Revised and expanded by Ray Silverman, 2000, 146 p.
This book, originally called My Religion, was written by Helen Keller in 1927,when she was 47 years old. She was certainly not the little girl standing beside the water pump in the garden any more. After graduating from Radcliffe College, Helen Keller had already achieved fame through the publication of her autobiography in 1903. Between 1920 and 1924, when money was tight, she and her teacher Ann Sullivan joined the vaudeville circuit, where they conducted two twenty-minute shows each day, as celebrity acts. Her family certainly disapproved of this way of earning money, and Ann Sullivan didn’t enjoy it. From 1924 onwards she became an ambassador and fundraiser for the American Foundation of the Blind- a far more ‘respectable’ role. This gave her a public profile and a platform to publicize the needs of the blind, but also to share her religious beliefs with the wider world.
As she tells it, since making her connection between language and the world, Helen Keller had had a spiritual hunger. She ‘spoke’ with the rector of Trinity (Episcopalian) Church Boston, Phillips Brooks about some of her religious questions but her main spiritual guide was the assistant to family friend Alexander Graeme Bell, Swiss-born John Hitz. He introduced her to the writings of the famous 18th century Swedish theologian, scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg when she was in her early teens and he continued to support her spiritual development for the rest of his life. This book of a series of essays was, in a slightly different form, published as My Religion.
It’s hard to know how to read religious writing, especially when you don’t share the writer’s convictions. Keller was often criticized for the “literary-ness” of her writing, and that is certain true here, where she is writing in the devotional-writing genre which by its nature seeks to use words to capture emotion and reflection about the spiritual world.
This re-ordered edition starts with a biography of Helen Keller written by Dorothy Hermann, whose longer biography I reviewed here. It then moves through a series of chapters where Keller writes first, about her own religious development, and then about Swedenborg’s life and writings. I must confess that I found these Swedenborg chapters heavy going. They were fairly lengthy and wordy, and I was not particularly comfortable with her full-throated adulation of Swedenborg’s ideas. I wondered if the context in which I was reading them was wrong, so I decided to read them after my morning meditation, when I’m in a more contemplative mood. They still remained turgid and flat. However, I did enjoy the shorter chapters near the end of the book, which did lend themselves to ‘devotional’-type reading.
I was particularly interested in the editor’s note at the end of the book. Helen Keller did not find writing easy. She admitted that she found it hard to distinguish her own words (i.e. words that she generated) from words that had been spelled out onto her hand by someone else. She was not able to skim-read what she had written previously, and when she was interrupted, she lost her thread. Parts of this book had been written years earlier and pasted into the manuscript. She certainly was not happy with her draft of My Religion which she handed over for publication, hoping that someone else would be able to do the editorial work that she could not. But it was published unedited and remained in print in its original form until this revision and expansion in 1994 with a second edition in 2000. The editor, Ray Silverman, himself a Swedenborgian from Bryn Athyn (New Church i.e. Swedenborgian- University) rearranged the segments, and put them into more coherent chapters. He added some material from of Keller’s other writings or speeches, and did remove a small amount of the original text.
I must confess that I would never have read this book had I not been preparing a talk on Helen Keller. It’s certainly not light reading in a genre that has a limited audience.
Sourced from: purchased e-book