Today I want to write about the life of a most extraordinary woman against whose challenges in life our own trials pale to near insignificance. A woman whose moral and intellectual life was profoundly moulded and shaped by a faith articulated by an 18th Century Christian mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. A woman who carried the bright torch of her Christian understanding through the darkness of a private world oppressed by profound physical affliction and endless challenge—a world deprived of sight, hearing and speech. The everyday world of Helen Keller.
Helen Adams Keller, most will recall, was a perfectly normal child until her nineteenth month when she was stricken with scarlet fever. When the fever cleared, Helen was left unable to see, hear or speak. She was blind, profoundly deaf, and mute.
The medical arts of her day offered Helen no hope of regaining any part of what she had lost. The best her grieving parents could hope for was that the child might somehow be taught some system which would equip her with the most basic communications skills, though even this modest dream seemed well beyond the sad realities of her case.
Helen Keller needed a miracle, and it was a miracle that God supplied.
Helen’s miracle arrived in the person of Annie Sullivan, a 20-year-old former student at the Perkins School for the Blind, who was to be Helen’s teacher, tireless companion and devoted friend. In the bond God formed between these young women Sullivan found the key to unlock Helen’s world of loneliness and isolation, the spark which ignited an explosion of learning and growth and unshackled a brilliant mind.
To the astonishment of all who knew her, Helen learned how to effectively communicate through the use of manual signs, but this awe inspiring accomplishment was only the beginning. She pressed on with unbounded enthusiasm and determination to surpass in accomplishments even the brightest, most talented and ambitious of her peers.
At the age of twenty-four Helen graduated from the prestigious Radcliffe College, becoming the first deaf/blind student ever to earn the Bachelor of Arts degree. In the following years she put her education to serious and beneficial use, becoming an effective political activist and advocate of a radically just social gospel, accomplished author, philanthropist, champion of the blind and deaf, and popular lecturer. Yes, lecturer! Helen Keller was nothing short of a marvel—the product of a true miracle.
Was it mere happenstance, a random series of happy strands of fortune that tangled in such a unique pattern as to form the miracle that was Helen Keller? Was her miracle of her own making, the product of sheer force of will? If so, how does one so exercise mortal will to produce such a victory? Helen, herself, had a far gentler and more reverent answer:
“I know that life is given us so that we may grow in love. And I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the color and fragrance of the flower, the Light in my darkness, the Voice in my silence.”
Keller was introduced to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg by John Hitz, superintendent of Alexander Graham Bell’s research institution, theVolta Bureau. From the day that Hitz first put a Braille edition of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell into Helen’s hands, when she was sixteen years old, she clung to it as the lamp which illuminated her Christian understanding and delivered her out of a sightless world.
In 1927, Helen wrote Light In My Darkness (originally titled, My Religion), a book which stands as a testimony to her abiding Christian faith and which acknowledges the contributions made by Swedenborg to her more perfect understanding of that faith. Of Swedenborg she writes:
“The teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg have been my light, and a staff in my hand and by his vision splendid I am attended on my way."
So, what then, in Swedenborg’s teachings produces such light as illuminated Keller’s path? What is the essence of his vision that finds so much affection among his followers? It is, precisely, the same rare and precious jewel that glistens at the heart of the Gospel, bursts radiantly forth from the Word, and makes manifest the Truth of our Christian faith.
It is Hope. Nothing more nor less than Hope.
Swedenborg’s visions are available for all to see. They are not hidden in unseen worlds nor reserved for the eyes of the privileged few. They are ever in plain sight, even for a young girl so afflicted, and so blessed, as Helen Keller. They are on every page of the Holy Scriptures, and they are within the hearts of all mankind. We need only have eyes to see and ears to hear. We need only have Hope.
At Helen’s funeral in 1961 Senator Lister Hill of Alabama delivered a tribute to Helen’s life, and ended with a tribute to her vision of the life hereafter. The words were Helen’s own, a passage from Light In My Darkness.
“What is so sweet as to awake from a troubled dream and behold a beloved smiling face upon you? I have to believe that such shall be our awakening from earth to heaven. My faith never wavers that each dear friend I have lost is a new link between this world and the happier land beyond the morn. My soul is for the moment bowed down with grief when I cease to feel the touch of their hands or hear a tender word; but the light of faith never fades from my sky."