I just finished reading Joan Chittister’s most recent book, Following the Path: The Search for a Life of Passion, Purpose and Joy. Both because I have benefitted in the past from Chittister’s writing and because part of my own calling is helping my law students with their efforts to discern vocation, I enthusiastically accepted Image/Random House’s invitation to review the book. My enthusiasm was warranted.
One of the things we always stress to law students and alumni who participate in the semi-annual weekendvocation retreats we offer at UST is that discerning vocation is not a one-shot deal, but that we are called to different things at different times in our lives. Chittister’s book is written with the same understanding that “life is a series of choices”; the book is aimed not only toward young adults determining what to do after they finish school, but to middle-aged people who recognize the need for change in their life and to retirees who no longer have to think in terms of a “job” in ascertaining who they will be in the world. That is does also underscores something else Chittister stresses in the book – it is never too late for us to grow into all we can be.
The assumption – or I should say, truth – underlying the entirety of the book is that “everybody has a call to something.” Whether we call it “the priesthood of believers,” the “will of God for us,” “co-creation” (her examples) or any other name, “[w]e have each been both with particular gifts of mind and soul, of body and brain, of personality and skill that we are meant to use for the greater good. There is no such thing as not having a call.”
There is so much valuable in this book, both for discerning one’s own vocation and for those of us whose ministry involves helping others discern their vocation. I’ll just share a few ideas here, hoping to whet your appetite.
First, in addition to the important distinction between real passion and addiction I wrote about the other day, Chittister also draws a useful distinction between commitment and enthusiasm, which we have a dangerous tendency to confuse – dangerous because mistaking “initial enthusiasm for commitment is exactly what leads so many peple to fall off int he middle of a project.” Enthusiasm is wonderful, but commitment is what we need to forge on when our work ceases to feel good. And her definition of commitment is a good one; she defines it as “that quality of human nature that tells us not to count days or months or years, strugggle or effort or rejection, but simply to go on utnil the work we have come to do is done, whether the need is finally, completely, finished or not.” (That definition itself is good to sit with.)
Second, Chittister addresses the temptation to make choices either too quickly or too slowly. Staying “on roads long gone purposesless” becasue of fear of change and a desire to stay with the familiar is deadening. But equally problematic is being “too quick to leave a road,” simply because the way foward is not clear. Reminding me of much of the thrust of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, she reminds that our search is a continual “process of making spiritual choices between the good and the better, the holy and the mundane, the essence of life and the costmetic” and that the decisions “are hardly ever clear.”
Third, Chittister (who speaks of each of having one call, albeit with different variations) provides a useful elucidation of seven dimensions of authentic call. These provide an important aid – a good outline of things to consider – in any discernment process. When advising people choosing among particular options, I always recommend an Ignatian method of discernment. I will continue to do so, but I will also offer Chittister’s dimensions, which offer a wonderful resource for prayerful discernment of call. In a similar vein, she ends the book with “three clues and three cautions about what it means to discern what we are meant to do in life if we really want to do the will of God.” They are a nice supplement to her dimensions of authentic call.
This is a book I suspect I will both give to others as gifts and come back to frequently myself.