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.


The Eucharist: A Simile for Life


Beginning in elementary school, literary devices such as metaphor, alliteration, and simile gave budding writers the tools to cast a person as a wild boar, to make a rainbow like a pathway to paradise, and to pour plenty of pleasant images into their writing. These devices showed up in books, too. Young high school students learned that according to William Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage.”[1] College students pondered the meaning of Emily Dickinson’s words, “Dying is a wild night and a new road.”[2]

Students recognized them, discussed them, and located them on a test. Somewhere between graduation and launching into a career, the fun of metaphors, similes, and other literary devices …well, ended like a cell phone signal in the country. It can be found again if you drive back into town, but in most cases, literary devices end up a less noticeable part of life.

In these three components the Eucharist acts as a simile for family life. The purpose of using simile is simple: our faith and our homes need a way of connecting ordinary daily living to the greater whole of God’s story for humankind. Stories of faith are full of literary devices, including the story of God, the story of God’s people the Israelites, and the story of the followers of Jesus. These components are a perfect way to ponder the Eucharist and its presence in our daily lives.

All three components are meant for use in the context of the home. Home is especially challenging to define. Is home where you gather with the ones you love and are in relationship with others through adoption, birth, close friendship, marriage, and partnership? Is home a physical location like an apartment, house, or condo? However you define home, that is where these sessions should take place.

According to J. Bradley Wigger, “A powerful form of teaching is simply leading the way for engaging in rituals, disciplines, and practices that are explicitly religious. When these happen at home, children learn that home is spiritual territory.”[3] Each component is designed for use at home as a way to cultivate it as a “spiritual territory.”

These components are meant for use in a family. Family is also difficult to put into words and is not limited by cultural definitions. John Chrysostum, an early church Father, wrote about family. He states, “Likewise, the godly family is an image of the church, in so much as all its members rehearse the redeemed and sanctified life, worthy of Christ, that the church continually offers to God in sacrifice.”[4] Image language was important to Chrysostum because of his firm belief in the imago Dei, or image of God imprinted on humanity. If the family is truly an image of the church, it could quite possibly hold much more than parents and children. For the purpose of these components, family is defined by its users.


            Each component is built upon the Eucharist in some way. Therefore, it is best to have a Book of Common Prayer or a copy of the weekly bulletin nearby to use. Using the previous week’s bulletin is a great way to carry the experience of the Sunday morning Eucharist into the rest of the week.

Box of Questions

Similar to printing vocabulary terms on index cards for studying, these questions are meant to be photocopied onto cardstock then cut to into pieces and stacked like a deck of playing cards. The cards, when placed in a location in the home where people gather to eat (i.e. kitchen table, island, counter top, coffee table), foster open dialogue on challenging topics.

On one side of the card is a question about the Eucharist. On the opposite side is a question about living as a family. The two questions are meant to begin the connection between what occurs in the Eucharist and what occurs in the home. Sometimes there is a quote or piece of writing to prompt more discussion.

Give One, Take One

            Positive words of encouragement and affirmation build up the soul. In Give One, Take One, families ponder part of the Eucharist using feeling statements. This is a vulnerable way to interact as a family. A person’s feelings are always valid because they are his or her own. Stating them to a family member can be hard.

When statements are read it requires two people, one who gives and one who takes. Giving is finding a statement that speaks to the moment and filling in the blanks. Taking is simply listening to the other person speak. In other words, one person in the family blesses another person in the family when they are willing to open up about their feelings. Reciprocal action is not required, just good listening. Statements are numbered and match the box of questions in content related to the Eucharist. If desired they can be used together.

Pillow Talk

Children and adults alike enjoy a bedtime story. Likewise, the Eucharist contains weekly readings or “stories” from the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the Gospels, and Epistles. They compose a large portion of the Eucharist known as the Lessons. In pillow talk, families read passages together. Then they ponder the passages as a simile of part of the Eucharist.

In particular, for the purpose of this document, the suggested stories come from the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary Year C for Advent. Any text works with the guiding questions and fill in the blank suggestions. Ultimately, the stories that are told can connect with the Eucharist in many ways. The fun is finding the connection. More than one connection is possible. Scripture passages printed are from the Common English Bible. Other translations are perfectly acceptable.

To download this curriculum, click below.

Eucharist as Simile Curriculum

[1] http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/you-it-act-ii-scene-vii-all-worlds-stage

[2] http://www.emilydickinson.it/l0331-0360.html

[3] J. Bradley Wigger, The Power of God at Home: Nurturing Our Children in Love and Grace, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 133.

[4] Marcia J. Bunge, The Child in Christian Thought, (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 2001), 64.




My parents still live in the home of my early childhood in Bloomington, Indiana. It is a wonderful place nestled on acreage that I ran, hid, and played in for many years.

The first time I moved away from home it was to attend culinary arts school in Louisville, Kentucky. It took a truck, an SUV, and my Geo Metro to get all of my things to my new apartment. At the end of the term, I called my parents and cried until they let me transfer to the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, Indiana. It only took the Geo to move my stuff that time. I swore I would never return to Louisville again.

From Evansville I moved over the blessed Ohio River for the first time to the small community of Henderson, Kentucky. I moved to escape what was a dangerous turn of events into a little two bedroom apartment close to the police department. That river made me feel a little safer, so much water between where I had left and all.

Henderson could not contain me, though.

Despite my previous statement about Louisville, I returned to attend school yet again. This time, I was a seminary student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I followed the blessed Ohio River down to my new destination.

Just where do I call home and how do I even get there?

My Current Home feels rough around every edge. It is like a rock that has had every element rush against it (especially the water of the blessed Ohio). This rock is impossible to penetrate fully, though it has been moved about a bit by the currents of life. Were it a small stone in the mosaic of life, it would be centrally placed. Home is in the center of the masterpiece of my life, despite its sometimes lack of physical external beauty. Its beauty comes from the way it continuously withstands the journey.

Right now, home is the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Right now, home is where my children and partner and I live. Right now, home is a comforting place I rest each night. Other posts will explain why so many other places were also called home.