is our son," the parents answered, "and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don't know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. "Give glory to God," they said. "We know this man is a sinner."

He replied, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!"

(John 9:18-25)

Reading from Swedenborg

I must explain how the Lord and heaven are present in every land and linked to it by means of the Word. The whole heaven of angels is in the sight of the Lord like one person, and so is the church on earth. . . . That person contains the church, where the Word is read and thus the Lord is known, just as the body contains a heart and lungs. The Lord's heavenly kingdom serves as the heart, his spiritual kingdom as the lungs. Just as these two sources of life in the human body supply all the remaining limbs, viscera, and organs with continued existence and life, so too the linking of the Lord and heaven with the church by means of the Word supplies continued existence and life to all those throughout the world who have a religion, worship one God, and live good lives. (True Christian Religion #268)

Sermon

Delivered after the death of Helen Keller at a memorial service held in her honor at the New Church of New York City.

For over eighty-five years, Helen Keller lived in a dark and soundless world. On June 1, 1968, the loving hand of the Lord led her over the threshold of death into a realm of radiant light and heavenly harmonies. Although her eyes gave her no sight, her vision was unsurpassed in a blind and groping age; although her ears could not be attuned to the raucous noise of the world, she heard the inner voice of the Divine speaking to her of hope and life everlasting. There can be a measure of comfort for our grief in the knowledge that she has been released from her prison house--a mortal body devoid of eye and ear, and subject to the erosion of the years.

Helen Keller's determination not to be overwhelmed by grievous hardships has made her a renowned symbol of courage, and an example of the human spirit triumphant. Her struggles, her accomplishments, her gracious and vibrant personality have all been recounted in many volumes, in essays, and in the public press. Miss Keller's faith, however--the religious convictions that helped to mold her character--are far less known, although she has expressed them fully and freely in her book My Religion [now revised and reprinted as Light in My Darkness]. As we honor her memory as one of the truly eminent personalities of the twentieth century, we could not please her more than by bringing to mind a few of the essential ingredients of her faith that made her a veritable angel in a world undergoing redemption.

At the age of thirteen, there came into Helen Keller's life an elderly gentleman by the name of John Hitz. Mr. Hitz had been for many years the Consul General in Washington for Switzerland, and later head of the Volta Bureau, an organization endowed by Alexander Graham Bell for the purpose of collating and distributing information about deafness. He made a practice during the "quiet hours of the morning before breakfast," as he expressed it, of sending personal messages accompanied by passages of literature that he thought might be interesting and instructive to his young friend. He was a student of Emanuel Swedenborg, and regularly among the communications he dispatched by mail there would be a quotation from the writings of this eighteenth century theologian. Thus while still an adolescent, Helen Keller became a devoted disciple of Swedenborg, and remained so through her long and crowded life, even as she studied the great philosophers and theologians of every age. During her period of declining health and diminished activity, her fingers often caressed her Braille transcript of Swedenborg's True Christian Religion.

Shut off so completely as she was from the world around her, Helen Keller sensed intuitively the presence and reality of another world--a world of the spirit--which is unsuspected by most of us who are preoccupied with and subject to sense experience. This realm was not of the imagination, but a substantial world peopled by loving spirits who dwelt happily amid gardens, meadows, forests, and mountain streams of surpassing beauty. With the aid of the writings of Swedenborg, Miss Keller's intuitive insights were crystallized into a rational concept of the afterlife.

Swedenborg has been called a mystic; Helen Keller has been called a mystic. She even described herself as possessing a touch of mysticism. Yet Swedenborg's theology is so Scriptural and rational, its expositions so logical, and its aims so practical that it is far removed from the occult--from ineffable supernatural experiences such as "speaking in tongues." And Miss Keller was not a mystic in the usual sense of the word. True, her thoughts were constantly on the borderlands of the vast invisible universe; but she was also very much in the world and part of it. Furthermore, she was able to understand and interpret in beautifully phrased logic and meaning the significance of her vivid "intimations of immortality."

At least two foundation stones of Miss Keller's religious philosophy were hewn out of Swedenborg's teachings on the afterlife. The first was hope. She began to see clearly that this world was not an end in itself, but a seminary of heaven--a proving ground for the life eternal. Her faith assured her that she would not be burdened forever by sightlessness and a total inability to hear and distinguish sounds. Helen Keller could now look upon her handicaps as a challenge, as a means of spiritual growth, as an education for a future life when she would be able to see, hear, and speak without impediment. There was no bitterness in her towards divine providence, for she knew the Lord was good to all, and he was not in any way accountable for the visitation of a dreadful affliction. This hope that shone forth so radiantly in her personality shone into the dark corners of despair where sat others who were also without sight.

The other foundation stone of her faith was this: love and use are synonymous. Over and over again her thoughts turned to this basic doctrine of Swedenborg: "The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of uses" (Heaven and Hell #387). This truth became the driving force of Miss Keller's life. Love has no reality, no existence, no meaning, until it goes forth into the lives of others in the form of some essential service. The joy of the angels is derived entirely from their desire to help mankind and their efforts put forth as willing servants of all. Helen Keller loved God with an intense, dedicated devotion. Her gratitude to him for his bountiful blessings was made valid by her accepting life from him and then channeling it so that it would flow into the lives of her fellowmen. In pursuit of this mission, year after year, in weakness and in strength, she traveled all over the world to bring a message of hope and love. Her love of humanity was made tangible indeed by the large sums of money she raised to endow organizations working for the blind and deaf and the unfortunate.

Helen Keller left this mortal life in the belief that her labors for others were just beginning. "The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of uses." Those of us who believe as she did can think of her now, in the full power of her faculties of sense, looking about for fields of service. She believed in the immediate resurrection of the dead, an undelayed awakening into a full consciousness of the spiritual world, without an indeterminate lapse of time. It was not consonant with her faith in a God of love and wisdom to suppose that he would suspend the consciousness and activities of human beings and keep them in a meaningless state of dormancy or limbo. God's love never ceases. Why should the recipients of life from him be made to receive it without being able to respond in some way? Helen Keller's religion may have appeared mystical to many, but it was rational and practical.

The extent of her belief in a well-rounded life beyond the grave was clearly illustrated during a visit she received from a New Churchman on an afternoon just before her eightieth birthday. The visitor was narrating to Miss Keller the highlights of a tennis match he had participated in that morning. Then he said to her, "When we are both in the next world. I trust that you and I will play tennis together." She smiled broadly with delight at the idea and replied with bubbling humor, "Yes, and golf too."

Such was her anticipation regarding the life she has now entered. To some her answer may seem naive. There is reason to believe that one of the great disappointments of her life was that the particulars of her faith were not more contagious among those with whom she associated.

A smile wreathed her face as she passed away. Perhaps she saw an angel--an angel as real as the one seen by the two Marys at the sepulcher on Easter morning. Or perhaps she heard celestial sounds as wonderfully harmonious as the heavenly choir that reached the ears of the shepherds on Christmas night long ago. If we think this beyond the range of possibility, it is because we see only with our physical eyes, and our sight has made us inwardly blind. What is very real to us, however, is the fact that a rare and beautiful character has passed beyond our touch and sight; but the purity of her life, the courage of her spirit, and the countless humanitarian deeds she performed still linger in this world, casting a gracious spell over it like the benediction of a saint.

Helen Keller's epitaph is her whole life written in great golden letters across the years--and she told us how she would like to be remembered: "I believe that when the eyes within my physical eyes shall open upon the world to come, I shall simply be consciously living in the country of my heart."

Prayer

All-seeing God, as we contemplate the life of Helen Keller--one devoted to your service and guided by the light of your Second Coming, we recognize that we are afflicted with a blindness far deeper and more profound than the physical blindness from which Helen Keller suffered. We have been blind to the light of your truth when you were guiding us to focus our lives, not on our own security and comfort, but on the well-being and eternal happiness of others--whether they live nearby or in one of the far-flung nations of the world. Open our eyes, we pray, to the deeper purposes for which you created us. Give us a new sense of vision and purpose, and inspire us to rededicate our lives to living in that kingdom of the heart where Helen Keller also lived. Amen.

Rev. Clayton Priestnal