Into The Palm Of Our Hands
On the 5th of April 1887, accompanied by her governess, a young deaf-blind girl went to a pump house not far from her home, in Alabama. It was an unmanageable child prone to frequent outbursts of anger at her inability to communicate and her failure to comprehend the world around her. The governess had tried for weeks to break through the child’s virtually total isolation by spelling words into the girl’s hand in the hope that she would connect them with objects, but to no avail. The girl thought it was just a game and could not make the connection. At that pump house, the governess repeatedly put the child’s hand under a stream of water while spelling ‘w-a-t-e-r’ into her palm first slowly, then more quickly – until the realization dawned into the girl’s mind, she understood the connection, and that the pressures on her hand would allow her to communicate with those around her.
It is a well-known episode, endlessly popularized in writings and films. The child was Hellen Keller and the governess Anne Sullivan. Hellen was a prodigiously intelligent child and went on to become a world famous writer, speaker, and activist. Here is how she herself describes the water moment in her autobiography: “As the cool stream gushed over one hand she [the governess] spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; 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! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.”
In our relation with God we are very much in the situation Hellen Keller was with regards to her surroundings before the water moment. We are unable to see God with our eyes and hear him with our ears, as we can with every other person. Is there a reason for this impossibility? Is it that we have become blind and deaf because of our sin or is it that God does not have a body like ours? It can be for both or either of those reasons and in the end it is not what really matters. God could, of course, make himself visible and audible – and he did, in a burning bush, in a pillar of fire, as a voice that could be heard from nowhere. But in all likelihood these are literary devices – and in any case, whatever was seen or heard in these episodes was not God – a bush is not God, nor a cloud, nor the sound of a voice. The simple truth is that, as John says at the end of the Prologue to his Gospel, for whatever reason, “No one has ever seen God” (John 1.xx).
And yet we are also told that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1.1). We might struggle with such an abstract presentation of God, but the meaning of this sentence could not be more straightforward. A word, whether uttered using our voice or spelled into the palm of our hand, is that through which we try to reach out to others, to communicate, to make ourselves understood. So all John wants to say is that God is not just someone who wants to speak, but that he is speech, he is communication – that is he is eager to reach out to us, talk to us, make himself understood by us. And since we cannot see nor hear him, in our relation with us he is very much in the same position as Anne Sullivan was with Hellen Keller – God has been trying forever to spell words into the palm of our hand, and all this time we have not had our ‘water moment’, we have not made the connection yet, we still think it is just a game.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us that since the beginning God has tried to communicate with us “many times and in many ways” (Heb 1.1). Exactly the same idea lies behind the image of Wisdom in the Old Testament, where she says about herself: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist” (Sirach 23.xx). And indeed throughout history, many people got the message, so to speak, or at least bits of it. Behind the use of the image of Wisdom to talk about the ways God tries to reach out to us, there is the idea that everything that inspires us and lifts us up in any culture, religion, philosophy, in nature, in art is God trying to tell us something.
John’s Prologue however does not end at this. For John God is not just word, but in his burning longing to reach out to us, and seeing that all his previous attempts had failed, at one point took the extraordinary step of becoming flesh. Just as with Hellen Keller, he knew that if he wanted to break through our inability to see and to hear him, he had to become able to touch us, spell the word directly into the palm of our hand. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1.xx).
“Lived among us” in Greek is eskenosen, which literally means “he planted his tent among us”. This tells us something crucial about the way in which God makes himself visible, audible and known to us. The Gospels relate a number of sayings, parables and speeches by Jesus. There is no lack of words in languages we can understand that explain to us who God is and what his intentions are. This, however, is not the decisive way in which God tried to break through to us. Significantly, Jesus never wrote a single word, which should strike us as rather odd. The main way in which he reached out to us was by “living among us”, that is sharing our daily life, working, walking, sleeping, eating, drinking with us. Jesus did not surround himself with twelve scribes always ready to write down each declaration that came from his mouth so as to keep as literal a version as possible of his thought. On the contrary, he surrounded himself with fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, that is a former terrorist, and asked them to simply “come and see” (John 1.45), simply spend time with him.
If we think about this, it makes total sense. Hearing someone talking is not enough to know that person. The only way of truly becoming acquainted with someone is sharing their lives, taking time with them, doing things together, which is exactly what the Apostles did for a number of years. And then, when the time came to share that experience with others, the crucial thing was not whether they could quote Jesus’ words literally because they had a much more valuable treasure to share with the world, namely the feeling of having God spelt into the palm of their hands – a God they had no only heard but felt, seen, experienced, touched – as we are told in the First Letter of St John: “We proclaim to you that which we have seen with our eyes, looked upon, touched with our hands concerning the word of life, so that you too can have a share in the fellowship we had with Jesus Christ, and the joy that comes with it” (cf. 1 John 1.1-3).
Right now, God is doing the same with everyone of us. He is spelling words into the palm of our hands, trying to break through our disillusion, our routines, our boredom, our agitation, our distractions. We come to church, hear Scripture, receive communion, experience flickers of wonder at something beautiful in art or nature, are touched by the attention and love of someone around us – but we do not make the connection, do not perceive the word, that is the God who is attempting to communicate with us, maybe we too think it’s just a game.
Hellen Keller was lucky to have been entrusted to an incredibly resourceful, resilient, and indefatigable governess who kept trying and trying until she succeeded. The good news is that our God is just the same, that he too will keep trying and trying until we finally get it, until, in Hellen Keller’s words, we too realize that “‘w-a-t-e-r’ means the wonderful cool something that is flowing over our hands”, that “G-O-D” means the loving Father who wants to give meaning to our lives, and this “living word awakens our souls, give them light, hope, joy, set them free! There might be barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away”.