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  • Cathy Sweeney

Holy Envy – reflections on the book

Holy Envy

Barbara Brown Taylor refers to herself as a writer, speaker, and spiritual contrarian. She’s also an ordained Episcopalian priest whose daily vocation is professor of Religious Studies at Piedmont College in North Carolina.

In Holy Envy, Taylor’s fourteenth book, we are treated to another memoir of a sliver of Taylor’s life. The question she answers for herself in this one:

How does one teach mostly Christian conservative undergraduate students a required “Religious 101” curriculum? Taylor writes about her life in the classroom – and in synagogues, temples, and sanctuaries. As she conducts classroom lectures and organizes field trips to other religious sites, she brings the action alive with student questions, commentary, and experiences.

What is it that Christianity and other religions have in common? How is our worldview restricted, and how can we expand that view to better understand and experience other religions? As Taylor reminds us: It’s “safer to read about religion in a textbook, but being present in the services, ceremonies, and holy places is how we really risk” vulnerability to understand those who do not hold the same faith as we do.

At the Hindu temple, Taylor shares thoughts about similarities in reincarnation and resurrection. That is, that each has a similar pattern; there is no new life without destruction or death. Students observe a prayer ritual, challenging their core beliefs about Jesus as the only way to know God.

At the Buddhist darmha-hall, students are exposed to bright orange robes and bowing motions that show respect to the monk teacher. When the monk begins the lesson, one student reveals, “This is just about life.” Back in the classroom, the students are challenged to experience singing bowls, which Buddhists believe speak to different energy levels in our bodies (known as chakras). Is this music of the Buddhists, the singing bowls and chants, similar to hymns sung in our worship services? Taylor challenges the students to find such similarities.

And that’s when she finds the words to describe the admiration of many of the practices encountered in the studies and trips of other religions: Holy Envy.

“Buddhist meditation is not the same as Christian centering prayer, but my envy of the discipline required by the former increases my desire to put more effort into the latter. A Muslim goes to Mecca for different reasons than I go to Bethlehem or Canterbury, but my envy of the Hajj causes me to wonder why I make my pilgrimages alone.”

Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindi. Do all have spiritual or other practices which prompt our Holy Envy? How do we grow spiritually, ourselves, as we learn more about those other religions? Perhaps the author states it best herself, when speaking of embracing religious diversity:

“This is how far my holy envy has brought me: from fearing that Jesus will be mad at me for smelling other people’s roses to trusting that Jesus is the Way to embrace all ways.”

Perhaps there’s something to this “Holy Envy.” What might you find, if you, too, join in the conversation?


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