Helen Keller - A Woman of Faith and Action
November 24, 2013
“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.” - Helen Keller
“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.” - Helen Keller
“Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within” - Helen Keller
“Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there’s a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.” - Helen Keller
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” ― Helen Keller
“Love should not be viewed as a detached effect of the soul, or an organ, or a faculty, or a function. Love involves the whole body of conscious thought—intention, purpose, endeavor, motives, and impulses—often suppressed, but always latent, ready at any moment to embody itself in act. It takes on face, hands, and feet through the faculties and organs; it works and talks, and will not be checked by any external circumstance once it begins to move toward an objective. Love, the all-important doctrine, is not a vague, aimless emotion, but the desire for good united with wisdom and fulfilled in right action.” – Helen Keller
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” - Helen Keller
A young child.
A water pump.
A child who is blind and deaf.
A teacher who persistently spells W-A-T-E-R into the hand of the child, over and over, in an attempt to communicate as the icy well water pours over the child’s hand.
These may be the familiar images that arise when you think of the woman whose life story we explore today: Helen Keller.
This iconic saga of overcoming the loss of physical sight and hearing has become a beloved tale of resilience and perseverance, because this frustrated child becomes able to communicate, attends school and college, and travels the world as an advocate for those with disabilities. Helen Keller is the poster child for the blind and deaf.
Images you might not be so familiar with: Helen Keller, a Swedenborgian theologian; and Helen Keller, a prophetic voice for social change. It is these two ideas I want to bring forward today.
Helen Keller was born in 1880, an energetic, curious, and alert child. At age two, she suffered a serious illness that left her completely blind and deaf. Keller spent the next few years of her childhood struggling to communicate and connect with others, going into rages and tantrums of frustration because of her inability to interact with the world around her.
In looking back at this time of life, she writes, “Truly I have looked into the heart of darkness, and refused to yield to its paralyzing influence.” Helen’s life changed dramatically when she was gently and firmly taught by her teacher and guide, Annie Sullivan. It was Annie who opened up the world of language to Helen, and through language gave her the ability to connect to ideas, people, and life around her.
Helen was an inquisitive child, asking questions and wondering about everything. She writes: “As a little child I naturally wanted to know who made everything in the world, and I was told that nature had made earth and sky and water and all living creatures. This satisfied me for a time, and I was happy among the rose trees of my mother’s garden, or on the bank of a river or out in the daisy-covered fields.” Keller learned quickly and was a voracious student. Alexander Graham Bell had assisted Keller’s parents in finding her teacher Annie Sullivan and later recommended Perkins School of the Blind as a next step for her education and growth.
As she soaked up her studies, she began to ask more questions, questions about God and Jesus and religion and justice. “I inquired about God, and again I was baffled. Friends tried to tell me that God was the creator, and that he was everywhere, that he knew all the needs, joys, and sorrows of every human life…I was drawn irresistibly to such a glorious, lovable being and I longed to really understand something about him. I persisted in asking questions about God and Jesus ‘Why did they kill him? Why does God make some people good and others bad? Why must we all die?”
During this time of questioning, while at Perkins School for the Blind, Helen was introduced to the writings of eighteenth-century mystic and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg by John Hitz, a colleague of Alexander Graham Bell’s, whom she later would call “the foster-father of my soul.” Hitz gave her a Braille copy of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell when she was fourteen years old. Hitz warned Keller that it might not make sense to her at first, but that it would in time “satisfy [her] with a likeness of God as loveable as the one in [her] heart.”
When Helen began reading Heaven and Hell, a new opening in her spiritual life began. “I was as little aware of the new joy coming into my life as I had been years before when I stood on the piazza steps awaiting my teacher. Impelled only by the curiously of a young girl who loves to read, I opened up that big book…My heart gave a joyous bound. Here was a faith that emphasized what I felt so keenly…The words ‘Love’ and ‘Wisdom’ seemed to caress my fingers from paragraph to paragraph and these two words released in me new forces to stimulate my somewhat indolent nature and urge me forward evermore.”
Helen’s engagement with Swedenborg’s teachings was lifelong; she avidly read and wrote about her spiritual journey and how God shaped her after this first encounter with the writer. “It has given color and reality and unity to my thought of the life to come; it has exalted my ideas of love, truth and usefulness; it has been my strongest incitement to overcome limitations.”
It is clear from Helen’s writing that her faith was core to who she was and that from it her life arose. When we look at her legacy and her phenomenal lifelong mission to help those who were blind, deaf, or disabled, her work for the emancipation of women, and her devotion to equal rights and care for all people, we can see the threads back to her theological grounding.
Helen’s ability to live fully despite her disability has been greatly admired by many. Her physical disabilities gave her much she could have complained about or fallen victim to, but instead she chose to approach her life’s limitations as teachers and opportunities for internal change.
She credits her approach to challenges to her spiritual path. She states, “Long ago, I determined not to complain. The mortally wounded must strive to live out their days for the sake of others. That is what religion is for—to keep the heart brave to fight it out to the end with a smiling face.” She saw her challenges as opportunities for growth and internal transformation as she took to heart Swedenborg’s teaching that “limitations of all kinds are forms of chastening to encourage self-development and true freedom.”
Helen knew that God had called her to do important work in the world, and that she needed to continue to do her own internal work in order to follow this call to bring reformation to others. She writes about feeling like Joan of Arc at times, willing to follow the voice that says “Come” through any hardship or struggle. As her life progressed, she moved through the obvious struggle of functioning without hearing or eyesight with incredible strength, tenacity, and dedication to internal and external reform. Keller scholar Dr. Ray Silverman remarks that Keller “saw herself as a social reformer devoted to relieving human suffering.”
The reform that Helen fought for was often expressed as a need for an external outcome, such as women’s right to vote and economic equality. Her spiritual writings, however, called for a reform of the spirit as well. She spoke up for educational systems that were not exclusively focused on the intellect, encouraging compassion, consideration, and empathy as worthy educational goals.
Seeing the need for systems to be transformed strengthened her commitment to be a voice for internal transformation; she believed that transforming individuals would contribute to changing society as a whole. She drew heavily on Swedenborg’s teaching that humanity without love and pity is “worse than a beast,” and spoke to the recklessness of the power of thought when it is used for harming others. She called for reformation of the human spirit, and a spiritual vision where love, wisdom, and useful service prevail.
Throughout Helen Keller’s writings and speeches, she shares that the overarching message she drew from the teachings of Swedenborg was one of God’s love for all people—regardless of their religious beliefs and allegiances. Having read the many volumes of Swedenborg’s writings, she sums up her reading of his central theology with three ideas: “God as Divine Love, God as Divine Wisdom, and God as Divine Power for use.” She shares her vision for God’s love for all people as she reflects on who God is by saying, “Such teachings lift one up to a mountain summit where the atmosphere is clear of hatred, and one can perceive that the nature of the Divine Being is love and wisdom and use, and God never changes in God’s attitude toward anyone at any time.”
Helen’s life, teaching, and writing were a continual outpouring of this love from God to all people as she became a sought-after voice for social reform. Silverman touts Keller’s widespread engagement with these movements: “Helen did indeed carry the banner of social reform to all, and fought valiantly to raise consciousness about the plight of the handicapped. But Helen’s social reform did not stop at combating preventable blindness.” Silverman goes on to outline Keller’s work with the suffrage movement, speaking up for social injustice and against racial prejudice and corrupt politics, denouncing business greed, and openly speaking against the horrors of war.
Keller shares her desire to see God in all religious paths when she writes: “Instinctively, I found my greatest satisfaction in working with men and women everywhere who ask not, ‘Shall I labor among Christians or Jews or Buddhists?’ but rather say ‘God, in thy wisdom help me to decrease the sorrows of thy children and increase their advantages and joys.’”
She writes about being told by “narrow people” that those who are not Christians would be punished. She describes her soul’s revulsion as she considered the possibility of the wonderful people she knew, people who had lived and died for truth as they saw it, ending up in hell. Helen was able to reconcile her universalism with her Christianity through Swedenborg’s teachings on the symbolism of Jesus Christ. “I found that ‘Jesus’ stands for divine good, good wrought into deeds, and ‘Christ’ symbolizes Divine Truth, sending forth new thought, new life, and joy in the minds of all people; therefore, no one who believes in God and lives right is ever condemned.” She went on to write often about this view of salvation and how it informed her life, action, and teaching. Helen’s theological understanding of God as one who created and loves all people came to life in her work, as she advocated for those who were unseen by society at large.
Through Helen’s beliefs and her own disabilities, she became passionate about issues of equality and the care of all people. According to Dennis Wepman, author of one of the many biographies of Keller, she had “been long distressed about poverty and its effects on American children. She had also become a staunch suffragist—an advocate of women’s right to vote.” Joan Dash, another Keller biographer, connects Keller’s actions for justice to her own experience of feeling on the margins. “When she visited the foul-smelling slums of New York, she was reminded of her hopeless and powerless existence as a child,” which spurred on her work to bring hope to those who suffered.
As we hear stories of lives such as this one, it is easy to write ourselves out of the story. We may feel that the person we look to is in some other realm of possibility. We tell ourselves we can’t expect to be one of “those people” who leaves an impact on the world. We draw a line between ourselves and those whom we look to for inspiration. Helen Keller’s story calls us each to action and contemplation, work and theological reflection, in our own lives and ways.
Her words echo with us…
“I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.”
“We are only one. But we are one. I am one. You are one. You cannot do everything, but you can still do something.”
Helen calls us to live a life of action, beauty, and contemplation.
Helen Keller’s life calls us to do, arising from our faith in a loving God—to do something in the world.
She calls us to give bread to those who are hungry, to stand for those who are oppressed, to serve a God of love, and bring the beauty of the fragrant roses to the world.