Early in my priesthood, I was appointed to teach in a small College, where the priest in charge had newly come from Europe. It was his first time overseas, so everything was new to him. One day, I noticed that he had changed the students’ toilets from the squatting variety to the sitting variety and when I asked him why, he said that the squatting variety was ‘primitive’! I replied that that was the position the students were most used to and found most comfortable.
His was a mistake that most of us make when we move away from our own country or culture for the first time – when we see something different, we assume it is inferior to the way we do things and, in most cases, that is not so. In fact, we only really begin to appreciate our own culture or religion, when we begin to appreciate the culture and religion of others.
There is, however, something in us, which gets frightened when faced with difference and we try to make others conform and even try to destroy those different from ourselves. This fear of ‘difference’ is the root of bigotry and prejudice, hatred and war. In the not too distant past, Fascism and Marxism tried to do away with ‘difference’ and those societies collapsed as a result, but we obviously have still much to learn from these failed experiments, for the pressure to conform is still very much in evidence all around us.
A great Jesuit philosopher, Teilhard De Chardin, taught that we can only progress socially, personally and spiritually by ‘embracing difference’, that the more we appreciate ‘difference’, the more we let it become a part of our lives, the more fecund and vital will be our society, our community and, indeed, our very selves.
Love is born in this appreciation of ‘difference’. We treasure that which makes the ones we love different from ourselves – we want them to be more themselves, not less. And, any attempt to re-make them, in our own likeness, will result in destroying any possibility of true love. But, you may object, does not God make us in his own image and likeness? Would that not therefore mean that he is destroying any possibility of true love? This is where a deeper examination of the Scripture text is necessary:
The Scriptures do not say that God makes each man/woman in his own likeness, but that he makes humanity in his own likeness – and that includes our differences. (‘Adam’ refers to the whole of humanity, not the male)
Furthermore, Revelation teaches us that God is one and God is three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In other words, God is the Communion of ‘Difference’ and the more we embrace ‘difference’, the more we grow into his image and likeness.
We need to see our differences as being like the variety of herbs and spices needed to make a wonderful meal, or, better still: the difference in the smiles of your children – each one being irreplaceable and all being necessary to make up the family.
To begin the journey of love is to begin a journey of appreciation. We have to learn to appreciate the wonder that each person is; we have to learn that our community will only flourish insofar as each person has a special place and is seen as irreplaceable, because different. Fundamentally, this is a spiritual task: a task of learning to appreciate and embrace ‘difference’, a task which must begin with small everyday things – such as toilets!
Fr Terry Burke