MERTON: An Enneagram Profile (Book Review)

This is the first of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram with the hashtag #read25in25.

thomas_merton_society.jpg

So, if you’ve spent more than ten minutes in conversation with me at some point over the last year, you’ve heard me mention the Enneagram. Seem like an exaggerated generalization? I’m pretty sure no one will challenge it, but go ahead and object if I’ve missed you somehow. Actually, I’m about to unload on you, so consider this our conversation I suppose…

Let’s start with some brief points of context:

  • The Enneagram is a system organized around an ancient, nine-sided symbol that explains “the nine basic personality types of human nature and their complex interrelationships.” I’ve worked with numerous personality typing systems over the last seven years, and I find the Enneagram to be the deepest, most comprehensive, and most helpful in the transformation of self and relationships. Each of the nine types is indicated by a number, and many subtypes and variations exist in the core number’s relation with the other numbers around the circumference of the Enneagram symbol.
  • Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is a widely revered 20th-century monastic who belonged to the Trappist community at Our Lady of Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. There he wrote more than seventy books of poetry, personal journals, letters, and social criticisms with a focus on peace, justice, ecumenism, and a life of contemplation. Merton was also a photographer & graphic artist. He is perhaps best known for his exploration of the true and false self, and for his social activism. For merging monastic life with active participation in the society of his day, Merton is sometimes thought to be the first of the New MonasticsMerton is a type 4 on the Enneagram.
  • I am a type 4 on the Enneagram. I first read Merton sometime during the first half college, and found his work deeply resonant. It wasn’t until later that I was introduced to the Enneagram and eventually told that Merton was a 4. (And at some point in that progression I finally gave in and admitted, after much contention, that I am 4 –– a textbook 4.) Suddenly it was clearer why his words were having such a deep impact on me, and I have him to thank for much guidance in my path to maturity, integration, and learning to love and live more fully.

Suzanne Zuercher, O.S.B. wrote Merton: An Enneagram Profile –– which is essentially a biography of Merton’s life interwoven seamlessly with an in-depth presentation of a 4’s experience of the world. And I owe Sister Zuercher a debt of gratitude for the work she’s done. I’ve read many words for too many hours about the Enneagram in recent months, but in no other book have I found the sort of nuance and depth Sister Zuercher achieves in Merton. Undoubtedly that is more possible in a book that focuses on one man and one enneagram type than in one with a broader viewpoint, but there’s also a distinctly different perspective she takes than I’ve yet read elsewhere. I’ll be adding more of her books, such as Enneagram Companions: Growing in Relationships and Spiritual Direction, to my reading list. I believe this work honors Thomas Merton and traces insightfully the journey he took in the process of being freed from illusion and compulsion, being restored to the reality of his true self––and therefore the reality of God & the connectedness of himself to God, humanity, and all of creation. There is no pretense about Merton’s shortcomings (and I expect the late Thomas Merton would have had it no other way). There is worthy tribute to the ways in which he graced his community and the ways his words continues to enrich so many lives today.

I both excitedly and hesitantly tell you how accurate Zuercher’s presentation of the 4’s experience is––excitedly because it’s a rare thing to be understood so precisely, and hesitantly because her account holds nothing back about the challenges and compulsions of 4s. Though, in balance, she certainly lines these up next to the gifts and contributions that 4s (and therefore Merton) can uniquely embody. I recommend this book to fellow 4s and wish you a reading experience that is as encouraging, convicting, calming, and challenging as my own has been. And if you are not a 4, but ever you find yourself wanting for understanding of someone you know that may be a 4, you need look no farther than this book for a fairly comprehensive profile that I expect will be helpful in your relating. And of course, and perhaps primarily, if you are intrigued by the man Thomas Merton, I recommend this read to you for a unique and valuable perspective.

Some topics in the book at a glance:

  • Merton’s/4s’ fear that conflict will destroy relationship and the compulsive attempts to maintain or create harmony.
  • Merton’s/4s’ impulse to “do” rather than “be”…sometimes activity in the form of work, excessive social engagement, etc. and sometimes constant activity or commentary in the mind.
  • Merton’s/4s’ tension between the special/romantic and the ordinary/mundane, and the over-dramatization and intensity this can lead to.
  • Merton’s/4s’ search for significance in all things, making meaning through symbols, observation of the self and others…all comprising the artistic temperament most 4s are known to have.
  • Merton’s/4s’ view of all of life as an art piece, as a drama…positive consequences of this being the possibility of a life of intentionality, integrity, beauty, etc. and negative consequences being a loss of spontaneous, authentic responses and the inhibition to act from feeling constantly observed.
  • Merton’s/4s’ fluctuation between social engagement and withdrawal into solitude.
  • Merton’s/4s’ temptation to despair…often experiencing seasons of melancholy and depression. Redeemed 4s, which Merton became, find the way to a deep hope by way of passing through deep despair, and can then hold space for others in their midst who must work through their own pain.
  • Merton’s/4s’ experience of the spiritual life as a homecoming.
  • Merton’s/4s’ experience of time as a series of deaths and births…leading to a heightened sense of the significance of life events and a focus that falls more easily on the past or the future than the present. Time is perceived more like a spiral shape than linearly. An essential in Merton’s/4s’ redemption is to learn to be fully in the present moment, resting in trust.
  • Merton’s/4s’ focus on the Spirit of God and the oneness of all things in that Spirit.
  • Merton’s/4s’ capacity to hold glaring contradictions: melancholy vs. joy, intensity/seriousness vs. humor/play, harsh criticism vs. warm compassion, oozing tension vs. radiating peace, sociability vs. seclusion, self-awareness vs. self-deception, empathy vs. self-absorption.
  • Merton's/4s'  persistent sense of longing and/or envy.
  • Merton's/4s' deep experience and appreciation of the mercy of God.

This was one of those books that ends up having more underlined, starred, and dog-eared in it than not. Below are some quotes I feel are significant. Though difficult, I limited myself to what is hopefully a reasonable number:

“In the wonder of our redemption we are not delivered from our native endowment. It is that very distinguishing characteristic that becomes our contribution to creation. Once our instincts, which we had exaggerated into compulsion, are admitted, acknowledged, allowed, they gradually assume a proper proportion in our lives. They become increasingly natural and free responses.” (Zuercher, p. 7)

“We are at liberty to be real or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them. If we have chosen the way of falsity we must not be surprised that truth eludes us when we finally come to need it.” (Merton, p. 25)

“When Merton was taken out of himself by beauty in non-analytical wonder rather than in analytical fascination, he experienced simply what is so.” (Zuercher, p.68)

“According to enneagram theory, the Divine is manifested in the many different aspects of creation. Applied more personally, each human enneagram type especially incarnates something of the Creator. In Christian terms, each triad and each space within that triad, resonates in its energy with a different Person in the Trinity of Divine persons. For 8/9/1s it is the Life-Giver and Nourisher, the Father/Mother/Creator God to whom they witness, each type in the triad nuancing that witness. The Son of God becomes inspiration for the 5/6/7 triad and each space in it. The Spirit of Jesus alive in the here and now takes flesh in the flesh of 2/3/4s, a little differently depending on the number in the triad.” (Zuercher, p. 122)

“The man with the “sacred” view is one who does not need to hate himself, and is never afraid or ashamed to remain with his own loneliness, for in it he is at peace, and through it he can come to the presence of God….Such a man is able to help other men to find God in themselves, educate them in confidence by the respect he is able to feel for them…helping them to put up with themselves, until they become interiorly quiet and learn to see God in the depths of their own poverty.” (Merton, p. 123)

“Over years of experience 4s find out that conflict, misunderstanding, and even division need not end relationships. There is always the suspicion in 4s that if others were ever to come close enough to see who they really are they would be abandoned. In life’s inevitable situations of stress, the “good face” they feel obliged to put forward, the harmony they feel personally responsible to maintain or create, fails. In such circumstances, when people who are consistently in their lives continue to relate to them and to care for them, they are amazed…

Probably the deepest and most real kind of hope 4s can experience is based on the testimony of a lifetime of commitment to the same people. This is one of the many reasons Merton’s monastic vocation held such significance for him. The monks knew him in all of his limitation and loved him nonetheless.” (Zuercher, p. 145-146)

“Merton fluctuated between friendliness and privacy, trust and mistrust, rebellion and obedience, shyness and openness, collaboration and aloofness, snobbery and ordinariness. Such fluctuation characterizes 4s and is their peculiar mix of the social instinct on the one side and the perceptual on the other.” (Zuercher, p. 154)

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Thank your for reading! I hope this has been enriching for you in some way. In the next couple of days I will review The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, a classic for anyone doing creative work. Stay tuned if you’re interested!

sd.