People are so different! You’ve noticed: they think differently, feel differently, make different choices. Even in the same family, where one might expect that basic genetics would iron out some of this, differences remain.
At issue is what we do with these differences. We can let them alienate us, separate us into cliques, harden into polarization. Or we can try to ignore them and live in a politically correct world of unreality.
Let’s try a different approach. Francis and Clare did. Differences they knew only too well. She lived on the hill, choice real estate. His home was on a lower Assisi street. She was of the nobility with a clan of knights to defend the family honor. Francis belonged to the rising merchant class and knighthood was a distant dream.
How did they respond to these differences? That was their question as it is ours. To begin with, they listened. Francis listened to a voice calling him to change his life style and enter into a whole new set of relationships. Clare listened to that same voice, speaking through Francis. She left the castle’s safe and sheltered life for the insecurity of poverty and the challenge of a new way of living feminine religious life.
These responses evoked rejection from family, friends and other citizens. Because their overriding goal was to “live according to the holy gospel”, Francis and Clare chose to answer such opposition with a blessing. Francis’ customary greeting to all whom he met was “Good day, good people.” And Clare gifted those who came to her by sharing gifts of healing and good counsel.
Both celebrated differences, even outright rejection. How? By embracing everyone as brother and sister belonging to one and the same Father. In his well known Canticle of the Creatures, Francis included the contrasting blessings of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Fire and Sister Water. Even the polarized Bishop of Assisi and its mayor became reconciled when touched by Francis’ call for peace. As another example of how Francis responded to differences, during the Crusades he went to the Holy Land risking martyrdom. Brought into the presence of the Muslim Sultan he entered into such loving dialogue that the Sultan listened attentively and gave him his freedom.
Within the close living of enclosed community, Clare saw each of her sisters as worthy of respect and of being listened to; no class distinctions in her community. Named abbess she remained one of the Sisters.
The question for us: will we let differences polarize us or gift us? Will they lead to factions and war or to enrichment and celebration? Our culture seems to prefer the former; witness the infighting of political parties, the competition of classes, the divorce that threatens family unity. But there is an alternative: differences can open our hearts to another way of looking at something, can widen our experience, challenge our assumptions, undermine our prejudices. They can open us to something new and different and so renew our joy in being alive. Let’s celebrate! -Sr. Marie Beha