St. Francis of Assisi

I love learning about the lives of the saints in church history. Their stories can be so valuable as encouragement, inspiration, and motivation for us on how to shape our lives today. One of my favorites is St. Francis of Assisi, coincidentally the namesake of the current Catholic pope–appropriately I think, as Francis was one of the first to critique and warn against the dangers of capitalism, lived with a deep value and care for the environment/all of Creation, and was actively non-violent and doing the work of peacemaking in a time of war and crusades. We can benefit greatly from the wisdom of Francis, and today is the day the Church remembers him collectively...

This is a copy of an "icon" of St. Francis that I made for a friend's birthday present! (I'm considering illustrating more icons of saints and sharing their stories in a series here on the blog. Is this something anyone would be interested in? Comment below to let me know? :)

This is a copy of an "icon" of St. Francis that I made for a friend's birthday present! (I'm considering illustrating more icons of saints and sharing their stories in a series here on the blog. Is this something anyone would be interested in? Comment below to let me know? :)

Shane Claiborne wrote today in regards to St. Francis...

"Today is one of the great holy-days of the year. Happy St. Francis Day!!!

Christians around the world remember one of the great heroes of our faith, and the Pope’s namesake – Francis of Assisi. But Francesco Bernadone (Francis of Assisi), who died on October 3, 1226 must be laughing at the irony of it all. 

He was one of the first critics of capitalism, one of the earliest Christian environmentalists, a sassy reformer of the church, and one of the classic conscientious objectors to war. Even though it’s hard to imagine a saint whose life is more relevant to the world we live in today, Francis was not always so popular. 

Legend has it, the first time he preached at the Vatican, the pope told him to go preach to the pigs. But later the pope had a vision: the corner of the church was collapsing, and little Francis and the youth of Assisi were holding it up. Arguably that youth movement was one of the most powerful restorations of church history. While he did not hold back on his relentless critique of the church, he remained humbly and hopeful. He stopped complaining about the church as it was and started dreaming of the church as it could be. As Francis said, he heard God whisper: “Repair my Church, which is in ruins.” 
So perhaps it’s Providential that 800 years later the Pope is named after him.

Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, born into a society where the gap between the rich and the poor was increasingly unacceptable. It was an age of religious crusades, where Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the name of God. The Church and the world were in chaos… Sound familiar?

Francis did something simple and wonderful. He read the Gospels where Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor,” “Consider the lilies and the sparrows and do not worry about tomorrow,” “Love your enemies,” and he decided to live as if Jesus meant the stuff he said. Francis turned his back on the materialism and militarism of his world, and said yes to Jesus.

One of the quotes attributed to Francis is a simple and poignant critique of our world, just as it was to his: “The more stuff we have, the more clubs we need to protect it. Be free like the lilies and the sparrows.” 

With a childlike innocence, Francis literally stripped naked and walked out of Assisi to live like the lilies and the sparrows. He lived among the outcasts and ostracized. He lived close to the earth and, like Jesus, became a friend of the birds and creatures, whom he fondly called brother and sister. In light of that, many a birdbath wears his iconic image. But his life is worthy of more than a lawn statue. His life was a powerful critique of the demons of his day, which are very similar to the demons of our day.

One of my favorite stories about Francis was when he decided to meet with the Muslim sultan during the Fifth Crusade – in Syria of all places. It was a tumultuous time. War had become a necessity and a habit, and was sanctioned by much of the church. Francis was sent off as a soldier, but he could not reconcile the violence of war with the grace of Christ . . . and so he got off his warhorse and put down his sword. He pleaded with the military commander, Cardinal-Legate Pelagius, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused. Instead, Pelagius broke off all diplomatic relations with the sultan of Egypt. The sultan in turn decreed that anyone who brought him the head of a Christian would be rewarded with a Byzantine gold piece. Francis, however, pursued his vision in steadfast faith, surmounting all dangers in a journey to see the sultan. He traveled through fierce fighting in Syria and inevitably was met by soldiers of the sultan’s army, who beat him savagely and put him in chains, dragging him before the sultan himself. Francis spoke to the sultan of God’s love and grace. The sultan listened intensely and was so moved that he offered Francis gifts and money. Francis, of course, had no desire for the money, but he gladly accepted one gift, an ivory horn used in the Muslim call to prayer. He took it back with him and used it to summon his own community for prayer. Both Francis and the sultan were transformed by that encounter, offering much hope to our world of troubled interfaith relations.

Although the church is prone to forget his witness or to make a monument of his movement, we can still celebrate his critique of an economy that left masses of people in poverty, so that a handful of people can live as they wish. We still rejoice in his love for the earth as we work to end the ravaging of our world. We remember his witness that there is a better way to bring peace than with a sword. 
These are the words of the famous prayer attributed to Francis. May they inspire us to become better people and to build a better world, right alongside Francesco Bernadone of Assisi and Pope Francis of Argentina.

Lord, Make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon, 
Where there is discord, union,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is error, truth,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is sadness, joy,
Where there is darkness, light.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive,it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

NOTE: FOR A GOOD FLICK ON FRANCIS, CHECK OUT THE CLASSIC BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON"

The 12 Marks of What?!

“Some have become domestic communities and are eventualizing in what we now call “the new monasticism,” a way of being in which Christians, bound together under vows of stability, living out their private lives together in radical obedience to the Great Commandment...

Life on the margins has always been the most difficult and, at the same time, the one most imaginatively lived.”

— Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence

As some of you may know, I'm part of a New Monastic community that has put down roots in the Highland neighborhood of Shreveport, LA. A new mona-what? If that's your question...no worries. It's a common one. And while it's not the easiest question to answer adequately, I write today in hopes to do it some justice. 

WHAT IS MONASTICISM ANYWAY?

Let's start with the word monastic. Think of the communal life that has been shared by the monks, nuns, & mystics throughout history. I'm not exactly talking about Friar Tuck from Robin Hood or The Reverend Mother singing "Climb Every Mountain" from The Sound of Music–though they are both awesome characters. But I've digressed. Back to reality...

Monastic movements have sprung up throughout history as a means by which to preserve the character of the Church in the world, to remind the Church who She is in times when Her sense of identity is in jeopardy. The New Monasticism is no different in this basic premise. However, the world is different today than it was in the 4th century for the Desert Mothers & Fathers, in the 6th century for St. Benedict his fold, and even in the 16th century for the Reformers. 

OK, SO WHAT'S NEW ABOUT IT NOW?

Monasticism today in many ways looks different. Many exciting ways. Most notably, the New Monasticism goes into society–relocating to the abandoned places of imperial culture to embody the kind of life we hope to preserve, rather than retreating from society to do so. Put simply: Same goals for the Church and for the world. Different geographic starting place & execution strategy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer–20th-century German pastor, martyr, and expert on Christian community–wrote in a letter to his brother in 1935:

“The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…”

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prophetic.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to describe the New Monasticism would be "Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity." However, we've abstracted and complicated (or worse, ignored) the Sermon on the Mount so much in the American church that we hardly have a picture in our minds of what exactly "Sermon-on-the-Mount Christianity" looks like in the real world anymore. (To read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount see Matthew 5-7, and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17-49.)

OK, SO WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?

In 2004, a group of New Monastic communities came together to articulate some of their primary common threads–something like a summary of the "rule of life" that was guiding them and a starting point that future communities in the movement would be shaped by. There is much diversity among the communities all over the US (and the globe), but these are 12 values generally upheld by most communities associated with the movement. You can read the official 12 Marks here, and the following is our particular community's current adaptation of the language to best translate into our context:

1. We make sure we are located in an abandoned place of the empire. If we are not, we relocate. 

2. We share our economic resources with fellow community members and those among us who are in need.

3. We make our homes and our lives hospitable to the stranger, maintaining a willingness and preparedness to open our door to friend, foe, neighbor, and traveler alike. 

4. We lament for division within the church and our communities, combining that with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation (for the hate and division concerning race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, gender, and all types of othering that isolate and dehumanize those made in God's image). 

5. We humbly submit to Christ's Body, the Church, dedicated to always pursuing unity and seeking to be the church we dream of rather than complaining about the church we do not see. 

6. We are committed to intentional formation in the Way of Christ and the community's agreed upon lifestyle (common rule) along the lines of the old novitiate–valuing the depth and freedom of discipline as we embody a new way of being in the world. 

7. We nurture the common life among members of intentional community by following the rules of relationship (eat, play, study, grieve, share, celebrate together, etc). 

8. We support celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children, committed to coexisting as one family. 

9. We live in geographic proximity to community members who share a common rule of life, understanding and promoting the wisdom of stability. 

10. We care for the plot of God's earth given to us along with supporting our local economies. 

11. We make peace in the midst if violence and practice conflict resolution within the community along the lines of Matthew 18, committed to the nonviolent enemy-love exampled by Jesus. 

12. We are committed to a disciplined contemplative life of prayer, agreeing to silence ourselves in a busy world that we might free up the space to listen to God and respond. 

I can't help but be a little overwhelmed by writing those out, uncomfortably aware of how far we have to go before our lives fully reflect these statements. But we know values shape our lives, so we stay committed to aspiring to live in line with these values–trusting that we'll be molded into a people that embodies them at some point. And trusting that the mere but earnest attempt is the willingness to which we are called that can make us better little by little, in turn making the world around us better little by little.

OK, SO WHERE'D ALL THIS COME FROM?

The New Monastic movement's birth is hard to pinpoint, but stirrings of what is now a global movement seemed to take shape in the UK in the 1970's & 80's, following soon thereafter in the early 1990's here in the US. One of early leaders and articulators of the movement here in the US was Jonathan Wilson, who proposed 4 characteristics of the New Monasticism in his book Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World, published in 1998:

  •  it will be "marked by a recovery of the telos of this world" revealed in Jesus, and aimed at the healing of fragmentation, bringing the whole of life under the lordship of Christ;
  •  it will be aimed at the "whole people of God" who live and work in all kinds of contexts, and not create a distinction between those with sacred and secular vocations;
  • it will be disciplined, not by a recovery of old monastic rules, but by the joyful discipline achieved by a small group of disciples practicing mutual exhortation, correction, and reconciliation; and
  • it will be "undergirded by deep theological reflection and commitment," by which the church may recover its life and witness in the world (p72-75).

...4 statements that, I think, are proving themselves to be prophetically accurate in characterizing the movement.

OK, SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ME?

In short, I don't know. 

But I suspect it means something, and I hope you'll consider what that might be. And remember, the invitation is always open to come & see...

This writing was largely theoretical, I know. That was intentional, as I hoped to provide some foundational understanding of what motivates those of us pursuing this sort of life-together. However, there are plenty of places to read stories about the day-in-and-day-out practicalities and experiences in New Monastic life, which surely get closer to the heart of all this.

Here are a few of the many places you can find those stories:

  • britneywinnlee.com Gandhi Got Out Again: A Blog About Intentional Community (Stories from neighborhood life here in Shreveport)
  • jonathanwilsonhartgrove.com New Monastic Leader, Founder of Rutba House & School(s) for Conversion
  • redletterchristians.org Red Letter Christians' Goal: To take Jesus seriously by endeavoring to live out His radical, counter-cultural teachings as set forth in Scripture, and especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • The list of books we read as part of the Yellow House internship. Great stories. Great resources.
  • Reba Place Fellowship, a community in Chicago, IL
  • The Simple Way, a community in Philadelphia, PA

Note to the reader 

I've grieved the lack of understanding &/or the misrepresentation of this movement lately, and it's moved me to share some words from my very small perspective, from our very small corner here in Highland to attempt even a brief overview of the New Monasticism–one of integrity, one that might make a little sense. One that I hope at least sparks curiosity, clears up a few things, &/or opens a mind or 2 to the possibilities that such a lifestyle holds for the Church and the world, for families and individuals, for adults and children, for people and environment, for neighborhoods and cities, for countries and the world.

Thank you for reading,

sd.

"Gandhi Got Out Again"–A blog you should be reading.

I'm excessively excited to share this news with you...My friend and co-worker Britney Winn Lee is officially writing and sharing the fruit at britneywinnlee.com

I'm loving the name chosen for this blog: Gandhi Got Out Again: A Blog About Intentional Community, which is as creatively extracted from our daily lives in the neighborhood as are the insightful stories that are already being posted, ready for you to read. (Gandhi was the name of one of our chickens at the Yellow House–the one as stubborn & obstinately determined as the human-Gandhi surely was. May they both rest in peace, as chicken-Gandhi just recently passed on.)

This stuff is honest, funny, deep, ironic, empathetic, challenging, & transformative. She's got a knack for keeping an eye focused inward with the other always looking outward...only to fuse the 2 and call us to get better both as individuals and as a society. 

So, check it out when you get a chance. And in addition, you can read an article of Britney's that was recently published online by Red Letter Christians.

 

Thanks for reading!

sd.

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.

THE GREAT EMERGENCE

This is the 5th 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 Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle

Phyllis Tickle’s accolades include founding editor of the Religion Department at Publisher’s Weekly, acclaimed and respected authority on religion in America today, and the author of over 24 books (including The Great Emergence that I will review in brief here). However, I had the privilege of meeting her personally in March, and I’d like to add a few things to this list, like: 

  • the spunkiest 80 year old I’ve ever met,
  • a brilliantly gifted teacher––presenting huge bodies of information in clear, concise forms that are digestible and strangely retainable,
  • a person of deep and balanced love, humor, realism, and imagination,
  • a hope for the Church,
  • and an aspiration to all of us young emergents of what the adventure of aging can look like.

 

I briefly studied Phyllis's work before she visited Shreveport. By briefly I mean that I planned to sit down and listen to about 20 minutes of a lecture on YouTube to "just get the gist" so I'd be at least slightly in the loop. 4 hours later I was finishing up watching a whole series of lectures from her recent seminar at an Anglican Church in Toronto. How did my intended 20 minutes turn into 4 hours? Well sure, I expected to get her take on where the Church in America is, how we've gotten here, and what she sees coming for us. I got those things, but so much more. What I didn't expect to get and was totally drawn into was a pretty comprehensive look at world history through the lenses of anthropology, sociology, physics, art & music, etc. I don't remember another time when so much material was presented to me in such a clear, concise, and retainable manner.

The foundation of her work is based on tracking history through 500 year cycles. Every 500 years from the present back to at least 1 AD (though some track it back further) has resulted in a massive cultural upheaval leaving no institution or cultural norm untouched or unchanged. These upheavals have been compared to rummage sales, where everything is put out on the table for the taking or the leaving, at the very least for conversation and questioning. You can get rid of the clutter and the no-longer-relevant, but you can also find some forgotten treasures as you dig around. Phyllis tracks the 500 year cycle back through Judeo-Christian history, but writes and talks about how these changes are always directly connected to the state of culture at large, as religion is of course a cultural construct and situated in the dimensions of time and place with particular groups of people.

The 500-year "rummage sales" can be labeled like this:

  • The Great Emergence: Now (typically sited to have begun around 9/11/2001)
  • The Great Reformation: Martin Luther and 16th century protestantism
  • The Great Schism: The split of the Eastern and Western Church in 1054
  • The Great Decline & Fall (or Gregory the Great): The fall of the Roman Empire
  • The Great Transition: Jesus

What is perhaps most directly relevant to us is that we are currently living through a time of this sort of cultural upheaval, and we are the first people to be aware of our place in such a formative time of history. How exciting! And how overwhelming the responsibility could be. Long story short, the name that has arisen for our time is the Great Emergence. Here we are, approximately 500 years after The Great Reformation, and it's all happening again. It just looks a bit different...

Some of the primary characteristics of Emergence Christianity are as follows:

  • Not hierarchical
  • Deeply liturgical
  • Much like Catechomb Christianity (want to live faith holistically, want to feel it)
  • Communal 
  • Deeply passionate about social action

There are also some more auxiliary elements of Emergence Christianity undergirding it all:

  • Moving away from the dualism that has infected Christian theology from the time of Constantine and the influence of Greek philosophy/Greco-Roman culture.
    • At that time, the notion of salvation "began to shift from a means of effecting or living out God's will on earth to being a ticket for transportation into a paradise hereafter" (p161).
      • Gnosticism flourished, demonizing the body and separating it from the soul (a problematic illusion which we can still see consequences of at present).
  • Rewriting theology (and North American culture by result) back into something more Jewish, paradoxical, & narrative...something more mystical than anything the Church has had for the last 1700-1800 years. (p162)
    • Something more "Jewish" is referring to the holistic theology and holistic conceptualization of human life and structure that is inherent in Jewish tradition. Faith informing every area of life, all decisions, requiring daily discipline and practice, and identity being intrinsically connected to the community/family.
    • Phyllis even has a theory that we will again be referred to as Judeo-Christian by the year 2050. Fascinating...I suppose we'll see how that plays out.
  • Actual vs. Factual Reality
    • Logic, authoritative doctrine, systematic theology, and even metanarrative are all in question...so narrative prevails as trustworthy.
    • Phyllis tells a compelling story about a 16 year old's response after a teaching she gave on the theology of the virgin birth of Christ. He sat perplexed at how the adults could question it's validity or truth. The problem just didn't exist for him. He said, "It's so beautiful it has to be true, whether it happened or not" (more on p149).
    • "Narrative speaks to the heart in order that the heart, so tutored, may direct and inform the mind." (p160)

Whether or not these tenants resonate with you, it is estimated that people under the age of 40 are considered "emergents" in that we have been formed in a culture and time marked by certain things. We naturally relate to the world differently than those in the eras before us, no matter where exactly we land on the spectrum of thought or theology. The rapid development of technology plays a huge role in this shift of worldview. So much so that the very nature of humanity and human consciousness has come into question, and is actually one of the central questions of The Great Emergence. In a world that is aware of the real possibility of the singularity and is pursuing transhumanism, we come face to face with these questions: What is a human being? What is human consciousness? Another question central to our time (which I feel entirely inadequate to explore here) is: What is the nature of the atonement?

Now, a question that is central to every one of the great upheavals is this:

Where now is the authority?

Essentially it seems Emergents are are claiming authority is the Holy Spirit's, not the institution's, not logic and reason's, not systematic theology or moral law's, but the living and active Spirit of the Divine. And the Spirit's direction must be discerned within a dedicated community in a particular place that is seeking, studying, praying, and actively participating in the Kingdom work of God in the world and intentional formation in the way of Christ.

Some fresh expressions of Christianity in the Great Emergence are categorized as follows. However, these are not all mutually exclusive categories (which is quite "emergent" I suppose). There is much overlap amongst them and/or with the inherited church institutions:

  • Emerging
  • Emergent
  • Neo-monastic
  • Hyphenated
  • Cyber Church
  • Small Church
  • Missional Church
  • and others...

The fresh expressions do not threaten the existence of the inherited church, and that is an important thing to be aware of as we learn to live and work together. At every upheaval, the previously dominant power or institution did not dissolve. It merely changed greatly. For example, the Catholic Church is still around, just vastly different after the challenges presented in The Great Reformation.

 A final issue I'd like to address is not perhaps directly in Phyllis's book, but the conversation inevitable gets here.  It has to do with the definitions of an institution and a movement as described by Brian McLaren, a leader of the emergent church movement. I've come to accept and deeply appreciate these definitions.

  • An institution is an organization that preserves the gains made by past movements.
  • A movement is an organization that arises to propose gains to a current institution.
Phyllis with my friends Valerie and Maegan this past March when she came to Shreveport and spoke at Centenary College's fundraising dinner for the  Christian Leadership Center.

Phyllis with my friends Valerie and Maegan this past March when she came to Shreveport and spoke at Centenary College's fundraising dinner for the Christian Leadership Center.

Both are good. Both are needed. Both need each other. Let's not assume as emergents that we must be anti-institution, and I'd plead to those of you who assume emergents are anti-institution to reconsider that assumption or to look again for evidence of something different. Being pro-institution, or pro-Church in this case, can and must still include a real criticism of the problems that have developed. But criticism must be constructive and lead to creativity in pursuit of being the body of Jesus in the world. For everywhere and every time criticism has not been offered in love and has not been paired with hopeful, creative action, I apologize. I apologize and I personally repent, as it is an ongoing challenge for me and my community to balance these things. It's a daily reality in my life that I am no where near mastering, but the words of Phyllis Tickle are coming to my aid and the aid of many as we seek to better be the Church in the world at this time. The content and the language with which it is presented are wildly valuable, and I hope you might look farther into all this if it has ignited any sort of curiosity in you! Also, if you pick up this particular book, you might consider having your dictionary app on hand. She's unashamedly an academic and has the vocabulary of one. I've learned a ton of new words from her;) 

Find out more about Phyllis Tickle and her work at phyllistickle.com.

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)

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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.