Conversatio Divina

Part 8 of 14

The Enneagram: A Tool for Spiritual Transformation

An Interview with Alice Fryling

David G. Benner

Alice Fryling is a spiritual director, living and working in the western suburbs of Chicago. She received her training in spiritual direction at Christos Center in Minneapolis. For a number of years, she has been offering personal and group spiritual direction at First Presbyterian Church in Glen Ellyn, where she and her husband worship. She received her training in the Enneagram under Jerome Wagner at Loyola University. What follows began as an informal conversation over dinner about the role of this tool in Christian spiritual formation and the way it might be relevant to our understanding of obstacles to union with God.


DGB:  Before we get into the details of the Enneagram, let’s back up a bit. By way of context, I’m interested to hear something about what initially drew you towards spiritual direction. How did you first hear about it?


AF:     When I first heard the term “spiritual direction,” I thought it meant that one person would be directing another person, telling him what to do in order to grow in spiritual formation. That kind of relationship was not for me. I became more interested when I learned that spiritual direction is simply one person’s companioning another into a deeper relationship with God. It is a listening relationship, where the companion listens to God and to the other person, helping the directee be attentive to the whispers of the Spirit in everyday life.


DGB:  How has your training and work in this area impacted your own spiritual journey?


AF:     Spiritual direction has helped me notice God in my life in a way I never could before. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12–13, NIV All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ).

I always wondered what Jesus meant by that and how I could experience the Spirit’s ongoing guidance. Spiritual direction is the vehicle God used to help me hear the Holy Spirit in my own life, and it has become the gift God has given me to pass on to other people as I listen to them.


DGB:  But let’s now turn to this ancient tool that’s attracting increasing interest in Christian circles. What is the Enneagram, and why is it important?


AF:     The Enneagram began with the observations of ancient spiritual teachers who noticed

patterns in the life issues people brought to them. Over time, these patterns were consolidated into the paradigm we now know as the Enneagram. Recently rediscovered by the Christian church, the Enneagram is particularly helpful to Christians because it is biblical in its principles and leads us to a self-awareness that brings us to our knees before the God of grace.


DGB:  I’m struck by this notion that the Enneagram “brings us to our knees” before God. This reminds me of what Richard Rohr often says about it when he suggests that if we haven’t encountered a deep sense of humiliation, we haven’t yet really found our self in the Enneagram. This doesn’t make the instrument sound very appealing. But I sense that this is somehow quite central to why you feel it is so useful. Am I right?


AF:     Yes. This is a situation where bad news becomes good news. Let me give you an example from my own life. I am a person who values authenticity. In fact, I pride myself in being honest. My plan is to live according to what I believe is true and loving, and not according to other people’s expectations. That’s my plan. But when I studied the Enneagram, I discovered that I fit best within what in Enneagram language is called the “Heart Triad” of personality types two, three, and four [see pages 40–41 for more on these and the other types]. According to Enneagram teaching, that means I am probably very much influenced by what other people think. Some people say that people in this triad live in a hall of mirrors, always asking themselves, “How am I doing? What impressions am I making?” This clearly did not fit with my image of myself! And it was not a compliment.

But as I pursued what the Enneagram could teach me about myself, I discovered that the bad news led me to good news. Through the Enneagram, I heard the Spirit of God whispering the invitation to let go of my need to impress others. In some ways, I was like Martha (Luke 10:38–42), “worried about many things.” The Enneagram helped me hear God’s invitation to reorient my life so that I focus on only one thing—receiving and extending the love of God.

The Enneagram teaches that we all live in denial. Like the alcoholic, we are addicted to ways of being that are life-draining and destructive. These attitudes become blind spots that sabotage our efforts to live in love. Studying the Enneagram has been like an ongoing “intervention meeting” for me, a continuing reminder that I have and always will have the inclination to my particular addictive behavior. The Enneagram calls these addictive behaviors “passions.” Christians call them sin. By naming these sins, the Enneagram has become a tool God has used to set me free and to begin each day to live in God’s grace.


DGB:  Where did the Enneagram come from, and how did it get to us in the twenty-first century church?


AF:     The Enneagram came to us through oral tradition. Its source is in the Middle East, where many spiritual philosophies and traditions have their roots. Its Christian roots can be traced back to the Christian desert monk Evagrius Ponticus (346–399 AD), whose writings included patterns later described in the Enneagram. Much later, the thirteenth-century Franciscan monk Ramon Lull also produced extensive work on life patterns. Richard Rohr does an excellent job of telling this story of the Christian roots in his book The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective.

The Enneagram also, however, clearly had pre-Christian roots and influences, including Judaism and the Islamic tradition of Sufism. The Sufis are credited with helping to preserve the Enneagram, but they did not likely create it.

The Enneagram came to the United States in the late 1960s through the Jesuit-trained Chilean mystic Oscar Ichazo. Eventually, it began to be used by the Jesuits as a tool for spiritual counseling and retreat work. Today it is used by many within both the Catholic and Protestant church.


DGB:  Learning that the Enneagram is rooted in pre-Christian traditions may raise concerns for some people that it is not an appropriate tool for Christians. After all, Jesus didn’t teach the Enneagram, did he? So, is it trustworthy?


AF:     I understand the concerns of those who are confused by the origins of the Enneagram. But the truth is that our own Christian faith is already rooted in other traditions, most notably Judaism. I do not believe that we need to be afraid of truth that comes to us from a variety of sources. If it is true, it is God’s truth. And if it is God’s truth, it will help set us free, which I think the Enneagram does.

Perhaps even more importantly, the main tenets of the Enneagram are thoroughly biblical. Terminology for the Enneagram varies with the teacher and the student, but as a Christian, I see in the Enneagram truths presented throughout the Bible and taught by Jesus in the Gospels. The Enneagram helps me understand and embrace biblical teaching about the way God created me, about my gifts, and about my resistance to Divine Grace. Most importantly, the Enneagram helps me address the problem Paul described in his letter to the Romans as his propensity not to do the good he wanted to do, and instead to do the evil he desperately didn’t want to do (Romans 7:14–24). The Enneagram gives words to these opposing aspects of my inner being and provides help in understanding them.


DGB:  When did you first come across this tool? And can you say more about how it has been helpful to you personally?


AF:     I first learned about the Enneagram through a weekend conference I attended in 1992. Since then, I have read dozens of books on it, attended many more conferences, and completed a certification program to teach the Enneagram. But in some ways, I still feel like a beginner. It is a very deep and complex system.

The Enneagram helps us to know God and to know ourselves. John Calvin said, “The knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him.” Calvin was not talking specifically about the Enneagram, but my own experience of the Enneagram is that it has led me by the hand to find God in deeper ways than I ever have before. It has opened my eyes to blind spots in my inner being, and it has facilitated a very practical self-awareness that has helped me experience the love of Jesus on a deeper level.

But I must say that growing in self-awareness has not always been a pleasant experience. From the Enneagram I have learned things about myself that I would rather ignore. The reason I have been willing to risk this journey of self-discovery is that I have found that my journey toward God requires that I be self-aware. The Enneagram is one tool God has used in this process of learning to know myself. Knowledge of the Enneagram is not in itself transforming. Information is not the same as transformation. But as I have continued to study the many layers of the Enneagram paradigm, I have been drawn closer to God, who loves me, transforms me, and extends grace to me every day.

I have also found as I have studied the Enneagram that God has helped me become a more gracious person. The Enneagram not only gives me words to help me understand my own behavior; it also helps me understand and accept others around me. As I embrace my own blind spots and receive God’s grace for my own sin, I find that I am more willing to allow others their own blind spots and sins. This has played itself out in my relationships with my husband, my children, my professional colleagues, my church community, even in my neighborhood. The Enneagram is just a human tool, but God has used it in my life in significantly inspiring ways.


DGB:  Time to get more specific. Perhaps you can describe the framework of understanding presented in the Enneagram. And what about some specific examples of what it teaches us?


AF:     The basic structure of the Enneagram is built around a description of nine gifts given to humans: goodness, love, effectiveness, creativity, wisdom, faithfulness, joy, power, and peace. It suggests that for each of us, one of these gifts is central to our being, but that we take our gift and become addicted to it—developing blind spots in our way of relating to others and knowing our self.

If, for instance, I have been given the gift of wisdom, I may become so enamored with my gift that I begin to use it to validate my worth as a person. Or perhaps I have been given the gift of leadership and find myself in positions of power, where I need to be strong and directive. If I am threatened by a feeling of weakness or personal need, I may hide behind the veil of my power, presenting myself as someone who is in control of every situation.

The Enneagram teaches that our propensity to hide behind our gifts has an addictive quality. Not unlike addiction to alcohol or drugs, we find that we cannot live without hiding behind a mask, usually connected with our giftedness. To use these same examples, the wise person, in a moment of graced honesty, may notice that he cannot not appear wise. Or the powerful person may realize that she cannot not be in charge.


DGB:  What do you see as the limitations of the Enneagram? Are there any dangers associated with it?


AF:     Those who know me know that I am very resistant to the idea of putting people in boxes. I believe with all my heart that each individual is a unique creation of God. No paradigm, the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs Typology, or any other system can adequately describe any individual. So, I shudder when I hear people talk as though they know all about me because they know my Enneagram number.

I also resist the temptation to make excuses for ourselves because we are a certain Enneagram type. To say, “Oh, well, don’t blame me for that; you know I’m just a type two,” or whatever, is to miss the point of the Enneagram entirely. Just as no two roses are the same, even though they share a botanical classification, so no two people—even two people sharing an Enneagram type—are the same.


DGB:  How have you found the Enneagram helpful in your spiritual direction?


AF:     The Enneagram does not provide the answers so much as it asks the right questions. In my own life, it has helped me identify false beliefs that might be underlying inappropriate behavior. I can learn from other spaces in the Enneagram, as well as what the Enneagram says about my own type. For instance, I am not a type one on the Enneagram, but I do have

a strong perfectionist streak. So, when I find myself discouraged or angry because something is not perfect, I ask myself, “How would a healthy type one person deal with this?” From those in the type one space on the Enneagram, I learn that being good is better than being perfect. I learn that who I am is good enough, and I do not need to be striving for perfection. I learn that I may be acting in very angry ways toward myself or toward someone else because I have bought into the lie of perfectionism.

When I am meeting with someone for spiritual direction, I do the same thing. When the person I am listening to begins to speak of something that is clearly stressful and not lifegiving for them, I ask myself, “What type of person on the Enneagram might feel like that? What can we learn from that person?”

When I get to know someone well, I may make a tentative guess about her Enneagram type. I don’t use the Enneagram to make assumptions about that person, but I do use it to suggest questions to ask. For instance, I was meeting with a person who was struggling with a major decision in life that would involve a career change as well as a move. Time after time, she expressed anxiety and stress about what to do. Knowing that she was probably a type six on the Enneagram, and that the type six person often struggles with fear, I asked her, “What are you really afraid of in making this decision?” That question launched us into a very fertile discussion.


DGB:  Shifting our focus a bit, I’d like to take you back to something you briefly commented on earlier, but which is important in the context of the theme of this issue-blocks to union with God. Can the Enneagram help us understand these blocks, and if so, how?


AF:     That’s a great question! When I first read about the Enneagram, I thought to myself, “I don’t know what number I am, but I am definitely not a four.” The sin, or passion, of type four is envy, and I was sure that I am not an envious person. But to my surprise, as I read around the circle, I discovered that I am indeed a four! After I admitted this, I began to investigate whether or not envy was part of my life. Sure enough, I discovered that I compare myself to other people, that I usually feel that I get the short end of the stick, and that I envy the gifts, abilities, and acclaim that other people seem to receive so easily. This embarrasses me. Sometimes it is only a temptation. Sometimes it is sin. Always it is a block to my relationship with God because God promises to give me everything I need “for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). When I give in to envy, I give in to disbelief that what Scripture says is true and that God loves me unconditionally. God, in grace, has helped me see that envy and disbelief are sin. The Enneagram is a graphic reminder of this.

Another way the Enneagram helps us address the blocks in our relationship to God is by addressing ways that we limit ourselves in prayer. Each Enneagram type has a number of things that are seemingly unacceptable to experience. Type eight, for instance, resists weakness. Type three cannot countenance failure. Type nine struggles with personal anger, which may disrupt the peace. Type two denies personal needs, believing that life is all about meeting the needs of others. So, what happens when a type two prays? It may be acceptable to pray that God will meet the needs of my family and friends, but what about my own needs? Jesus said that we are to ask for what we want (see Matthew 7:9–12). The type two person may not even know what he wants, let alone think to ask for it, from God or anyone else. Or take the type nine person. What happens when a nine is mistreated and maligned? All the nine wants is peace, so how could she interrupt her prayers with any authentic expression of anger? I suspect it is very hard for a type nine to pray the prayers David wrote in anger or to feel the rage Jesus must have felt when he cleansed the Temple. We could look at every type on the Enneagram and see ways that our passions or blind spots limit us in our prayer. To the extent that we cannot pray about something in ourselves or in our lives, we are blocked in our relationship with God.

Beyond this, the Enneagram helps us see the places where, like Adam and Eve, we hide from God. Because Satan “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14), we hide, not behind things that look evil, but behind our gifts—things that look good. This is perhaps the most profound insight of the Enneagram. The Enneagram teaches me that I take the very essence of God’s creative work in me, my unique giftedness, and in my sin, I come to believe that I am the gift. I eat, as it were, from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Now, I believe, I know what is good, and it is me. I become my own creator. I no longer need God because I have my giftedness. I live in union with my gift rather than in union with God. Only Grace can save us. Just as God called out to Adam and Eve, the Spirit calls out to us. And just as God clothed Adam and Eve, God wants to clothe us, not with our own gifts, but with grace and with the fruits of the Holy Spirit.


DGB:  What recommendations would you have for people who are interested in learning more about the Enneagram? How can they begin to explore what this tool has to offer?


AF:     There are many, many books available on the Enneagram. Not all of them are written from a Christian perspective, but even the secular ones can be very helpful in understanding the Enneagram. There are also conferences and courses given around the country on it and several good websites that can provide leads about where to learn more.

One question people often ask is, “How do I know what type I am on the Enneagram?” Some of the books have tests or inventories to help you determine your type. But I think these tests should be used cautiously. The best way to learn your Enneagram type is to read books about the Enneagram paradigm. Read several descriptions of all the types and begin a process of discernment about your own type. It may help to have someone who knows you well join in the discernment process. Some people know right away what category describes them best. Other people take years to figure that out. Some people know their triad but have a hard time narrowing down the specific type. But even if it takes a long time to determine your type, the process of discovery will be a valuable journey in itself.

01.  A Brief Summary of Enneagram Types

The type one person is the perfectionist reformer. These people are conscientious, ethical, and have strong personal convictions. They value truth and justice and strive for excellence. Under stress, they can become resentful and perfectionistic, trying to improve on everything. They can be critical, angry, and rigid. As God transforms these people, they experience a serenity that allows them to accept themselves, other people, and circumstances, even if imperfect. They take life more lightly and let go of control.


The type two person is the caring nurturer. These people are deeply altruistic, unselfish, and generous. They love to help others. Under stress, they may succumb to flattery and manipulation. They may need to be needed, and they may deny their own personal needs. They may become prideful, hovering, and intrusive. As God transforms them, they experience humility, which helps them acknowledge their own needs and limitations. They learn to help others out of love rather than out of pride.


The type three person is the success-oriented achiever. People of this type are confident, self-assured, and ambitious. They get the job done. Under stress, they may exhibit vanity and self-promotion. They may over-identify with performance and fear failure so deeply that they exaggerate the truth to look successful. External image becomes reality. As God transforms them, they embrace truth, admitting both weakness and failure. They learn to work cooperatively for the common good.


The type four person is the sensitive, creative person. People in this space are creative, self-aware, intuitive, and sensitive. They often have artistic interests. Under stress, they may become melancholic and take things too seriously. They are prone to interiorize everything and struggle with self-doubt. They focus on what is missing in their lives and can become jealous or envious of other people who seem to have what they do not have. As God transforms them, they experience equanimity, becoming more comfortable with the tensions of life. They learn to respond appropriately to one feeling at a time, and to use anger productively rather than against themselves.


The type five person is the perceptive, wise observer. People of this type have extraordinary perceptiveness and insight. They are often visionaries. They tend to be serious and value privacy. Under stress, they may become stingy or greedy, hoarding knowledge, among other things, in order to fill an inner sense of emptiness. They may find it hard to engage in life, preferring to observe rather than act. They may seem antagonistic and critical. As God transforms them, they learn a detachment that helps them hold life and knowledge more loosely. They learn to risk being transparent and to engage with life and with others.


The type six person is the responsible loyalist. At their best, these are people who trust both themselves and others. Their loyalty leads to courage, positive thinking, and leadership. Under stress, they may become cowardly or timid. They feel that they need to prepare for every possible danger. They focus on security—rules, structures, and traditions. They may become very fearful and insecure and act irrationally in the face of perceived threats. As God transforms them, they learn to go with the flow, trust the process. They learn to be attentive to the inner self, rather than ruled by outer forces.


The type seven person is the joyful enthusiast. These people are fun to be around. They do many things well and seek goodness and happiness in life. Under stress, they can spend all their time dreaming and planning, and avoid looking at one thing in depth. They may deny pain and sadness and succumb to gluttony, believing that more is better. They can be compulsively optimistic. As God transforms them, they learn sobriety, taking only what they need. They learn to embrace pain and disappointment, and to put their creativity into helpful systems and structures.


The type eight person is the strong challenger. People of this type are self-assertive, self-confident, and strong. They stand up for what they need and want. Under stress, they may be unaware of tender feelings. They may become vengeful and confrontational. They need to win or to dominate. They may give into lust, recklessly overextending themselves with insatiable passion. As God transforms them, they learn innocence and softness. They learn to embrace their own weakness and vulnerability. They move toward others, rather than against them.


The type nine person is the easygoing peacemaker. These people are calm, content, and even-tempered. They have a calming influence, harmonizing groups. Under stress, they may become too complacent, passive, and disengaged. They fear change and conflict, minimizing problems for the sake of peace. They may seem lazy or slothful, ignoring potential problems and dissociating themselves from all conflict. As God transforms them, they move into action. They learn to trust their inner authority and generate their own energy instead of draining off others’ energy. They become assertive and involved in life.


Enneagram Resources:



Baron, Renee and Elizabeth Wagele, The Enneagram Made Easy (New York: HarperSanFrancisco) 1994.

Palmer, Helen, The Enneagram in Love and Work (New York: HarperSanFrancisco) 1995.

Riso, Don Richard, Personality Types: Enneagram Transformations (New York:  Houghton Mifflin) 1993.

Rohr, Richard and Andreas Ebert, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (New York: Crossroad Publishing) 2001.



Tapes and CDs:

The Enneagram: The Discernment of Spirits, Richard Rohr, (Center for Action and Contemplation, P.O. Box 12464, Albuquerque, NM 87195.)



The Enneagram Institute