25 in 25 Update: Book Reviews

These are the 8th-12th of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram (& Twitter) with the hashtag #read25in25.

In interest of both sticking to my project goals and the deadlines I've publicly committed to, I've decided to shorten most of these 25-in-25 reviews considerably. I'm splitting my time between a number of different projects at the moment, want to best give what I can to each of them, and am trying to be realistic about just how much that is. If ever you're curious to know more about a book, don't hesitate to ask! I love to discuss what I'm reading, so perhaps these can function more as conversation starters rather than full out reviews. Thanks for following, everybody! And happy reading...

Joni: The Creative Odyssey of Joni Mitchell by Katherine Monk

I'll read just about anything I can get my hands on that's about Joni Mitchell. She's a huge influence on my own work as an artist–both musically & visually–and has been a great source of comfort & inspiration in recent years. 

This book was a worthwhile read, though not my favorite take on the Joni Mitchell life-story. The facts are there, the stories are there, but Monk's insight seems a bit limited (or even off-base at times). This may be due largely to the fact that she was unable to get much if any direct conversation with Joni in the process of compiling this biography. I did appreciate that Monk, like Joni, is originally from Canada and could speak to some of specifics of growing up there was like.

I'd recommend Will You Take Me As I Am? Joni Mitchell's Blue Period for more insightful, accurate portrait of Joni Mitchell. I'm no expert necessarily. This is just my personal take based on my extensive "research"–or hours upon hours of watching documentaries, interview tapes, listening to/analyzing records, and studying related personality types. As you can see, I tend to get a little obsessed...but we can just call it "focused." Right? Maybe?

Art & the Bible by Francis Schaeffer

This is a classic that should be on the shelf of any artist who claims a Christian worldview/lifestyle.

It is essential to read the brief foreword to get situated in the book's historical context–to understand why it was written. However it is eerily applicable still (or again?) today, over 40 years later.

"In a world that had become suspicious of the beautiful, Schaeffer reminded us that the Father of Jesus was also the God of beauty." (Foreward, p8)

Schaeffer encourages artists to take seriously the lordship of Christ over every aspect of our lives. Meaning that if Jesus is the lord of all that has been made and will be, that we are at liberty to make art about anything and everything in creation as we experience it, so long as we remain submitted to the lordship of Jesus. This essentially obliterates the sacred vs. secular divide, and states that Christians don't have to feel limited to making art only about religious themes (though of course they are at liberty to make religiously themed art as well). If all has been made through Jesus (John 1:3), there isn't a secular molecule in the universe. And at a time when about 98% of the mainstream art & music coming out of the "Christian market" is only focusing on about the 2% most "spiritual" aspects of our human experience, this is good news to us. We need art made by folks looking at the world with a Christian worldview about all sorts of things they see and experience, not just art about the worldview itself. We need art that's honest about the hard, unresolved aspects of our lives that doesn't try to tie up the pain of those neatly by the end of every 3 minute song. The whole body of work of a Christian should certainly be dominated by the hope of full life we know, but by no means does that require an artist to be dishonest about doubt, pain, confusion, loneliness, anger or anything of the sort in any given piece of art...with no rush to resolve prematurely.

And ultimately–artist or not– Schaeffer reiterates time and time again that the ultimate artwork is our life itself. We can and should learn to see our lives as works of art, crafting them into things of truth and beauty amidst a world in deep need of both.

And the Floor Was Always Lava by Michelle Junot

So, one of my best friends and college roommate Michelle Junot wrote a book. It's been special for me to see a number of these stories be developed over the last few years, culminating in this project. But I recommend this read to you from the most unbiased stance I can muster. Really, I'm putting on my let's-be-objective pants for this one...

Michelle has this uniquely entertaining-while-insightful voice in her writing, and there's really nothing quite like it (as far as I can tell). There's dry wit, blunt realism, and deep insight in her observations that will have you all over the spectrum of emotion by the time you're done with this book. I read this by the pool one afternoon and noted how grateful I was for my sunglasses as tears, giggles, belly-laughs, and my thinking face (not super attractive) were surely all on display at one point or another.

A book of stories that chart a coming-of-age in the world. Michelle's coming of age, yes, but somehow in someway our own coming-of-age too.

Buy the book at michellejunot.com

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(Photos of Michelle & me...Good writing requires: good friends, good teachers, good ice cream, and good coffee shops.)

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen (and a community of friends)

The opening line of the foreword reads, "This is a book we've needed for a long, long time." And that couldn't be more true.

We've had books of big visions and stories of radical living. We've had books on the theologies and ideologies that drive the visions and experiments in life-together. And many of these are excellent books. Deeply excellent and needed. However there's been something missing from the shelf...whether we knew it or not...and this book can now fill that gap.

Practical. Deeply honest. Real. Humble. Hopeful. Helpful.

Janzen and his friends have been at this life-together thing for a long time, being formed by community for almost twice as long as I've been alive. The relief, joy, confirmation, and conviction a few of us have felt as we've immersed ourselves in this wisdom is invaluable and essential past the point of words.

If you've been confused and curious about what the heck this intentional Christian community stuff is...or what New Monasticism is (or just how to pronounce it)...and how these intentional communities of all kinds are relating within themselves, to each other, and/or to the wider church body, this is a great place to start learning. And if you're in thick of community wondering if you're falling apart or growing, what covenanted life can look like in different seasons, or just how to get the dishes washed regularly...this is for you.

"This is a book for people who long for community and for people who've found it; for young seekers and for old radicals. Like a farmer's almanac or a good cookbook, it's a guide that doesn't tell you what to do but rather gives you the resources you need to find your way together with friends in the place where you are." (Foreword, xiv)

Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke

Ok, I went through a Judy Garland phase as a kid. Not a Wizard of Oz phase or an Andy Hardy phase or anything like that, but a full out Judy Garland phase...as in a fascinated by her life story, begging my mom to take me to Blockbuster (remember those?) to find the DVD of Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows phase.

I was probably 12 years old. Having recently re-watched that film and read this 528-page book, I see now that this was maybe an odd thing for a 12 year old to be so interested in, but nevertheless I just was.

She's one of the greatest talents yet to walk the earth with a story that fluctuates between tragic and triumphant until that little body that housed such a huge voice and even bigger heart just couldn't keep going anymore. With an overbearing stage mother who started her on amphetamines at age 10 and the monopoly that was MGM never satisfied with her weight or face or friends for years and years...she really barely had a hope of a stable adult existence. Sure, there were a lot of poor choices along the way for which the responsibility is hers, but it's hard to deny that the cards were stacked against her from an early age. And with that in mind, the brilliance that she blessed millions with seems all the more magical...

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An agile, curious mind that loved to learn. The photographic memory that could memorize a script in one read-through. The capacity to seemingly become the character she was to play. The endurance and supreme work ethic (when healthy). The electric presence that moved audiences time and time again. The overflowing love and affection for her audiences and children. The playfulness and humor/wit that many knew and loved. The list goes on...

The opposites could surely be listed as well. Judy was a drug addict before anyone knew much how to help with such struggles–and she, her family, her coworkers, her staff, and her acquaintances all fell victim to problems this created. 

But don't call her life a tragedy...it's clear enough that she'd hate that. She was adamant that she loved life. This was a roller-coaster of a read, but one I'm glad to have invested time in. I've learned much about the human capacity for both beauty and destruction from her story–feeling the potential of each to manifest in myself. I'm grateful for the inspiration to draw from Judy's triumphs and the warnings to be heeded from her struggles. And I'm grateful we still have so much of her here to enjoy through the films, recordings, her children, books, etc.

 

ENNEAGRAM COMPANIONS

This is the 7th of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram (& Twitter) with the hashtag #read25in25.

Enneagram Companions: Growing in Relationships and Spiritual Directionwas written by Suzanne Zuercher, O.S.B., who is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, a licensed clinical psychologist in Illinois, and has a background in spiritual direction. She has also written 3 other books about the enneagram: Enneagram Spirituality: From Compulsion to Contemplation, Using the Enneagram in Prayer, and Merton: An Enneagram Profile.

In brief, the Enneagram ("nine sided figure" in Greek) is a personality typing system that was introduced in the 1960s by Oscar Ichazo in South America, however the philosophy behind the Enneagram contains aspects of mystical Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, and ancient Greek philosophy (particularly Socrates, Plato, and the Neo-Platonists.) Numerous credible psychologists, MD's, spiritual teachers, etc. from all over the world have contributed to the Enneagram's growing tradition and continue to today. According to Enneagram theory there are 9 basic human personality types, though the system is extremely complex, and there are actually more than 54 variations on those 9 types and countless levels of information about each if you dive into the nuances. For the purposes of this blog, I won't go into more detail about the Enneagram itself and rather will focus specifically on Zuercher's book. I am in the process of preparing some writing and presentations on the Enneagram and will share those as they become ready. In the meantime, learn more here...or here...or here...

Zuercher's book focuses on the Enneagram as it relates to the field of spiritual direction. 

Spiritual direction is the practice of being with people as they attempt to deepen their relationship with the divine, or to learn and grow in their own personal spirituality...The director listens and asks questions to assist the directee in his or her process of reflection and spiritual growth.

Who are spiritual directors? Zuercher claims they are people who often didn't seek out this role. Rather

"they are people who grapple with the hard questions and learn to resist the temptation to settle for easy answers. They grow increasingly comfortable with mystery, their own and that of others...They relax into their bodies with its strength and limitations. They attend to their own issues rather than flee from them into those of other people. On the other hand, their growing humble acceptance of themselves in their own humanity brings them closer to others...Over time such people find others approaching them, not for solutions but for accompaniment." (8)

The Enneagram can help us learn the art of self-obersvation, which can help to release us from the trap of self-deception, and lead us into the self-remembering and understanding that are necessary to grow, heal, and move toward wholeness in our lives. This observation and understanding can and should, with the help of the Enneagram, translate into us being able to more clearly observe and understand not only ourselves but also others, thereby enhancing our relationships with one another and providing tools to aid us in communicating, resolving conflict, and working together. 

We all fight this process of viewing reality and ourselves as we really are. In doing so, we resist the possibility of growth and change. We've all developed defense mechanisms from a very early age to help us handle life, and these mechanisms are different for people of each different Enneagram type:

If you'd like to know which Enneagram number you might be, you can  try taking this online test  (or any number of others available on the web). However the best way to identify your type is to read about each and reflect on which one best describes you. The test can be a good starting place, leading you to a couple of numbers to investigate.

If you'd like to know which Enneagram number you might be, you can try taking this online test (or any number of others available on the web). However the best way to identify your type is to read about each and reflect on which one best describes you. The test can be a good starting place, leading you to a couple of numbers to investigate.

"Some of us get overly busy; some of us shut down. Some fill inner life with perceptions to avoid doing anything. Some fill outer life with tasks around connecting to individuals and groups. Some shuttle back and forth looking for the one answer, which, because it is never found, never needs to be embraced. Our enneagram stance will shape our resistance." (11)

Zuercher's book has a simple structure. 3 sections, 5 chapters per section. The sections are divided by the basic triadic groupings of the Enneagram numbers: 2/3/4 the Feeling (Heart) Center, 5/6/7 the Thinking (Head) Center, and 8/9/1 the Action (Gut) Center. There is first a chapter that contains a general overview of the instincts of the triad in focus. Following that overview, there is one chapter per number exploring how directees of that type may be motivated and may behave in a spiritual direction situation. And finally, each section concludes with a chapter on how directors of the triad in focus would be influenced by their instincts when directing in various contexts.

I realize this content could seem limited to a fairly small, specific audience. However, I don't want to mislead you to perceive it that way; all of the information presented is valuable in any relational context–not only that of spiritual direction. I believe you'd find what this book has to offer as valuable in family life, friendships, professional relationships, etc.

I hadn't necessarily thought of my work (especially at the Yellow House) as spiritual direction, even though "director" is in my title. However this book shed some light on the fact that this sort of direction is a huge part of what we're doing. I'm grateful to be able to take that more seriously, attend to it more intentionally, and apply the knowledge of these Enneagram dynamics even more deeply in my relationships with our interns and coworkers!

PLANT PAINTINGS!

These are 2 small paintings I recently did as gifts for our interns at the  Yellow House  to commemorate their first year together and the commitment they've made to stay and continue growing together :)

These are 2 small paintings I recently did as gifts for our interns at the Yellow House to commemorate their first year together and the commitment they've made to stay and continue growing together :)

One of the values we learned and internalized this year around the Yellow House is the importance of stability...of committing both to people and a place and staying put for the long haul. None of us came to value this easily, naturally, or before throwing a few "adult temper tantrums" (I'm kidding...kind of) as it is so counter-cultural these days, especially for us young adults. Whether you call it "on-the-road syndrome" (thanks, Jack Kerouac*), "the-grass-is-always-greener disorder," wanderlust, or just 20-something ambition...it's hard to deny that those of my generation typically more often have our eyes on the next exciting thing than the tangible here and now...the next text message, the next place, next job, next 3-month internship, next trip to the mountains, next relationship, and so on. When we can't even commit to a dinner offer because something better might come up (true story), we're missing the people we're "with" and they're missing us. When we can't stay in a lease agreement longer than 2.5 months (another true story), we're missing all that the neighborhood/city/state has to offer and surely not seeing the myriad of things we could offer to it.

A seminal book on all this planting business. It has surely challenged and formed us significantly. Check it out if you're curious!

A seminal book on all this planting business. It has surely challenged and formed us significantly. Check it out if you're curious!

I'm convinced this whole life thing is one big search for home. Home doesn't just happen. Home isn't going to randomly be found up one mountain or another, in that city with the cleanest water and organic produce on every corner, or in your dream apartment. Home is something we make...by showing up and being present where we are with the people around us. Home is both place and people. We can make home where we are. By committing and being committed to, and by result making a safe place to share life and all of ourselves with those around us.


This is the design that the above paintings were based on. Click the image to check out the Yellow House's online store for more prints and other products like this!

This is the design that the above paintings were based on. Click the image to check out the Yellow House's online store for more prints and other products like this!

Ok, that's a super short snippet of what we've been learning and trying to live out together here in Shreveport, here in Highland. Not everyone will be called to make home in Shreveport obviously, but I would venture to say that we are each made to do so somewhere with some community. Where is that for you? It won't be the "perfect" place because that just doesn't exist. It won't be with the perfect, conflict-free community because that's even less likely to exist. Could it be where you are now? If not, I hope for you, that place, and your future friends that you find it soon:) But could it be where you are? For us, that's Shreveport and Highland as I've said, and we've decided to plant here and trust that we'll grow...as individuals, as a family, with our (literal) neighbors and that as a result the block, neighborhood, city, and beyond will grow and change by extension. And we trust that there will plenty enough adventure along the way, as there surely have been already! 

Here's to finding the freedom in planting and flourishing in that life together...

sd.

*To clarify, no hard feelings toward Kerouac! In fact I'm fascinated by him, his work, and it's influence on culture. It's just a reality that part of that influence was contributing to this myth that freedom is found on the move.

CREATIVE CONFIDENCE (Book Review)

This is the 3rd of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram (& Twitter) with the hashtag #read25in25.

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I ran across this book by happenstance while taking a rare glance at the business section at Barnes & Noble recently. The handwritten type on the front cover stood out among the more traditional business-style designs, except for Seth Godin’s books of course. Those were popping out at me as usual, but I’ve bought too many already so I directed my attention back at Creative Confidence. I’d heard of IDEO, one of the world’s leading design firms, but I knew next to nothing about the Kelley brothers who founded and run it. And I’m all about instilling confidence in folks, as well as reminding us that we’re all infused with creative impulses and gifting––not just those people called artists, designers, writers, performers, etc. So the book seemed right up my alley. And in addition to the cover that caught my attention, I have to say the texture of the book jacket, paper choice, illustrations, and the overall design/layout make this a very pleasing read. I suppose this should be expected from the elite of the design world, but nonetheless I noted and appreciated it.

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There was good balance of storytelling, discussion of values & ethics, and practically applicable information and exercises. These categories are not always offered cohesively together in one book, but here Tom and David Kelley accomplish it quite well. I also benefitted from their focus not only on the individual, but on crafting a communal culture that can better encourage creative confidence among members. 

One of my favorite parts of the book includes a list of principles and mindsets that the Kelleys suggest help “to foster creative confidence in a group setting, consider[ing] the social ecology of your team” (184):

  • Keep your sense of humor
  • Build on the energy of others
  • Minimize hierarchy
  • Value team camaraderie and trust
  • Defer judgement––at least temporarily

Download the Preface and Introduction to the book for  free  here.

Download the Preface and Introduction to the book for free here.

Watch David Kelley's TED Talk on "How To Build Your Creative Confidence" here.

THE WAR OF ART (A Book Review)

This is the 2nd of 25 books I have committed to read & review this year for a project I’m calling “25/25.” Follow visual updates on Instagram (& Twitter) with the hashtag #read25in25.

The back jacket of this book reads…

DO YOU: 

  • dream about writing the Great American Novel?
  • regret not finishing your paintings, poems, or screenplays?
  • want to start a business or charity?
  • wish you could start dieting or exercising today?
  • hope to run a marathon someday?

IF YOU ANSWERED “YES” TO ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS, THEN YOU NEED…THE WAR OF ART.

Pressfield notes early on in The War of Art  that most of us have 2 lives––the one we live, and the one left unlived within us. He goes on to claim what stands between the 2 is the Resistance.

Being a successful writer, Pressfield writes as a man intimately familiar with the creative process and all that wars against it. Being a seasoned writer, he writes with a perspective of great value to the rest of us, in that he’s won countless battles in this war of art-making and can share his learned wisdom from that experience. Still doing his work daily, he writes in solidarity with the rest of us.

Speaking of solidarity, one of my favorite parts about this book is that its audience is not limited only to creative professionals. As you read in the excerpt from the book jacket, Pressfield explains that we meet Resistance basically when we attempt to do anything good in the world–anything that will improve the quality of life for yourself, others, the environment, etc. Therefore I don't only recommend this book to those of us who are in professions that are considered to be “creative,” but to anyone anyone trying hard but feeling stuck or lacking motivation and/or just anyone who has felt stuck before (because let’s be real…chances are you will again).

Defining the Enemy 

Pressfield spends the first 50 pages or so defining the characteristics of Resistance in great detail. Reading it was like an avalanche of accurate articulation for all sorts of things I’ve experienced to be true, just couldn't really name. (Sidenote: This is one of the most valuable things we get from reading I think…the gift of being able to name reality in new ways that spur us on to heal, grow, correct problems, and engage in our lives more fully.)

Some of the key characteristics of Resistance

  • Resistance is invisible.
  • … is internal.
  • …is insidious.
  • …impersonal.
  • …infallible.
  • …universal.
  • …never sleeps.
  • …fueled by fear.
  • ...leads to self-dramatization, self-medication, and playing the victim.
  • ...tries to influence our choice of mate.
  • ...causes us to criticize others’ lives out of discontentedness with our own.
  • ...is directly proportional to love.
  • ...presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for reasons we shouldn't do our work.
  • ...can be beaten.

Fundamentalist vs. the artist

One of the most interesting sections to me was contrasting the fundamentalist’s point of view versus. the artist’s. He begins by saying that both confront the same issues, namely the mystery of their existence: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? (33) He goes on to explain that these are difficult questions because for the majority of history humans have not lived in such a way where we could ask these questions as individuals. We’re wired tribally, to act as part of a group (33). Evolutionarily speaking, the individualization we know in today’s society has not been around long enough for our brains to adjust entirely (which I might argue is a good thing), and therefore a great tension surrounds the attempts to answer these questions for ourselves. Here is what Pressfield offers us about 2 different ways of approaching these questions:

“The artist is grounded in freedom. He is not afraid of it…He has a core of self-confidence, of hope for the future. He believes in progress and evolution. His faith is that humankind is advancing, however haltingly and imperfectly, toward a better world.

The fundamentalist entertains no such notion. In his view, humanity has fallen from a higher state. The truth is not out there awaiting revelation; it has already been revealed…The fundamentalist (or more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism) cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats into the past. He returns in imagination to the glory days of his race and seeks to reconstitute both them and himself in their purer, more virtuous light. He gets back to basics. To fundamentals.

Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive. There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction…

The difference is that while one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.” (34-35)

May we wholeheartedly adopt the viewpoint of the artist in everything and everyone we encounter. May our faith be that of the artist, not the fundamentalist. May we look forward to imagine and create restoration for humanity, for our communities, for creation, and for the fundamentalists of any kind…

Combating Resistance

Much of the middle of the book is dedicated to sharing practical ways in which we can actively overcome Resistance. Pressfield calls combating the Resistance turning pro–which essentially is committing and showing up to do your work every day no matter what. Here are just a few characteristics of the professional:

  • The professional knows the difference between what is urgent and what is important, doing what is important first.
  • ...is patient.
  • …seeks order.
  • …demystifies.
  • …acts in the face of fear.
  • …accepts no excuses.
  • …is prepared.
  • …does not show off.
  • …dedicates himself to mastering his craft.
  • …does not hesitate to ask for help.
  • …does not take failure (or success) personally.
  • …endures adversity.
  • …recognizes her limitations.
  • …reinvents herself.
  • …is recognized by other professionals.


The Higher Realm

“Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it” (12).     This is snapshot of a check list of 31 songs that I’ve written over the last 3 years that almost no one has heard…because the Resistance has been beating me in all of the classic ways. Grateful (and terrified) to report I have a friend keeping me accountable to making demos of these and moving toward sharing some with you fine people.

“Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it” (12).


This is snapshot of a check list of 31 songs that I’ve written over the last 3 years that almost no one has heard…because the Resistance has been beating me in all of the classic ways. Grateful (and terrified) to report I have a friend keeping me accountable to making demos of these and moving toward sharing some with you fine people.

In the final portion of his book, Pressfield acknowledges that “as Resistance works to keep us from becoming who we were born to be, equal and opposite powers are counterpoised against it” (107). There is discussion of invoking the muses and angels and the geniuses that aid us in our work–very different from the way our current Western culture puts an inhumane sort of pressure on seemingly gifted people calling them “geniuses” themselves. Click here for a candid talk from writer Elizabeth Gilbert on just that.

There is a brilliant discussion of the Ego and the Self which I have thoughts about that I will have to share at another time, as I started to do it here and realized it would almost double the length of a review that is already too long.

There is contrasting of hierarchy and territory and how both affect our endeavors. And finally there is mention of:

 

 “the third way proffered by the Lord of Discipline, which is beyond both hierarchy and territory. That is to do the work and give it to Him. Do it as an offering to God…we are servants of the Mystery. We were put here on earth to act as agents of the Infinite, to bring into existence that which is not yet, but which will be through us.” (161-162)

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Thanks, as always, for reading! This is in no way comprehensive and in every way longer than I expected it to be, but I hope enlightening and encouraging in some way.

Now let’s all get back to the work…back to the war of art. Where has the Resistance been beating you? How will you combat it?

sd.

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.

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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)

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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.