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franciscan - May 1999

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Enneagram Spirituality

by Brother Bernard SSF

The Enneagram is an ancient tool for self-awareness and change. The nine-pointed diagram, as used in the Oral Tradition, is a tool of compassion which allows us to experience (the eight) other ways of viewing the world. It teaches us to recognise the particular, but partial, nature of our own viewpoint. As a dynamic model which shows relationship between types, it helps us to understand our preoccupations in times of stress and so helps us to recognise how the personality expends energy in habitual unconscious concerns. In this article, I shall spell out its spirituality, first in non-specifically religious and then in specifically Christian terms.

The true essence of each individual is defended in the face of life’s experience in a way which exaggerates one part of it. We each develop a mental model with a particular lens of perception which is organised to minimise further damage. Although this process is part of normal development of the healthy individual finding strategies for survival in a difficult world, this unconscious habit of attention can become limiting and compulsive. So habitually we may ask:

1 ‘What is there to correct here?’;
2 ‘Who needs my help here?’;
3 ‘What is there to accomplish here?’;
4 ‘What is missing here?’;
5 ‘What is expected of me here?’;
6 ‘What is the danger here?’;
7 ‘What possibilities for the future are here?’;
8 ‘What needs my control/assertiveness here?’;
9 ‘Who is there for me to match up to here?’.

Becoming aware is the first step in the process of change. My focus has served good ends and I should be ill-advised to think I can abandon it completely, but at its root it is protecting and reinforcing a partial, thus limited, view of the world. This partial view hinders recognition and the growth towards essence. I mimic/mask my true essence. For example, 8 is the habitual movement towards assertive control which masks the essential innocence of communicating with true and appropriate force.

The second step consists in recognising the alternative as preferable. So, in the example above, if I begin to prefer innocence and truth to excessive assertiveness and control, this will facilitate my growth towards them. ‘The moral imperative’, says A N Whitehead, ‘is the habitual vision of greatness.’

The third step enables me, by preferring the alternative, to jettison even precious parts of my self-image in order to grow towards my essence.

Thus the Enneagram identifies the particular spiritual path for each of the nine types. The 1 can move towards perfection in serenity; the 2 towards freedom and humility; the 3 towards hope and honesty; the 4 towards originality and equanimity; the 5 towards all knowledge and detachment; the 6 towards faith and courage; the 7 towards work and sobriety; the 8 to truth and innocence; the 9 to love and action.

Now I play the same tune on the Christian keyboard

(a) God is universal, hidden and disclosed. By his Spirit he works to reveal himself through his natural creation, human loves, prophets and holy people, scriptures and supremely in Jesus Christ. Christ becomes human to draw us back into communion both with God and each other. In this communion is our truth. It is the breaking of this communion which is both the human tragedy and the human dilemma. God in Christ by the Spirit works ceaselessly to repair the breach. His work is to restore his image and likeness in each person, thus enabling them to realise their potential.

(b) We all compensate for lack of this communion by exaggerating and misusing one of God’s gifts. We seek to give ourselves identity, worth, significance, security, consolation, power or whatever sense we lack. So, for example, I may try to earn approval and love by pleasing, helping others: I may even do so heroically. But since I am driven by my own hidden need I may be blind to the deepest needs of others. More dangerously, I may be blind to my own need of others and God. Such is the much misunderstood root sin of pride. By contrast, God’s love is a gift without strings, reaching into and freeing my depths (if I will allow it), showing me too that God is ‘love, given and received’. Though it is ‘in giving that we receive’, it is also in receiving that we give. Vincent de Paul says, ‘The poor must feel your love that they may forgive your gift of bread.’ God respects us by giving us freedom to receive his love, and freedom to reciprocate or not. Contemplating, realising this, sets me free from the self-centred compulsion to ‘be helpful’ and frees me for perceptive, sensitive and humble helpfulness.

Each of the nine spaces illustrates the same dynamic. I give briefly three more examples. God’s love, which works ceaselessly to bring in the new creation, can release me from my negative projection of my unwholeness onto others and the world, and from my self-centred perfectionism. 1 It can free me from my anger, which has no place in a perfect world or which I find is too dangerous to show. By contemplation I may move to true wholeness and serenity.

Or again, God, who is all knowledge (both ‘about’ and ‘of’ all) has freely shared his Divine Wisdom. By contrast, in my 5 insecurity I may squirrel and hoard knowledge, build a wall with it to warn others off and be stingy in sharing it. The gift of God’s love becomes my possession and my security. Contemplation can lead me towards full knowledge and detachment.

Or again, God’s ceaseless and energetic love, which uses failure redemptively, challenges my fear of failure, my 3 compulsion to succeed at all costs (or anyway appear to succeed). I can be freed from my tendency to be a workaholic and set free into hope and honesty.

Thus Enneagram awareness can set us free to choose the better. We turn from the lesser to the greater. This turning round, metanoia, is the misunderstood concept of Christian repentance. It opens a person up to the flow of grace. But it is a long road to freedom. Repentance begins when I glimpse something better and begin to desire it. Repentance will include challenging the power of my root sin and its evil consequences. It may also include letting go of even ‘good behaviours’ if they build up an identity independent of God. With repentance goes faith – the gift of God which trusts in his desire for my wholeness in truth. It enables me to cooperate with him to bring it about. Repentance and faith are described in Scripture as the way to salvation (freedom). God’s grace is free and our faith which cooperates is free choice; this is in contrast to salvation by good works. Central to Christian faith is death and resurrection: risking all to find all. ‘How blest are those who know their need of God.’

The spiritual realities of the Enneagram can only in part be explained, or pointed to in words. Karen Webb in The Principles of the Enneagram (Thorson, 1996, £5.99), does so in non-religiously specific language; David Mahon in Full Face of God (DLT, 1998, £9.95) in Christian terms; Helen Palmer in The Enneagram (1988); The Enneagram in Love and Work (1995) and The Enneagram Advantage – Spirituality in the Office (1998), (all Harper-Collins, about £7.99) is pure gold. But it is the experiential, listening to people who know it deeply themselves that really enables us to choose change. (There are workshops available in many retreat houses). Seeing it lived, however, is the most converting experience.

Helen Palmer, who many consider to be the foremost spiritual Enneagram teacher today, exhibits in herself an unselfconscious, deep spirituality fed by many hours of meditation. In her teaching, she draws quite naturally on a wide range of religious traditions – desert fathers, Zen roshis, Hindu gurus, Sufi sages, Jewish rabbis, etc. Her own Christian upbringing and commitment frees her to be at home in other traditions. Likewise her awareness of her Enneagram homing point frees her to be at home in other spaces. Her remarkable openness to the flow of grace and wisdom is reflected in her writings. It seems to me that – to refer to the previous article, Two Domes, One God – her God is not confined to either Dome. §


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