Reading Guides

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Reading Guide: Five Years in Heaven

Five Years in Heaven presents several launching points for discussion about the numerous questions and topics we all confront in our lives every day. From forgiveness, death, and even the existence of God, to love, success, creativity, sin, relationships, and numerous other daily challenges, the following discussion questions will allow you to further explore and actively engage with the wisdom, humor, and lessons shared throughout the book. This companion guide will direct you toward discovering your own Heaven on earth, and your own meanings to the universal questions and topics that Sister Augustine and John discuss.


 For more information about Five Years in Heaven, or to inquire about scheduling an appearance by John Schlimm via Skype or in person, please contact Katie Moore at 719-268-1936 or


  • At the beginning of Five Years in Heaven, John finds himself at a crucial crossroads in life. When in your life have you found yourself at a crossroads like John did?
  • John initially questions how sorrow can be a “gift,” as Sister Augustine calls it, which should be greeted with gratitude. Have you ever found sorrow to be a gift in your life? Explain.
  • Just as John experienced, when have you realized that a great teacher entered your life? What lessons did you learn from that teacher?
  • Sister Augustine says of creating ceramic pieces: “This process is a slow one that tests each piece along the way over time. More often than not, they’re tougher than you’d think by just looking at them.” How can you relate this sentiment to your life?
  • Sister Augustine says: “That’s when gratitude counts the most. It’s in those challenging moments when we get a little closer to our true purpose in this life. We need to be thankful for those challenges.” Think of a disappointment or challenge in your life. How can being grateful for that situation help you to move through it into a better place?
  • John writes: “It’s so hard to have faith in a greater purpose that you can’t see or easily explain. Or to find belief in a world that no longer seems to believe in you.” Have you ever felt this way? Explain.
  • Sister Augustine tells John: “God has His ways. His reasoning may not seem obvious to us at the time, but someday you’ll look back and say, ‘That’s exactly how my life had to happen, good and bad, right down to the second, to get me where I am.’” How does your life journey so far support this sentiment?
  • Sister Augustine tells John: “Forgiveness is an act of love and compassion. Yes, it is a gift we give to the person who hurt us, which is often the hardest part for people to understand. In our minds, that often means we’re letting that person off the hook for whatever they did to us. But ultimately, when we forgive someone, that act is also a gift of love and compassion, and freedom, that only we can give to ourselves.” How did this statement support or change how you view the act of forgiveness?
  • In discussing our pursuit to know God, Sister Augustine says: “We have to see, with our entire bodies and souls, before we can truly understand.” Besides your eyes, how else can/do you “see” God at work in your life?
  • While at one time or another we all stand before a wall of fear and challenges, Sister says: “The difference for some, though, is that they look upward and think, I can climb right up over this wall. Or they look to the sides, and think, I can go around this wall. Or, if nothing else, they take a step back and carefully examine the wall, thinking, I can smash right through it!” When in your life have you taken this proactive approach to overcoming fear, change, or some other challenge?
  • Sister Augustine says: “One of the most important things in this life is just showing up… That speaks for itself, where words never could. Just like a smile does.” What is an example from your life when “just showing up” made an important difference?
  • Sister Augustine says: “That’s what life is meant to be: an unfinished piece of work that others carry on in some way after you’ve gone. That way there truly is no beginning and no end.” Did this statement influence your own views on living and dying? Explain.
  • John writes about how his friendship with Sister Augustine ultimately transformed him. Think of a close friendship you have or had with someone. In what ways did that friendship transform you for the better and help guide you along life’s journey?
  • From the beginning, Five Years in Heaven has explored the topic of Heaven on earth. When in your life have you had an experience that you would describe as Heaven on earth?
  • John ends the book with a very simple sentence. Why in that moment do you think this was his reaction? How does this seemingly simple reaction reflect his growth in the five-year journey he just completed?

Reading Guide: Between the Dark and the Daylight

Between the Dark and the Daylight explores the concerns of modern life, of the overworked mind and hurting heart. These are the paradoxical—and often frustrating—moments when our lives feel at odds with everything around us.

With her signature elegance, wit, and spirit,  bestselling author  Joan Chittister opens our eyes and hearts in these times of confusion. With simple and poignant meditations, Between the Dark and the Daylight reveals how we can better understand ourselves, one another, and God.
Go deeper with this reading guide for Between the Dark and the Daylight which can be used for individual reflection or group discussion.
  • Chittister begins the book by describing the literal affects darkness has on human psychology. By losing a sense of our physical space, eventually light deprivation leads to losing our sense of self. Chittister then explains how in times of spiritual darkness, we must find our own inner light. She writes, “The stars that come with darkness are the new insights, the new directions, the new awareness.” Can you recall a time when you felt emotionally dark? What served as your light? How has your point of view changed after experiencing hardship?
  • Chittister writes that “frustration” is often a mask for deeper concerns. Have you complained of feeling frustrated in the last week? What was it? Consider if the annoyance is a clue to a greater concern.
  • Reflect on a time in your life when adversity was necessary to finding peace.
  • According to Chittister, risk is “the willingness to accept an unknown future with open hands and happy heart.” Is there a risk you have been afraid to take? In what way can you open your heart to uncertainty?
  • In the chapter, “The Emptiness of Accumulation,” Chittister writes, “We invest in things as trappings, as signals, as badges of success when we lack the confidence to believe in our self.” Have you ever been tempted to “keep up with the Jones’s”? What motivated you to chase material items?  In what ways can you nurture “things of the soul” like friendships, beauty, nature, and joy in your life?
  • Reflect on a time you failed, or simply didn’t win first place. What did it teach you about yourself—about your energy, endurance, your natural talents, your likes and dislikes?
  • “Exhaustion drains us physically; boredom depletes the soul,” writes Chittister. How do you balance between the adrenaline rush of over-working, and the necessary calm that follows? Do you have a favorite activity that helps clear your head? Have you ever had an “ah-ha” moment while relaxing, taking a walk, cooking, or gardening? List ways you can better incorporate relaxation into your routine.
  • Do you consider yourself a perfectionist? What makes something “perfect” to you? How can you better embrace imperfections, both in yourself and others?
  • Reflect on a time you felt shame. By examining what you feel guilty about, what is revealed about your own morality, conscience, and values?
  • Confusion gives us “cosmic permission to think differently.” Reflect on a time you felt resistant to a new idea. Consider ways you can approach new, different, and radical change with vitality, rather than fear.
  • If you identify as a man, consider what typically “feminine” traits compliment your masculinity, such as sensitivity, empathy, or childcare. If you identify as a woman, what “masculine” traits enhance your life, like assertiveness, strength, or leadership? By balancing these qualities, Chittister contends that we all become more fully human. Consider ways you can balance expectations around gender.
  • “Loss is not meant to ruin us or our sleep for the rest of our lives. It simply prepares us to lose better the next time.” Reflect on a time you experienced loss. In what ways has that better prepared you for future pain?
  • Chittister writes that, “What we learn in loneliness is that everybody needs someone.” Consider who might be lonely in around you. A niece who moved away to college? A widowed neighbor? Residents at a local nursing home? How can you reach out to those who are experiencing isolation?
  • “Love is not a mold that makes two people the same person,” Chittister writes. “Love is the dream that enables both of us to be our own best person—together.” Reflect on a time you fell in love or a couple whose love you admire. How can you better support your loved ones to be their best selves?
  • Have you ever been in a crowded place—a restaurant, a theater, an airport terminal—and felt isolated because you were surrounded by strangers? Have you ever been home alone or in nature, without another soul around, but have felt satisfied by your own company?  Contrast how these experiences make you feel.  What can they teach you about companionship?
  • Some people who live in abject poverty report feeling hopeful, talk of being happy, and feel close to God, while others who have great health, political freedom, and comfortable lives describe feeling despair. From this, Chittister concludes that, “hopelessness has at least as much to do with what we bring to life as it does with what life brings us.” How can you cultivate hopefulness in your own life? How can you better use what you have—education, money, talent, a heartbeat—for growth?
  • “Without doubt, there is little room for faith in anything,” writes Chittister. How has doubt played a role in your faith?
  • Chittister describes attending Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish religious services, and feeling certain that “these people were just as deeply involved in the search for God as I am.” Have you ever attended a religious service that was not your denomination? If so, what did you learn about faith from others’ practices? What can ecumenicism teach us about God?
  • The salve for spiritual pain, according to Chittister, lies in the knowledge and experience that God is with us always. How is this illustrated in the parable of Babel? Reflect back to you time of spiritual darkness described in the first question. How is that experience altered by the knowledge that God was with you in that time?

Reading Guide: Fill These Hearts by Christopher West

Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West

Discussion Questions for Individual Reflection or Group Study

Fill These Hearts is a book about desire—not trivial wants or superficial cravings, but the deepest, most vital powers of body and soul, sexuality and spirituality. Popular theologian Christopher West explores classical and contemporary art, pop music, movies, and Christian mysticism to show how the restless, erotic yearnings of our bodies and spirits uncover our heart’s desire for God. Along the way, he refutes the idea that Christianity is a repressive, anti-sex religion by explaining how our deepest longings are meant to be fulfilled even as they reveal our hunger for union with God.



Chapter 1: The Universal Longing

Why do you think music can stir our emotions so profoundly? What music expresses the deepest yearnings of your soul?

If the burning desire we all feel within us is for all that is “good, true, and beautiful,” as Plato taught, why does it also have the potential to harm us?

Why is what we do with the burning desire we feel for something more so important?

How is our human sexuality a message from God? What is he trying to tell us by creating us male and female?

According to Pope Benedict XVI, what is the purpose of erotic love? Explain how sex not just about sex.

Is the desire you feel for happiness directed toward that which truly satisfies and truly fulfills you? Why or why not?


Chapter 2: The Starvation Diet

How can even misdirected eros reveal the kind of beings we are meant to be?

If you were raised in a Christian home, did your upbringing include healthy dialogue about God’s plan for creating men and women? What were you taught about sex?

When Christianity is understood as merely a legalistic adherence to a moral code, what effect does this have on people?

Instead of insisting that we are meant to follow a list of rules or go to hell, Jesus asked a question: “What are you looking for?” (see John 1:38). Take some time to reflect on this question. How would you answer it?

Though we are deeply marred by original sin, explain how we both desire and choose to do good? In your own words, explain the heresy of Jansenism and how would you refute it.

What does Christopher West mean by “the starvation diet gospel”? Have you experienced this approach to Christianity?


Chapter 3: Fast Food

Why are so many people drawn to the promise of immediate gratification (what West calls the “fast-food gospel”)? What false claims does this gospel make?

What elements of the true banquet God desires for us are contained in the fast-food gospel? In what way might our culture’s focus on sex and desire not be all bad?

Why does the author call St. Augustine “the doctor of desire”?

Professor James K. A. Smith says, “The marketing industry…is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the [Christian world].” What does he mean by this? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

Christopher West says that the fast-food gospel actually limits our desire—that it stems from desiring too little instead of too much. In C. S. Lewis’ words, we are too easily pleased. What do you think these statements mean?

What are some consequences of different sexual choices people make today?


Chapter 4: The Banquet

West defines a stoic as someone who chooses not to want so much, to shut his or her desire down. Have you encountered this type of person in your life? Have you perhaps been a stoic yourself? What are the fruits of this type of approach?

The addict tries to avoid the pain of wanting more than this life has to offer by gorging on the finite things this life does have to offer. What are the consequences of this way of life?

How does the author define a mystic? What do the mystic and the addict have in common?

What is the difference between “extraordinary mysticism” and “ordinary mysticism”? How might we all be called to be mystics? What would this look like in your own life?

Read the excerpt from the Catechism found on page 36. What does this tell you about our desire? What does this say about us as religious beings?

How in touch are you with your deepest desires? How important is it to you to satisfy them? What part does your faith play in fulfilling them?

Would you describe your experience of Christianity as a passionate pursuit of Christ? If so, how does following Christ fulfill your deepest longings as a person here on earth?

How do the saints exemplify a healthy eros? How have they been able to fulfill their deepest desires?

Fr. Cantalamessa says, “In the world we find eros without agape; among believers we often find agape without eros.” What does he mean by this? Why is it important for us to have both?

Explain what is meant when Christianity is called “the religion of wild passion and desire.”

How can we learn to move from either indiscriminately indulging our desires or ignoring and repressing them to experiencing our desires in a healthy way?

Why is controlling our desires not the permanent solution God desires for us?

What does it mean to be “intoxicated by God”? Have you ever felt this way? Describe your experience.

West says we encounter spiritual mysteries not by rejecting physical pleasures, but by experiencing them in the right way. Give some examples of this.

Watch Babette’s Feast and spend some time journaling about it afterward. What particular insights did you gain?

West tells us that if you want to enter into the banquet God has prepared for you, you must have the courage to plumb the depths of your desires and follow them the whole way through the distortions to the true cry of your heart. Where especially do you require this kind of courage?


Chapter 5: The Living Hope of Satisfaction

Describe how seeking is the essence of the spiritual journey. How can continually seeking provide any kind of fulfillment in this life?

St. Paul wrote about “the redemption of the body” (see Romans 8:22–24). How would you describe our bodies? And what does the redemption of the body mean?

What part does hope play in the fulfillment of our deepest desires?

Would you describe yourself as a hopeful person? A happy person? Why or why not?

How would you define happiness?

What difference does hope make in a person’s life? How does one become hopeful?

Read the author’s description of The Shawshank Redemption, especially the part where Andy gives Red a harmonica. In your own life, what is your “harmonica”? How has it impacted you?


Chapter 6: Exposing and Stretching Our Hearts

St. John Paul II taught that we shouldn’t think of sexual desire as some kind of base, animal drive. How did he define sexual desire and its intended purpose in our lives?

How can we move from the sexual realm to the mystical realm? How can we translate the passionate desire we feel for another human being into being on fire with love for God?

Think of a misdirected desire in your own life. What legitimate desire does God wants to satisfy? Pray and ask God to show you what you are really looking for. Do any important memories come to mind? Does a particular song come to mind? Pay attention to any words or images you might receive, and then write them down in a prayer journal.

Christopher West says that inner healing is part of a lifelong journey. Describe your own path to inner healing so far. What areas in particular has God healed in you?

In your own words, define what Scripture means by “circumcision of the heart” and “spiritual labor pains” (or “dilation of the heart”).

How is prayer another definition of “desire”?

West says prayer can be a messy affair because when we suffer, we often feel angry with God. Think of a time you felt anger toward God. What caused you to feel this way, and what did you do with this anger?

Reread Christopher West’s experience at the retreat where he allowed himself to feel abandoned by God and be angry with him. Why did the monsignor tell him this was “good prayer”?

Be totally honest with yourself. What false identities have you taken on, and what kind of masks have you worn to hide your own brokenness? What has been the result of such hiding?

If you let go of all the masks, allowing those closest to you to see you at your worst, what do you think might happen?

What does it mean to be “totally naked” before God? Why does God desire such a union with us?

Read Fr. Jacques Philippe’s explanation of the “dark night of the soul.” Describe a time in your life when you felt “in over your head” or a time when you were unable to rely on your own strength to see you through a situation. What lessons did you learn through your “dark night”?

West says that by learning to wait on the Lord, our hearts are stretched. How does St. Augustine describe this stretching? Share a time when you were stretched. How did your capacity for God grow?

What are some “idols” (“God-substitutes”) in your own life? How can increasing your desire rather than squelching it be the solution? How might your disordered desires help you to discover your true desire for God?

Pray this short prayer each day this week: “Lord, I desire you; increase my desire.” Record in your journal any new lights you receive.

What does it mean to “share in the sufferings of Christ”? How can suffering help us enjoy true union with God?



Chapter 7: Our Bodies Tell the Story

How can you adjust your focus when you look at yourself and the world around you so you can see something new? If you saw things differently, what hidden mysteries might be revealed?

Caryll Houselander said that a little tree frog could teach us more about God than all the theology books in the world. What do you think he meant by that? How can nature be a theology lesson?

What does Peter Kreeft mean when he says, “Human sexuality is derived from cosmic sexuality”? How is the “sacramental covenant of masculinity and femininity” that St. John Paul II spoke of found throughout the universe?

Read Ephesians 5:31–32. How does this passage reveal to us what it means to be human? What does it tell us about who God is, who we are, and what his purpose is in creating us as sexual beings?

Why have Christians always revered Mary? What significance does she have for the Church? What does she mean for you personally?

How is Jesus Christ like a bridegroom? What does this mean for us? How would this change your focus when you receive Communion?

How are our bodies meant to be not only biological but theological?


Chapter 8: In the Beginning

Why do you think the Bible begins and ends with marriages? Describe how the mystery of man and woman and the call to nuptial union correctly frames Christian teaching and dogma.

What happens when Christianity is framed in some other way than God’s passionate desire for us and our desire for union with him? How can another way of framing Christianity be destructive to us as humans?

Explain in your own words what is meant by the term “original desires.” How can we “circumcise our hearts”—cutting away whatever keeps us from being open to God?

When Adam and Eve sinned, human desire was misaligned with the divine design, and they began to cover themselves. What does the instinct we have inherited to cover our bodies in this fallen world actually stem from?

What is your true value, worth, and dignity as a human person? How is this different than what the media often tells us?


Chapter 9: Trusting God’s Designs

Do you believe that God wants to satisfy the deepest desires of your heart? Are you confident that he will? Describe a time when you were tempted to feel the opposite. How about a time when God did more than you expected?

What is the “one temptation” Lorenzo Albacete writes about? How has this temptation manifested itself in your life?

As you look at the world around you, what do you see that makes you wonder if God really has a loving plan for our happiness and fulfillment? What part does trust play in your perspective?

What is the value of waiting versus grasping at satisfaction now? How are we meant to wait?

In your own life, have you always seen God as a loving Father, or have there been times when you saw him as a tyrant, someone to do battle with? What are the results of seeing God as a loving Father? What happens when you see God as a tyrant who wants to keep you enslaved?


Chapter 10: The Designs of Redemption

In what ways is redemption more than Christ’s paying the price for humanity’s sin?

Describe how Christ embodied God’s response to our pride.

How has Christ’s sacrifice “turned the logic of the food chain on its head”? What is the lie Christ came to save us from?

Describe what the author means when he says that suffering is “continued receptivity.” How did Christ demonstrate this for us?

What are some ways you can increase your own “posture of receptivity”? In what particular areas do you resist being receptive?

What does the fact that Jesus rose from the dead reveal to us about God’s trustworthiness? How does this impact your own day-to-day life?



Chapter 11: Chastity Is a Promise of Immortality

How would you answer someone who doesn’t believe that hell exists?

What are some of your deepest desires? What does the desire for heaven look like in your life?

What struggles have you encountered as you’ve tried to align your desires with what it means to truly love?

What is the definition of chastity, and why does the Catechism proclaim chastity as the “promise of immortality”?

What is your reaction to Christopher West’s description of the marble statue found in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome?

Describe the significance of the unicorn. What is the difference between “vertical” and “horizontal wildness”? How does the beautiful image in St. Peter’s help us to understand the meaning of chastity?

Explain how chastity is a positive “Yes” to the dignity of the human body and human sexuality. How is chastity an important virtue, not only before marriage, but in marriage?

West calls chastity “a training in human freedom.” What does this mean, and what role has chastity played in your life?


Chapter 12: Freeing Freedom

Explain the difference between freedom and license.

Describe a situation in your own life (or family) where the abuse of freedom has had negative consequences.

How can being dominated by your passions have a destructive impact on others?

Do you see God’s law as helping or hindering you to be free? Is there a particular area in your life where God’s law feels like a burden? If you have become hardened toward God in some way, pray and ask God to change your heart.

What should you do if you realize that you’ve abused your freedom in some way?


Chapter13: Loving Love

Why does the work of salvation begin with eros?

St. John Paul II observed that the lack of wine at Cana could be interpreted as an allusion to the lack of love that threatens relationships between men and women. What new insights and perspectives can you gain from looking at the miracle at Cana this way?

How does love differs from lust? Describe some of the effects that love and lust have on a person.

Reread the author’s story of how he experienced selfless love from the woman who would become his wife (pp. 151–152). When have you experienced this type of love, and what effect did it have on you?

Describe the characteristics of mature, benevolent love. Who have you felt this kind of love toward in your own life?

If you haven’t already, watch the movie Toy Story 3. What can the toys can teach us about true love?


Chapter 14: To Infinity and Beyond

Have you ever looked to another person to fulfill you? Describe the situation, and its outcome.

What is your view of heaven? How does it compare to St. Bridget’s description of heaven as a “great lake of beer” meant to be full of delight (p. 164), and West’s description of the communion of saints (pp. 167–169)?

According to Benedict XVI, how are we to understand the term “eternal life”?

Read the little story of the mystic-nun on p. 171 who spoke about her “nuptial union” with God and the response of the agnostic psychologist. Who do you think was right, and why?

How can a person be celibate without their desires being repressed and denied?

How thirsty do you feel for God? What can you do to increase that thirst?

Reading Guide: Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives by Pope Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

by Pope Benedict XVI

Discussion Questions for Individual Reflection or Group Study

In this third and final installment of the Jesus of Nazareth series, Benedict XVI takes a look at Jesus’s infancy and childhood and shows their timeless relevance. Through the details of Jesus’s early life, great themes of hope, longing, seeking, surrender, service, sacrifice, trust are examined, revealing how Jesus’s life and message is a story for today—one that speaks to the restlessness of the human heart and the search for the truth that leads to true joy.


Chapter I: Where Are You From?

When Pilate was interrogating Jesus, why did he suddenly ask Jesus where he was from? What was he hoping to find out?

Who is Jesus? Where is he from? Why are the answers to these two questions inseparably linked, according to Pope Benedict?

What does Benedict mean when he says all of salvation history, beginning with Abraham and leading to Jesus, is “open to universality”?

How is the universality of Jesus’s mission contained within his origin?

What are the differences in the way Matthew and Luke approach the question of Jesus’s genealogy? What intentions did each of these Gospel writers seek to communicate?

How is Joseph as Jesus’s father treated by Matthew and Luke? What significance do they each bring?

How does John approach Jesus’s genealogy differently than the other Gospel writers? What was his intent?

In what way does John communicate the deepest meaning of Jesus’s genealogy, and how does this help us to understand our own origin?


Chapter II: The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus

How did Matthew and Luke come to know the story of the events leading up to Jesus’s birth and his childhood? What were their sources? For example, how would Luke know that Mary “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51) when there were no other human witnesses present?

Why does Benedict say that the sacred events of Mary’s early life could not be made public while she was still alive?

Explain the reciprocal relationship between interpreting the Word of God and understanding salvation history.

As you look at the story of John the Baptist, what “particularly deep roots” can be found in the Old Testament?

How does John reveal the whole Old Covenant priesthood as a prophecy of Jesus? Why is this important?

How do the Old and New Covenants converge and combine in Zechariah and Elizabeth, forming a single history of God with humanity?

Discuss the differences between the annunciation of John the Baptist and that of Jesus. Why is this significant?

List some of the ways joy appears in the accounts of the annunciation to Mary. What does this signify?

Why does Benedict say that “joy and grace belong together”? What does he mean by this?

How does the revelation of God’s name in the burning bush come to completion in Jesus (see John 17:26)?

Discuss the meaning of the phrase “his kingdom will have no end.” What are the characteristics of this kingdom?

Explain how Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel reveals her fearlessness and her interiority. How do these qualities make her similar to the image of the Catholic Church?

How does Mary’s question to the angel differ from the reaction of Zechariah?

Since Mary was betrothed to Joseph, why would Mary say to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”

What do you think about St. Augustine’s idea that Mary had taken a vow of virginity even before her betrothal to Joseph?

How did Bernard of Clairvaux explain the meaning of Mary’s “Yes”?

What did the Church Fathers mean when they said that Mary “conceived through her ear” (through her hearing)?

Consider how Mary must have felt when “the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38).  How do you think she processed the mission just revealed to her?

How does Scripture define a “just man”? List some of the key qualities. Now look at Joseph. How does he fit the description of a just man? How must he have felt when the angel appeared to him?

How do we know that Joseph had the gift of discernment and the ability to perceive the divine?

Why is the forgiveness of sins the foundation of all true healing? How does Jesus demonstrate this? How is the centrality of this communicated to Joseph?

What is the sign promised to Ahaz in Isaiah 7:14? What does St. Matthew (as well as Christian tradition) interpret this sign to mean? Was this the same way the prophet Isaiah understood it? How else might he have understood it?

If the sign was not addressed merely to Ahaz or merely to the nation of Israel, than to whom was it addressed? How might this be interpreted to concern the whole history of humanity? How should we as Christians understand this passage?

How can we be sure that Jesus’s conception from the Virgin Mary is a real historic event rather than just a pious legend drawn from archetypal concepts?

What are the two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world? In what way are these two moments a “scandal to the modern spirit”?

If we are not meant to ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, how can we explain the virgin birth and the resurrection from the dead? How are these examples of God’s creative power? And why are both of these events fundamental elements of our faith?


Chapter III: The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem

Why does Luke place such importance on the context of world history? Why does he say that Jesus entered the world in “the fullness of time”?

Describe the ways that Augustus was regarded as not only a politician but a theological figure. Why was there no distinction between politics and religion in the ancient world?

How did Augustus accomplish his mission to bring global peace?

How did Luke create both a historical and theological framework for the events surrounding Jesus’s birth, and what was his purpose in doing so?

Explain why Matthew and Luke had different theological visions and sometimes provided different historical details.

Prayerfully reflect on the words “there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6). What parallel might this have with John 1:11 or Matthew 8:20? What meaning can we gain from these verses?

What is the significance of Jesus being born in a manger? What do the ox and the ass signify? And what might the shepherds represent?

In terms of Christ, explain the concept of “first-born.”

What is the relationship between God’s grace and human freedom?

When the shepherds heard the angels’ message, they “went with haste” to find the baby Jesus. How often do you go “with haste” where the things of God are concerned? Where does your spiritual life need a deeper sense of urgency?

The shepherds looked for the baby lying in the manger, and when they found him, they recognized inwardly that he was the Messiah. What kind of signs (or non-signs) does God give you that cause you to recognize Christ’s reality? How healthy is your inner vision?

If God is love, then what is it about God that cause so many to “hate” him? Why is Christ so often regarded as a contradiction?

How is Christ, along with his mother Mary, the image of the fundamental attitude of the Christian faith? What areas of “paganism” (a lack of sensitivity to others) in your life need the Holy Spirit’s transformation?


Chapter IV: The Wise Men from the East and the Flight into Egypt

Benedict tells us that the “Magi” encompass a wide range of meanings, from the wholly positive to the wholly negative. Describe each type of Magi and what they can teach us.

Who were the Magi mentioned in Matthew; what sort of people were they?

According to Benedict XVI, what do the wise men from the East signify (see p. 97)?

In your own words, explain what the star of Bethlehem might have been in terms of astronomy, and then explain what it might signify spiritually.

How is the star both a sign of hope (in a spiritual sense) and a cause for fear and concern (in a physical sense)? In what other ways does God disturb our comfortable day-to-day existence? Include some examples from your own life.

How are the gifts the wise men bring to Jesus symbolic of his royal dignity? To what three aspects of the mystery of Christ do they point?

What does Jesus’s flight to Egypt with Mary and Joseph teach us about the true Exodus? In what sense does he enter into exile in order to lead us home, out of exile?

When Joseph is instructed by the angel to go to Galilee, what does this show about God’s plan for history?

Benedict asks probing questions about the events recorded in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel: How are we to understand all this? Are we dealing with historical events, or is this intended to be understood as a theological meditation presented in story form? What is Benedict’s view?


Epilogue: The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple

How can we say that Jesus’s freedom is not that of a liberal, but of a truly devout person? Why is the freedom Jesus brings a totally new kind of freedom?

What does the fact that Joseph and Mary do not miss Jesus until the end of the first day’s journey show us about the holy family and how they were parenting Jesus?

What does Jesus’ absence point to? Is it telling us something about freedom, or is there a different level of meaning here regarding Jesus’s mission?

What two aspects are important to note in Jesus’s reply when Mary tells him they have been looking for him anxiously?

What does the fact that Mary “kept all these things in her heart” reveal to us about her faith? What do they tell us about believing Jesus’s words to us?

In Luke’s telling of this story, explain how he presents Mary as the model believer.

What connection does Luke make between Jesus and Samuel when he writes about Jesus returning to his normal family situation?

What does the fact that Jesus grows not only in stature but also in wisdom tell us about him as a human being? How do both this and the way he dialogued with the temple teachers reveal Jesus as true God and true man?

Reading Guide: Following the Path by Joan Chittister

Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Joy by Joan Chittister

Discussion Questions for Individual Reflection or Group Study

In Following the Path, Joan Chittister shares insights gleaned from years of teaching and contemplation to help readers answer the questions, “What am I supposed to do with my life?” and “How do I know when I’ve found my purpose?” For those making a life decision at any age—from early adulthood to midlife and beyond—Sr. Joan shows readers a new way forward through her examination of spiritual calling, change, and discernment. This study guide will assist you to better understand where you fit in the scheme of things, how you can experience your life more fully, and discover the gifts within you that can enrich the world.


Chapter 1: The Search for Happiness and Meaning in Life

What is your definition of happiness?

How did Thomas Aquinas define happiness?

Joan Chittister says we were born to be happy, that not being happy is abnormal. Do you agree with her? On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you?

What is the difference between choosing a life of hardship—such as that of a doctor in an African village or a rescue worker in Haiti—and being stressed to the breaking point by difficult circumstances?

Aristotle said that happiness depends on engaging in “virtuous activity.” Do you agree? In your own life, what virtuous activity do you engage in? Does this make a difference in the level of happiness you feel?

Chapter 2: What Does Enjoyment Have to Do with Happiness?

How important is enjoyment in your life? What kinds of activities add flair and freshness to your life, refreshing you and bringing new energy? How often do you allow yourself to engage in these activities?

How does doing what you truly love doing make the world around you a happier place?

How does happiness differ from enjoyment? In your own life, describe this difference.

What activities in your life cause you to lose all sense of time when you engage in them?

Describe the relationship between happiness and a lack of self-centeredness.


Chapter 3: What Does It Mean to Become the Fullness of Ourselves?

The author says that our “unfinished selves” never stop calling to us. What experiences in your life bear this out? How has your unfinished self made its presence known in your life?

How have you learned to distinguish between what you do and why you want to do it? What are the driving forces in your life that motivate you to pursue a particular course?

Have you ever undertaken something because someone else wanted you to do it? Why did you make such a choice? What was the outcome?

Why is personal authenticity so important at each stage of life? What happens if you refuse to respond to the deepest desires of your heart?

What parts of you have been ignored or repressed, waiting to be discovered? What new self-discovery can you make?


Chapter 4: Whose Call Is It?

How did you come to pursue the work you are doing now?

What, if anything, is stopping you from doing what you want to do? What keeps you from discovering what you’re meant to do?

Define what is meant by the private self (the self) and the public self (the ego).

How have you struggled with integrating your public and private selves? List some concrete examples.

Shirley Abbott said, “Everybody must learn this lesson somewhere—that it costs something to be what you are.” What has it cost you to be who you are today?

Why do most of us try so hard to be what everyone else expects us to be rather than what our best self expects of us?

Who are you at the very center of yourself? Who does the world need you to be? Take some time to reflect on these questions and journal about them.


Chapter 5: Learning to Hear the Call

Have there been times in your life when you’ve sensed that something was missing? What did you do about it?

How has a sense of dissatisfaction with your life led to new choices?

What might you feel called to do that you don’t feel emotionally equipped to handle?

Do you believe that courageously following your call will always bring you closer to your true self, even if you fail? Describe a time when you encountered failure. What did it teach you?


Chapter 6: What Does It Mean “to Have a Purpose”?

How is having a job different than doing what we’re meant to do with our lives?

How have the events in the economy over the last decade changed the way we look at the world—and at ourselves? What benefit might this have to our perspective on the purpose of life? How have events in the economy changed your own life?

Chittister says we must learn to weigh our gifts against our opportunities, our needs against our demands, and our emotional dreams against our material expectations. How have you personally done this, and what has the outcome been?

How would you answer this question: “What is it that you have that the world needs and is waiting for you to provide?” How could the answer to this question change things in your life?


Chapter 7: Purpose and Passion: The Essence of Call

If you find yourself scattered and flitting from one thing to another, how much of it is due to too many demands, and how much of it is a lack of focus?

What do you care deeply about? What do you care enough to pursue avidly, to make room in your life for?

How alive do you feel? Do you sense that you’re just going through the motions?

If passion is defined as caring enough about to spend your life doing something so that others’ lives are better because of it, what are you passionate about?

Describe some of the ways that addiction is a destructive form of passion. What are some of its effects?

Contrast addiction with real passion. What are some of the effects of real passion? Describe some of the effects of true passion in your life.


Chapter 8: Why Does It Take So Long to Find Out Who I Am?

What twists and turns has your life taken, and how has this helped you to find out what you’re truly meant to do with your life?

Using Aristotle’s definition on p.86–87, explain in your own words what real happiness consists of.

Where do you see yourself making a genuine contribution? How involved are you in making this happen? Are there areas where you are merely a “casual bystander”? If so, how might you become more involved?

In the past few years, what self-discoveries have you made? How has this changed your life?


Chapter 9: What Is a Gift?

Why do some people who are very gifted end up not able to reach their full potential, according to Chittister?

How can our “gifts”—the things we do best, the talents we take for granted—both consume and mislead us?

What does it really mean to be gifted? What is the purpose of our gifts?

What do you see as your gifts? How did you discover them?

In your life, what moves you into an emotional zone, beyond the consciousness of time? Why is it important to pay attention to this?


Chapter 10: Why Follow the Gifts?

The author mentions great inventors, great thinkers, great artists, and great writers whose determination and drive made positive contributions to the world, still impacting us years later. Who else can you think of that has made the world a vital, exciting place for the rest of us?

What pressures do we face when we seek to uncover and share our gifts? How can the lure of prestige and advancement work against true fulfillment?

What talents do you bring to the world? How did you discover them, and what effect has that discovery made on your life? How has it affected others?

Where have you been tempted to “hide your light under a bushel”? Where have you been courageous enough to stop hiding and share your light with others?


Chapter 11: What Does It Mean to Have a Call?

Why does the author begin this chapter by saying that call is an awesome word? What qualities make it so?

Chittister identifies three major decision-making points in every person’s history. When do these three points occur, and what choices do we face at each point?

What role does a job play in one’s call?

The author says choice is a very important spiritual skill. How developed is this skill in your life?


Chapter 12: The First Call: An Invitation to Adulthood

As you found yourself on the threshold of adulthood, how effectively did you answer the questions: “What do I really want to do with my life? What am I meant to do with my life?” Where did these answers lead you?

What impact did the culture make on decisions you made as a young adult? Reflect on that ways your parents or other adult role models were influential in helping you choose a path.

How could the educational system be improved so it better assists students to expand their hearts along with their minds?

In your own life, when you were in college for instance, were the areas you chose to study based on financial considerations over what really interested you? Why or why not?

William James said, “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.” What great use are you making of your life? Was this even something you thought about when you were becoming an adult? Is it something you think about now?


Chapter13: The Second Call

Describe a time in your life when what used to be meaningful suddenly didn’t seem to fit anymore. What have you outgrown over the years? What do you think is at the root of this shift in you?

When the author encountered a painful period in her life, a wise woman told her, “Don’t worry, Joan, you will go on.” What painful periods have you experienced, and as you’ve gone on, how have you been different? How have you been stronger?

Life’s large decisions need to be revisited multiple times if we are to keep growing and moving from phase to phase. In your own life, what are some of these great decisions? How have you kept them fresh?

Why is the realization that life is not settled yet so threatening to our sense of self, to our definition of life itself, to our hopes for the future?

Are there particular areas where you have ignored your own growth? If so, what might you do now to change that?

Describe the differences between the call in young adulthood and the call of middle age. What challenges do we face in middle age that must be addressed if we are to continue growing?


Chapter 14: The Third Call

As we move from middle age to the retirement years, the question we must ask ourselves is not whether we have a job to do; instead, new questions emerge: “Who are you without your job? What kind of person have you developed into over the years?” If you are in this stage of life, how do you answer these questions?

The author says this stage of the call is the “call to completion.” What does she mean by this?

What you have possibly overlooked to this point in the shaping of your life? How could your answer shape a deeper discovery of what you are meant to be?

The author says the secret of life is the willingness to grow into something beyond your present. What might that something be in your life today?

No matter what stage of life you’re in, as you look at the direction you are going, the main question to ask yourself is “Does this path have heart?” What is your answer?

Who or what would miss you if tomorrow you disappeared?


Chapter 15: Is Everything We’d Like to Do Really a Call?

What is the difference between a call and a profession, a certification and a commitment?

How are commitment and enthusiasm different? Why are they often confused?

Think of a time in your life when your enthusiasm for something waned and you began to feel apathetic. What response did you make?

The author says when we feel most discouraged and fatigued and alone, that is precisely when we should not quit. Describe a time in your life when you felt this way. How did you deal with it?

Chapter 16: How Do I Know if I Have a Call?

The author makes the statement that “the concept of being called to something, set apart from the rest of the world…marked in a special way by the divine—is long gone.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?

What about people who don’t seem to care about discovering some kind of a call? What does this say about the quality of their lives?

How has the global nature of our world affected your lifestyle? How has it shaken your complacency or dependency on someone else to sustain you?

What do cultures without a strong sense of moral obligation or spiritual depth look like? Give some examples of what happens to such cultures.

When faced with the seemingly insurmountable needs in our world today, what moves your heart enough for you to make a difference instead of staying complacent and focused only on your own needs?

What perspective can you embrace if you have a job that is clearly not a call? How can you fulfill your sense of call?


Chapter 17: How Do I Know I’m Doing What I’m Meant to Do?

Have you ever been terminated from a job? Whether you experienced a sense of relief or felt devastated, what new opportunities happened as a result?

How does our culture define success? How much does this definition have to do with true success? How do you define success?

How can you tell if you’re living according to someone else’s definition of success or your own? How might you be happy even if you’re not successful according to society’s standards?

Do you believe in “the law of attraction”? What does this mean, and where do you see it operating in your life?

List the seven dimensions of an authentic call, as defined by Sr. Joan, and provide a short description of each one.

As you reflect on these seven dimensions, what do you recognize as your call? How are you fulfilling it? If you sense that you’re not yet living your call, what might you do to move toward it?


Chapter 18: What Does a Sense of Call Have to Do with the Spiritual Life?

What is the spiritual value of discovering your call? How does this affect the way you feel about yourself? How does it define your place in the world?

Have you experienced times when you’ve felt adrift or rudderless in your own life? What effect has this had on your soul? If you know someone who is struggling like this, how could you help that person?

What does it mean to be a “co-creator” with God?

What is the relationship between a call and holiness?

Re-read the Sufi quote on p. 162. What big questions are you asking these days?


Chapter 19: Should I Try Various Things Before Deciding What to Do?

How did you decide what path to follow as you entered adulthood? Did you always know what you wanted to do in life? How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?

How much were you consciously led by God in your decisions, and how often did you just decide on your own? What results have you experienced?

Looking back, what (if any) choices would you have made differently? If you do have any regrets, how can you view the path you’re on in light of your true calling?

What concerns and needs for others fill your soul? What are you doing to meet those needs?

Have you ever wanted to pursue a particular path and had your parents or other key people in your life discourage you from doing so? What did you decide to do and what was the result?


Chapter 20: Is It Possible to Have More Than One Call?

How would you answer someone who asks how a good God can allow bad things to happen to us?

Have you ever felt that God was playing a game with you, or testing you, to see if you could figure out what to do with your life? If so, describe what made you feel that way.

The author says a call is “neither a divine contest of wits nor a divine message.” What does she mean by this?

In terms of our gifts, how is a call a partnership with God?

Describe what it means to become a spiritual adult.

How would you answer the question that is the title of this chapter? Is it possible to have more than one call? Why or why not?


Chapter 21: Is It Ever Too Late to Start Over?

Sr. Joan says life is lived in stages, with each stage having its own meaning and purpose. Describe your life in stages, and identify the meaning and purpose of each one.

What are the consequences for someone who is meant to begin again and chooses not to? Can you think of an example from your own life—either you or someone close to you?

Is it ever to late to start over? Re-read the examples the author mentions on p. 180. Who do you know personally who was willing to launch a new career or a new passion late in life? What inspiration can you glean from them?

As you examine where you are today, are there new endeavors you would like to pursue? Is there anything that seems too far out of reach? What might change your perspective on this?


Chapter 22: Where Is God in All of This?

How do you know that what you’re doing is God’s will for you, that you’re not just pursuing your own interests?

How does perfectionism challenge everything else we might say about the goodness, mercy, and love of God?

Where have you struggled with perfectionism? How has this shaped your concept of God and who he is?

Describe in your own words the three “clues” about how to really discern what we are meant to do in life if we are seeking God’s will. How have you recognized these clues in your own life?

The author says when we can say “I know that I am meant to do this in life” is when we become a fully developed human. Take a moment and then share how you would fill in the blank: “I know that I am meant to do _____________ in life.”

At age sixty-five, if there is still another third of life to live, what do you envision your older, wiser self doing? If there some role models you can draw from, what are they accomplishing?

In one or two sentences, state “the deepest inclination of your heart.” How are you following it?

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