If Psalm 139 had been written today, it would probably be one verse longer. Tacked on near the end, just after verse 23, would be a short request which, when taking together, would probably look like this:
“Search me O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!”
And when you’ve done, please tell me what you found there,
Because I really have no idea!
The thirst for self-knowledge, self-understanding, has become a collective desire for a greater-than-ever number of people. And with that thirst, a whole slew of books have arrived on our shelves, promising shortcuts to actualisation and tips for transcending anxiety.
With the sharp rise in people understanding issues of mental health and the tearing down of the stigma that surrounds the merest discussion of difficulty, there has been an equally accentuated acceptance of the once-sneered-at catalogue of books that make up the section entitled “Self-help”. People now admit that very few of us are ok, and that simply bearing through is not an adequate means of living a long, healthy and happy life. We need help and are no longer afraid to say so.
This sea-change of public attitude towards self-help is not only felt within the shelves of secular bookshops and libraries. There is now no need to bury copies of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ and ‘How to Win Friend and Influence People’ beneath a veil of cookbooks, magazines, and thoroughly impressive coffee-table books. Within the world of Christian publishing, the rise of titles that hand-in-hand offer words of self-help and Christian encouragement has risen in a sunnily meteoric manner.
Leading this new wave of books that focus on personal realisation is Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Binding together the spiritual with the emotional, the book’s goal is growing a sense of maturity in Christians today. Not the view of maturity as a status of respect bestowed on an individual at roughly the same time their receive their bus pass. Rather, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality turns to the contemplative practices of faith as a guide for emotional development that leads towards an “authentic life in Christ”.
Wading into the nebulous world of emotional growth is, however, incredibly daunting. Not simply because no-one is ever really sure of what they will find, but also because each of us is unavoidably unique. Our internal lives don't fit a pattern or narrative. Yet, we are so used to seeing people as types, parts within a system of thought or categorisation, that attempts to think outside of that mindset can feel like imagining a new colour. Hence, the boom in personality typing systems like the popular (and now largely-contested) Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Treated by millions as a shortcut to self-understanding, the test’s four-letter assignation is worn as a badge of fixed identity (despite people’s results changing 50% of the time after a retake of the quiz): “I’m an INTP, so I don’t like social events”, or “I’m ESFJ and love spending time my friends”. But anyone with any experience in Christian modes of self-discovery is probably aware of a different system:
In short (and by short, I mean in the most concise and probably reductive way possible), the Enneagram is a model of personality that groups people into nine (with a wing) types. Each type is defined not as much by introvert/extrovert sty;e dualities, but rather by responses stress and security, as well as ways of growth and levels of healthy and unhealthy behaviour. What makes the Enneagram such a favourite with Christians, though, is that within it is a means of spiritual growth that was brought to the fore by the beloved Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, and his book The Sacred Enneagram. But, for anyone newer to the whole system, The Road Back to You by Ian Cron has helped readers grasp not only what the system is, but how it can help aide spiritual growth.
At the fore of all these books, though, isn’t precedent, but practice. Namely, the practice of Contemplation. Where a lot of mass-market self-help books pride themselves on offering a version of speedy transcendence that wouldn’t be underserved by being called McRealisation, Christian books take things a little slower. One day at a time, usually. For example, A Spring Within Us by Richard Rohr (which, for transparency’s sake, I am a week into now) offers daily meditations on plumbing the depths of life and spirituality. Each meditation is a slow and subtle reading that inches towards a better way of perception and living.
But a year’s commitment is a big ask. Especially when meditations and slow moments are an impossibility against the demands of life. So, instead of taking on a year-long promise, why not try just forty days? The forty days of Lent, to be specific. Resilient Disciple by Justine Allain-Chapman is a ‘Lenten Journey from Adversity to Maturity’ that helps you towards a deeper engagement with God, and a deeper sense of who you are. Born out of the author’s own experience of an eight-day retreat in the Egyptian desert, Resilient Disciple is designed to be a time of testing and searching. A way of calling out with all we are to God. After all, when we turn towards self-help, we should ultimately be facing God.
October 16th, 2018 - Posted & Written by Aaron Lewendon