Fearless and fierce: Following after Mary of Nazareth

Behold, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

For weeks I have wanted to bring this quote into dialogue with my emerging ideas of leadership and power, but I’ve not known where to start. Shelley’s words, spoken by her monster as it torments Victor Frankenstein, are not comfortable ones to sit with. A power rooted in fearlessness is surely dangerous power? Isn’t fear a key regulator of leadership? Fear of inflicting pain (and the correlative desire to bring healing), fear of making mistakes (and the correlative striving for excellence), fear of letting co-labourers and those we serve down (and the correlative other-ness at the heart of Servant Leadership) – these fears are surely healthy, in moderation, and enable leaders to keep their power in check.

And yet the quotation has not let me go, and I need to ask why. What part has fear played in my own leadership? Was it healthy? What about in others I observe? Has fear been the positive driver for healthy exercise of power, or does fear, like anxiety, actually infect, paralyse and harm institutions, spreading through groups in the virus-like ways that Edwin Friedman identified so well?

Fearlessness makes us powerful, but so does fear. The drive to constantly cover our mistakes lest we are found out, to cast others aside for fear we ourselves will be left behind, the relentless push for success and growth that leaves us paralysed with exhaustion and still no less fearful of our fate: these are powerful forces that have great potential to cause harm. The current Netflix hit Squid Game offers gruesome but insightful commentary on the power of fear to as it feeds discontent, paranoia and egotism (content warning: that links direct to the horrifically violent episodes on Netflix).

I want to redeem the idea of fearlessness, not as recklessness or lack of self-regulation, but as a way to seek transformative power: power that brings change and builds wellbeing.

And in the midst of these reflections, I discovered both Ann Loades’ book, Grace is not Faceless, as well as Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Walking Madonna, at Salisbury Cathedral (both courtesy of Edward Dowler’s review of Loades in the Church Times).

Frink’s introduces us to Mary of Nazareth in her old age. Her she is, not as the pious virgin that so many preachers and commentators would like us to imagine, but ravaged by the sword destined to pierce her soul from the moment of her “yes”. The Walking Madonna is fearless. Turning with her back to the Cathedral, she strides boldly towards the town. This frail elderly lady turns her back on the mammoth structure of the institution, and hurries away to – to what?

Nicholas Mutton / Walking Madonna statue, Salisbury Cathedral / CC BY-SA 2.0

Let’s take Frinks’ Madonna back in time for a moment. I have written before about my encounter with Bellini’s painting The Presentation of Christ. I have shared my own journey of motherhood, and how Bellini helped me unlock the narratives of Mary of Nazareth not as pious virgin, but as fearless mother of Jesus Christ. What I noticed recently was not just the torment in Mary’s eyes, but the position of Christ in the painting.

Unlike Luke’s Gospel, in Bellini’s painting, Mary doesn’t let go. She holds that boy with all the lioness passion of the postnatal woman. Mary stands flanked by women: the world of women coming alongside the world of men. And where is Christ? Turned towards the women, eyes fixed on the one who brought him fiercely to birth, with his back to the men who might so easily stand for the patriarchy of institutions whose “deep cultural structures legitimate women’s exclusion” (Beard, 2017,83). Christ turns his back on the power and privilege that long to take him, shape him, and raise him as their own. It is a turning away that we see Christ do time and again in Luke’s Gospel: away from power and privilege; towards the oppressed and the marginalised.

If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power we need to redefine, rather than women?

Beard, 2017, 83.

It was Mary of Nazareth who helped me to use my own experience of motherhood to redefine power. The attentiveness I had to give to each present moment as gift (and having no energy to do anything else!), the fiery compassion as I came to see every person as someone’s child, the letting go of ambition and strategy – these things formed my vocation as a female leader. Motherhood affirmed, proclaimed and enriched my identity as priest and disciple.

We need to redefine power. Isn’t that what Mary herself said, as the seeds of divine rescue plan took rest within her?

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…

…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1, NRSV.

There was something about motherhood that helped me to find my fearlessness. Motherhood took me through the worst pain I had ever experienced: physically and emotionally. Motherhood brought me face to face with the reality of death: in the lives lost in my womb, in the trauma and danger of childbirth, in the postnatal depression that left me suicidal. Motherhood was the sword that pierced my soul, and left me standing with Mary in solidarity, and fearlessness.

It is this fearlessness that helps me stay alert to the dangers of exercising leadership. It is fearlessness that stops me in the tracks of self-interest, that reminds me to speak out for the voiceless even at a cost, because so often I have a voice where others don’t. It is fearlessness that keeps me serving within an institution that leaves so many dear friends burned out. It is fearlessness that focuses my gaze back on the present moment: attentive to today without too much concern for next year.

Fearless leadership can be powerful leadership, but not how we might think. This is not the power of Frankenstein monster, intent on tormenting its creator without care for consequence. This is a leadership which is powerful in its letting go of self-centredness. This is a leadership which is powerful in its commitment to the present moment. This is a leadership which is powerful in its deep awareness of what is “going on” in any given context: resisting anxiety and fear as drivers to quick words and action, and knowing the power of silence and stillness when all around is chaos and panic.

Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.

The Walking Madonna leads us in this way of fearless leadership. Where is she walking to? Perhaps that’s not so important as what she is walking from. There is great power in this small figure, with her back to the Cathedral, echoing Bellini’s portrayal of her infant son, similarly frail, similarly fierce: united by their turning away, and their turning to.

Is this how we begin to redefine power? With a fearlessness that makes us all for the other and which is unapologetic about the ‘turning from’ that we need to do if we are to cultivate a healthy leadership that will last the course, no matter how many times the swords pierce our souls?

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