Monday, 7 April 2008

Matching prayer life and spirituality with temperament and personality

By Patrick Comerford

Over the course of future issues, Search is planning a series of occasional articles in which each deals with a specific style of prayer.

We often discuss different styles of prayer and different approaches to prayer as choices that we can make, as if prayer methods, styles and approaches were merely choices available as commodities to us as consumers. But when people have problems or difficulties with prayer, it is often too late to realise that the problems were not about choice or variety, but that they were not given permission, freedom or encouragement to pray in a way that suited their own spirituality and their own personality.

People need permission, freedom and encouragement to find the way of prayer that best suits their needs and personality. For many people the style of prayer that suits them individually is not the style of prayer they were taught at home as children or in Sunday School or, for clergy, even at their theological college.

When we are honest with ourselves, most will admit that prayer does not always come easily. But the same style of prayer does not suit every personality, and nor does the same type of prayer suit every time and situation. None of us would expect the same style of prayer to work in individual prayer, spontaneous one-to-one prayer, group prayer and liturgical prayer. So why should we expect everyone to accept the same approach to prayer when it comes to their spiritual life, growth and development?

What is prayer?

It is easier to describe what prayer is or ought to be than to say what type of prayer is appropriate or inappropriate for different settings and different individuals. Most writers agree that prayer is the practice of the presence of God. As the Benedictine writer and theologian, Sister Joan Chittister, says, “The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.” It is the place where pride is abandoned, hope is lifted, and supplication is made.

In the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9-14), both men pray for themselves and bare themselves before God. The Pharisee gives thanks to God when he prays, and by all the standards of the day he is a good man: he fasts, tithes – indeed, tithes more than he has too – and prays regularly. Yet neither man prays for the other man in his company. Why then is the Pharisee condemned for his prayer, but the Publican is not? The difference between their prayers is that in his praying the Pharisee disdains the needs of others. If prayer is only about me and my needs and does not take account of the needs of others, have I been praying truly?

The Eastern Fathers of the Church insist that prayer is primarily the action of God. Prayer can be described as conversation with God, allowing the Word to penetrate mind and heart. As the Carmelite Rule says, prayer can be described as “meditating on the law of the Lord day and night.” Rosalind Brown describes prayer as “the intimacy of our life with God.”

Benedictine prayer – which shares several characteristics with Anglican prayer – leads to a spirituality of awareness rather than one of consolation. Both Benedictine and Anglican prayer are regular, they are universal, they are converting, they are reflective, and they are communal.

For Joan Chittister, prayer is not to take people out of the world to find God. Prayer is to enable people to realise that God is in the world around them. “Prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now, not to make God some kind of private getaway from life. Prayer is the place of admitting our needs, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon God. Prayer is the needful practice of the Christian. Prayer is the exercise of faith and hope. Prayer is the privilege of touching the heart of the Father through the Son by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is being lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Prayer is not a shopping list that we tick off, and then use to tick off God when our shopping trolley has not been filled. We often reduce prayer to requests for healing and for the solution of our own problems, only to find that the answers we hoped for often do not come. Or we pray because prayer is a duty. We were taught as children to pray each morning and each night, but when it becomes a routine and a chore it loses its delight, and the habits of childhood disappear easily when we are adults. Or, as we find personal prayer loses its lustre and appeal, we start relying on our community prayers in the parish or in a college chapel, allowing public prayer to fill the gaps when I have started to falter in private prayer.

When we pray in church on Sundays, we are often asked merely to respond with our “Amen.”

When the laity are asked to lead the prayers of the people or the intercessions on a Sunday, they are often given sheets of paper with a shopping list that has already been dictated by the rector or the parish priest so that no longer can be truly called the prayers of the people.

When clergy are called on unexpectedly for a prayer at the beginning or end of a meeting, we often fall back on reciting a collect from memory. We have not been taught that it is OK if I do not know what to say when someone in a gathering asks me to pray.

What’s wrong with praying: “Lord, we confess we don’t always know how to pray by ourselves. But we thank you that you know our needs before we can even find words to express them. We give this time to you and ask you to continue speaking to us and through us.” When people complain that visiting clergy fail to pray during a visit to a hospital bedside or a bereaved household, it may be because we have failed to develop the skills of praying extemporaneously or with spontaneity, or that we have not been trained in identifying the spirituality of those we are visiting and so cannot find styles of prayer that are appropriate for those we are with.

Theology and prayer

Although the Anglican tradition has often been defined by the Book of Common Prayer, and while we have paid great attention throughout Anglican history to the common prayer of the church, we have paid little attention to training people to help others and to help themselves to pray. John the Baptist knew the advantage of being a prayerful servant of God, and who taught his disciples to pray. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5). But he also gives example of prayer in parables, such as the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 9-14). The Apostle Paul reminds us to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 17) and to “always give thanks” (Ephesians 5: 20). Praying together has been a hallmark of Christian life since the beginnings of the church, as the opening reports in the Acts of the Apostles make clear.

Teaching others how to pray is a privilege and responsibility, but in my experience at the Church of Ireland Theological College as a chaplain and lecturer, I have learned of the need for clergy to develop the skills of identifying the different approaches to spirituality that mean individuals have different needs in prayer styles. An individual’s spiritual life can be affirmed and can grow by identifying with appropriate approaches to prayer.

Identifying prayer needs and types

Two Anglican writers in particular have made important contributions to identifying the different spiritual types and their prayer needs: Urban T. Holmes was Dean of the School of Theology at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, until he died in 1981 at the age of 51; Corinne Ware is a pastoral psychotherapist and Assistant Professor of Ascetical Theology at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Similarly, in the Roman Catholic tradition, Monsignor Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey have found that many people feel they are shut out of the prayer life of their parishes or congregations because of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to prayer, spiritual exercise and meditation.

Holmes and Ware and Michael and Norrisey continue in the long tradition, begun by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, of analysing religious experience from the standpoint of psychology.

Drawing on the four personality types described by Katherine C. Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in their theory of personality types, and using the spiritual typology of Holmes and her own experience as a spiritual director and pastoral counsellor, Ware has provided a framework for people to name and understand their spiritual experience and prayer needs, and helps explain why different people prefer and benefit from different styles of and approaches to prayer. Holmes and Ware identify what can be called four spiritual types: 1, those who prefer “head” spirituality; 2, those who prefer “heart” spirituality; 3, the “mystics”; and 4, the visionaries. In a more developed exploration of these ideas, Ware speaks of two “axes of preference” or directions in which people are drawn: Thinking-Feeling and Abstract-Concrete.


Figure 1: Spirituality types, based on the work of Corinne Ware and Urban Holmes

The vertical speculative-affective axis intersects with the horizontal apophatic-kataphatic axis forming quadrants. Within these quadrants, identified by the bordering poles, we find the four spiritual types. In which quadrant would you place yourself? Quadrant 1, for instance, is influenced by the two points, speculative thinking and concrete or “kataphatic” imaging of God. Each of us has a different approach to our style of spirituality so that it has a bearing on how I fit into a congregation, how I pray, how I respond to or have certain needs in spiritual direction.

Type 1, the speculative/kataphatic or head spirituality, is an intellectual or thinking spirituality that favours what it can see, touch, and vividly imagine. It can be expressed theologically in concepts, such as God as Father, or the centrality of Christ and the incarnation. The choices of this group will be based mostly on activity and on corporate gathering. Their spirituality relates comfortably to the spoken word, and so they appreciate study groups, better sermons, and some sort of theological renewal within the worshipping community.

The contribution of those with Type-1 spirituality to the whole is invaluable. They produce theological reflection, debate ethical issues, provide critique and engage in education and publication. They seek to make sense of experience and to name it. They codify and so preserve the faith story from generation to generation, and seek guidance primarily in Scripture and from the sermon – that is, from words. “God speaks to them through the written word,” Ware explains.

As Ware points out, people who feel close to God through their minds are, perhaps, the most common among Anglicans. Prayer for people in this quadrant is almost always language or word-based prayer, whether aloud or silent. For people who love words and ideas, reading is the avenue of God’s speech, and written prayers, including the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, are most helpful for them in their prayer life. Reading, journaling, and specific meditation with a definite focus are fruitful activities.

Growth for such people lies in their gradually sensing their interior connection with God. The danger lies in “falling outside the circle” through an over-reliance on rationalism, an over-intellectualisation of the spiritual life and a consequent loss of feeling. To enrich their experience they can benefit from the emphases of the opposite quadrant, Type 3, on fostering solitude, introspection, and silence, risking the unstructured, the solitary, and the silent.

People in Type 2, the affective/kataphatic or heart spirituality type, still emphasise the anthropomorphic representation of God and the centrality of scripture, but are combined with a more affective, charismatic spirituality that aims is to achieve holiness of life. The transformational goal is personal renewal and holiness, and so Type-2 people find God through the heart, in feelings and in the moment.

Characteristically, they emphasise evangelism and transformation, and value corporate worship that includes time for witnessing, testimonials and music. They stress the immanence of God over the transcendence of God, and the words of their prayers are less formal than they are among words than Type-1 people, and praying is usually extemporaneous. Physically, they express their joy in such ways as raising their hands. Although prayer is made up of words for this group, the words can be less formal than the words for people in type one, and praying is often extemporaneous.

The Type-2 person may respond well to a loosely-structured daily spiritual discipline. They respond to art, music, and fellowship. These people focus on personal service to others but often with the caveat that the service provides an opportunity to witness about their faith. They often need permission to acknowledge anger, disappointment, sadness, and doubt, and to be less than ideal. Their spirituality is enriched by being able to see other expressions of faith as having value and making a contribution. With their emphasis on “pietism,” they can become too exclusive, not allowing themselves to acknowledge the spiritual experience of others – especially when it different – and they can be closed to the risk of new thought. They could be encouraged to risk new experience on their own and to trust God to be with them in their journeys, seeing God as nurturing rather than punitive.

Type 3 is the affective/apophatic approach, which can be described as mystic spirituality. With Type-3 people, hearing God rather than speaking to God is important. People attracted to this type of spirituality are often contemplative, introspective, intuitive, and focused on an inner world. God is ineffable, unnameable, and vast beyond any known category. Austerity and asceticism are appealing to many in this quadrant as they listen attentively to the inner voice. They often find themselves uncomfortable and not fitting in, especially within Western Protestantism, but will value the works of Thomas Merton and Anthony de Mello, or appreciate the apophatic approach of Eastern Orthodox spirituality or a creation-type theology.

“For them,” Ware says, “prayer is not addressing God but is listening to God.” The Desert Fathers and the mediaeval mystics are examples of this type. “People attracted to this type of spirituality love walking the labyrinth,” Ware says. Often by nature they are contemplative, introspective, intuitive, and focused on an inner world. For them, “being” is more important than “doing.” Many in Type-3 write and publish and provide the especially inspirational and uplifting spirituality that fuels our daily lives with a sense of the Holy. They provide much of the intellectual interpretation of the theological writing by those in Type-1, and they seek to push the frontiers of spirituality.

Those in Type 3 need permission to retreat and seek solitude because they may feel guilty as they carefully hide their desire for the nourishment of solitude and silence. The danger in this quadrant is of falling into wrong sort of “quietism,” with an exaggerated retreat from reality and from interaction with the world and a spiritual passivity that deprives the world of the treasured gifts of mysticism. The mystic who lacks the balance of the other spiritual expressions is also deprived of the blessing of interaction with others. Of course there are those who have a calling to solitary prayer, but retreat time needs to be balanced with involvement and interaction.

Type 4, the speculative/apophatic type, includes the visionaries who emphasise kingdom spirituality. People in this quadrant are usually the smallest group, making it the most difficult to describe. They are at prayer as they work for the Simon Community, Christian Aid or with a human rights campaign, as they feed and clothe others. For these people, prayer and theology are best expressed in action. For them, work and prayer is the same thing. Type-4 people may include the Hebrew prophets, the Apostolic Fathers, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

Visionaries want nothing less than the transformation of society, to right the wrongs of the world, and they are often willing to suffer for a cause. They are single-minded, with a deeply focused type of spirituality. They care less about affiliation with organised religion than many others do, seeking first to obey God and to witness to his coming kingdom. They have a passion for transforming society. They can sacrifice their personal lives for their hope that the kingdom will be realised on earth, and can be angry and exasperated with authority figures. But they are also in danger of an excessive and unbalanced spirituality that is moralistic and unrelenting.

Assessing Holmes and Ware

The value of the approach by Holmes and Ware is not in being able to pigeon-hole myself or others, but in helping myself and others to identify our appropriate styles of prayer, worship and approaches to spirituality.

The message of the work of Ware and Holmes is that once we have found where we fall within the total circle, we then have opportunity to grow by acknowledging and strengthening our present gifts, growing toward our opposite quadrant, and appreciating more perceptively the quadrants on either side of our dominant type.

People who find their spirituality represented in several quadrants may be encouraged to see that they can benefit from several styles of prayer and worship. Each category is of value, yet all are different.

Type-1 people can benefit from the method known as Lectio Divina, for example. Type-2 people need experiment in prayer, liturgy, and music with musical expression. Type-3 people can benefit from silence in prayer, and from being asked to pray privately.

Retreats for Type-1 or Type-2 people will need planned group activities, speaker, and programme. But for Type-3 these are interferences, this only interferes and they need a director to lead in meditation or reading, and directed periods of silence. Type 4 people are praying when they engage in causes and campaigns.

Using the spiritual typology of Holmes and her own experience as a spiritual director and pastoral counsellor, Ware has provided a framework for people to name and understand their spiritual experience and prayer needs. Being aware of these differences, and how they complement each other, can help in seeking a greater understanding of how people learn to pray, engage with liturgy and can come to celebrate God. But they also help to explain why there may be tension in parishes around such issues as the form, style and content of the worship service and our approaches to pray, both private and public.

Balancing temperaments

Similarly, Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey have found that many people feel they have been shut out of the prayer life of their parishes or congregations because of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to prayer, spiritual exercise and meditation. They drew on the four personality types or temperaments defined by Carl Jung, enhanced by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katherine Cook Briggs, and the popularised by David Kiersey: the artisan or “free-spirited” temperament, the guardian or “practical” temperament, the idealist, and the rationalist.

The “Practical” type (40 per cent of the population), is steady, reliable, a realistic decision-maker, seeks order, dislikes ambiguity, is conforming, fastidious and is often moralistic, can be intolerant and can be over-controlled. The “Rational” type (12 per cent) is analytical, likes independence, takes pride in his/her objectivity and calmness, is visionary, attentive to theory and model, is often clever, and can be indifferent to others and even condescending. The “Free-Spirited” type (36 per cent) is an adaptable realist who is focussed on the here-and-now, is good with tools and instruments, hates boredom, wants to be audacious, values generosity, and can be inattentive or even unstable. The “Idealistic” type (12 per cent) is tender-minded, enthusiastic and insightful, seeks new projects and complexity, is flexible, aesthetic, non-conforming, and can be snobbish, self-pitying and dreamy.

Using the objectivity/personality type theory, Michael and Norrisey suggest ways to get over certain prejudices that hinder our legitimate religious experiences. We are each unique in temperament. For our prayer life to be most fulfilling there is a prayer form that is best suited to our temperament.

Michael and Norrisey define four prayer forms – the Ignatian, Franciscan, Augustinian and Thomistic – that map to the four distinctive temperaments, and give each temperament something like a patron saint whose spirituality seems to match the temperament's spirituality. For instance, the hard-nosed Ignatius is matched with the practical temperament. Practical people like to follow the rules, and they like predictability and order. The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises provide plenty of steps and order that temperaments more taken with spontaneity would find difficult.

On the other hand, they argue that all the exercises and forms of prayer and meditation they describe are for every temperament. They suggest that all the forms should be tried, but that the practitioner ought to return to the form of meditation she finds most comfortable and profitable.

Their meditative forms and prayers are loosely connected with the four steps in Lectio Divina, a method of prayer and meditation associated with the Benedictine tradition, moving from the head to the heart. These four steps are: 1, Lectio (seeking truth, or seeking God’s word); 2, Meditatio (making God’s word personal); 3, Oratio (our response to God’s word, including adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication); and 4, Contemplatio (union of love between God and us).

Each step in Lectio Divina calls on one of the four specific types identified by Michael and Norrissey. Since Briggs and Myers say we each have a favourite or “dominant function” among these four ways, each of us will tend to favour one part of the Lectio Divina and one of its meditative forms.

Strengths and weaknesses

There are weaknesses in the typologies offered by Holmes and Ware and by Michael and Norrisey. None of us likes to be pigeon-holed or categorised in a way that makes it easy for others to marginalise and dismiss us. On the other hand, we all have some traits of each of the personality types they identify. My sojourn for some years among Quakers, or the ways in which I am continually enriched by Eastern Orthodox spirituality and prayer may too easily categorise me as a Type-3 personality, while my years of campaigning for peace and human rights and against racism may place me among Type-4 people. But then, my many years work as a writer and journalist and my work in teaching liturgy might place me in Type 1. Or does my work with mission agencies place me in Type 2?

The answer, of course, is that we all need to be well-rounded in our prayer life so that we can grow spiritually. As Holmes and Ware point out, being aware of the differences in personality, how they complement each other, and how they influence our disposition in prayer and our appropriation of spiritual exercises can help anyone seeking a greater understanding of how people learn to pray, engage with liturgy and come to celebrate God. But they also help to explain why there may be tension in parishes around such issues as the form, style and content of the worship service and our approaches to pray, both private and public.

As Michael and Norrisey point out there is can be no “one-size-fits-all” approach to prayer, spiritual exercise and meditation. And so, in the course of this occasional series of essays on prayer, Search hopes not only to help readers to identify our own strengths and weaknesses, but help each of us to draw closer to God and to one another in prayer.

Select bibliography:

Joan D. Chittister, Benedictine Prayer: a larger vision of life: living the rule of Saint Benedict today (San Francisco and New York: Harper, 1991).
Urban T. Holmes, A History of Christian Spirituality: An Analytical Introduction (Harrisburg PA: Morehouse, 2002, the Library of Episcopalian Classics), first published in 1981 by Harper Collins, Scranton PA.
Urban T. Holmes, Spirituality for Ministry (Harrisburg PA: Morehouse, 2002, the Library of Episcopalian Classics), first published in 1982 by Harper Collins, Scranton PA.
CP Michael and MC Norrisey, Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types (Open Door, 1991 revised ed), first published in 1984.
Corinne Ware, Discover Your Spiritual Type: a guide to congregational growth (Herndon VA: Alban Institute, 1995).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This paper first appeared in Search, a Church of Ireland Journal, Vol 31, No 1, Spring 2008