The Light In The Chapel by Michael B. Alexander
Homily at United Parish of Auburndale
January 27, 2008
I have chosen to speak today about leadership – about my own philosophical approach to leadership and about the origins of that approach.
I would like to do so simply by telling you a story. It is a true story that actually happened about 26 years ago in London.
To this day, I cannot explain everything that happened, some of it remains a mystery. All I can say it that it really did happen. And its theme reflects my belief that the job of a leader is to create an environment in which the people he leads can be successful, can do their best work, and can most effectively achieve shared goals together. So here goes: I call this story “The Light in the Chapel.”
I awoke one Saturday morning in Amsterdam; I did not know where I would go or what I would do. I had finished work the day before and had four days to spend as I pleased. My plan was to act on impulse.
I stepped into the Leidseplein where workers were sweeping up debris from the night’s revelry and little plastic bags were strewn among the litter. Within minutes, I had a box of milk chocolates under my arm and a ticket to London in my hand. What serendipitous good fortune that impulse turned out to be.
By evening I was checking into a rundown hotel in Earl’s Court, an area of London that reminded me of New York’s West 70’s in the 70’s. I was too late for the theatre, so I took a stroll through Piccadilly Circus and environs, caught the tube back to the hotel, hoping to get an early start on my first full day in London Sunday morning.
There is a certain exhilaration in suddenly being alone in a strange metropolis with neither friend nor family knowing one’s whereabouts. After a few days it can become lonely; but in those first moments, I recognized with surety that I was on my own. The frustrations, disappointments, constraints, and responsibilities of daily life are just what they are and nothing more; they are not decisive. Walking who knows where on a drizzly Sunday morning in London, I felt able to decide, definitively. No matter whether the feeling would sustain, for that day it was real and pure and to be cherished.
If I were not already convinced this was my lucky day, I was when I happened upon the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. It was raining but the sun was shining; I could not find a rainbow.
A fan of continental cathedrals, I easily succumbed to the open doors of Westminster Cathedral with its impressive brick tower just two blocks off Victoria Station. It is here that my story really begins. I only mention the preceding because of the possibility that my existing state of mind precipitated the following events; that the euphoria of being in London at long last and sensing a freedom of will effected minor hallucinations is the only plausible explanation I can imagine for what subsequently took place.
I am an exceedingly rational and skeptical person. I have a scientific bent of mind. I am about as far from being devout as London is from Jakarta, geographically and otherwise. My conception of the Almighty is founded in quarks, the Big Bang and the structure of the universe. Despite all I have just said, I am certain that what happened really happened.
I toured the nave in the way I had many times before in other monumental churches. Westminster Cathedral is not among the more spectacular I have visited; as the English might say, it is quite ordinary actually. Tourists milled about and worshipers prepared for the noon mass. Finding the apse off limits, I turned to leave. On my way out, I passed one of those side chapels, used for private prayer. This one intrigued me for some reason. It was quite dark and there was a single velvet pillow in the middle of the room with a wooden rail about 18 inches wide to lean on. The rest of the chapel was bare; although the church was crowded, no one was in this room.
I entered, set my knees on the worn burgundy velvet and placed my forearms on the rail. In front of me on a wall was a painting of the Crucifixion. Two figures attended Christ on the Cross. I supposed them to be the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist.
In keeping with my determination to act on impulse, I buried my head in my arms and prayed. This act may not seem remarkable to many people, but praying is not something I normally do. On this day, however, I found myself in total earnestness and for no reason whatsoever praying for the happiness and well-being of people I love, one by one. I am not sure how long I remained in that position, but it seemed no more than a minute, two at the most. I discovered one can do a lot of praying in a short amount of time if one does not bother to mouth the words. Thoughts are just as meaningful and a lot quicker.
I raised my head slowly. Just as I looked up, a bright light coming from above and to the left shone on the painting and the muted colors glowed. And I heard these words: Two of his followers came to him and said, “We want to carry on your work, we want to set a good example, but we are not sure how to do it.” And he replied, “Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant. If you will be first among men, then you will serve all mankind.” Then the light on the painting faded.
Skeptic to the core, I chuckled at the coincidence and turned my head to confirm the source of the light but was taken aback to observe that the two windows on the left wall, the only ones in the chapel, were lower than the painting and were not admitting enough light to illuminate their own frosted panes, much less to set ancient oils to glow. Further searching turned up no other light sources, artificial or otherwise. No one else had entered the chapel. I remained kneeling for several minutes, with a smile on my face, and contemplated the event. I did not react rashly and jump to any conclusions. I did not become Born Again on the spot. I took it as a sign, a symbol, a confirmation.
I have the power to decide. I am free to adopt a central precept and use it as a daily guide. I can choose to define myself by using what abilities I have to serve other people, in a constant and consistent way. This revelation—if it is safe to call it that—seemed to offer a synthesis of altruism and ambition.
I prayed again as if to seal the bargain. No one paid me the slightest attention as I left the dark chapel, despite what must have looked a silly grin splitting my face. I noticed the chapel had a name: “Holy Souls.” I deposited a generous contribution as I departed the Cathedral.
I hurried out front to check the light conditions. It was still overcast and drizzly, and the sun was low in the southern sky on the far side of the church from Holy Souls Chapel.
I resumed my random peregrination through the streets of London. Before long, while standing not far from the Houses of Parliament and peering over the retaining wall into the Thames River, I started talking with an old man in a worn suit and overcoat who claimed to be a retired footman at Buckingham Palace. He told me about all the buildings and bridges we could see and offered little bits of English history to go along with them. We began to walk, he with a limp and I slowly to match his pace. His knowledge of the area’s landmarks proved comprehensive and entertaining. When he pointed though a crack in buildings to Westminster Cathedral, I said, “Yes, I was there already this morning.”
Throughout our conversation, he wove his personal story. He said he had bone cancer in his legs and was to enter the hospital that afternoon to have his legs replaced with new ones. Friends had driven him from Sussex where he lived to the outskirts of London. Unfortunately, he had left his belongings, including his money, in the car and, therefore, had to walk the 14 miles to the hospital. He told me this story very matter-of-factly in the same breath as telling me about the suffragette (Emmeline Pankhurst) who had chained herself to the gates of Parliament and is now immortalized in bronze on the grounds.
Our walk took us to the gates of Westminster Abbey where I stated my intention to go inside. My guide said he must continue his trek. I gave him car fare to the hospital. It didn’t matter whether his story was true; the information and friendship were worth the price.
I entered the Abbey and found it much more impressive in both scope and design than the Cathedral. I made my standard tour, then went out the side door into the attached Cloisters, where many famous Britons are entombed. I slowly walked the archways, reading random monuments and memorials. My legs growing weary, I sat on a short wall, my back to the courtyard, facing into the archway, which was dark in shadows.
The monument directly in front of me suddenly lit up. This time I was startled. It was a relatively new memorial, dedicated by Queen Elizabeth in 1960 to the Colonists. It was inscribed with the following words: “Whosoever will be a chief among you, let him be your servant.”
I turned quickly to look behind me and saw that the sun had come out and had reflected off the side of the Abbey and sent a beam of light through the courtyard and into the archway.
Remarkable. Twice in one day. I decided the day could not end without a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral…
Within about a year from that day, I was running a company for the first time. Ever since, I have been running one kind of organization or another. For the last 25 years I have not had a boss, other than a Board or a committee to which I was responsible. This kind of position works for me, because I consider myself to serve for the benefit of those with whom I work everyday.
I truly believe that in today’s age the most “powerful” leaders are those who support and empower those who nominally work under him to perform at the peak of their abilities, who create an atmosphere where people have an opportunity to shine, individually and in groups.
To be an effective leader, one must have a service mentality. This concept is hardly new; I did not invent it. But I did learn it one drizzly day in London, England and I have kept it ever since close to my heart.