Phillips Brooks and Helen Keller

By The Rev. Barbara C. Crafton, BCCRAFTON@AOL.Com

© 1992, 2002 by The Rev. Barbara C. Crafton

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man.... Ephesians 3:14-15
    Phillips Brooks was the most famous preacher of his generation in America -- an honor few clergy of  his Church have been able to claim.  His name was synonymous with the fearless and passionate proclamation of the word of God to the people of his time, which was the latter half of the 19th century.  His Lectures on Preaching is still one of the best books a person contemplating the practice of that art could read, and it is still assigned in seminaries where the craft of preaching is taken seriously.  Which is probably why it's out of print.

    He believed that a preacher's entire self needed to be in the preaching event, yet that to preach in order to impress others or in order to butttress a slender ego was a terrible abuse of the pulpit.  He believed that the right to preach was grounded in the faithful relationship a pastor had with his people -- it was only "hims" who preached in those days, but we know what he meant.  He believed that the faithful preacher always pointed to a God of love whose love walked the earth in a form so like God, yet so like us, that we called it "The Son of God."  As if God were a father, a parent like we can be parents, love like the most unselfish love we know about.   He believed that the preacher needed to be up and about, walking through his world, part of things, part of the joys and sorrows of human life.  Just about the worst thing he could think of to say about a preacher or a pastor would have been that he was "otherworldly."  And so Phillips Brooks did that:  traveled, met people, wrote to people, found out about them.

    One of his friends was Helen Keller.  Blind and deaf from the age of two, she had lived a life of isolation, unable to speak words she could not hear, unable to know what a word was.  She was taught to communicate by a dedicated teacher in a process that has inspired people ever since.  She learned to speak, to read, to write.  She went to college and graduated with honors.  She dedicated her entire life to educating the world about its responsibility to its disabled members.  Until her death in 1968, Helen Keller was consistently among the world's most admired women, and her name was always on lists people made of those women.

    Helen and Phillips Brooks wrote letters back and forth.  The young girl with such a heavy burden and the elderly cleric with so many natural gifts, they were so unlike each other.  Yet Brooks recognized that Helen and he did the same thing.  Reaching out of the total darkness of her isolated life, Helen was already touching people's hearts with her courage and noble spirit, already challenging people to look at what could be.  She lived in silence.  She lived in darkness. But out of her silence the Spirit burst forth with grace and power.  And out of her darkness, light shone.  This was what Phillips Brooks had dedicated his life to bringing about:  Let the people hear of what can be.  Let them know what astonishing good can come from God, even in the face of terrible sorrow.

    In one of her letters, Helen told Bishop Brooks that she had always known about God, even before she had any words.  Even before she could call God anything, she knew God was there.  She didn't know what it was.  God had no name for her -- nothing had a name for her.  She had no concept of a name.  But in her darkness and isolation, she knew she was not alone.  Someone was with her.  She felt God's love.  And when she received the gift of language and heard about God, she said she already knew.

    Phillips Brooks was thrilled by this.  This was the God he knew, the God who would come to a lonely child, a frustrated and lonely little girl, and find a way to speak love to her without a word.  He wrote a hymn we have loved ever since; I wonder if he had Helen in mind when he wrote:

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is giv'n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heav'n.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him, still
The dear Christ enters in.

Love without words.  Love that knows of love even before it knows anything else.  God who comes to the meek, to those who are hidden, to those whom the world discounts.  The old preacher, famous for his eloquence, was like old Simeon at the temple when he heard this from Helen Keller.  It was a confirmation of his ministry of proclamation.  It was all true.  God was really among us.  What Helen knew proved it.

    Phillips Brooks knew something of what it was to be hidden.  Few people knew that he knew it, or how he knew it, but he did.  Nobody in his Church had words to talk about it -- the topic was outside the Church, something that could not be spoken.  Phillips Brooks could not reveal everything about himself, for he knew that to do so would have been to sweep everything away.  Nobody would have listened to him speak of the loving God he knew so well.  Nobody would have thought that God could possibly have loved him if it had been known that he was gay.  I hope that he did not think that way about himself; I hope that the did not build a wall around his sexual orientation in his own soul and say to himself, "Except for this one thing.  Except for this."  But he may have.  People did in those days.  They do in these days too.

    I cannot help but think of the silence imposed upon this great man of the spoken word by the centuries of prejudice to which he was heir.  No wonder Helen Keller moved him so profoundly.  He couldn't speak either, not about this.  But he spoke about other things.  His silence was not total, although a part of him as basic as any part of ourselves we know about could not speak its name.  Love matters.  He knew that.  And he must have known how much it matters, even though he could not tell the truth about all the ways in which it had mattered to him.  God could still speak through him and did so; spoke in a way so powerful that its equal has not been seen again in this Church.  Perhaps some of that was out of his pain, out of his silence, love denied expression forcing its way into the open in some other way.  How much that has flowered among us has flowered from this sad beginning:  unable to be who we are and trying, trying, sometimes with brilliant success, to be something else.

    It is time to stop, though.  Our gifts cannot depend on our true selves being dammed up.  We can manage without the truth, but we're better off with it.  Helen Keller made brilliant use of her gifts under the burden of a terrible handicap, but it still would have been better if she could have seen and heard.  Phillips Brooks was a  gift to the ages, but it still would have been better if he could have been accepted and celebrated in the totality of who he was.  That was then.   This is now.  It is time for the truth.  "Strengthened through his might in the inner man," the lesson says.   Let the inner man come forth.  It is time now.

This essay was preached as a sermon to Integrity/New York on January 23rd, 1992 and appeared in Outlook March 1992, 3-5. It is re-published here with the permission of Barbara Crafton the author, and Nick Dowen, the editor of Outlook at that time.


Please sign my guestbook and view it.

My site has been accessed times since February 14, 1996.

Statistics courtesy of WebCounter.