The Sacred Enneagram:
Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth
Paperback: Zondervan, 2017
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Reviewed by Bailey Shannon
I have been reading Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation for almost a year now. Slowly wading through the wisdom of this Trappist monk, it’s as if I’ve learned a new language for understanding familiar truths. Even though it’s taken me awhile to get only halfway through the book, and even though I am still unsure as to what contemplation actually is, the concepts of the true self, contemplative prayer, and Christian mysticism resonate deeply.
This new language is what drew me to Christopher Heuertz’s new book The Sacred Enneagram, which promises “Nine ways to return to your True Self”. I was excited to dig into this practical guide that teaches contemplation. Prior to reading Heuertz’s book, I wasn’t interested in the Enneagram, even though my friends ranted and raved about this complex “personality test”. For the most part I am stubbornly against anything that resembles a personality test and the Enneagram, so I thought, was just that. A shallow tool for self-discovery that inaccurately categorized people into boxes, or in this case, nine different “types”.
However, Heuertz presented the Enneagram through the lens of the True Self and contemplation, a lens which I recently had been learning through Merton’s work, and it finally caught my attention. It seems that my experience with and understanding of the Enneagram was all about timing — I wasn’t ready and, therefore, wasn’t receptive to what the Enneagram had to offer. Christopher Heuertz, a renowned Enneagram teacher, was able to explain and reveal the Enneagram using recognizable language and concepts, and it drew me in.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Enneagram, here is Heuertz’s definition(s):
This sacred map isn’t fatalistic; it’s not deterministic; it’s not a horoscope or a predetermined course that doesn’t allow for personalized twists — it’s a compassionate sketch of possibilities and opportunities, pointing us back to our True Self and to the anchoring God whose name is Love. (32)
The Enneagram is much more than just another popular formula to pair people to the collection of their personality foibles and eccentricities. It explains the “why” of how we think, act, and feel. It helps us come to terms with our gifts as well as the addictive patterns that tether us to our greatest interpersonal, spiritual, and emotional challenges. (58)
Throughout the book, Heuertz distinguishes the Enneagram from typical personality tests by reminding the reader that it is a “path back to God.” He takes the reader through the dense history of the ancient Enneagram symbol, emphasizing its complexity and interconnectedness. More specifically, the Enneagram is made up of nine numbers (1-9) that each represent a different “type”. Over time, as you read about the Enneagram, or maybe you take the online test or meet with an Enneagram teacher, you discover your dominant type.
Each dominant type has a type-specific basic desire, basic fear, childhood wound (an attack on our original innocence that contributed to the loss of contact with our True Self), holy idea (mental clarity), virtue (emotional objectivity), passion (shadow of the holy idea, how the mind copes with loss of True Self), fixation (shadow of the virtue, how the heart aches to reconnect with True Self), path of integration (borrowing positive traits of another type, pressing into growth), and path of disintegration (innate survival mechanism and manipulation techniques, borrowing negative traits of another type). Additionally, each type fits inside one of three intelligence centers (head, heart, gut), dominant affect group (frustration, attachment, rejection), and a harmony triad (idealist, rationalist, pragmatist). Heuertz defines each of these terms in tremendous detail and offers his opinion to debatable definitions, while leaving room for other Enneagram experts’ interpretations and theories.
One of the book’s biggest strengths is its practicality; Heuertz suggests ways to move forward once you discover your type. Each type has a type-specific prayer posture (stillness, silence, or solitude) that holds a prayer intention (rest, engage, consent), and I agree with him that those things are key to spiritual growth. When skimming through books about the Enneagram, or whenever I’m in conversation about it, rarely am I given a take-away or action step. The Sacred Enneagram leaves the reader with a practical application — the most suitable and helpful way for each type to engage in contemplation or contemplative prayer. I was able to take what I learned from the Enneagram and begin living into that True Self, begin walking down the path back to God.
To give an example of prayer posture, as someone who is dominant in Type Four, Heuertz’s suggestion is that I should rest (intention) in solitude (posture). He says that because Fours are prone to believing the lie “I am what other people think or say about me”, resting in solitude, “resting from the compulsion to be seen, would establish the discipline of being alone and unseen so that Fours can wake up and learn to see themselves for they truly are” (214, 215). In the last chapter Heuertz proposes methods to carry out the prayer intentions of each type. For heart-centered types he suggests Centering Prayer, for head centers The Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and for body types he offers The Welcoming Prayer. These suggestions for how to move forward help readers who have decided to discover their Enneagram type and walk their “path back to God”, do just that.
One element of the book that I really appreciate is the optimism and hope infused throughout. Heuertz, when talking about Childhood Wounds, disintegration, and the passions and fixations, which tend to be the negative aspects of each type, reinforces a redemptive view. For example, he says, “These descriptions of what prompts our loss of contact with our True Self [Childhood Wounds] should birth in us a deep compassion for our own selves as wells as others” (55). He encourages us not to blame anyone for our Childhood Wounds, but recalls a passage from John 9:1-3, in which the disciples ask Jesus whose fault it was for the blindness of the person they just passed. “Jesus acknowledges the blindness wasn’t the fault of the anyone, but rather an opportunity for God’s restoration to be made manifest” (55).
Another example where Heuertz brings a redemptive perspective is when he discusses the point of disintegration, or when each type borrows the negative traits of another type when they aren’t doing well. He says that “the path of disintegration can be understood as a subconscious self-preservation instinct to prevent an unhealthy person from falling farther down the hole they feel stuck in” (69). This positive outlook helps readers continue moving toward their True Self and God, reminding them along the way of God’s grace and love.
Bailey Shannon is the Associate Editor for the Englewood Review of Books, living, working, and worshiping in the Englewood neighborhood on the near eastside of Indianapolis.