Review: Forty Days on Being a Five

Forty Days on Being a Five, Morgan Harper Nichols (Suzanne Stabile series editor). Downers Grove: Formatio, 2021.

Summary: Forty short reflections with prayers and questions for those who are Enneagram Type Fives.

This is part of a collection of nine nicely bound books with forty reflections for each of the nine Enneagram types. Why am I reviewing the one for Fives? I could say random choice or because Five is halfway between One and Nine. But you’ve probably already figured out that it is because I am a Type Five, or as those into Enneagram would say, I’m a Five. We are variously described as the Investigator, the Thinker, the Observer. I actually think I am far more, but if the Type fits…

The introduction by series editor Suzanne Stabile encourages us to be generous with ourselves as we undergo change and transformation as we grow in self-understanding. Then Morgan Harper Nichols, a five begins with a chapter “On Being a Five.” I felt like she knew me when I read this description:

“The basic desire of the Five is to be capable and competent. We seek to understand and we fear being helpless. We are driven by a pursuit of knowledge that can at times, cause us to live in our heads. We find comfort in our safe places and reading nooks. We can spend a lot of our time thinking, compromising, and searching for insight” (p. 6).

The forty reflections that follow reflect an understanding of that desire and way of living. At different points, we are invited to notice and live in our bodies. We are invited to trust that we know enough and that God can meet us where we don’t. We’re invited to share our understanding rather than keep it to ourselves. We are encouraged to step away from being the removed observer all the time. We’re allowed to acknowledge our need to recharge and give up trying to control that and allow God to fill our cup.

Many of the reflections conclude with a prayer or a question or both. Space is allowed with the questions to jot down your own responses. One example of a question that recognizes how easily Fives compartmentalize life is “How have you compartmentalized your life? Are there ways you could zoom out and look at the whole?” A short prayer that spoke to me was this:

God,
Thank you for giving me this mind.
Thank you for the gift of wisdom.
Teach me today that to lean into your All-Knowingness
     more than I lean into my own understanding.
Give me strength to live with questions so that I
     may trust that in the space between what I have
     asked and your answer, there is abundant room
     to grow in faith.
Amen.

The reflections are short, between two and four pages. These easily may be read and reflected upon in fifteen minutes. Self-understanding and transformation are a journey of a lifetime. This little book covers just forty days of that–maybe 600 minutes. But the reflections can lead the five to trust that we are prepared enough, that we know enough, and that God is more than capable of meeting us in the gaps, and to step out on the dance floor rather than hug the wall.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation

The Enneagram for Spiritual Formation, A. J. Sherrill (Foreword by Chuck DeGroat). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores how the Enneagram may be used as a tool for self-understanding that may serve as a guide on one’s discipleship pathway.

There is a spate of books on the Enneagram, which seems to be one of the latest “hot” things. Equally, there is a good deal of pushback around the use of the Enneagram, considering it more of a “New Age” or pagan approach that may lead Christians astray. One thing I appreciated about this book from the get-go is that A.J. Sherrill is cautious about both of these extremes. He writes:

People often ask me how I defend the Enneagram against such accusations. I tell them not to get sucked into defending it. One either finds it helpful or doesn’t. It is neither salvific nor soul-destroying. It’s simply a tool. From that standpoint it can be leveraged just as Paul leveraged “an unknown god” in Acts 17 to spur his listeners on to accept the claims of the gospel. God uses every square inch. If God can use an unknown god to amplify the name of Jesus, God can use the Enneagram.

Sherrill, pp. 13-14.

He goes on to mention four agreements he asks workshop participants to make:

  1. Remember you are not a number.
  2. Refuse to become branded as the Enneagram person, church, or organization.
  3. Resist the urge to type another person.
  4. Reclaim the Enneagram as a means and not an end.

Sherrill believes that the Enneagram is a tool to help offer self understanding that allows for the formation of our personality growing out of rooting our identity in Christ. He goes into each of the types of the Enneagram, the characteristic fault or sin of each, the lies we believe, and the truth we need for our personalities to be shaped by that identity in Christ. Sherrill argues that self-understanding rooted in Christ must lead to discipleship, which is the distinctive message of this book.

Sherrill believes that the self-understanding that comes from learning about one’s type enables us to move beyond a cookie-cutter discipleship to something that reflects both the flat sides and redeemed strengths of each type. He offers “downstream” and “upstream” spiritual practices that reflect each type. For example, for Fives (my type) he suggests downstream practices that go with the flow of the type of inductive Bible study and reading (both things I in fact love doing). The upstream practice for Fives is service projects on a regular basis to get out of our heads and use our hands. It’s probably why working in a garden, pulling weeds, or even digging post holes can be quite satisfying. For each type, Sherrill also includes a day or season of the church year that fits the type.

Sherrill proposes that while we cannot “type” biblical characters, we may find aspects of our types in them and so better understand how people like us encounter God. For example, he points to Nicodemus as an Investigator, like those of us who identify as Fives. We walk with him as he visits Jesus at night to investigate his teaching in John 3. In John 7:51, he vocalizes his thoughts with the chief priests and Pharisees, taking a risk. By John 19, he helps prepare the body of Jesus for burial, the act of a close follower, identifying himself closely with Jesus. Nicodemus needs time to process what he has heard, and then act, first vocally and then bodily.

One of the most interesting proposals in this book is that the Enneagram also may serve as a tool in evangelism, given the interest in the Enneagram in wider cultural circles including the corporate setting, in work teams for example. The Enneagram builds on the biblical insight of a world both beautiful and broken, exposing our need for redemption and transformation. We all have “holdings,” ways we try to stabilize reality so that we can cope with it, ways that reflect our brokenness. The Enneagram creates bridges for exploration with people turned off by or inured to churchy language but who are coming to realize that in some way, they are part of what is not right in the world.

The book concludes with a chapter on developing a rule of life based on character aspirations and practices that fit one’s type. Then the conclusion reiterates Sherrill’s approach of neither rejecting or making the Enneagram all encompassing. It isn’t Jesus, it won’t save our marriages, serve as a parenting guide, increase our profits, or save us. It can help us become Christ-like, give us insights into our relational dynamics, help us understand the uniqueness of our children, help us lead more effectively, and open conversations with those who do not yet know Christ.

This isn’t the best book to introduce one to the Enneagram or help one discover one’s own type. Sherrill offers an overview of the types and an appendix with some helpful background. He mentions other helpful works along the way, including Suzanne Stabile and Ian Cron’s The Road Back to You (review), which I would commend as the best place to begin if you want to understand the Enneagram. The gap this book fills is addressing how the Enneagram may be used in Christian discipleship, how it helps us not only understand ourselves but also how we may, as unique people follow Jesus as we seek the glory of God and the good of the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Tending Soul, Mind, and Body

tending soul, mind, and body

Tending Soul, Mind, and BodyEdited by Gerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of papers from the 2018 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference drawing from a variety of perspectives to consider how as whole persons we are formed in Christ.

The editors observe that there were three threads to the papers presented at the 2018 Center for Pastor Theologians conference on spiritual formation. Spiritual formation is an art. Spiritual formation is a science. And spiritual formation is a work of the Spirit forming us in the image of God in the likeness of the risen Christ. The pastors and theologians who contribute the bulk of the papers were joined by a couple of psychologists who add scientific perspectives to the discussion.

The papers were grouped in two parts. The first was on biblical, theological and historical perspectives on spiritual formation. It begins with a study of the first letter to the Corinthians from a civic and cultural formation perspective, inculcating the wisdom and vision to see themselves as a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit, counter to their culture. Several other essays that stood out in this section were Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay on the formation of our human spirit in the character of Christ, Rachel Stahle’s mining the riches of Jonathan Edwards’ thoughts on sanctification, and a particularly insightful essay drawing on Dietrich Bonhoeffer on spiritual misformation. He observes Bonhoeffer’s counter-intuitive insight that conscience reflects, not the inner voice of God, but rather the self curved in upon itself that is the consequence of the fall, that is a defense against God. Vincent Bacote closes out this section with a study of the rich resources of formation in African-American Christianity with its emphasis on lament and embodied spirituality.

The second group focuses on practical wisdom. Todd Wilson leads off exploring how it is possible for pastors and leaders to be both godly and dysfunctional. He observes this comes of not taking either the body or the brain (our psyches with their wounds and scars) seriously and from the lack of interpersonal communion. Cherith Fee Nordling takes Eugene Peterson’s two word description of spirituality–“practice resurrection” and marvelously expands what this means for embodied Christians living in the hope of the resurrection. Andrew Schmutzer writes with candor that arises from experience of abuse and ministry with the abused. William Struthers offers a provocative essay on “neuropharmacoforation” exploring how we navigate a culture increasingly at ease seeking spiritual experience through chemical means.

I’ve touched on the essays that most caught my attention, but as in other proceedings from these conferences, what marks this collection are theologians, pastors, and other specialists working at the intersection of theology and pastoral care, where theology is informed by and connected with the care of people and pastoral care is informed by rigorous theological thinking in service of the people of God. What is heartening in this collection is to note the greater diversity of women and theologians who are persons of color. This is a great gain, and a model of the whole church learning from and instructing the whole church.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Wait With Me

wait with me

Wait With MeJason Gaboury. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2020.

Summary: Proposes that the experience of loneliness is an invitation to grow in our friendship with God.

“To be human is to be lonely.” These words, spoken by Friar Ugo, the author’s spiritual director, open the book. Jason Gaboury, perhaps like all of us, experienced loneliness from childhood. He describes growing up amid domestic strife from which he ran away at one point, and that ended in divorce. Friar Ugo poses this question:

   Have you ever considered . . . that the loneliness you’re experiencing is an invitation to grow your friendship with God?

That led to a journey to exploring how God meets people in their loneliness in scripture,  and to a startling insight that “flips” his perspective of God.

In one-word titled chapters, Gaboury takes us through Abraham’s experience of leaving home into a new relationship with God, of the encounters of Hagar and Moses with God in the desert, of the grasping ambition of Jacob that found its resolution in the grasp of God, and the desolation encounter of Elijah in the silence where he hears God’s voice. We are invited to consider our griefs and losses in the grief of Ezekial for his people. We explore how God may call us into the loneliness of risk leading us to a new place of trust through the story of Esther. We learn with Mary what it means to respond to profound and disturbing news with a heart that ponders before God. We watch as the leadership of Saul the persecutor is deconstructed and formed anew as the follower of Jesus during three days of blindness after the Damascus road.

Gaboury mixes his own experiences with biblical reflections–the loss of an ambitious friend to suicide, stepping into church leadership after the forced departure of a pastor, and learning to follow afresh as God revealed the dysfunctions of the leadership of which he’d been a part.

All this leads to another conversation with Friar Ugo. Gaboury had been describing some of his insights from scripture of God meeting people in their loneliness, all the ways Jesus enters into our pain. Then:

   Friar Ugo smiled, “I’m glad for the consolation you feel as you enter into the Scriptures, but I don’t think they’re the point. What if the loneliness that drives you to seek consolation was meant to expand your heart in compassion for Jesus?” He paused again. “You can’t love someone you don’t know, and you only know someone whose experience you’re willing to enter into with empathy and compassion.”

Gaboury proceeds to reflect on Jesus in Gethsemane asking the disciples to “wait with me” through his agonized prayer. Instead, they slept and abandoned Jesus, even before his arrest, trial, and forsaken death. Instead of considering how Jesus enters into our loneliness, Gaboury invites us to enter into the loneliness of Jesus, where Jesus ceases to be our therapist and we become his friends.

This is a startling insight for me, one I’m still weighing even as I write about this book. It reflects not only a different and true insight, but one that comes out of a deep reading of both scripture and life by the author in the company of a spiritual friend. Gaboury invites us to join that journey both in text and questions for reflection that invite us to sit with what we have read and to wait with God. But there is one more thing. Gaboury invites those transformed by waiting with God to compassionate witness to the God who invites us to wait with him in our loneliness–and His.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Spiritual Formation Books I Would Read Again

close up of a bible

Photo by Matthias Zomer on Pexels.com

The idea of spiritual formation is that the spiritual life is not a static experience but a project of growth. Formation literally suggests the shaping of our lives, our characters, our affections to reflect who or what we consider the ultimate. As you know, I write as a Christian, so the books I share here reflect what it means to follow and be formed in Christ. They are books I have found helpful in my own spiritual progress, and would visit again (and have in some cases).

Ruth Haley Barton, Invitation to Retreat. A wonderful guide to answer the invitation of Jesus to “come with me.” I’ve appreciated a number of works by this author but this is one I pull out whenever I plan a retreat.

Carmen Butcher (tr.), The Cloud of Unknowing. Butcher’s translation of this classic work sings. The author is unknown but leads us into the richness of contemplative prayer.

Michael Card, Inexpressible. The whole book is a study and meditation on one rich Bible word, hesed, referring to the covenant-keeping, lovingkindness of God.

Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life. Ford follows the practice of praying the hours to help us discover what it means to pay attention to God’s work throughout our days and all around us.

Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening. This was the first book that drew me to rather than repelled me from spiritual direction. Guenther is so unpretentious about the whole thing.

Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal. The parable of the prodigal is such a profound story, and Nouwen’s use of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal takes us deeply into this story and what it means for our lives.

Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles. The subtitle of this book is “The shape of pastoral integrity.” While I am not a church pastor, this book challenged me with suggesting that such integrity functions within a triangle of prayer, the reading of scripture, and the work of spiritual direction. He beckons away from the siren calls of charisma and technique.

Gordon T. Smith, Teach Us to Pray. A guide to prayer using our Lord’s prayer, taking us through three movements, of thanksgiving, confession, and discernment.

Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary. Warren connects the extraordinary things we pray in our churches on Sunday with the ordinary events of our domestic daily lives.

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Willard’s focus is less on the disciplines themselves that what is behind them, why we practice them. He contends:

“The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven brought to us in Christ, even while living in a world set against God” 

Nearly all of these writers have written other things, and I could have easily substituted other works. If you find one of these who is a good guide to you, keep reading their works. Above all, I think all of them would direct you to the ultimate formation book, perhaps obvious, but often neglected–The Bible.

Review: The Conscience

conscienceen

The Conscience (Inner Land, Volume 2), Eberhard Arnold. Walden: NY: Plough Publishing, 2019 (first published in German in 1936).

Summary: A short treatise on the conscience, what it is, what it’s witness is, how it functions apart from God, and how it may be restored.

Conscience. It strikes me that growing up, and in my early Christian journey, I heard much of conscience. These days, not so much. So I was intrigued to receive this little book, only 76 pages, part of a longer series called “Inner Land,” by German philosopher, writer, and founder of the Bruderhof movement.

It is a profound study in part because of where it was written, Nazi Germany, and when it was published, in 1936, shortly after Arnold’s death in 1935. While the work is not openly critical of Hitler, Arnold notes the corrosive effects upon conscience of a society without God, where conscience is formed in a spiritual vacuum.

The book consists of two parts. The first focuses on the conscience and its witness, the focus of which is to serve as a watchman, warning us of all the things detrimental to the inner life of the spirit. It exposes our selfishness and calls us into community. Under God, it brings us great joy. Under sin, it torments and calls us to repentance. It calls us to integrity and justice. Apart from God the conscience is unreliable, finding its bearings only in our rebirth. Christ is the one who restores and purifies through his sacrifice and his Spirit. This opens the way for our consciences to reflect the image of God as we continue to gaze intently on Christ.

The second part considers the restored conscience and the outworking of this in one’s life. At the beginning of this section he sketches the contours of the restored conscience:

   The conscience craves for the very essence of truth. It demands an ultimate, indisputable goal. Strength of conscience, a growing certainty and clarity, is to be found only where peace rules as unity, only where justice rules as brotherliness, only where joy rules as pure and all-inclusive love.

He speaks trenchantly here about the redemption of our sexuality as one expression of good conscience–neither suppression nor unbridled lust but Christian marriages marked by union, self-giving, and the blessing of children. All areas of life come under the purified conscience–our possessions, our business dealings, our approach to conflict, our politics. Christians are people of the conscience set free.

He comes closest here to addressing the issue of Germany under Hitler, not by attacking Hitler but by discussing the choices of conscience one faces in such times. He writes:

Jesus Christ is the only leader [Führer] who leads to freedom. He does not bring a disguised bondage. He does nothing against the free will of the human spirit. He rouses the free will to do that (and only that) which every truth-loving conscience must urge it to do. “The Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is the free power for free action. 

Anyone who wants to hand over the responsibility for his own actions to a leader [Führer]–anyone who wants to be a human leader–has betrayed freedom. He has become the slave of a human being. His enslaved conscience will be brought to utter ruin if this mis-leader calls to a freedom that is no freedom. All leaders whose authority is merely human ruin people’s consciences.

The book raises the critical issue for me that something will form the conscience of each of us–either in purity, justice, and freedom, or in slavery, impurity, and unreliability. Arnold suggests that it is either Christ or culture that will form us, the former leading us into freedom, the latter ultimately mis-leading us. Arnold recognized how even religious people might be misled, when they seek in human leaders what may only be found in Christ. It raises the question of whether we might be doing the same in looking to a succession of political saviors of the left or right, that ultimately will mis-lead us. Might it not be that the formation of the consciences of a citizenry might prove to be far more important than electing the “right” person to the integrity of both the church, and the country?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram

enneagram

Spiritual Rhythms for the Enneagram, Adele and Doug Calhoun, Clare and Scott Loughrige, foreword by Jerome Wagner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2019.

Summary: More than just a discussion of Enneagram numbers, this handbook utilizes “harmony triads” to lead to greater spiritual and relational transformation, and offers recommendations for spiritual practices suitable for each number and triad.

There have been a host of books published in recent years on the Enneagram, including several from this publisher. This may be both the most comprehensive resource out there on the different numbers (the term used for your type), and one that takes a novel approach using what the authors call “harmony triads.” Unlike traditional approaches that have arrows to and from a number reflecting where one goes under conditions of integration or disintegration, this approach uses triangles where each number connects to a number three ahead or behind it, allowing access to what are called the Gut, the Heart, and the Head triads. For example, someone who is Enneagram number 2, called Love here (in the Heart Triad), also has access to the Wisdom of a 5 and the Strength of an 8. The writers repeatedly emphasize that we are all more than our number, and that balancing the strengths of head (IQ), heart (EQ), and gut (GQ) helps us move toward greater integration and relational wholeness, and away from the vice of our number.

After providing a brief overview and section on key terms (important to keep a bookmark in for reference), the book devotes a chapter to each number beginning with a description and seven sections:

  1. Who am I and who am I not. Offers a list of descriptors and invites us to sit with these and how they resonate.
  2. True self and false self. Describes how we act under impulsive and compulsive reactions stemming from our own ego, and how we may act out of love of God, ourselves and others.
  3. Harmony. How to integrate Head, Heart, and Gut for our type leading to FLOW (Free, Loving, Open to head, heart, and gut), With God and reality as it is).
  4. Healing childhood hurts. Helps each number process where they were dismissed as a child and experience healing.
  5. Discernment: desolations and consolations. How to use each of our intelligences to understand how we experience the presence and absence of God.
  6. Spiritual rhythms. Practices that address each number.
  7. Empathy. This is especially for others close to a person of a particular number, helping in understanding that number with practical pointers for relating to that number.

The last part of the book offers twelve “soul resources.” Most offer unique information for each number, for example how each number may STOP (See, Triggers, Open, Presence) in the face of stress. I found the varied responses of different numbers to silence and solitude both amusing, and painfully on the money. There are several for different types of prayer, one for examen, one for practicing the presence of God, one on work styles, a summary chart of the harmony triads, tips for finding one’s Enneagram number, and small group discussions for using the empathy section of each chapter.

This is not a book to read straight through. Reading slowly and reflectively through each number helps us exercise better empathy for each number, and can be helpful for the person who does not yet know there own number. Working section by section through one’s own number, and the other two numbers in one’s “harmony triad”  can offer much self-understanding. Woven through the seven sections in each chapter are personal testimonies of people with that number and their transformational journey. Also, each chapter has several scripture readings and prayers woven throughout.

All four of the authors (two couples) are Enneagram instructors and it is evident that this text comes out of countless seminars and personal interactions, and reflects that kind of wisdom. Because this is not an introductory Enneagram book, they only spend a brief time on background of the Enneagram and do not offer a rationale for the use of the Enneagram. I would recommend this for someone who believes the Enneagram to be a useful tool for self-understanding and spiritual growth. For me, the harmony triads, or at least the integration of head, heart, and gut made good sense. I found the adaptation of spiritual practices to each number and the empathy section on relating to each number most helpful. Overall, I think this is one of the best resources that I’ve seen in print for groups and individuals who want to go deeper with the Enneagram.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mindful Silence

mindful silence

Mindful SilencePhileena Heuertz (Foreword by Richard Rohr, OFM; afterword by Kirsten Powers). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2018.

Summary: Part narrative, part instruction, this work traces the author’s experience of “deconstruction” and how Christian contemplative practice enabled a deeper relationship with God and knowledge of herself.

Phileena Huertz and her husband worked with a humanitarian organization dealing with the victims of war in Sierra alone, encountering horrors that challenged everything she believed. God seemed silent. She was introduced to Father Thomas Keating, and through him, to the practices of contemplative prayer and the long Christian tradition behind these practices. She describes her experience as one of awakening from sleepwalking, and in turn dying to a false self, to enter into the resurrection life.

This led Huertz eventually to found her own ministry, Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. In the book, Huertz traces her journey, with practices for the reader to engage at the end of each chapter:

  • Withdrawing to Engage: She describes her time at Gethsemani Abbey, the writing of Thomas Merton, and how solitude reveals the false self. Practice: Breath Prayer
  • Finding Liberation by Discernment: She writes about the Ignatian exercises, how we hear God, and experience Him in our bodies, through the scriptures and the consolations and desolations in our lives. Practice: Examen
  • Discovering Darkness is Light: She introduces us to St. John of the Cross and The Dark Night of the Soul and how we may move from talking to God to Being with God to Being one with God. Practice: Lectio Divina
  • Exploring a Deep Well: On a visit to Assisi, she discovers Clare, the contemplative “deep well” to Francis’s “raging river” and how the two together show the power of linking contemplation and action. Practice: Labyrinth
  • Dying for Life: She narrates a meeting of contemplatives with Father Keating as he was dying, and work with the dying with Mother Teresa. Practice: Welcoming Prayer (where one welcomes and then lets go of each of the sensations and emotions of the body).
  • Unknowing to Know: She discusses The Cloud of Unknowing and the practice of Apophatic prayer, that is prayer without words, describing at type of “knowing” that “is about analyzing less and loving more.” Practice: Centering Prayer.

The concluding chapter is an invitation to wake up, through contemplative practice and concludes with encouragements to unplug, get out into nature, and to adopt a puppy! On this last, Huertz movingly describes the impact of owning a dog has had in her life.

The power of this book is addressing the challenge of “deconstruction” many of us face, often at mid-life when our spiritual beliefs and practices no longer seem to work. We want to know and commune with God, and not simply know about God. We want to find the inner resources to sustain our lives, particularly as we age. We discover that we need to listen to our bodies. The discussions and practices in this book engage all these issues and I would say that a number of these have proven meaningful in my own journey.

At the same time, I find myself unable to fully endorse this book because it seems to me to depart from the center of Christian orthodoxy to embrace a more eastern worldview. A key passage that was concerning to me was this:

“In direct contrast to a widely accepted theory of atonement, I was led to let go of redemptive violence in exchange for redemptive suffering. This sheds great light on the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and how it applies in our daily life. The cross reveals a way to hold the tension of pain, suffering, paradox, and evil. In this way, we learn how to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). When we hang in the tension between good and evil, we are stretched, and it feels like a psychological and spiritual crucifixion. But this alone is what will bring forth resurrected life–the kind of life that in the face of pain, suffering, and evil can genuinely extend hope, healing, and love.” (p. 143)

The author doesn’t name it, but it seems she is repudiating the idea of substitutionary atonement (with an interesting rhetorical turn of language describing it as “redemptive violence”). As I read and re-read this passage, it seems that Jesus dies only to offer a way of living in the tension of suffering and evil, an example of living with (and dying with) unresolved pain. Furthermore, there is a discussion of “oneness” or even “at-one-ment” that seems very different that biblical ideas of our union with Christ. The oneness of this book is oneness of body-mind-spirit, oneness with the world around us, and oneness with God that seems to this reader more the oneness of pantheistic monism than Christian theism. Is the cross even necessary for such oneness?

What troubles me is that contemplative spirituality as it is cast in this book (and I have not found this true with all writers in the Christian contemplative tradition) seems to suggest a way of salvation apart from the cross of Christ. Kirsten Power’s afterword seems to confirm this when she says, “But you don’t need to be a Christian, or a believer of any kind, to benefit from this teaching. Contemplative spirituality is for everyone.” (p. 176). I’ve been similarly concerned about some of the more recent writings of Father Richard Rohr (for example, Falling Upward, reviewed here). Rohr is one of Huertz’s mentors and writes the foreword to this book, and I fear Huertz evidences similar tendencies in her own thought.

I regret raising these issues because there is much of value in the traditions and practices Huertz advocates. Huertz believes in linking contemplation and action but seems to oppose contemplation and theological acuity, a divide that seems prevalent in the separate circles of theological reflection and contemplation. I would propose a tripod of contemplation, theological reflection and activism as a far more powerful paradigm. Might that be possible?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Mirror for the Soul

Mirror for the Soul

Mirror for the SoulAlice Fryling. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press/Formatio, 2017.

Summary: An explanation from a Christian perspective of the Enneagram and its use in spiritual formation, helping us to live out of our gifting, recognize our blind spots, and experience the grace of God.

Perhaps all of us have asked the question asked by Alice in Alice in Wonderland: “Who in the world am I?” Alice Fryling proposes that the Enneagram is a useful tool for not only understanding ourselves but for living out of our giftedness and experiencing Christ’s grace.

Her aim in this book is to offer a thoroughly Christian treatment of the Enneagram (ennea = nine and gram = points, reflecting the nine pointed diagram that is basic to all discussions of the Enneagram). In addition to explaining the different aspects of the Enneagram, each chapter offers both questions for reflection, and a personal meditation from scripture. Most significantly, Fryling understands each of the home spaces on the Enneagram in terms of the gifted true self (the self as God intends us), the compulsion of the false self, and the grace of God enabling us to find our way back to the true self for our type.

After a brief explanation of the nine spaces, she focuses on what she sees as one of the basic insights we gain from the Enneagram, the distinction between the true and false self evident in each of the types. She writes:

“The false self is the person we think we should be but are not. It is the person we want others to think we are. The false self perpetuates the illusion that we are able to love perfectly, to be wise and all-knowing, and to be in control of life. The false self thrives on success and achievement. The problem is not that the false self is a bad person. The problem is that the false self is a façade. It is an imitation of God that we “use” to impress others. The false self languishes in pretense and in grasping for abilities and gifts that are not ours to have. The true self, on the other hand, truly expresses the gifts God has given us to love well” (p. 25).

Fryling then goes on to explain the various aspects of the Enneagram–the three triads of heart, head, and gut, how we might begin to identify our home space, and how our “wings” and “arrows” add to our self-understanding. Having read a number of Enneagram book, Fryling’s explanations of these aspects were among the clearest I’ve encountered, no doubt resulting from the many workshops the author has led on this material. In particular, I found her counsel for identifying our “home space,” often just assumed, or reduced to a questionnaire, particularly helpful:

“As happy as inventories might be to tell you your number, most of them require a good deal of self-awareness, something our false self does not want us to have. I’d like to suggest that instead of turning to inventories, you spend some time in quiet reflection, thinking about yourself and what you’ve learned about the Enneagram. Look for places where you already see yourself. Notice where there are clusters of truth about who you are. Be patient with the process. In fact, you might consider this ‘dating the Enneagram.’ You do not need to ‘marry’ the first space you think might work for you. Try it on. Live with it for a while. But let go of it if it doesn’t fit. Remember that the Enneagram is supposed to reflect who you are, not dictate who you are” (p. 98).

She also advises sharing descriptions of the different spaces with those who know us well to get their insights, discuss what makes sense and what seems confusing.

Her concluding chapters explore the Enneagram through the lens of the biblical account of creation, fall, and redemption. Then she goes a step deeper and explores the issue of our compulsions, the addictions inherent in each type, and how these drive us to the truth of scripture and the grace of God. Facing our need leads us to the hope of transformation through God’s grace, which often comes through suffering, silence, and surrender. She invites us into practices of engaging scripture that deepen this transformative process.

The strengths of this book are not only the clear explanations of the different aspects of the Enneagram, but the thoughtful Christian perspective that transforms this from a self-help tool where we try to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” to a formational resource leading us into a deeper experience of the grace of God in our lives. This book invites an unhurried process of discovering something more of an answer to Alice’s question (“Who in the world am I?”) for the reader who will take the time to work through its chapters, reflection questions, and meditations.

Review: The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous (translated by Carmen Acevedo Butcher). Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2018.

Summary: A classic on contemplative prayer in a new modern translation.

The Cloud of Unknowing is perhaps one of the greatest works on contemplative prayer. We don’t know the author but it was written in the 14th century in Middle English. This edition is a re-publication of a 2009 translation by Carmen Acevedo Butcher in an inexpensive paperback format.

It seems that many of the spiritual classics we read come to us in stuffy, Victorian English. Butcher’s translation strives for a simplicity and informality of conversation between a spiritual director and a directee, and this is one of the most winsome aspects of this work.

To give you both a sense of the work and the significance of the title, here is a brief passage in which the author describes the experience of beginning to contemplate:

The first time you practice contemplation, you’ll only experience a darkness, like a cloud of unknowing. You won’t know what this is. You’ll only know that in your will you feel a simple reaching out to God. You must also know that this darkness and this cloud will always be between you and your God, whatever you do. They will always keep you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your intellect and will block you from feeling him fully in the sweetness of love in your emotions. So be sure to make your home in the darkness.”

One of the critical themes running through the work, true to the apophatic tradition out of which it comes, is that God cannot be known with our minds but only in our love–“we can’t think our way to God.” Contemplation is best pursued according to this author by simple reflection on a single word–“sin” and “God” are the two commended to us. He discourages trying to attain an experience of God through the senses, and encourages dismissing both our thoughts and feelings into a “cloud of forgetting.”

What I found attractive in this work is its wisdom and sense. We are assured that longing for God is enough, as this will open us to a deeper understanding of God. He discourages strenuous physical exertions that enervate and weaken us. He stresses the value of pursuing our contemplation accompanied by a spiritual director. He identifies four stages of spiritual maturity, with no sense that one is “better” than another, but only reflect a progress in love for God:

  • The ordinary which is our active life in the world
  • The special, where one continues to live an active life but also longs for God and begins to contemplate.
  • The singular is where contemplation becomes the focus of one’s life, praying without ceasing in love toward God.
  • The perfect, where we are with God, as we pass from this life into God’s presence.

The work itself consists of 75 brief “chapters” often connected to one another, that seems especially fitted for devotional reading of one or a few chapters a day.

Butcher’s translation includes an introductory essay and recommendations for further reading, including renderings in the Middle English, works on English mysticism and Christian mysticism more broadly, as well as reference resources. Her notes also offer explanations for her translation and other helpful background.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.