The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17C)
1 September 2013
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus 10:(7-11), 12-18
Luke 14:1, 7-14
E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End has for many years loomed large in my immagination. When I first read it in my late teens, I was instinctively drawn to its epigram, “Only connect ...” and found profound meaning in those two words. When I was a graduate student I discovered that my doctoral advisor, John Shearman, was also deeply touched by the novel. Indeed, his own penultimate book, his Mellon Lectures on the importance of the original spectators to understanding the meaning and form of Renaissance paintings and sculpture, was entitled Only Connect.(1) I immediately found his notion of forming a living relationship between the beholder and a work of art powerful and transformative and appreciated the reference to something that had meaning for me personally. I also believe, now reflecting on it over a distance of more than a decade, that Professor Shearman also found personal meaning (very different from my own) in the phrase, personal meaning in a connection to the character of Henry Wilcox and his own struggles.
Various encounters and experiences this summer led me back to Howard’s End and it was not surprising, then, that as I was wrestling with the major themes of this week’s readings—pride and humility—I was vividly brought back to Forster’s two words. These are themes that I have been considering a great deal recently and are ones that get to the heart of the Gospel, the heart of God, the very heart of Love.
In the novel, Henry Wilcox’s wife Margaret is deeply frustrated by her husband’s inability to connect, to break out of what Forster styles his “fortress.”(2) He is ensconced in this fortress and will not let anything touch him. He acts wilfully and sets a different standard for his behaviour from that of others. He is blind to his own weaknesses and can not connect his experience with that of others. He is unable to make himself vulnerable and enter into real relationships. He is unwilling to understand anyone who is different from himself.
Margaret confronts Henry and tells him these very things. In doing so, she sees her naming his failure to connect as “a protest against the inner darkness in high places that comes with the commercial age” (301). In a stroke she eviscerates the myth of self-reliance: the myth that we should strive to wall ourselves off from needing help from anyone else, needing to be in relationship with others to be a success, and be as in-dependent as possible. This failure to connect and truly see, this belief that he needs no one else, this is the sin of pride.
Sinful Pride should never be confused with the fundamentally important human need to have positive thoughts about yourself, your identiry, and your accomplishments. Perhaps we need a better vocabulary, for we all should have a positive image of ourselves. We are, all of us, beloved children of God. We are all wondefully lovable and should love ourselves as we are; for if we do not love ourselves, how can we be bearers of love into the world?
No, this negative aspect of pride resides in the fundamental, willful act of cutting our-selves off from others, cutting our-selves off from God, from Love, from relationships. In the lesson from Ecclesiasticus we read this morning we are told that “the beginning of a man’s pride is to depart from the Lord; his heart has forsaken his maker.” When we cut ourselves off from God, when we cut ourselves off from being in relationship with that which is bigger than ourselves, with Love itself, when we cut ourselves off from being in relationship with others, that is pride. Sinful pride is failing to acknowledge our interrelatedness. It is thinking that we are done, a finished product. It is being closed to what others can offer us. Sinful pride says that we can do it all on our own. It says we do not need any help, any support, to live out our lives and to fulfill our goals. It says that we place our goals and priorities over and above the priority of love and God’s command to love each other. “Pride was not created for men,” we heard earlier, and indeed we were not created to live out of relationship with God, out of relationship with his creation, out of relationship with each other. We are created to be connected, we are created to love God and love one another.
In the passage from Hebrews we learn how we are to love. We learn how we are to love in relationship with God and with others and here there is no room for pride, no room for living in the fortress of our self-satisfaction. We are to show hospitality to strangers, to care for those who are imprisoned or ill treated, honour our most intimate personal relationships, and keep a balance in how we handle money and our possessions. As we do this God promises always to be in relationship to us, “he has said, ‘I will never fail you or forsake you.’” We know we are loved, connected with God and that his power, his loving power gives us the strength to face whatever comes our way. We are not alone in our lives, in our connections, in our loving, we are profoundly in relationship with God and with each other.
How then, do we connect? It is all well and good to say, “Only connect ....” It is another to live it. Indeed, many people find it hard to connect, especially here in the city, here where power and self-reliance are so widely valued. Suzanne Vega in her song “The Queen and the Soldier,” tells of a young woman with great power who could not connect. Out of fear she could not break through her pride. She could not accept the deep welling-up of love— generous love for the other, unselfish regard for someone different from herself—that she felt and chose to “fold herself up like a fan,” to remain, “strangling in the solitude she preferred.”(3) She did not let herself “break,” but at what cost? This is her pride, her unwillingness to connect, holding back from entering into relationship, refusing to make herself vulnerable. Henry Wilcox in Howard’s End did break and his “fortress gave way” (304). In his brokenness he allowed himself to connect, to enter into relationship, to be reconciled not only with his wife, Margaret, but with her sister Helen, “as they learnt to understand each other” (308). Through his brokenness he found his way back to love.
It does not have only to be this way. The end of sinful pride and the beginning of love need not only be born of utter brokenness. Indeed, Forster recognises this when he tells us that Margaret “did not see that to break him was her only hope” (304). If we can recognise our pride, we can defeat it by breaking out of the walls that close us in, by reaching out to others, to the other, and consciously forge relationships. We need to acknowledge our connectedness, acknowledge that we are bound to each other and to all creation by the Love of God that made us and that gives meaning to the cosmos.
We need to give up the myth of self-reliance and take on true humility, a humility that again does not deprecate the self or creation, but that lets us see us as we truly are: as beloved, connected, interrelated parts of something much larger than our-selves. This true humility is having a sense of loving our-self as we are right now. It is having a sense of our-self as being on a journey, as being part of a process, a process that is not complete. It is being open to the change and growth that new relationships bring. It is being open to others and what they can offer us. It is allowing ourselves to be changed by our encounter with the other and grow into something new. It is a willingness to be vulnerable to the other. It is a willingness to be open to love.
I believe this is the humility of which today’s gospel speaks, the humility that calls us to love unconditionally and generously, love without expectation of reward. The results of this work can be spectacular. When pride is vanquished and true humility accepted we become open to understanding the other and when we understand the other, we can begin the process of forgiveness and reconciliation that comes from understanding and negotiating—but not diminishing—the differences that divide us from each other.
Filmmaker James Ivory, in his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Howard’s End, writes:
So we seem to need, I need, his “Only connect” more than ever, reminding us to fear what [Forster] called “the undeveloped heart”: the heart that is too small, too smug, too snobbish, [and] to open [our-selves] to others and include them.
“Only connect...” and pride will vanish. “Only connect ...” and we will be truly humble. “Only connect...” and we will be free to love each other as we truly are and love God, love love itself.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Thomas Gallaudet and Henry Winter Stile, 27 August 2013
1. John Shearman, Only Connect: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance, A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1988 (Princeton: University Press, 1992).
2. E. M. Forster, Howard’s End, 1910, introduction by James Ivory, Modern Library Paperback ed. (New York: Random House, 1999), 280. All subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.
3. Suzanne Vega, “The Queen and the Soldier,” Suzanne Vega (A&M Records, 1985).
© 2013 Andrew Charles Blume