Holy Envy: Can I do that?

Most people are familiar with four-letter words, those words that are deemed “inappropriate” for proper conversation. What about four-word sentences? Or even better, how about four word imperatives? Does the thought of it conjure up ill feelings? Take these four words: Shut up and write.[1] Maybe they sound like the voice of a middle school English teacher. Maybe they read like the voice inside one’s own head. Either way, they loom like a tall oak tree’s outstretched branches for the amateur writer.

Natalie Goldberg, poet, paintTrue Secret of Writinger, teacher, and author, brings together the thoughtful practices of Zen with the art of writing. She tells her students and her readers, to “Shut up and write.” Then she confesses, “These four words are all you need, but to realize them is not so easy.”[2] Not so easy is the truth.

The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language guides and directs the aspiring writer down one path. It is a three-fold path of sitting, walking, and writing that Goldberg prescribes and outlines for use in a retreat format. In addition to this pattern, participants in this kind of retreat do these things in silence. The only time words are spoken is when participants read aloud their writing. Even then, comments are not given, the words are left hanging in the air without judgment or praise. This is one example of Goldberg’s not so easy command.

Just what is the secret of writing? Goldberg succinctly divides her thoughts into four parts. Each part glimmers on its own. Goldberg’s ability to draw out feelings in the reader from the well of emotions is beautiful. The chapters are short. The content is clear. Her own vulnerability in sharing from her life is delightful! In many ways, the book embodies a “how-to” style. The use of frequent imperative statements makes it feel like Goldberg has written the text for immediate use. The reader can almost hear her say them out loud:

“Learn structure early on.”[3]

“Get to work. No slacking.”[4]

“Don’t fight what you think are obstacles.”[5]

“You have five minutes. Don’t think. Write several.”[6]

After a lifetime of guiding students in her three-fold style, the book propels the style on by placing it in the hands of people everywhere, not just others who practice Zen.

Upon reading the first two parts of the book, the reader is empowered to go and replicate Goldberg’s “True Secret Retreat” format. Goldberg’s entire premise of sitting, walking, and writing is built upon her own spirituality formed in the practice of Zen. Her introduction records it simply: “The bell rings, we sit; another bell rings, we walk; a third bell, the students pull out their pens and notebooks from under their mats and accept their minds as it comes to them on the page.”[7] Furthermore, she gives explicit directions on how to become fluent in the craft of writing. It starts with practice. Practice seems simple enough when broken down. It only requires four steps:

  1. Keep your hand moving.[8]
  2. Feel free to write the worst junk in America.
  3. Be specific.[9]
  4. Lose control.[10]

What is unique to these steps is not their application to writing, it is their application to life, to spirituality, and to encountering the divine.

Christians, especially many Protestants, concern themselves with the movement of the Holy Spirit. Each week worship occurs in hopes that the Spirit will manifest in the sanctuary through the praises of the people. Thus, a major concern for all who wish to encounter the Spirit is, how do I know the Spirit is moving? “I don’t want to miss out on God’s blessings,” a parishioner says. Or, “How will I know what God wants me to do?” asks the preacher. Natalie Goldberg suggests something quite humble: Be on time.[11] Not the kind of “on time” that is associated with the chiming of the hour, but the kind of on time that says, “I am present.” She states, “This is your moment. Don’t miss it.”[12] She outlines this kind of being in a way that creates a kind of “holy envy.”

Holy envy is admiring the spiritual practices of another tradition with awe and wonder. It is the longing for a similar kind of practice in one’s own faith tradition. It is the desire to grow in appreciative knowledge of the other that translates into more knowledge of one’s own spirituality. Holy envy of what Goldberg teaches rises like the smoke of a campfire to the very nostrils of God—it is a pleasing sacrifice if learned as an offering to God.

How are the practices of sitting, walking, and writing a pleasing sacrifice to God? They are DISCIPLINE. After all, disciples need discipline in order to grow. Goldberg encourages her students to keep showing up, or keep on writing as conscious way to fight against what she calls “monkey mind.”[13] These practices, though based in another tradition, easily bloom into spiritual disciplines that lead to sanctification by grace. And though Goldberg never mentions them in this way, she does name part one of her book “The Ground of Being,” a phrase theologian Paul Tillich used to describe God.

Finally, after a roller coaster ride through how and why, Goldberg hits the breaks on the log ride style series of imperatives by telling stories. She tells of others in her life—other writers, other friends, other teachers. Their stories inspire, motivate, and create movement in the gears of the mind until the reader begins to think, “Maybe there is something to this idea of sitting, walking, and writing.”

What is so essential about the format of sitting, walking, and writing? Goldberg states, “In a silent retreat, our thoughts, memories, and feelings have a chance to come home to us.”[14] For Christians seeking an encounter and blessing from God through the presence of the Holy Spirit, awareness of the inner self initiates awareness of God’s movement. This awareness is needed so that retreat participants, be they Christians or otherwise, can overcome what she names as the crime that can steal away this very gift—the crime of incessant talking.

Holy envy asks of another faith, “Can I do that?” To which the other faith responds, “Whether there is one mountain with one path that leads to one God, or many mountains with many paths to many Gods, surely we are all journeying together.” Christians need a dose of holy envy that can grow flowers on their path. For Goldberg, the path requires that we sit, and walk, and write—together and alone. For truly, as Dogen says, “The moon does not get wet when reflected in the water nor is the water broken or disturbed by the moon’s reflection.”[15]


[1] Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, (New York: Atria Paperback, 2014), 222.

[2] Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, (New York: Atria Paperback, 2014), 222.

[3] Ibid, 62.

[4] Ibid, 69.

[5] Ibid, 89.

[6] Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, (New York: Atria Paperback, 2014), 126.

[7] Ibid, x.

[8] Ibid, 20.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 22.

[11] Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, (New York: Atria Paperback, 2014), ix.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, xvii.

[14] Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, (New York: Atria Paperback, 2014), 9.

[15] Ibid, 68.

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