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Can I Trust a Spiritual Director who Uses the Enneagram?

Dear Dan, I recently began a new relationship with a spiritual director who claimed to be committed to the teachings of the Church. She is a local Benedictine sister who is very nice and seems to be sincere. However, in our second session she asked if I would be interested in using an ancient tool of Enneagramspiritual wisdom known as the enneagram to help me in my spiritual progress. I recall reading about this tool in a Vatican document called “Jesus Christ – Bearer of the Water of Life.” That document says that the use of the enneagram “introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of the Christian faith.” I am very concerned. Should I abandon this relationship? Can I trust her in other matters if she uses the enneagram?

Dear friend, it seems that you already know the answer to your question. I think the best course of action is to provide you with more food for thought about the enneagram. Fr. Mitch Pacwa SJ is a scholar on this topic and he offered this article for your review:

A Catholic Perspective on the Enneagram

In America and abroad the enneagram is a very popular system of personality types. Strictly speaking, the enneagram is a circle marked with nine points (ennea means “nine” in Greek, and gram means “line drawing”). Inside the circle two figures connect the nine points, a triangle and an oddly shaped six pointed figure. However, by “enneagram” most people mean a personality typology system based on this drawing. In workshops people learn that only nine personality types exist and that every person fits into one of them. Each type is a personality compulsion, a wrong or even “demonic” way of behaving. Once a person identifies his or her type (usually classified by a number on the enneagram), then he or she can learn how to improve or avoid getting worse spiritually.

The enneagram is particularly popular among Catholics, with parishes and retreat houses offering workshops across the country. Rarely are teachers or participants aware of its occultic origins, though this should be a source of real concern for the Christian Church. Echoes of a false, gnostic theology are heard in enneagram teachings, though its occult roots are unknown. The lack of scientific research into the enneagram system leaves it open to abuse even by people who reject or know nothing of its occult background. This article will examine three aspects of the enneagram: its occultic roots, its gnostic theology, and its lack of scientific support.

George I. Gurdjieff

George I. Gurdjieff

The man credited with bringing the enneagram to the West is Georgian national, George Ilych Gurdjieff. His family wanted him to study for the Orthodox priesthood, but he was fascinated with the occult: astrology, mental telepathy, spiritism and table turning, fortune telling, and demon possession. He would listen neither to his priest's warnings about the occult, nor did science explain them. He pursued these occult “sciences,” travelling throughout central Asia, the Mediterranean basin, Egypt, Tibet and India. Among Islamic mystics, called Sufis, Gurdjieff learned the enneagram. The enneagram had been used for fortune telling, as a symbol of personal transformation and as a mystical understanding of the cosmos. There is no evidence to indicate that Gurdjieff knew about a personality system.

In addition, Gurdjieff learned about a perpetual spiritual hierarchy headed by a spirit who communicates divine revelations through other spirits to maintain planetary harmony and evolution. The Sufis taught that faith arose “from understanding” which is “the essence obtained from information intentionally learned and from all kinds of experiences personally experienced.” Only understanding leads to God and only experience and information make one acquire a soul. Obviously, these ideas derive from Gnostic religion and do not fit the Christian notion of faith as a gift from God and as God's deposit of truth.

Gurdjieff taught that people have three personal centers: the mental center located in the head (path), the emotional center in the heart (oth) and the physical center in the belly (kath). When these centers are out of balance, a person [is] in spiritual sleep. Gurdjieff taught how to balance these three centers and wake people up spiritually. He believed in an “essence” within each person, a divine substance or “particle of god” from which the universe is made. The “personality” is a mask of compulsive behavior, chosen around age three or four, to hide the divine essence. With slow, deliberate, conscious work one can return to the essence. This doctrine of “essence” shows Gurdjieff to be a pantheist, believing that the universe and everyone in it is essentially divine. My enneagram teachers said that the purpose of enneagram work was to return to the “essence.” Whether they understood the pantheistic beliefs or not, this is how New Age belief in pantheism enters some enneagram teachings.

In central Asia the enneagram was used for fortune telling by divining the mystical meanings of the decimals .3333…, .6666…, and .9999…, based on dividing one by three, and of .142857…, which is based on dividing one by seven and contains no multiples of three. The multiples of three corresponded to the triangle inside the circle and the decimal .142857 (derived by dividing seven into one and resulting in a repeating decimal that never contains three or its multiples) corresponded to the points on the circle that connected the six sided figure.

Claudio Naranjo

Claudio Naranjo

Many different Gurdjieff study groups formed after his death, but one of the most influential is the Arica training (named for a city in northern Chile) founded by Oscar Ichazo. Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean psychologist, [who] invented the enneagram of personality types in the late 1960's. This admission by Naranjo in a 1991 speech in San Diego contradicts the claims that the enneagram is 2,000 years old or more. How could the Sufis, who began in the tenth century AD, invent the enneagram a thousand years before they existed? How could they invent a diagram based on the decimal point, which was invented around the fifteenth century AD, fifteen hundred years before that? Why do neither Gurdjieff nor any of his followers mention the nine personality types? The answer is simple: the enneagram of personality types was not invented until twenty years after Gurdjieff died.

Oscar Ichazo invented the enneagram of personality types in the mid 1960's by placing the seven capital sins on the numbers of the circle. That left two other numbers, so he placed deceit on number three and cowardice on number six. In 1968 Claudio Naranjo visited Ichazo in Chile. He like the typing system and added short descriptions for each type. Over the last twenty-five years various authors have expanded the descriptions, made up prayer techniques for each type, and have published books and tapes.

What is wrong with the enneagram? Why is Fr. Pacwa so critical?

First, the claim of the enneagram's antiquity is false, but it has been a device for not subjecting it to serious scientific scrutiny. It has been tested neither by time nor by psychologists. How do we know that it is true except for the claims of its inventors and teachers?

Second, because the enneagram is untested, there are no criteria to determine who is an authentic teacher or who is a hack. What are the credentials of the enneagram teachers offering workshops and retreats? Who approved of their abilities, except for themselves? How many courses did they take? From whom? I took one of the first courses ever offered, back in 1972. Quite a few “experts” were in the same course and learned no more about it than I did. Their continued research has often been conducted with unacceptable scientific methods. Neither the state nor we would accept such credentials from a psychologist; why do we accept it from someone who claims to teach about spirituality?

Third, many of the ideas and teachings of Gurdjieff and Ichazo are still taught by the Catholic enneagram “experts.” I heard from priests that original sin began at age three or four when kids choose a personality to cover their “essence.” I have heard them teach that we must do the work to return to this “essence.” Remember, this essence refers to the divine nature of the universe and person. Such a pantheistic notion contradicts Christianity. If the Catholic enneagram experts do not intend to teach pantheism, then what do they mean by essence?

Another false doctrine is that the nine types are nine demons, the nine faces of God turned upside down. In no way does Christianity teach that God has nine faces. Nor can humans turn God's face upside down or right side up. Such mythology is nonsense. Christ taught that He came to die for sinners and reconcile them to God. He taught the forgiveness of sin and the need to repent and live the Gospel He taught. The grace of Christ is what makes possible the moral and spiritual transformation of our lives. In addition to finding out if the enneagram is psychologically true, its proponents must also teach solid, Biblically based doctrines about sin, redemption, grace and free will. Faith is not knowledge, as Gurdjieff taught, but a gift from God by which we accept what God has taught and by which we commit ourselves to God.

Anyone who attends enneagram workshops needs to learn whether the enneagram is true before using it. That work has not yet been done by the experts. Secondly, and much more importantly, there should be certainty about true Catholic teaching. No matter how true a psychology or personality system may be, if the truth about Jesus Christ, His Church, and His redemption of the world is not taught or is contradicted, the possibility of spiritual danger remains very serious. Each Christian has the duty to find out whether the teachings they are receiving are true.

I think by now the answer to your question is clear. If it is not, I can unequivocally say that I cannot conceive of any circumstance where I would trust a spiritual director who uses the enneagram. I also would not frequent a retreat center that allows it to be taught or used there. Usually, those well intentioned souls drawn to these kinds of things are also drawn to other pseudospiritual fads that are rooted in superstition and false teachings rather than the true faith and teachings of Church. Those drawn to these teachings are often so because they lack any depth of study in the real and substantive wisdom of the spiritual doctors of the Church. Because they lack in this area, they look for and leverage pseudo-solutions that often do more damage than good.


Editor's Note: Click here for other posts in our Can I Trust? Series.

Art/Photography:  Enneagram graphic provided by Dan Burke. Georges Gurdjieff, Janet Flanner-Solita Solano papers, 1925 and 1935 (?), PD-US; Claudio Naranjo, Alessandra Callegari, own work, 2007, CC-Universal Public Domain; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • JohnnyVoxx

    This sort of thing makes me think the “smoke of Satan” has permeated the Church and we are totally doomed.

    • LizEst

      “…and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it (Matthew16:18).

    • Jeanette

      It would be helpful for you to see Dr. Peter Howard’s post: “In the End, My Immaculate Heart will Triumph.” You can find it by typing this at the search box on the top right corner. Below this article, in the comments, Dr. Howard says: “Indeed, the big picture of salvation history is bookended with “the woman” who will crush the head of the serpent/dragon.” Don’t be discouraged. We know Who wins in the end! God bless!

    • JV – Without Christ, we would be doomed. The God who created the Universe is not phased by these silly things. He is always working in and through all things to bring us to salvation. Our God is very big and He has promised that hell itself can’t withstand the advance of the Kingdom of God.

      • LizEst

        Yes! Consider that the Lord’s patience is directed towards salvation (cf 2 Peter 3:15).

      • JohnnyVoxx

        Thank you.

  • Judy Silhan

    Excellent, informative post exposing the use of the enneagram by Catholic “experts”. Thanks, Dan, for helping those of us striving to better our Spiritual lives, and in doing so, unfortunately meet people, including some of our own Catholic clergy, who actually hinder that spiritual growth by leading one away from the teachings of the Magisterium. Great to have access to resources such as RC Spiritual Direction.

  • Cathy

    2Timothy 4 :3-5 with the priesthood and religious life those who participate in these practices are an aging population with few fresh vocations.i have met so
    Many practicing Catholics over the years who use so many of these false teachings,as a quick fix rather than to rely on Divine Perspective and his Providence

  • DebraBrunsberg

    Whenever I see this, it is being offered through a religous order or religious retreat center. I have learned, at least for the area in which I live, do not partake of anything via the Benedictines. They seem to find a way to mix Jesus in with all kinds of new age gimmicks.

  • Dove – RFaulkner

    Thank you for this response. Very informative.

  • If Catholics are trying to better understand themselves and what their strengths, weaknesses, and root sins may be, I suggest looking into the four classic temperaments first proposed by Hippocrates. Saints and Christian scholars throughout the centuries have found these temperament divisions to be helpful in understanding where God is leading a person. It involves no esoteric spirituality, just a study of one’s pattern of reactions to stimuli. I have found knowing my and my family members’ temperaments to be very helpful for our relationships with God and each other. And I just published a book called A Spiritual Growth Plan for Your Choleric Child, to help parents encourage their energetic, determined, intense sons and daughters become great leaders for Christ.

  • Christine

    Many nuns at Notre Dame University in South Bend, IN are immersed in Caroline Myss, Sacred Contracts. I called on one unaware of this
    For Spiritual Direction. She also charged a fee of $150 per hour session, which was a red flag. She asked me if I was interested in unveiling my sacred contract, as that would be an additional fee. When I challenged her on that against the Church teachings, she hung up on me! That was my first encounter of the religious not adhering to Catholic doctrine. In my own city, Indpls. the Benedictine nuns are very far from the Catholic teachings doing Reiki hearings, crystals, etc. it’s really disturbing.

    • LizEst

      Very Sad. I had Benedictines for grade school. They were very faithful then…but, that was many, many years ago.

    • Toby


  • Donna Ruth

    Thanks for the overview. I have a dear Catholic friend who wrote a book on personalities, dividing them into six categories: Dominant/Submissive; Giver/Taker; Sensible/Senseless. These categories were then mixed and matched to create 8 personalities, stating that each person fell into one of these 8 personality categories, and there are no overlaps or exceptions. The author then went on to add sub-categories of 21 pairs; for example, talkative/quiet, optimistic/pessimistic, impulsive/reflective, loyal/non-loyal, careful/careless …

    While I applaud the thought and energy manifested in this research, I struggle with the thesis because of the Catholic fact of metanoia: we are works in progress and supernatural grace leads us to transcend our wormy selves. The author insists we are born with these traits (or acquire them in early childhood), and they are always with us. Further it is suggested hat grace only aids us in ameliorating the sinful aspects of these traits. I disagree, and believe these rigid categorizations give a lie to God’s power to work in our lives,transforming us into new creations. Mr. Burke, would you be able to address this, please? The author is commencing a second book expanding these themes.

    • Donna: My question is, why do this when something like Myers Briggs is available? MB has been thoroughly tested and is very accurate. You could use MB with a clear teaching on Catholic anthropology and spirituality with an emphasis as you suggest. To back up your thinking, I have been an introvert most of my life. The work of God has increased my love for people so significantly that my most recent MB shows that I am slightly over the line to Extrovert. Even so, I don’t think other predominant traits like how I process will change. That said, you are on to something. I would never subscribe to a framework that had no research to back it up.

      • Donna Ruth

        Thank you for your wisdom. This scripture always comes to mind when I ponder these things: “You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires. Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution, so that you can put on a new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of truth” (JB, Ephesians 4:22-24).

        • LizEst

          Excellent! Thanks for the citation. God bless you, Donna Ruth!

    • If I could also chime in here… My understanding from studying the temperaments is that there are some tendencies, some patterns of behavior, that don’t go away. They are in our genetic makeup. But we can learn to control these tendencies, and as we progress in the spiritual life the natural weaknesses of our temperament will be less pronounced. I find when reading the lives of the saints, for example, that it is often difficult to discern their inborn temperament by just looking at their lives when they had already reached sanctity. But when you look at their patterns of behavior, and especially their greatest struggles, before their conversion to the illuminative way, their temperament becomes clear. We can look at the saints who had a temperament similar to our own and find encouragement. Those weaknesses that may seem insurmountable now can be conquered by God’s grace, especially through His infused work in our souls. The saints also show us how we can use our natural strengths for God’s kingdom.

      • I think you are on target here Connie. The work you are doing for instance is predicating on sound Catholic theology and spirituality and then using the tools based on that wisdom.

  • Patricia

    I would not go to spiritual director who used this tool.

    • LizEst


  • Carol Leeda Crawford

    Psychology and other schools of thought need to be subject to the teachings of the church, not as identification tools to separate ourselves as a type of person therefore subject to its criteria. We are called to be faithful to God and His Church subjecting all our thoughts, words and actions to His Will. Eg. I know I have a choleric temperament “easily angered, hot-tempered”. Knowing this fact, I must be conscientious, and choose to proceed with caution.

  • Warwick Onyeama

    I am so grateful this question has arisen and thankful for the way it has been handled. I also appreciate the many sensible faith based comments that have been made. There is a very real problem that some branches of Church activity in my view constitute a hazard. I have had experience of mantra meditation, a practice that derives from Hindu mysticism, being introduced and recommended by a Benedictine monk, as a bona fide spiritual practice of the Church. Only the wise counsel and sound scriptural grounding of a respected Catholic layperson alerted me to the danger. My perception is that for some reason a lot of New Age practices are creeping into the Church and I think must be recognised and exposed for the faith traps that they are.


  • Warwick, I appreciate your view immensely. We have both encountered the hazards of New Age ‘faith traps’, and I speak and write about their hazards regularly. The Enneagram is totally incompatible with the Catholic
    faith. It is an occult pagan tool, is focused on self, and therefore leads us
    away from the ‘Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ The sadness is that in some parishes, monasteries and retreat centres, it is priests and nuns who are teaching this method. They are leading genuine seekers astray and seem to be totally ignorant of their own rich tradition. In the UK , the Enneagram as a Retreat/workshop is a regular feature at Emmaus House Retreat centre Bristol, St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, and other influential Catholic centres. The laity are let down, like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. (Matthew 9:36). With the dearth of genuine spiritual directors, movements like ‘World Community for Christian Meditation’ draw in genuine seekers who do not have the wherewithal to distinguish the truth from the counterfeit.

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  • Kim DiBiase

    Thank you so very much for the clarity this article brings. My question is why do our Bishops allow this to continue? If your flock is astray why not navigate them back?

  • Kathie Lyell

    I’ve been reading some books written by a Franciscan Priest who’s mentioned an enneagram a few times, how can I find out if I should be reading books written by Richard Rohr? I also was concerned he’s mentioned Elkart Tollie (sp?) as well, should I be reading?

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