The story of Helen Keller is something of a parable suggesting how divine love can transform a willing soul. Helen was born in the state of Alabama in the United States in 1880. When just 19 months old, she suffered an undiagnosed illness that left her both deaf and blind. She was extremely intelligent and became frustrated as she tried to understand and make sense of her surroundings. When Helen felt the moving lips of family members and realized that they used their mouths to speak, “she flew into a rage [because] she was unable to join in the conversation.”26 By the time Helen was six, her need to communicate and her frustration grew so intense that her “outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.”
Helen’s parents hired a teacher for their daughter, a woman named Anne Sullivan. Just as we have in Jesus Christ one who understands our infirmities, Anne Sullivan had struggled with her own serious hardships and understood Helen’s infirmities. At age five, Anne had contracted a disease that caused painful scarring of the cornea and left her mostly blind. When Anne was eight, her mother died; her father abandoned her and her younger brother, Jimmie; and they were sent to a “poor house,” where conditions were so deplorable that Jimmie died after only three months. Through her own dogged persistence, Anne gained entry to the Perkins School for the Blind and vision impaired, where she succeeded brilliantly. A surgical operation gave her improved vision so that she was able to read print. When Helen Keller’s father contacted the Perkins School seeking someone to become a teacher for his daughter, Anne Sullivan was selected.
It was not a pleasant experience at the beginning. Helen “hit, pinched and kicked her teacher and knocked out one of her teeth. [Anne] finally gained control by moving with [Helen] into a small cottage on the Kellers’ property. Through patience and firm consistency, she finally won the child’s heart and trust.”30 Similarly, as we come to trust rather than resist our divine Teacher, He can work with us to enlighten and lift us to a new reality.
To help Helen learn words, Anne would spell the names of familiar objects with her finger on the palm of Helen’s hand. “[Helen] enjoyed this ‘finger play,’ but she didn’t understand until the famous moment when [Anne] spelled ‘w-a-t-e-r’ while pumping water over [Helen’s] hand. [Helen] later wrote:
“‘Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten … and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! … Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house[,] every object … I touched seemed to quiver with life.’”
Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan
As Helen Keller grew to adulthood, she became known for her love of language, her skill as a writer, and her eloquence as a public speaker.
In a movie depicting the life of Helen Keller, her parents are portrayed as satisfied with Anne Sullivan’s work once she has domesticated their wild daughter to the extent that Helen will sit politely at dinner, eat normally, and fold her napkin at the end of the meal. But Anne knew Helen was capable of much, much more and that she had significant contributions to make. Even so, we may be quite content with what we have done in our lives and that we simply are what we are, while our Savior comprehends a glorious potential that we perceive only “through a glass, darkly.” Each of us can experience the ecstasy of divine potential unfolding within us, much like the joy Helen Keller felt when words came to life, giving light to her soul and setting it free. Each of us can love and serve God and be empowered to bless our fellow man.
“As it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”