When Suzanne Stabile first encountered the Enneagram, it was through none less than a teacher, Richard Rohr.
It was the early 1990s, and Suzanne and her husband, Joe, were looking for some sort of spiritual mentor. Joe, a former Roman Catholic priest turned Methodist minister, had benefited from having a spiritual director since he was a young seminary student, and he thought they could use guidance to discern the work God was giving them. So he took the plunge and called Rohr, a complete stranger, to ask if he and Suzanne could come visit.
This was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship between Rohr and the Stabiles. In fact, she always checks with him before making any major decisions. It was also the beginning of Suzanne’s deep love for the Enneagram.
During this first meeting, Rohr gave her a manuscript of one of his books on the Enneagram, of which she knew nothing. “I think you might really like that,” he told her.
She took the book home and “devoured” it, as she explained to Religion News Service in a Zoom interview. At that time, there were few books available on the Enneagram, which has often been described as a personality typing system. Fascinated, she read “everything I could get my hands on” in the pre-Google days. Since most 20th century enneagram experts believed the system was best learned through oral tradition under the guidance of an experienced teacher, there was not much written material available.
When the Stabiles visited Rohr again three months later, she came armed with a list of questions.
He said to her, “It seems to me that you really understand this, organically and intuitively. I don’t know you very well yet, but one of your gifts seems to be synchronicity. I would suggest that you study this for five years before talking about it.
So that’s what she did: a deep dive into the Enneagram for five years before she taught a workshop. She used this time to observe people of the nine basic personality types and study everything that had been published on the subject.
“It made all the difference,” she said. Today, Stabile is one of the best Enneagram teachers in the world, and the landscape around him has changed dramatically. Information, once rare and transmitted mainly through oral teaching, is now ubiquitous in print and online. There are many institutes, teachers, podcasts (Stabile’s is “The Enneagram Journey”), retreats and workshops.
Not to mention the books: Stabile recently released “The Journey Toward Wholeness,” which is the third Enneagram book she’s written or co-written and published with InterVarsity Press.
Stabile views all three books as natural progressions for people new to the Enneagram and wanting to delve deeper.
“The Road Back to You,” the 2016 bestseller that Stabile co-wrote with Ian Morgan Cron, focuses on self-learning. This, she says, is the foundation for growth. “You have to know who you are and the lens through which you see the world,” Stabile explained. “And you have to recognize that you’ve always seen the world that way. And you can change what you do with your outlook, but you can’t change your outlook.
InterVarsity Press reports that it has sold 750,000 copies to date. (Disclosure: Jana Riess, the author of this article, was also the editor of this book.)
Stabile’s 2018 follow-up, “The Path Between Us: An Enneagram Journey to Healthy Relationships” (100,000 copies sold), is about treating others the way they want to be treated — which isn’t, she points out , as simple as complying with the “golden rule”. The Golden Rule says to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Instead, “The Enneagram offers us the opportunity to treat others as they want to be treated.”
The next step in the wisdom journey, she says, is spiritual: learning how each personality type relates to God. “The Journey Toward Wholeness” distills his 30 years of study of the Enneagram, and in particular his insights into the Christian life.
Stabile says spiritual transformation is impossible until people recognize the darker parts of their personality. “The best part of you is also the worst part of you” is a phrase that comes up often in his teaching and podcast interviews. True transformation, she insists, is as much about letting go as it is about striving for something.
“In our Western culture, we have this temptation to believe that we have enough control to get rid of the worst part of us with enough willpower and discipline,” she said. “That’s not true. Transformation happens when something old falls away and we allow that to happen.
Given the current trend of the Enneagram, Stabile fears that some people will simply adopt it as a fad rather than a tool for change. Parts of his popularity are great; she is happy to see, for example, that the average age of participants in her workshops has fallen considerably in recent years. “My audience is no longer alike. Maybe 75% of the people in the room are under 40.
The downside is a certain superficiality. There’s a proliferation of Ennea memes, quick tests online, and even sites that promise to tell you which animal you’re most like, based on your Enneagram type.
Stabile admits that this worries her.
“Someone will recognize me on an airplane and then tell me their Enneagram type is a Four with a Nine Wing.” Which is an impossible configuration. Many of these people, she says, have taken a 10-question test online and think that’s enough to master the Enneagram.
True study takes time and commitment, and is best learned from a teacher. “I don’t support a test and I never have,” she said. “I’m clear with dear friend Russ Hudson that his is the best. But most indicators only measure the behavior and not the motivation for the behavior.
While Stabile continues to hit the road and record her podcast, her obvious energy for teaching doesn’t seem diminished by the fact that she’s now 70 and has earned the nickname “Godmother of the Enneagram”. Right now, she’s halfway through a multi-city speaking tour to promote “The Enneagram Journey,” including Friday and Saturday in her hometown of Dallas.
The tour’s next stops include Denver in July, where Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber will join her for the event; Birmingham, Alabama; San Francisco; and other cities.
She hopes people will leave these workshops not only informed, but inspired to change. “The best witness is ‘has that made you a better human being?’ If you are, people will ask you why you have changed, why you are kinder and more at peace. If you do the job.