There are two positions of God in relation to men. Some fall under what we call general providence; others under what we call special providence.
General and special providence
Divine Providence is that supreme perfection of wisdom by which God conducts events. In view of the way things are, He disposes them according to His plan for each creature.
The great majority of men are led by God according to general providence. That is to say, for the average person He provides a normal life, giving him ordinary resources and sufficient intellect to employ them so as to meet his needs.
For other people, however, the Most High has a special calling, leading them in a distinct way. Since it is a special calling, He also gives them a particular kind of care, which is not the ordinary.
A person placed under this special providence usually has a notion, at least a vague one, of the divine designs concerning him. In Scripture there is the case of the prophet Samuel, whom God called three times. At first, he thought that it was Eli, the high priest of the Temple, calling him. The fourth time, on hearing “Samuel, Samuel,” the prophet responded: “Speak, for Thy servant hears” (1 Sm 3:10). So too, in the face of these first urgings that call us, we might respond, “Lord, where are You? I do not see You!”
A call to something sublime
In this same sense, the problem I had in my youth was basically vocational and was expressed in the following way.
Ever since I was little I had felt a call to something greater… I felt it very strongly, without knowing how to define it. It was clear to me that I should have a life different from that of others. I realized that I was “overflowing from my cup” and that on my path there would be enormous, luminous and magnificent achievements, that would entail sacrifices for which I needed to prepare myself, but also victories that would fill me with joy.
Along with this, I experienced a kind of dread that these presentiments would not come to pass with me, and that I would have to adapt myself entirely to the standard way of life of any man of my conditions, in my times. I felt a type of suffocation at this thought.
“I found my way”
It was like an “uncorking”, something magnificent, the blessed day when I passed by Patriarch’s Square1 and saw the notice regarding the Catholic Youth Congress. It was a battle cry! A lot of things that I had thought unfeasible suddenly appeared in torrents before me.
Imagine a young man who reaches his nineteenth or twentieth year, but already very mature and marked by suffering for his age, searching for a goal that does not materialize. And who, for that reason, has the impression that his hands are grasping and clutching at the future he wants. Suddenly he passes a certain place, sees something and a window opens! You can easily calculate the joy of soul that this gives.
From there followed successive joys with the Marian Movement, the foundation of the Catholic Electoral League and my election as a deputy to the National Constituent Assembly… Everything unfolded in a continuous flight, and I said to myself, to the delight of my soul: “The way has been found. From here on there will doubtless be arduous struggle, but this is the way!”
Difficulties are the sign that a vocation is loved by God
Now, after this ascending movement, when I was twenty-five or twenty-six, everything that had promised to be an open road for me came to nothing, or rather forced me to return to the starting point, rendering impossible what I desired. You can understand the torment that this entailed.
I began to perceive this downward spiral between the middle and the end of my term of office in the national assembly. It consisted in the collapse of my family’s patrimony, impoverishment and the need to work in order to live, when I wished to dedicate all my time and efforts to the apostolate.
Hence the torment: “So that is it? It was all an illusion? I will live the life of a lawyer who goes to court, takes notes to prepare some arguments for his client – because he has quarrelled with someone else – and defends his rights in trifling matters? My whole soul is turned towards other objectives. Even if I make money in this career – and that is doubtful – I was not born to make money. I was born for something else!”
Moreover, up to that time I had had an iron constitution. But some health problems arose, which Providence later brought to an end.
For example, the neuralgia that attacked me at that time. At two or three o’clock in the morning, I would awaken and sit up with strong pain in my head, as if there was a nail stuck in my forehead on the left side, and the time dragged on… I heard the clocks of the hotel and the church strike the hours, while I, sitting up, reflected on those misfortunes and endured the “nail”. Then, exhausted, I would sleep with the weight of the oppression that troubled me.
Then I began to perceive the religious and political crisis undermining the path before me, and with this, the terror and suffocation of illusion: “All that was nothing but a deception, a dream, a bluff! Resign yourself to the will of God who wants you to suffer this bluff. Take your life as it comes, because God wants it this way. Does He or does He not have the right to want it? Is it God who charts your future, or you? And if things unfold differently through no fault of your own, are you not obliged to accept it, to bow your head and to be content?”
I was Mary’s slave; therefore, I had to accept with resignation my future as it opened before me. I had to suppress in my soul those flights, those desires, those lofty aspirations as something unacceptable, that did not express God’s will. And if the Most High so desired, I must go back “inside my cup”, or even go to a smaller “cup” than the one in which I had been born.
It is difficult to calculate how stifled my soul felt, and the bewilderment that this situation caused in me.
In reality, God gives a very great vocation and then difficulties appear. The fact that these difficulties arise does not mean that one does not have a vocation. On the contrary, it is a vocation loved by God, in the course of which He brings about circumstances that one did not wish, situations that one did not count on, making it seem as if He has abandoned us… But there is also an interior movement of the soul that tells us: “No, Providence has not abandoned us. Let’s forge ahead!”
“Should I be an expiatory victim?”
On top of that, another problem declared itself. I had read the book Story of a Soul, by St. Therese of the Child Jesus, which had deeply impressed me. It starts from the premise that one can do nothing more useful for the Catholic Church than to be an expiatory victim of the merciful love of God. That is to say, men sin and it is necessary that others help them to expiate their sins. By this means, through our suffering God forgives others and wins over other souls, giving them great graces because of our suffering.
St. Therese wanted to die in this way, as an expiatory victim for the souls of others, and she was heeded. I used to pose this problem to myself: “Who knows if God wants me to be an expiatory victim, unknown to all? I realize that I have the possibilities, the resources, perhaps I even have the talents to be an out-of-the-ordinary man and to render great service to the Church, but I could be condemned to be an ordinary man, and to watch someone else follow a luminous course. And the other man would follow this path because I was the victim who carried his cross. Would I not be more useful to the Church and to the Counter-Revolution, immersed in suffering and anonymity, than undertaking the heroic cavalry charge of the crusade I would like to accomplish? What, then, should I expect from God for my life?”
Since my entire propensity was not to be the expiatory victim but rather the man on his way to the battlefield to fight, I thought I would make an especially great sacrifice by accepting to be the opposite of what I wanted. I would serve the Church better in my annihilation than in my personal fulfilment. So I should accept and return to “my own cup,” yielding to the harsh reality of the facts. What did God want of me?
Difficult surprises in the line of the vocation
I asked myself: “might that illness that causes neuralgia perhaps be a cancer or some other disease that leads to my premature death, so that another might triumph in the battle you so longed to win? Now, I want to see how your love for God is. You were very happy to be somebody. Will you have the same courage to be nobody? Do you accept that? How serious are you? If you are serious, you will accept it. If you are not serious, you only want to play a role. In that case you are worthless; you do not love God and you deserve to be abandoned by Him on the face of the earth.”
Sometimes, a vocation entails surprises that are difficult to bear. Providence leads us along a path, but gives us the impression that we have taken the wrong road and that God’s ways may be different. Nevertheless, this is the sign that He wants to take us there.
On the other hand, the idea of offering myself like this bothered me. I made the offer, but it seemed to me that something was not right…
I was in this situation when, in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus located near the hotel where I was living, in Rio de Janeiro, I saw that there was a book fair being held. I found a few that interested me and I bought them. I was especially struck by one whose title was The Book of Confidence.
“O Voice of Christ, mysterious voice of grace”
One cannot imagine the effect it had on my spirit when I opened it – I do not recall if it was right there or upon arriving at the hotel – and read its first lines: “O voice of Christ, mysterious voice of grace that resounds in the silence of our souls, you softly whisper in the depths of our hearts words of sweetness and peace.” This had a magnificent soothing effect in my soul.
The author goes on to expound, in more or less these terms, the following doctrine: God can ask a person to walk along the hardest and most unforeseen paths, but if we listen to the voice of Christ in us – the mysterious voice of grace – it will whisper words of sweetness and peace in our souls.
That which overwhelms and breaks us, in the vast majority of cases, is not the path we should follow. There will be an inner movement in our souls which will give us confidence that the way is another, and it will lead us to where our first yearnings were taking us.
This book had a marvellous effect on me, in the final analysis, because it gave me precisely the idea that, being under a special providence and asking God, invoking the intercession of Our Lady, who can obtain everything from Him, I would be heard.
Blessed bridge that helped me to cross many an abyss
And I used to say to myself: “In the end, through twists and turns, one way or another, what I desire will come true. I am not called to the way of St. Therese. I feel more called to the way of Godfrey de Bouillon. Let us forge ahead, over the sticks and stones, over mountains, valleys and hills… Wherever the road may go and whatever digressions it seems to take, I must have confidence, confidence, confidence… ‘O voice of Christ, mysterious voice of grace which resounds in the silence of our souls, you softly whisper in the depths of our hearts words of sweetness and peace.’ I will pray and ask, pray and ask…”
From there a question came to me: “But might you be mistaken? If you keep quiet and are heroic, asking nothing of Our Lady, will you not achieve more than by asking? If you ask, She will give. But sometimes She gives what She did not want to give. Ask for nothing and just let everything happen.”
I did not know how to solve the problem and so I thought: “I will ask, but on the condition that her will be done and not mine. If the will that is in me is also hers, let it be done! I will ask, ask, ask!”
I found a balance in the midst of a fearful turmoil.
The Book of Confidence was the admirable and blessed bridge that helped me to pass over I do not know how many chasms, until I found some sign that indicated that I was really on the right path and advancing. ◊
Taken from: Conference.
São Paulo, 13/5/1989
1 Located in the old centre of São Paulo.