Is There a “Contemplative” Personality Type?

Introverts, Extroverts, and the Prayer of Silence

Is there a "contemplative" personality type?

Silent prayer is for all personality types.

I once heard Richard Rohr tell a charming story of giving a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton lived. Rohr was surprised to find that not all the monks particularly cared for Merton. When he asked about this, one of the brothers said, “Merton told us we weren’t contemplatives, we were just introverts!”

It’s a sweet story and the audience chuckled when we heard it, but it does point to an interesting question: what connection is there between personality type and prayer type?

A friend of mine on Facebook brought up this question recently. She asked me if there is a “relationship between being an extrovert or introvert and contemplation.” Before I had a chance to reply, another friend chimed in: “I did my Doctor of Ministry research on this topic. In short, I couldn’t find a definitive difference between the two types and contemplative practices, which, frankly, surprised me.”

Now, I don’t have a body of research under my belt, nor am I a psychologist, so my thoughts on this question are simply reflections shaped by my own intuition and experience. With that disclaimer in mind, here’s my thought:

Contemplative prayer is for everyone, regardless of personality type. However, the way we embrace contemplation may be shaped by our personality.

The topic of “personality type” makes me think of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test anyone can take to assess what their personality type is like. Based on Jungian psychology, the MBTI considers four basic distinctions — introverted or extroverted, sensible or intuitive, thinking or feeling, decisive or perceptive — with sixteen possible “types” based on these distinctions.

When I take the test, I usually (but not always) score as INFP: introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceptive. Now somewhere — I don’t remember where — I read that INFPs are the most “contemplative” of the sixteen personality types. Which I find reassuring, since I am devoting my life to writing about contemplation!

But even though I’m no scientist, this still gives me pause. The Myers-Briggs is a self-administered test; in other words, I get to choose how I think of myself or perceive myself. So does the test measure who I really am, or just who I think I am?

Put another way: am I a contemplative because I am an INFP, or, do I describe myself as an INFP because that “fits” with my self-image as a contemplative?

See? It’s tricky. And Merton’s words, as reported by Rohr, keeps echoing in my mind: being an introvert does not make one a contemplative.

Even as I wrote the above paragraphs, my humility-buzzer was going off. I really don’t like calling myself “a contemplative,” I think it’s more accurate to say I’m a contemplative practitioner or an aspiring contemplative — or even just a contemplative Christian.

In other words, we become contemplatives by the grace of God; it’s not something we choose so much as we receive. Now, having said that, I do believe God desires to give the grace of contemplation to everyone, so maybe it’s not so bad to call myself a contemplative — as long as I am clear that it’s a pure gift from God.

0940136023Books have been written about the spirituality of the different personality types, such as Prayer and Temperament: Different Prayer Forms for Personality Types by Chester Michael and Marie Norrisey; and Knowing Me, Knowing God: Exploring Your Spirituality with Myers-Briggs by Malcolm Goldsmith. I haven’t read these books, so I don’t want to knock them (although I can’t endorse them either); but I must admit that I think it would be sad if someone read a book like this and decided that a particular way of praying wasn’t for them, just because they were the “wrong” personality type.

I think rather than saying “INFPs are natural contemplatives, and ESTJs would naturally prefer the Ignatian exercises, etc. etc.” I think it’s more useful to think along these lines: Contemplation — wordless prayer in which we gaze on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love — is for everyone, regardless of your personality type. But how we enter contemplative prayer may vary based on our interests and preferences.

Here are a few thoughts along these lines:

  • Introverts might be more comfortable with pure silent prayer, whereas extroverts might enjoy something like walking a labyrinth, or silently doing something creative (painting, pottery) as a way of “being with God”;
  • Sensory-oriented people might find contemplation in yoga, while intuitives might prefer learning to practice zen meditation;
  • For thinkers, contemplation means finding mental clarity in silence; for feelers, it means resting one’s awareness in the silent love in the heart;
  • The decisively-minded emphasize daily discipline (silent prayer for twenty minutes in the morning and in the evening), while the more perceptively-minded simply wants to learn how to “practice the presence of God” all day.

068701705XThe Catholic Catechism describes contemplation first and foremost as “wordless prayer.” What I see in this, not just for Catholics but for all contemplatives, is that the heart of contemplation is silence — internal as well as external.

Silence can be found in all of our hearts, regardless of our personality types. Silence is a gift from God, and is freely given to everyone.

Sure, maybe an introvert might be quicker to see the beauty of silence than an extrovert. And maybe not. But once the extrovert beholds that splendor, he or she can be just as filled with the grace of beholding it as any introvert.

Some wise person once said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Pray as you can, not just according to your personality type. Sure, books like the ones mentioned above might be helpful in giving us suggestions of prayer forms to explore, especially in light of our personalities. But don’t limit yourself to the forms of prayer that some expert somewhere says is right for you. What’s right for you is the way of praying that you keep returning to, that allows you and enables you to pray every day. That’s what it means to “pray as you can.”

However you pray, however you approach the mystery we call God, take the time to make silence a regular and ongoing part of your practice. Do this, and trust that God, when the time is right, will lead you to the threshold of contemplation. Just don’t be surprised if your threshold of silence looks different from mine. There are many paths up the mountain. Find the one that’s right for you, and keep climbing.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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17 thoughts on “Is There a “Contemplative” Personality Type?

  1. We have to differentiate between personality types/profiles “Myer-Briggs”(who they are) and personality makeup (what they are). I often use Myer Briggs to help people discover who they are and personality makeup and sacred pathways (Gary Thomas) to help them to know God in my spiritual formation courses. These acts as guides rather than absolutes.

    • I think “guides rather than absolutes” is really the key. Keeping that in mind allows tools like the Myers-Briggs (or, for that matter, the Enneagram) to be helps rather than hindrances.

  2. Very interesting column. As a clinical psychologist I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the Myers Briggs. I took it twice at the beginning of grad school. The first time, I set out to get a result of ESTJ (extraverted, sensing, thinking, judgment) and did. Then I answered the questions honestly and came out INFP. And the Jungian theories on which it’s based are not very well accepted by most contemporary psychologists – but that’s another issue.

    As far as personality types and contemplation, I’ve always found the Indian yogic distinction very helpful. The “Jnani” or “intellectual” types prefer a kind of bare bones, non-imagistic, apophatic approach. As the Buddha put it, in regard to whatever arises in awareness one realizes, “this is not mine, this is not me, this is not myself.”

    The Bhakta, on the other hand, or ‘emotional’ type, craves a personal connection to the Divine, sings, chants, dances, and generally loses him-herself in love.

    The “man of action” type is the “Karma yogi” – who like Brother Lawrence, goes about his daily affairs doing all actions in the Presence of God, as a love offering. The three actually can’t be separated – as Krishnaprem once wrote, in a lovely paradoxical mood, “Unless you know, you cannot love, and if you don’t love, you cannot know.” And karma yoga is impossible without a good helping of both wisdom (jnana) and devotion (bhakti).

    I’ve always loved Krishnaprem because he was such a rare example of the integration of all three. Beloved as a professor in Lucknow India, he was the first westerner ever to be admitted to the Vaishnava (Bhakti, devotees of Krishna) order in India, and he was widely hailed throughout India as a man of first rate Jnana (the great sage Ramana Maharshi praised him as exhibiting a rare combination of devotion and wisdom).

    I suspect for each of us, we may manifest different aspects of these types at different times of our lives, and even at different times of the day.

  3. just adding an extra thought:

    At the moment, I’m finalizing the text to accompany one of our “breathing videos” (we have a few teaching videos about the brain already up – at http://www.remember-to-breathe.org/Site-Index.html)

    The various “techniques” we have on the site represent different approaches to contemplation – though highly secularized. We have simple mindful “space of awareness” practices for the “Jnani” types; ‘heart centering” exercises for the bhakti types’ and “creative imagination” as well as mindfulness in action practices for the karma yoga types.

    And lots of other options too (though on this website, since we’re trying to stay “secular”, very little “overtly” contemplative practices)

  4. I’m an introvert and I struggle with contemplative prayer.
    Just because I am a quiet type, doesn’t mean I have the
    talent for contemplative prayer. It takes a MINUTE or more
    to get my head to quiet down.

  5. The timing of this is really interesting, as I have just returned from co-leading a Quiet Day at a local church. I am a Quaker, my co-leader is Anglican and we were offering an introduction to being Quiet, with several periods of silence, exercises and touching on different “ways in”.
    Our 22 participants seemed to have a wide range of life experience and personality type but all of them plunged into the silence and went very deep. We left them already talking together about how to build on this in their community.
    So, I would agree with you. Silence is for everyone, it’s just our gateways to it that may be different. But, as Quakers say, we are each unique, precious, a child of God, so why would expect anything other?

  6. I’ve read Prayer and Temperament and it was a very good book. I want to read it again sometime. I’m an INFJ and most of what it said about us rang true with me. However, as you said above if you are drawn to a prayer method that isn’t typical of your type, don’t let that stop you from doing it. Even among the same types we’re all a little different – God didn’t use cookie cutters when He made us.

    • Indeed, my reading of Prayer and Temperament challenged me, an INFJ, to consider forms of prayer I wouldn’t normally engage in. In addition to pointing out what each M-B type might be drawn toward, the book also recommends ways of praying that are a bit of a stretch. So it’s not just finding one’s comfy niche; I agree with your comments, Susan.

  7. I wonder Carl whether there is also a male female thing. I dont want to slip into sexual mythologies but it does seem to me from my experience in meditation groups that women go much more instinctively into the silence than men….

    • Once again, I must plead “not enough knowledge” to make much of a statement one way or the other. Is it a biology thing, or a social-construction-of-gender thing? Who knows? But between those two influences, I certainly can see how men and women have differing ways of engaging with contemplative practice.

  8. Personality tests like MBTI & Enneagram can be useful but, according to MBTI, I shouldn’t be what the Enneagram says I am and I can’t/don’t pray the way MBTI says I should! So “can be useful” doesn’t mean “take it as Gospel”! We are who we are and trying to fit prescribed boxes doesn’t do anyone any good.

    Thanks for your balanced post – good reading as always.

  9. Carl, your comments are encouraging. First of all, I really like your phrase or self-description “aspiring contemplative” as I think that may be where I am. I spend a fair amount of time in silence, but it doesn’t always feel like time with God. So yesterday when I read Richard Rohr’s daily meditation, I felt even more encouraged. He posits, “You can’t accomplish or work up to union with God, because you’ve already got it.” Then he adds the quote from Ephesians 1:4, “Before the world began you were chosen, chosen in Christ to live through love in his presence.” Perhaps from now on, as I sit in silence, I can “practice” the knowledge/reality that I am already in union with God. Perhaps I can more fully be in contemplative prayer. (These last two sentences are both statements and questions for myself.)

  10. This comment may be off-topic, but I find that my personality, which hungers for the contemplative experience, is too much affected by my environment. I wish my home had a space truly dedicated to and removed from busy activities. When I’m home alone, it’s much easier for me to “breathe in” the Spirit i seek. My response to active stimuli within my home, or from the presence of “busy” people around me,
    somewhat hinders the needs of my contemplative personality. I find myself similar to Henri Nouwen’s comments in The Genesee Diary: “Maybe I spoke more about God than with him. Maybe my writing about prayer kept me from a prayerful life.”
    I find that the contemplative side of my personality is better served when I’m in a church setting, either alone or with a like-minded group, absent any distractions.
    Even with various personalities present, the similar need and goal of contemplation
    is more easily gained for me.

    Thank you for your always interesting and helpful blog. Your balanced writing with humble perspective is a desired element sometimes missing in public discourse.

    • You are welcome — and thank you for your kind words. Thanks for reading.

      And I certainly understand the “environment” issue — this explains why monasteries are silent (and cloistered)! Maybe we can all aspire to find the capacity to simply rest in our inner silence regardless of how noisy or emotionally charged our environment might be. But in the meantime, most of us (certainly true for me) have to really be mindful about finding a safe and supportive environment, whether in our homes or some other setting. Blessings to you as you continue to seek out such places (glad to hear church settings are helpful for you).

  11. Thank you for this explanantion carl. It has clarifed many questions I have on contemplation and prayers. Now I am even more inspired to walk in the path of contemplation. Wow.