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Letter to the New York Symphony Orchestra
By Helen Keller, March 24, 1924
I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” I do not mean to say that I “heard” the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy.
Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibration, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roil of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voices leaped up thrilling from the surge of harmony, i recognized them instantly as voices more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women’s voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth – an ocean of heavenly vibration – and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes…
As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marveled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others – and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.”
“…and there I sat, feeling with my hand
the magnificent symphony
which broke like a sea upon the silent shores
of his soul and mine.”
If you are like me,
you got chills with that sentence
describing Helen Keller’s sense
that she was touching Beethoven’s finger across time like God and Adam
on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Can’t you just close your eyes
and imagine it,
the music an invisible arch
from Beethoven to Keller,
the unspeakable beauty
of notes rendered so fortunately
that tongues and lips and breath
can travel through time and distance
and connect two deaf people?
Well what about Jesus…and us?
I know, there is no radio or vibration
or notes or symphony
to connect the first century and
the twenty-first century.
It’s only a story told so many times
it’s like the newspaper in the recycling bin
waiting to be taken out.
But if Beethoven and Keller
can connect like that,
and you and I can see it with our imaginations,
then it must be possible
for the sublime wisdom
and the painfully tender sacrifice
to reach like a long finger of love
to touch us,
you and me,
even here in a storefront worship space
in Geneva, New York.
I do not know what resurrection is. I just don’t.
I am not even sure the legions of Christians
and piles of Christian doctrines
know what resurrection is.
But we do know
that from out of the darkness of that grave,
and from underneath the pall of grief
and rattling of fear,
some light of love
pierced the emptiness
and jolted those who walked near his tomb.
We also know that light
through the deafness of history
and the blindness of geographical distance
and the closed door of science
to touch people in an ocean of different ways
ever since Jesus died.
Most of us here
are not Pentecostal
or Born Again
or raised to imagine we have
a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
as if Jimminy Cricket sitting on our shoulder.
Those are not core bits of our tradition.
But you know what we are?
We are a people of words.
We are word-people.
Words in a Prayer Book.
Words in the Bible.
Words in poems.
Words in song.
Words from mystics.
Words from teachers and prophets.
Words that blow our minds.
Words that touch our hearts.
Words that rattle us.
Words that shake us.
Words that relieve and comfort us.
Words that have changed our lives.
Words that inspire belief.
Words that provoke doubt.
Words that open our minds to possibility.
Words that turn us around.
Words that subvert us.
Words that heal us.
Words that wrap, inspire,
and lead us.
Words DO that to us
just as surely as vibrations
brought the New York Symphony Orchestra
to a blind, deaf woman.
Words sung upon notes,
and words seeping between the silences
as we read them,
and words spoken in our ears.
We are a people of words
and I am here to tell you
are every bit as spiritual
as any mystical vision
or ecstatic Pentecostal bollyhoo.
Words are as spiritual as any Zen Koan
or Hindu mantra.
Words connect us to Jesus.
Words connect us to that moment
when light pierced darkness
and transformed a brutal State-sponsored torture and execution
into the experience of resurrection.
And in that experience,
somehow and in some way,
In the same way that Ludwig van Beethoven
touched Helen Keller
in real time
through a radio she could not see
Jesus can touch us
through words he left behind.
Words fly on the wings of time
and sing on the tongues of men and women
and are etched on the delicate leafs of paper
or spit out with technology.
I am not dismissing other mediums
of connection, but raising up
the homely “Word” as OUR communal medium.
What I am inviting us into here
is an understanding.
It is about our mind
and how to open it
and allow words
to unleash their power.
Words that tell stories
and words that tell secrets.
Words that offer morals
and words that point to sublime truths.
Words of parables and sayings and poems.
Allow them to enter our minds
the way Helen Keller allowed vibrations
to enter her body and heart and imagination.
Allow Jesus to live even though he died.
Allow Jesus to come alive
like the ancient notes we sing,
and play, and listen to.
Think of all the other people
and ideas and places
we have allowed to come alive
on the wings of words.
Our hearts pound
when we hear certain notes strung together
on a score of music
passed down through centuries.
Our thoughts stutter
when we hear certain phrases of oratory
captured in writing or recording
that never seem to fade or turn brown.
Our memories bring to life again
feelings, images, colors, and textures
of particular moments in our lives.
The only thing stopping us
from experiencing the full power of words
is the difference in our attitude toward them.
But if we free words
to become the vehicles
upon which Jesus comes alive,
we will suddenly understand
is not an occasion that insists
the Bible is Fake News
or Literal Truth.
Easter is a moment in which we are invited —
invited free of charge
and without coercion —
to let the power of words
be the bridge we have needed
for a dead man
to come alive
like Ludwig touched Helen.
Helen said she could “hear” through
what she could “feel.”
Well we can feel
through the words we hear.
Listen to this.
Even close your eyes and feel what you hear:
“Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna,
Mary the mother of James,
and the other women with them
who told this to the apostles.
But these words seemed to (the apostles)
an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
You feel that, right?
You feel the burn in that, right?
If you are a woman, and even some men,
you know that experience, don’t you,
of sharing the wisdom of your heart
and have it considered
an idle feeling or thought?
You have stood there yourself —
know that exact experience
of standing between those women
who have had a life-changing experience,
and a bunch of men who think they are
the arbiters of truth and wisdom
who deny that experience.
That is the arch of this story,
the one that offers to transport us
across time and distance and belief
to allow the word to connect us
with the Easter moment.
Standing in between those woman and men,
standing there in that hot tension —
a tense distance
among human beings who know and care
about one another…
yet is roiling with rejection,
Can you feel that with your memory?
I bet you can feel
a time that your own personal darkness
was pierced by a light
that came from out of nowhere
with unexpected agency.
Let the words of this story
reconnect with that experience —
feel YOUR moment in those words.
We bring to these words
the wrong ideas.
When we ask if it is true
or did it really happen —
or did it really happen “that way” —
we are thinking ourselves into a dead end.
Can you imagine if Helen Keller
had put her hand on the radio diaphragm
and thought, “I bet this isn’t real?”
The vibrations would have delivered nothing.
She would not have allowed herself
the sensation of feeling Beethoven.
We are a people of words
when we allow the power of words
to touch us and connect us
to moments we haven’t experienced yet.
Easter Day, not just the words of Luke’s story
or Helen Keller’s story,
but ALL the words of this day —
the prayer words
and that flower,
being together to sing words,
and share Jesus’ on-going
open table words,
and all the “Alleluia” words —
those are the Words of Easter Day.
They have power if we allow them,
to connect us to something
strange and wonderful.
Something far more than an idle tale.
Happy Easter to you,
and may you feel the words. Amen.