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Temperaments and the Call to Holiness

Interview With Art and Laraine Bennett

BRISTOW, Virginia, NOV. 28, 2005 (Zenit) - Hippocrates defined the four temperaments hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, classifying a pattern of personal inclinations as choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Now, modern Christians can use that ancient knowledge coupled with Christ's call to perfection in understanding themselves and their unique path to holiness.

The husband-and-wife-team Art and Laraine Bennett -- a marriage and family therapist, and writer, respectively -- outline this Christian view of personalities in their book, "The Temperament God Gave You: The Classic Key to Knowing Yourself, Getting Along with Others and Growing Closer to the Lord".

The Bennetts shared with us the importance of Christians knowing themselves, and how the knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses can help in their spiritual growth and personal relationships.

Q: What are the four temperaments?

Art: The four temperaments were originally proposed by Hippocrates -- the "father of medical science" -- 350 years before the birth of Christ. Hippocrates used them to explain differences in personality, based on the predominant bodily fluid; hence the rather unappealing names: choleric, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Even today these same terms are still used to describe temperament, by which we mean the pattern of inclinations or a tendency to react in certain ways that form a recognizable pattern over time.

For example, the choleric tends to react quickly and intensely, and to take action immediately and decisively. The sanguine is your classic "people person"; quick to react, but quick to forget; known for their cheerful optimism.

The melancholic is deeply thoughtful and analytic, slow to respond, skeptical, sensitive and idealistic. The phlegmatic is slow to react, with far less intensity, and is generally calm, cooperative and reserved.

Q: How important is it for Christians to recognize their own personality traits, even as they strive to lose the "old man" and put on Christ?

Laraine: Teresa of Avila wrote in the "Interior Castle" that we should always pursue self-knowledge. In fact, without self-knowledge, we tend to be like the fellow mentioned in Matthew 7:3 with the wooden beam in his eye, who is forever pointing out splinters in others'.

Self-knowledge leads us to true humility, without which we cannot begin to grow in holiness. As Christ pointed out in Luke 14:28-33, who would build a tower without first calculating the cost? What king would go into battle without first taking an inventory of his troops?

Understanding our temperament is like taking a personal inventory of our natural strengths and weaknesses. We need to know what our weaknesses are, so that we can "calculate the cost": what skills should we develop and what virtues should we grow in, so that we can more effectively serve Christ and his Church.

Q: How can knowing your temperament help you grow in your spiritual life?

Laraine: Study of the temperaments has a long and venerable tradition within Catholic spirituality.

Many of the great saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis de Sales, have written about the temperaments, and great spiritual theologians, such as the late Reverend Adolphe Tanquerey -- author of the spiritual classic "The Spiritual Life" -- and contemporary theologian, Dominican Father Jordan Aumann, all write about temperament and the spiritual life.

Understanding one's temperament gives us a clue about where to begin in our quest for holiness.

Art: When we understand our temperament, we can identify our own personal tendencies to react in certain ways. The temperaments tell us which strengths to appreciate as gifts from God, and those areas in which we need to prayerfully grow.

For example, if I am a melancholic, I discover that I am tempted to focus on difficulties, and have a tendency to be judgmental. Knowing this, I will endeavor to combat my timidity, build confidence in God and in his instruments, and try not to "sweat the small stuff." I will try to focus less on myself and grow in the virtue of supernatural hope.

A very peaceful and cooperative phlegmatic may find that he does not need to work on the virtue of docility -- for he is naturally so -- but perhaps should develop the virtues of audacity, fortitude and lack of dependence on human respect.

Q: How does temperament play into marriages and families?

Art: The temperaments are extremely helpful in marital and familial situations. With more than 20 years experience as a marriage therapist, I have seen how understanding temperaments can help us grow in our interpersonal relationships by fostering empathy, mutual appreciation and admiration for the ...

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Betty McKenzie
    5 years ago

    I have depression and it keeps me stalled even though I keep pleading with God to help me. Am I just lazy?

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