It was the day before I was due to leave Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, and head back down to London for my flight home. I’d hoped that by that stage I would have figured out some answers: do I have a religious vocation? If so, where? And when? My pilgrimage was almost over, though, and no clear answers were in sight. Instead, during my penultimate Mass in Walsingham, the priest gave a homily about waiting that has stayed with me for months.
“Some of you,” he said, “may have heard of a boy named Jack Cornwell.” A lot of the older people in the congregation nodded. “He was a Boy Seaman, First Class, on board HMS Chester in 1916. The ship came under heavy fire from four German battleships, and all the sailors who were on deck manning the Chester‘s guns were killed or fatally wounded within fifteen minutes. Jack Cornwell was in one of the most exposed positions on the ship, but he remained at his gun awaiting orders from his captain – and that’s where they found him after the battle, barely alive and with his chest full of shrapnel, but still standing at his post, quietly waiting for orders.” He died two days later, at the age of sixteen. The priest went on to add that Boy Seaman Cornwell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest – and rarest – military honour in Britain, for “gallantry in the face of the enemy.” (According to Wikipedia, he was the third-youngest person ever awarded the VC.)
“I often feel,” the priest continued, “that I’m not doing a very good job of following God’s will – so often when I try to find out what He wants me to do, and to do it, I end up falling short. I want to push harder and try and force things to happen, but end up getting nowhere instead. You may find the same thing sometimes. But all of us – priests, laymen, religious – we are all called by God to stay at our posts, waiting for Him to give us our orders. Even when we’re wounded, that’s the way we are called to live: whoever we are, we are all standing where God has placed us, and quietly waiting for orders.”
The readings for the first Sunday of Advent, too, are about watching and being ready, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” Sometimes we are called to take action and make a leap of faith, but more often, we are called to wait: to remain alert and watchful, so that we are ready when the time comes and God calls us to move. I’m grateful to the priest for his openness about the sense of falling short in service to God, and for cutting through my own impatience with the reminder that we can’t force our lives forward, even in paths that might be His will, before His time comes. The greatest honour lies, instead, in remaining steady and awake at the post in which God has placed us, knowing that when it is time, His orders for each of us will come.