Let me begin by expressing my condolences to the Albright family and to all who were blessed to know Madeleine Albright as a colleague, mentor, and friend. Thank you for the honor of being part of this celebration of her life. It means more than I can say.
The most important words have already been spoken. What we have heard about the one who came into this world as Marie Jana Korbel, or Madlenka, as she was known as a child, is testimony to the theological adage: “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Drawing upon every circumstance and experience, both wondrous and harsh, Madeleine learned to live fully and well, as the Apostle Paul wrote of his own life, when she had little and when she had plenty, in times of hardship and times of joy. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” Paul wrote. (Philippians 4:13) Madeleine was more circumspect about her faith in God, though it was the foundation beneath her.
I’ve spent the last two weeks reading her memoirs and some of her speeches, which has felt like a master class in life and leadership. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned.
I was especially struck by her capacity for self-reflection–her awareness of her strengths and vulnerabilities, her ability to celebrate accomplishments and acknowledge mistakes. “Lives are necessarily untidy and uneven,” she wrote, “It is important, however, to have some guiding star. For me, that star has always been faith in the democratic promise that each person should be able to go as far as his or her talents will allow.”1
I also learned about many of you, as seen through Madeleine’s eyes. She was effusive in her praise and admiration, quick to celebrate your gifts and contributions to this country and beyond. She was generous and respectful about those with whom she disagreed, sometimes vehemently, on policy matters. She was discreet. And she had the capacity to recognize, as criminal justice reformer Bryan Stevenson so powerfully reminds us, that each one of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done, or the best thing, for that matter. We are all more than how we present ourselves publicly or are perceived by others. We are more than our role in each other’s lives, more than our opinions on certain issues, and certainly more than our affiliation in a political party, faith tradition or whatever else might separate us from one another.
Never once in her writings did she describe herself as a godly person, but as I read, I kept thinking of these words from the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister: “The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person–in anger, in spite, in vengefulness–and who can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world.” Chittister goes on: “The holy ones are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”2 The ecology of humankind was safe with Madeleine Albright.
She had very strong words, however, for those who, in her estimation, abused their power and caused others to suffer, particularly those on the world stage whose actions adversely affected millions, and she did all in her power to defeat them.
Speaking of power, Madeleine wrote that her political career began when she served on the board of trustees of Beauvoir, the early elementary school here on the Cathedral Close. “In life one thing leads to another, and in Washington one personal recommendation does too.”3 She described her time serving on the Cathedral’s leadership board, known as the Chapter, during a time when this nave was being completed. At a service when the expanded nave’s cornerstone was laid, she read a lesson from the pulpit, “tasting a bit of my childhood dream of becoming a priest” she wrote, though The Episcopal Church had yet to ordain women. She claimed to have learned as much about politics on the Cathedral Chapter as she did working in campaigns–which you know is true.4 But I daresay she also learned as much about faith in the political arena as she did in church, because that is where her faith was lived.
I’d like to dwell a bit longer on Madeleine’s understanding of power. By way of illustration, let me share a moment seared in my memory that some of you may also recall. It was on the day of President Obama’s second inauguration. We had gathered at St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square for a private prayer service for the president and vice president and their families, with other invited guests. I don’t know if Madeleine was there. The preacher was Andy Stanley from Northpoint Church in Atlanta. He stood at the pulpit, looked at the president, and then at all of us, and asked, “What do you do when you know that you are the most powerful person in the room?” He wasn’t just speaking about the power of the presidency. From parents to presidents, we all know what it’s like to be the most powerful person. And what do we do with our power? Good preacher that he was, Stanley reminded us of what Jesus of Nazareth did on the night he shared a final meal with his disciples before he was arrested and subsequently executed. He was clearly the most powerful person in that room, and he assumed the role of a servant, washing his disciples feet.
For Madeleine Albright, power was an essential tool for making things happen. She felt called to positions of authority and influence, and she pursued those positions unapologetically. (The chapter in which she described lobbying behind the scenes to be President Clinton’s choice for Secretary of State ought to be required reading for every woman aspiring to leadership.) She relished being the powerful person in the room, and she used her power in service to others. When she needed to take on some of the world’s biggest bullies, she did, unflinchingly on the exterior, no matter how she felt inside. When she needed to hold back, pivot, or compromise, she did that, too, mastering the art of what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry describes as “standing and kneeling at the same time,” which is to say, being at once strong in conviction and humble in spirit.5 She was also aware that with increasing positions of power, one’s mistakes become more costly. Her mistakes grieved her, as did her failures, but she was determined to learn from them and carry on.
I close with a nod toward the mystery of the eternal consequences of our lives, acknowledging the ancient human intuition, embedded in all faith traditions, that there is, in fact, another realm beyond this life. Still on this side of death myself, I know as much about that realm as you do, but I believe in it, what connects us in this life to that realm in those moments of transcendence and grace, of peace surpassing understanding, of unconditional love, of faith as the assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things unseen. The best way to prepare for that other realm is to live fully in this one, to cherish life until the time comes for us to let it go, and to do what we can to make life better for others.
Let me leave you with Madeleine’s closing words from Prague Winter, her exploration of her Jewish heritage and the cataclysmic events that shaped her early childhood.
As you can imagine, she had cited many examples of cruelty and betrayal in that heartbreaking book, but she wrote, “they are not what I will take with me as I move to life’s next chapter. In the world where I choose to live, even the coldest winter must yield to agents of spring and the darkest view of human nature must eventually find room for shafts of light.”6
She concluded with this:
I have spent a lifetime looking for remedies for all manner of life’s problems–personal, social, political, global. . . I believe that we can recognize truth when we see it, just not at first and not without ever relenting in our effort to know more. This is because the goal we see, and the good we hope for, comes not as a final reward but as the hidden companion to our quest. It is not what we find, but the reason we cannot stop looking and striving that tells us why we are here.
You don’t need me to remind you that we live in perilous times. And I have no doubt that Madeleine’s final words to us would be ones of encouragement, to keep looking for the truth, striving for good, and cherishing life in all its wondrous complexity and beauty. She would want us to claim our power and use it to serve others. She would want us all to follow our north star–what ultimate purpose guides us in times of grace and adversity and calls us back whenever we stray off course.7
So leave here today resolved, in words attributed to John Wesley, “to do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, for all the people you can, for as long as you can.”
As you do, the God of compassion will go with you, and rest assured that Madeleine is cheering you on.
1Madeleine Albright, Madam Secretary. Kindle Version, p.10.
2Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), 24.
3Madam Secretary, Kindle edition, 91.
5Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding Onto Hope in Troubling Times (New York Avery/Penguin Random House, 2020), 181.
6Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 414