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?