When the boy was four years old, his uncle would go daily for a long walk with him, moving as the boy wished, seeing the world through those clear and unclouded eyes. On their return, they would watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and together absorb the truth of kindness, friendship, goodness, the innate value of every soul in God’s creation. It was a magical world—the way the world should be—the way it would be if only its inhabitants would truly live as neighbors, in peace and harmony and divine friendship.
The boy grew into a fine man with a family of his own, including two toddlers. His life was expanding with the joy and challenge of parenthood. But for his mother and father, who had raised him with all the gentle goodness of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, these same years had brought deteriorating health: incapacitating illness for the father; a downward-spiraling depression for the mother, helpless to heal the father and isolated in the old family home, far from friends and family.
Just when the mother’s downward spiral seemed irreversible, the father’s health collapsed: ambulance, hospital, and the prospect of an indefinite stay for rehab. It was into this vacuum that God’s grace flowed: His answer to the suffering of His children, and to the many prayers from distant loving friends. The son saw his opportunity to intervene, patiently helped his mother pack what she needed and moved her into a home right down the street from his own—a home specially dear to her, one she had bought and decorated years before, her dream one day to live there close to the grandchildren she loved so much. Now the home was untenanted, as though it had been waiting for her coming. “She’ll be part of our family now,“ the son told his uncle. “She can be here with us, or we with her in her place.”
When the uncle heard these simple words, his anxious heart opened in gratitude to the Divine Mercy—“Thank you, God”—for so clearly was it God’s grace that had brought this healing for the mother, with its promise of golden years ahead, of living in a spirit of kindness and love, of being valued as a soul, of having the door of service to others held wide open to her compassionate heart.
Mister Rogers’ own life was an unending quest to bring an awareness of God’s grace into the lives of people everywhere, especially into the lives of the children. His paternal grandfather had started him on his way when one day he looked the boy deep in the eyes and said, “Freddy, I like you just the way you are.” The old man’s love for the boy, his respect and acceptance of him as a unique, and uniquely valued, being, opened for the boy the window through which he would ever after see all his fellow denizens of the planet Earth. His own parents raised him with unfailing kindness, honesty, and love. His mother taught him to look always for the light, even in the greatest darkness. When young Fred would be distraught at television news reports, his mother would say, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
And so it was that from childhood Fred determined to be himself one of the helpers. His particular avenue of service came to him when, as a college student, he turned on a television and saw people throwing pies at one another. Out of this shock to his sensitive heart grew a desire to use television to help people, to use television in a way that would counter its present degraded message, that would be an instrument of humane values and divine blessings. When, late in life, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award, Mister Rogers stood before the audience of glittering celebrities and, by sheer goodness of heart, touched them with the grace that animated his own life: “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are. . . . Ten seconds of silence.” And the people did so, many weeping, perhaps changed forever. At the end of the ten seconds of silence, Mister Rogers quietly said, “May God be with you,” and walked back to his seat.
The beautiful prayer that Jyotish and Devi have given us could well have sprung from this great soul: “With the sword of faith in my hand, with the love of God in my heart, I am a warrior of light. I join my brothers and sisters everywhere to overcome fear with faith, hatred with love, and disease with health. Let us fill the world with God’s light.” In the first four hours of every day, Fred Rogers would pray for each one of the hundreds who had asked his spiritual help. To those who had written, he would write back. To those whose birthday it was (and he never forgot a birthday) he would send heartfelt good wishes. Those he knew needed comfort he would telephone. And if someone came to his door, he would give that one his entire attention—because each one who came, each one who wrote or called, was Christ Himself.
A little boy with polio, crippled, unable to speak, so abused by his caregivers that he had turned inward on himself with violent self-hatred, convinced that God Himself despised him, had yet one bright spot in his life: his love for Mister Rogers. Faithfully he watched the program year after year. By God’s grace Mister Rogers come to the boy’s hometown to meet his suffering little friend. “I would like you to do something for me,” he greeted the boy. “Would you do something for me?” Stunned by this request—for no one had ever asked anything of him—the boy rallied and typed into his computer, “Yes. Anything!” And Mister Rogers, with perfect sincerity and humility, made his request: “I would like you to pray for me. Would you pray for me?” The boy knew, with utter certainty, that if Mister Rogers, who he knew must be close to God, liked him enough to ask his prayers, then God must like him too. And so his healing began.
To a boy born blind—a boy who had, when an adult, fiercely reclaimed the childhood he’d never had, renamed himself “Joybubbles,” determined to remain five years old forever, and gone on pilgrimage to a Pittsburgh library to listen to and imagine, over a period of two months, all 865 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—to this boy Mister Rogers came in vision to teach him how to pray. “I can’t pray,” Joybubbles remonstrated. “I always forget the words.” And Mister Rogers answered, “I know that, and that’s why the prayer I’m going to teach you has only three words: ‘Thank you, God.’”
This was his way: “Joined in prayer, we worship Thee.” Taking the hands of those with him, Mister Rogers would pray, drawing God’s grace into those gathered, and outward in widening circles, to touch and bless children everywhere, and the children still living in the hearts of all mankind.
Thank you, God, for the smile of Your love.
Thank you, God, for our gladness.
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing