NEVER HUNGER, NEVER THIRST (John 6:24-35): 02 August 2009 (Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

NEVER HUNGER, NEVER THIRST (John 6:24-35): 02 August 2009 (Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings

Today’s Gospel Reading is about Jesus the Bread of Life, who promises that “whoever comes to me will never hunger and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  These days we are grieving our loss of President Corazon Aquino, as though we have lost a family member.  No one can give a more powerful reflection on the Scripture today than her, who “never hungered, never thirsted” even in the worst of famines and droughts because of her strong faith in the Lord.   

Eternal rest grant unto her, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.

Prayer Power (Reflection by Cory Aquino)

Delivered at the UNIV Conference, Rome, Italy
April 5, 1993

I was asked in a small gathering of university students recently what of my life as president I would like to see continued. Without hesitation, I answered the habit of prayer.

By prayer, one acknowledges the weakness of the human person, no matter how high the office he or she may hold and how great the authority they wield. The higher the office, the greater the power, the more one should pray.

I can see the smiles on some faces. Yet, without going into the question of whether there is anyone up there listening to our prayers, a person who prays shows wisdom. By praying he admits his weakness and fallibility; and thereby shows his fitness for command in an important respect. If anyone, it is Europeans who should appreciate the value of humility in high places. For they have suffered more that any people from the sense of self-importance of those whose limitations were only too evident. A European has only to remember the pride and vaunted knowledge of those who lost so many men in Gallipoli, the Somme and Caporetto.

An English king boasted to his men before battle that the fewer of them there were, the greater share of glory would go to each. Yet when he learned he had won against overwhelming odds, he fell on his knees and said: “Praised be God and not our strength, for it.” The effect of prayer is to add wisdom to daring.

The great of the world should pray, if only for the sake of those who must endure their greater capacity for tragic errors. What more the small who must suffer them?

Prayer upheld me in power. It was prayer that sustained my husband in prison. There he was reduced to nothing. Like Thomas More, his books were taken from him. He was denied even pen and paper on which to write. He was denied the company of friends; and the love and solace of his family, who were also barred from seeing him.

Indeed he was stripped down to his underpants and thrown into a windowless cell. He feared that one night he would be taken from his cell to dig his own grave in the dark – as so many critics of the government before him.

Yet, it was when he had lost everything that he found it all, through a door that opened to a wider world than he had been shut from.

Prayer was that door, a tiny one. In his youth, he would have overlooked it. For he was riding then on the crest of an enormous popularity as the youngest and most accomplished politician of the age and the most likely successor to the man who would throw him in prison, cast him into exile, and cut him down in the prime of his life, the president and dictator.

In the loneliness of his prison cell, it was natural that he should come to see the extreme vulnerability of man. In the solitariness of his protest against the dictatorship, it was inevitable that he should realize the brittleness of popular support and the fleetingness of glory.

It would have been something if prayer rather than adversity had opened his eyes, while he was yet riding high in the politics of his country. But he realized the weakness and loneliness of man, only when his followers had deserted him; and the fickleness of fortune, when the wheel had already turned.

Prayer might have revealed these truths to him about the futility of building a fortress out of sand or erecting a perdurable power from achievements of the moment. But these truths were not revealed to him until he had lost everything, and the four blank walls of his cell were all he had left to look at.

So when prayer came, it was not to teach him humility. Adversity had already imparted that. It came to lift his spirits and fill him with a holy pride. It did not come to prove yet again the insufficiency of human power, but to reveal a greater power yet to be found in the most extreme condition of weakness.

Just when he had lost everything, he told me, he found it all. Prayer gave it to him.

And I think, the proof of this new-found power was that, while he thought of giving up in the first year of prison, he fought on for seven years after finding strength through prayer. He never complained about the sacrifices he was making. For just when he thought that he must be the sorriest of men, prayer showed him that he was imitating the greatest of them.

He who follows me can never walk in darkness, says Christ. Indeed, said Thomas a Kempis, “if we want to see our way truly, with never a trace of blindness left in our hearts, it is his life, his character that we must take for our model.” So when he went on a hunger strike to protest his trial by a military tribunal, he stopped only on the 40th day because his friends implored him not to outdo our Savior’s fast in the desert. Prayer had given him such strength.

After seven years in prison, he went into exile. But returned three years later, when the danger to him was greatest. As many of you know, he was assassinated at the airport – a bullet in the back of the head delivered by his military escort, as part of a military operation that involved 2,000 men.

On the plane, he told journalists of his premonition of death. He advised them to be especially attentive, for when it came, it would go fast.

When the military escort entered the plane cabin, he stood up to identify himself and went with them. One of them was the gunman.

Prayer gave him the equanimity to describe the manner of his own death, and the courage to rise and meet it.

Prayer gave me the strength to hold myself together when the news reached me. I had to, for his sake, for the sake of our children. Most of all for the sake of what he believed in, which my behavior would reflect upon.

From that moment, I depended more than ever on prayer. I had relied on it to see me through his unjust imprisonment. I used it to fill the hours, days and weeks between the occasional visits the military would permit me. I prayed not be embittered by the mockery of his trial. I prayed not to be too deeply affected by the humiliation I endured – the body searches, the TV camera in the room, and having to plead for things we take for granted as our right.

But I needed prayer more than ever to live through the brazenness of the assassination, and the shamelessness of the government’s attempt to blame it on a man who was already dead before my husband arrived. I needed prayer to be able to contemplate the final victory of evil without losing hope. I needed prayer not to fall into the last temptation of despair.

At times, I was not sure what I was praying for. I could not pray for my husband’s safety, for he was beyond harm. I could not pray to show my love, for he was cradled in a greater love. So, I suppose, I prayed because that was all that was left to me. I was beyond human power to help.

On reflection, I think I finally prayed for just the strength to accept God’s will, which was moving in ways very hard to take.

I received that strength, and something more besides. I would not admit it, even to myself, but the human side of me craved for some tangible expression of support, some evidence that my husband had not died in vain. God heard that spoken prayer, too.

Two million people, all told, attended the funeral of Ninoy Aquino – the greatest funeral since Gandhi’s. It was the first and greatest outpouring of sympathy and support that any person or cause had ever gotten in any nation’s history at a single moment.

It was not the end of the dictatorship; but it might be the beginning of the end. What was clear was that it was the start of something new. It would be called People Power.

It would redefine the standards and practices of politics as we had always known them. It would set the pattern of freedom movements throughout Eastern Europe. It would culminate in the people power demonstration that stopped the coup in Moscow and shamed the government in China. It would define the new and higher aim of politics: the empowerment of the people for the attainment of their goals.

It was certainly the agency that restored freedom to my country, and faith in the power of prayer to my people.

Prayer and the leadership of the Catholic Church emboldened millions to stand up to the dictatorship, to vote in overwhelming numbers against it, and to denounce its fraud.

If one cannot suspend one’s disbelief in miracles, can one deny the testimonies of millions throughout the world who saw on television a people praying and the tanks that stopped right in front of them. Before the famous newsphoto of the Chinese man with a briefcase holding up a column of tanks going to Tienanmen Square, there were the images of Filipinos kneeling directly in their path.

So I had lost my husband; I led an uphill fight against an entrenched dictatorship; and I ran in an election riddled with massive fraud; yet in the end I won.

I assumed the powers of the dictatorship, but only long enough to abolish it. I dissolved the dictator’s puppet parliament, I banished the judges of his corrupt courts, I abolished the dictatorial constitution whereby they were able to commit abuses under the color of legality, and installed a democratic government in its place.

I had absolute power, yet ruled with restraint. I created independent courts to question my absolute power, and finally a legislature to take it from me.

I implemented painful and unpopular reforms, while having to beat down repeated attempts by rightist officers to overthrow the government. When the presidential palace came under air attack, I refused to leave it, firmly convinced that the issue rested entirely with God. In the last election in my country, I defeated a restoration attempt by elements of the former dictatorship.

I survived and did more than the experts thought was possible. All these things I owe to the power of prayer and the special protection of Our Lady.

It wasn’t all prayers of course. Grace needs good works to work redemption. But if I were to list what else I want continued from my presidency, they would sort of things that flow naturally from prayer: such as sincerity, integrity, the solidarity reflected in communal character of worship, and the necessary universality of prayer. For we should not pray for things we don’t want others to have as well – such as power we will not share, rights only for ourselves, and advantages that would be meaningless if everyone enjoyed them.

Being sincere is to be simple. It is the same with sincerity in power: be yourself completely.

It is to be truthful, not least about one’s own limitations, so that you know how far to trust yourself with the fate of others. It is, of course, to be truthful about others.

I have always found it difficult to relate with people who trifle with the truth, even in the smallest particular. The habit of lying is like a snowball. It grows as it rolls.

While in the opposition, I tore into the lies of the dictatorship. In government, I demanded openness in official acts, full disclosure of government transactions, and transparency, especially in anything and everything to do with money.

I distanced myself from those with a hidden agenda, however winning were their ways. I defended those whose first priority and greatest concern was for the public interest, however unpopular the duties they must carry out. From everyone in government, I asked, if not consistently successful performance, a total commitment and a genuine effort to give the best of oneself.

Principles impart coherence to a man’s life, they give it structure. Without them, one is just a bundle of desires and dislikes. Compromise on principle, and there is no halting the slide to unbridled opportunism.

So it is with the body politic. Principles give coherence to a government; they are the reference point for all the people’s relations with their government. The lack of them aptly defines a government or an official as unprincipled, a word that says it all.

Without principles, the ethical framework for decision-making disintegrates; actions spill out, and seek, like water, the lowest level.

A government without principles ends up pursuing peace without justice, merely to maintain stability while it commits abuses. Merely for political addition, it will seek a reconciliation between the people and those who had hurt the country when they were in power, without asking for restitution. More than the commission of wrongs, it is the deliberate refusal to punish them that tears most at a nation’s moral fabric.

No one, of course, should be self-righteous. Who can say she is beyond reproach? God knows, we have all made mistakes. The morals of a saint should be, but in the nature of things, cannot serve as a qualification for public service. Yet we should not lose the sense of right and wrong, or push and pull the moral code to squeeze in a useful political alliance. Convenience must finally yield to the right, whereon a person or a government must stand and be willing to fall.

Government is not just about getting things done, whatever they are. They are about getting the right things done, for the right reasons and with the right people. The first virtue of political institutions is justice, not convenience.

When I was campaigning, the dictator accused me of something I had never thought was a crime. He said I was just a housewife and unfit to govern a country. Yet I must say that I never ran up a twenty-six billion dollar bill in all the years I shopped for the household, nor did I pocket money intended for something else, nor, I might add, did I shoot the bill collector.

Yet, to humor him, I said I should have no problem finding 50 competent and dedicated people to help me run the government when he stepped down.

I found the 50. Indeed, there were more volunteers than I could count after I became a president. But I found that competence and dedication were not enough. Team work too was important. As no single individual could carry the whole burden of government by himself, it was important that the great number required to do it must be able to work harmoniously together.

The ability to work well with others, to listen to different points of view, to credit such views with a sincerity equal to one’s own, and to have the flexibility to accommodate the valid concerns of others: this is an important quality for anyone who wishes to serve the people. It is an expression of the spirit of service. Indeed, how can anyone claim to have a genuine spirit of solidarity with the people in general, if he is incapable of an operational solidarity with those he must work closely with?

The seven years of my husband’s incarceration had been difficult, made more so by the feeling that we were so few carrying on so great a struggle. After my husband’s assassination, it became clear that we were far from alone: there were multitudes who held the same ideals just as passionately. There were legions who grieved as deeply over the condition of our country. More importantly, they were prepared to do something about it, at whatever cost. The funeral of Ninoy Aquino established the national character of the struggle. The outpouring of sympathy in the last stages of the struggle against the dictatorship, from peoples and governments all over the world, established its universality. Courage, said Malraux, is a second fatherland, where all the brave feel they belong.

For four days in February, when the Filipino people faced the tanks with nothing in their hands, all the brave throughout the world were Filipinos. Ich bin ein Berliner, Kennedy said at the Wall. We are all diminished by the suppression of anyone, all exalted by the courage of someone, somewhere, making a stand for freedom.

We are all Filipinos, said the friends of democracy everywhere – as the drama of the people-powered revolution unfolded.

And when the pattern was repeated all over Eastern Europe, we joined the free and brave everywhere who cried: We are Berliners, we are Czechs, we are Poles and Hungarians, we are Russians on the steps of the Russian White House, we are Chinese students at Tienanmen Square. We are of the family of freedom, and the fraternity of the brave. We belong to a single world, and share the responsibility to make it better – as much for others, be they Africans or the people of Myanmar, as for ourselves.

The sense of universality enters also into this: they will govern well who ask no more for themselves than they will give to others. The universal maxim, the golden rule. It is an infallible guide for official decisions – to impose no hardship one is not prepared to bear; to exact no sacrifice one is not prepared to make. In brief, to lead by example – first into the fray, and last out of it. It is the best way to achieve results and gain respect.

The spirit of universality has redefined politics, and lifted it from the machinations of a few for their own advantage, to the struggle of the people for their own empowerment and the general welfare. And that requires a qualitative improvement in the character and skills of the people. The multiplication of hands does not result in the improvement of production. It is the enhancement of skills that achieves that. The counting of heads does not enhance the quality of political decisions, it is the illumination of the popular mind that will produce that.

The universality principle requires improving the people’s capacity – in the spiritual and intellectual sense – to govern themselves, for themselves. Without the right values in the people, a democracy is only a confederacy of fools.

If I were to be asked what of my presidency I would want to continue: it is these intangibles more than any policy I think, at the moment, is correct for the country. Circumstances change and international trends can shift direction; new approaches may serve the country’s interests better than those I laid down.

But what doesn’t change are the elements that go to make up good decisions and right policies: sincerity, integrity, solidarity, universality, and of course – in recognition of the historic verity that man proposes and God disposes – prayer.

Prayer, whereby the great make themselves humble and fitter to govern men. Prayer, which gives strength to the weak and pride to the humble. There are languages that are said to be better suited than others for certain things. English for law and banking, French for diplomacy, Italian for poetry, Spanish for piety, German for technology, Japanese for trade, and Chinese – it is said – for everything in the future. Yet there is only one language for accessing the greater reality behind this one. It is prayer, for speaking to God. It comes in any of the languages I have mentioned, because it has less to do with the sound of the voice than with a habit of the heart and a posture of the spirit. It is the thing that prepares you for any eventuality, and enables you to cope with whatever might take you unpleasantly by surprise. It is the first thing you learn after you’ve come into the world, and the last you will say when you leave it. It may seem like a trifle, at this moment when you find support in being over a thousand strong in this hall. But each of you will find himself alone at critical moments, as I did. Yet, with nothing in your hands, you will find it full with prayer.

Corazon Cojuangco Aquino (1933 – 2009)

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