¿Qué Quieres?


¿Qué quieres, Lorena? ¿Qué quieres? I repeated it to myself as I stared at my reflection in the window of an almost thousand-year-old church. Often at my most desperate, most joyful, most frustrated moments, I turn to the remnants of Spanish that still cling to my mind’s bones. What do you want, Lauren? What do you actually want to do with yourself? What do you want?

I had already walked more than five hundred kilometers, or more than three hundred miles, from Pamplona, and that day had trekked twenty-three kilometers to the city of Villa Franca, but I left my bag at the hostel and slipped away, alone, into the rainy town and walked some more. I found myself at the Church of Santiago on a hill at the edge of town. The church, built in the twelfth century and still hundreds of kilometers from the city of Santiago, was given permission by Catholic authorities to grant pilgrims too sick to continue the journey the same indulgence and pardon as those who traveled all the way to the moss-covered cathedral in Santiago.

The church was closed, but I huddled under the awning of the Door of Forgiveness, the door that sick pilgrims passed through to officially receive their pardon. I tried to stay dry from the sudden increase in rain. I had walked over mountains and made it across the draining and solitary plains. But here I was, more than two-thirds of the way through my pilgrimage, and all I could do was walk around town, my feet aching and blistered, trying to outrun the suffocating realization that I still had no idea what I wanted.

¿Qué quieres? I stood on that doorstep and for a while looked outward at the mountains and the clouds rolling in from the south. I finally turned and looked at my reflection in the glass of the church window. What do you want, Lauren?

If I could have said what I wanted, I am such a make-it-work kind of woman that I could have gotten myself on the right path immediately. But what do I want? What do I want to do with myself? With my life?

The honest answer was silence. I did not know.

I could start my story, my journey, at the beginning—excited to meet Claire, my first pilgrim friend, on day one. Or I could start my telling at the end, triumphant in the plaza of Santiago de Compostela. Yet the story of my pilgrimage, and the story of my calling, has much more in common with this rainy day on the steps of that tiny Romanesque church staring into my reflection. Because that remains the question: Lauren, what do you want?

I keep asking it. Occasionally, I think I know the answer. I think I find a job or a position or a city that works. I think this is it. Then the suffocation comes. The AmeriCorps term runs out, and I am back to sending résumés into the void. A job turns progressively toxic. Restlessness sets in, and I need to get a move on, but again I don’t know where to go.

I always come back to that frustratingly core and unknown place where I ask myself, What do you want? What were you made to do? What will satisfy you? Why are there so many misses in your search? Where is the target that keeps moving? What is your calling?

I want to know what I want, what I am called to do, so I can get on with it already. I want to make it work. I want to change lives. I want to do something I love and pay the bills, even if just barely. What was I made for? Someone just tell me, and I will get busy.

I have good intentions about being patient with my calling and my journey. Really, I do. I just get a bit frantic sometimes. When I find myself job searching yet again, when I have no idea where I should move next, when the position I thought could be life-giving for me becomes otherwise, when I start calculating how long until I graduate and then how long I’ve been out of grad school, when I feel like my purpose is slipping through my fingers, I get unsettled. I panic. Before I know it, I get sucked into ugly-faced cries. (You probably know the kinds of cries I’m talking about.)

I’m not sure why this path is such a hard one for me or why it’s so hard for so many people I love who are walking the same journey of calling. Why can’t we find the right road? I don’t know. What do we want? I don’t know. Will people even let us do it when we figure it out? I don’t know.

I’ll go ahead and say it: my path of calling, of sorting myself out, has already been a long journey. I have walked a journey that has felt like miles and miles over mountains on blistered feet. Other people seem to have different experiences. Some people feel called to something specific, at a young age even, and their whole lives lead up to that career or position or vocation. From point A straight to point B, with numbered steps along the way. Others seem to walk happily enough through their lives, without giving a second’s thought to what their calling might be. I don’t fall into either of those categories.

Originally, I did think I was going to have a point A to point B kind of calling. After a childhood of studying missionaries in my good Southern Baptist Girls in Action classes, I felt God tug at me, and I knew what my calling must be. I was going to be a missionary! It made sense. I would take a slow boat to China, or I would be like the missionaries who showed slides of Africans dancing and singing in Swahili.

At the age of twelve, I walked down the aisle of my home church, and the big, kind man who was our interim pastor at the time shook my hand. I turned toward the congregation in my purple polka-dotted dress, and he told the congregation that I had surrendered to the call. Everyone was pleased and not too surprised. I already had a deep love for learning about other cultures, so most of the people I knew accepted my calling without hesitation or much thought. My mom was the only one who put a caveat on my calling. “Just be open to go wherever God leads you,” she said. I thought she was simply uneasy with the thought of her youngest child and only daughter sailing on a slow boat to China. It turns out, however, that my mom, all those years ago, gave me some of the best advice anyone has ever given me about calling. Yet, while hers was good advice, it does not necessarily lead one toward a point A to point B kind of calling. I thought that being open to go wherever God led me would take me to a plan. Instead, this advice has led to lots of dusty roads, blisters, ugly cry faces, and standing alone in front of church windows, asking myself, What you are doing? What do you want?

This is how I got to that church in Villa Franca, staring at my reflection, and what happened afterward. I took my life and my search for calling seriously enough to strap on a backpack and hiking boots and hit the trail. What I learned walking across Spain forever changed the way I look my life and my calling.

This post originally appeared as Chapter 1 of Five Hundred Miles: Reflections on Calling and Pilgrimage.

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