Saturday, July 23, 2016


Lord, what if there were ten...?
The first reading at mass for Sunday, July 24, shows Abraham bargaining boldly with God, talking the Lord down as to the number of just people it would require for Sodom to be spared from destruction.

His approach is not disrespectful, but bold; his boldness is based on his intimate relationship with the Lord. This is, after all, the Lord who called him to leave his home land of Ur to "go to a place that I will show you." So, I thought I'd repeat in this post a pair of concepts that I've explored in my book Street Wisdom: "mastery" and "intimacy."

There is an interior struggle in each of us between two different attitudes toward life,  two different stances toward the world: the tension between what I call Mastery and Intimacy.


 Although neither of these words is traditional Christian spiritual vocabulary, you’ll start to recognize right away the familiar tension I’m referring to. First, I should say that I’m using “mastery” in a very narrow, technical sense; I have nothing against mastering the violin or a tricky French verb. Let me introduce you to the contrast between them with a few examples:

1. Mastery is the side of me that likes to control situations and people – It's what moves me to use my power to make things happen just the way I want them to. I have a plan, I carry it out and get the result I want: I’m happy. Mastery!

But there's another voice in me, the voice of Intimacy, which says that happiness comes NOT from forcing things to conform to my will, but rather from simply dealing with what is given without needing to impose my own will on every situation or fix what’s wrong with every person I meet.

2. Mastery is the part of me that prefers careful calculation, that prizes predictability, and destestsIntimacy, on the other hand, is the instinct that tells me that anything worthwhile requires RISK, and that in affairs of real importance I need to be open to surprises; for example, saying “I love you” leaves me vulnerable to the pain of rejection. Surprises are unacceptable on an assembly line or in a computer program. Mastery hates Mystery! (To call something a mystery is to admit that I’m not in control.)

3. Mastery is concerned completely with externals: Mastery is about keeping score. it calls me look at measurable results, evaluate and compare people and things in terms of how they measure up to certain standards of perfection. Students and teachers, congressmen and corporations, high schools and hospitals just about everything gets rated, evaluated, assigned a score. Intimacy, on the other hand, is the inner voice that insists that what’s really important ultimately are the inner realities, that make up a world where things can not be measured or evaluated. Say you spend the night at the bedside of a dying friend talking about death and love and heaven. Next morning a friend asks, “Well, what would you give it your visit? About a 90? an 85? The really important things you just can’t reduce to numbers! There's a sign in our Physics lab that reads: "If you can measure it, it's not that important.

4. Besides controlling, calculating and measuring, my Mastery side craves security, and often resorts to self-protective secrecy, while my intimacy side longs to open up to another person, It is what moves me to reveal myself, let myself be known deeply even at the cost of leaving myself vulnerable to the other.

5. Mastery and Intimacy ask different questions and they judge by different criteria.    
Mastery asks, Is this action effective and efficient? Does it work? -- Ruthless Corporate downsizing, or dumping raw HCl in to the river are effective and efficient. Intimacy asks a vastly different set of questions: “Is this life-giving” “Is it beautiful” Our 1959 school building: classrooms are cinderblock boxes, with gray tiles halfway up wall, lit by fluorescent bulbs. No one designing that building ever asked “Is this beautiful?” “Does it call out a student’s nobler side or deepest humanity?”

 6. Mastery is, by definition, all about ME: my power, my accomplishments, my score, being Number One. Intimacy, by definition, cannot be all about me; it has to involve others. Intimacy keeps telling me that real happiness comes from being connected, being in relationship with others, St. John tells us “God is relationship.” The Holy Trinity. You can’t do this Christianity thing without Intimacy.


We can use these two concepts to look at the way we experience GOD. Think of our image of God in terms of intimacy and mastery.  So many of us were introduced at an early age to a God of Mastery. who controls the world with strict, unforgiving rules who keeps score who demands perfection of his imperfect creatures.

But Abraham gives us a great example of someone relating with God on the basis of intimacy: leaving himself vulnerable and trusting in God by packing up and leaving Ur at God's command, lifting the knife to sacrifice his own son without understanding what God was up to, revealing his inmost feelings to God, risking God's wrath by bargaining with the Lord in Sunday's reading.

This is Abraham, "our father in faith." Let us pray that we, his daughters and sons in the faith, my be able to develop that kind of intimacy with our Creator and Redeemer.

As I mentioned, I explore this pair of complementary ideas in my book "Street Wisdom."

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