Helen Keller’s Spiritual Sight

By Jane Williams-Hogan

 

Helen Keller (1880–1968) was well known during her lifetime, and she is still remembered as an inspirational human rights crusader and champion for the deaf and blind or for anyone suffering from limitations or handicaps. She was also a remarkable spiritual seeker who took great delight in sharing with others her joy for the spiritual reality of life.

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Helen was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama; and for her first year and a half, she was just like any other child her age. However, at the age of nineteen months, she became ill with what was at the time called “brain fever.” Modern physicians are uncertain exactly what the nature of that disease might have been, but they suspect that it was scarlet fever or perhaps meningitis. Helen’s family doctor did not believe that she would survive; but after several days, the fever subsided and Helen fell into a deep sleep. Her family rejoiced at the thought that she was cured; but as Helen convalesced, they were to discover that she had been left blind and deaf as a result of the illness. Her condition was confirmed by medical tests. Helen could not see any light or objects, and her ears could not conduct sound either through bone or via air. This situation continued for almost six years. Years later, Helen wrote about that period in her life:

I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactile. . . . But there is not one spark of emotion or rational thought in these distinct yet corporeal memories. I was like an unconscious clod of earth. There was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy. Then suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love, to the usual concepts of nature, good, and evil. I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.[1]

That other “mind” that Helen had come in contact with was Anne Mansfield Sullivan (1866–1936). Anne Sullivan was hired by the Kellers to help them deal with Helen, who was from their perspective “incorrigible.” They were desperate and had sought out the help of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who had established an institute called the Volta Bureau with money awarded for his invention to assist the deaf. He suggested they hire someone from the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. They took Bell’s advice, and Anne Sullivan arrived at their Alabama home in March of 1887 to become Helen’s personal tutor.

The miracle of mind meeting mind took place in less than a month, after Miss Sullivan had been working with Helen on spelling words over and over with her fingers. While Helen could correctly identify various objects in this way, she did not really know what she was doing. As the famous story goes, she kept confusing the word cup with the word water. Helen became angry. Miss Sullivan kept spelling the words over and over! Finally, she took Helen to the pump house; and as she pumped with one hand, she spelled water with the other. According to Helen:

She spelled w-a-t-e-r emphatically. I stood still, my whole body’s attention fixed on the motions of her fingers as the cool stream flowed over my hand. All at once there was a strange stir within me—a misty consciousness, a sense of something remembered. It was as if I had come back to life after being dead! I understood that what my teacher was doing with her fingers meant that the cold something that was rushing over my hand was water, and that it was possible for me to communicate with other people by these hand signs. It was a wonderful day, never to be forgotten. Thoughts that ran forward and backward came to me quickly—thoughts that seemed to start in my brain and spread all over me. Now I see it was my mental awakening. I think it was an experience somewhat in the nature of a revelation. . . . That first revelation was worth all those years I had spent in dark soundless imprisonment. That word “water” dropped into my mind like the sun in a frozen winter world. The world to which I awoke was still mysterious; but there were hope and love and God in it, and nothing else mattered. Is it not possible that our entrance into heaven may be like this experience of mine?[2]

So it was decided that she should attend the Perkins School; and while at school in Boston, Helen was introduced to John Hitz, a person with whom she formed a deep friendship that lasted until his death sixteen years later. She called him Pflegevater, or “foster-father of my soul”; and he called her “meine innigste geliebte Tochter Helene,” or “my deeply beloved daughter, Helen.” John Hitz was the person who brought Emanuel Swedenborg and his religious teachings to Helen’s attention, giving her a copy of Heaven and Hell when she was fourteen. She writes:

When I began Heaven and Hell, 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. . . . My heart gave a joyous bound. Here was a faith that emphasized what I felt so keenly—the separateness between soul and body, between the realm I could picture as a whole, and the chaos of fragmentary things and irrational contingencies that my limited senses met at every turn. I let myself go, as happy healthy youth will, and tried to puzzle out the long sentences and weighty words of the Swedish sage. . . . 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. . . . I was not “religious” in the sense of practicing ritual, but happy, because I saw God altogether lovely, after the shadows cast upon his image by the harsh creeds or warring sects and religions. The Word of God, freed from the blots and stains of barbarous creeds, has been at once the joy and good of my life.[3]

Helen Keller’s father was a Presbyterian; and as she says, “I took ‘a, so to speak, standing jump out of my associations’ and traditions—and the rest is what I have grown to be.”[4] She reports that since the age of sixteen she has been a strong believer in the doctrines given to the world by Emanuel Swedenborg. Helen credits Swedenborg for giving her a faith that turned her darkness into light. It is to him that she acknowledges her indebtedness “for a richer interpretation of the Bible, a deeper understanding of the meaning of Christianity, and a precious sense of the divine presence in the world.”[5] She mentions particular gratitude for three main ideas: “God as divine love, God as divine wisdom, and God as power for use.”[6]

In addition, Helen makes clear that blind people may be cut off from images of the material world but have vision within their minds such that they can more directly experience a spiritual world that is more wonderful than the physical world they are not capable of seeing. The blind, too, inhabit a world of images, but they are internal images and in a sense are more living or alive than are those of the sensual world. Helen writes that the teachings of Swedenborg have brought her to God’s city of light and that by walking there, she has known joy that has conquered darkness to such an extent that it has given her the strongest reasons to overcome her limitations. In Light in My Darkness, Helen declares that she cannot imagine living without religion, comparing it to living in a body without a heart. She writes:

To one who is deaf and blind the spiritual world offers no difficulty. Nearly everything in the natural world is as vague, as remote from my senses, as spiritual things seem to the minds of most people. But the inner or mystic sense, if you like, gives me vision of the unseen. . . . My mystic world is lovely with trees and clouds and stars and eddying streams I have never “seen.” I am often conscious of beautiful flowers and birds and laughing children where to my seeing associates there is nothing. They skeptically declare that I see “light that never was on sea or land.” But I know that their mystic sense is dormant, and that is why there are so many barren places in their lives. They prefer “facts” to vision.[7]

When speaking of her faith or credo, Helen writes, “I believe in the immortality of the soul because I have within me immortal longings. I believe that the state we enter after death is wrought of our own motives, thoughts, and deeds.”[8] It is clear from Helen Keller’s testimony that she completely embraced the religious and spiritual works of Swedenborg. That she responded to their charismatic quality is also clear. As she writes: “I do not know whether I adopted the faith or the faith adopted me. I can only say that the heart of the young girl sitting with a big book of raised letters on her lap in the sublime sunshine was thrilled by a radiance and inexpressibly endearing voice.”[9] In speaking of Divine Love and Wisdom, she writes, “[it] is a fountain of life I am always happy to be near. . . . I bury my fingers in this great river of light that is higher than all stars, deeper than the silence that enfolds me. It also is great, while all else is small, fragmentary.”[10]

While learning language opened Helen to the miracle of being human and possessing a mind, Swedenborg’s religious writings gave her a vision of the divine source of mind and spirit, as the gift of a loving God. His gift was not earthbound; it was eternal. With such a vision, Helen could view as temporary her physical impediments, like the six years she lived like a “clod of earth.” In what seemed like an instant, understanding the significance of “w-a-t-e-r” granted her access to natural human life. She believed with every fiber of her being that the truth of Swedenborg’s vision would bring her into eternal life. She already “saw” and “heard” with her spiritual eyes and ears. Through Swedenborg’s teachings, Helen knew that her mind, once it had been opened by another, would live forever in joy. As she writes:

I have a joyous sense of personal immortality. Life in the other world is just as real and full of change and wonder as on earth, but one is given eyes and ears to perceive far more clearly the varieties of good and constructive thought that the flesh conceals on earth.[11]

Swedenborg’s religious teachings gave Helen Keller not only the ability to overcome her physical limitations, but they also gave her the perspective that her limitations were the means to opening her inner self in order to “discover a new capacity and appreciation of goodness and beauty and truth.”[12] She learned to accept her limitations with grace and even joy, because her heart knew that they had a purpose and that, in fact, her life could be made all the richer not despite them but because of them. Through these challenges, she discovered the world of spirit, a world that she says “reunites and reconciles.” She continues, “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.”[13]

 

Jane Williams-Hogan, PhD, is professor emerita and co-director of the Master of Arts in Religious Studies program at Bryn Athyn College.

 

[1] Helen Keller, Light in My Darkness, West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2000,
5–6.
[2] Ibid., 6–7.
[3] Keller, How I Would Help the World, West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation, 2011, 29–31.
[4] Ibid., 51.
[5] Ibid., 49.
[6] Ibid., 51.
[7] Keller, Light in My Darkness, 134.
[8] Ibid., 135.
[9] Keller, How I Would Help the World, 30.
[10] Ibid., 57.
[11] Keller, Light in My Darkness, 149.
[12] Keller, My Religion, New York: Swedenborg Foundation, 1986, 146.
[13] Ibid., 110.

 

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