Blessed Among Women
‘The Testament of Mary,’ by Colm Toibin
By MARY GORDON
Published: November 9, 2012
The New York Times
Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given Christianity a good name. None of the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred have attached to her. She has been free for centuries of the “blame Mom” syndrome, representing endless patience, loving kindness, mercy, succor, recourse.
The problem with all this is that it has led to centuries of sentimentality — blue and white Madonnas with folded hands and upturned eyes, a stick with which to beat independent women. In my youth, stores sold items called “Mary-like gowns,” which meant you could go to your senior prom looking as undesirable as possible in the name of the Virgin.
Colm Toibin’s novella “The Testament of Mary” never even approaches the swampy terrain of sentimentality. Consider, for example, the elderly Mary’s wish in relation to the Evangelists who persecute her with their insistent visits: “When I look back at them I hope they see contempt.” Traveling by ship after the death of her son, she realizes that she longs for a wreck, a drowning. “I had developed a hunger for catastrophe.” Contempt. A hunger for catastrophe. She’s a lot closer to Medea than to June Cleaver.
The writer who assumes the task of making a fictional character of someone whose life took place in history faces particular challenges. When the character’s life is a part of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the ante goes way up. His awareness of these complications leads Toibin to make a deft strategic move at the very beginning of his book by weaving the creation of a text into the structure of his tale. It is, after all, entitled “The Testament of Mary,” and the word “testament,” which we might be tempted to slide over in our association with its biblical meaning, in fact suggests both the act of witnessing and the preparation of a legacy — usually composed near death.
Throughout the novella, Mary is involved in questions of writing. She sees herself as a victim, trapped by men determined to make a story of what she knows is not a story but her life. The making of the Gospels is portrayed not as an act of sacred remembrance but as an invasion and a theft. The Evangelists — which are they? . . . Luke, perhaps, or John? — are portrayed as menacing intruders, with the lurking shadowy presence of Stalin’s secret police. They have an agenda: They know what they want to write and, almost faute de mieux, they have to interview the mother. They need to lay down the foundation for a future understanding of Jesus, and this must include the conviction that he is the Son of God, and that his death saved the world. But Mary will have none of it.
“I stood up from the chair and moved away from them, assaulted by their words.
“ ‘He died to redeem the world. . . . His death has freed mankind from darkness and from sin. . . . His suffering was necessary. . . . It was how mankind would be saved.’
“ ‘Saved?’ I asked and raised my voice. ‘Who has been saved?’
“ ‘Those who came before him and those who live now and those who are not yet born. . . . ’
“ ‘Saved from death?’ I asked.
“ ‘Saved for eternal life,’ he said. ‘Everyone in the world will know eternal life.’
“ ‘Oh, eternal life!’ I replied. ‘Oh, everyone in the world.’ ”
The use and repetition of the word “oh” is masterly. Its casual diminishment of the larger words “eternal” and “everyone” is a perfect marker of the enormous gap between the mother and the writers.
And Toibin the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed. Her fear and desire for self-protection drowned her grief and sympathy for her son’s fate. “The pain,” she says, “was his and not mine.” So much for the Pietà. So much for the “Stabat Mater.”
Unlike other writers who, in rendering the historical past, leave their poetic and image-making gifts at the door, Toibin is at his lyrical best in “The Testament of Mary.” When she is remembering the crucifixion, at the insistence of her inquisitional Evangelists, what she wants to talk about is a man with a hawk in a cage and rabbits in a sack. The cage is too small for the hawk; the bird is angry and frustrated, and the man keeps feeding it rabbits, although “the bird did not seem to be hungry. . . . The cage became full of half-dead wholly uneaten rabbits. . . . Twitching with old bursts of life.”
Atmosphere is powerfully created; we share the bodily realities of events that, through repetition, have become almost generic and so, abstract. Fleeing the violence she fears, Mary sees stars as “leftover things confined to their place, their shining nothing more than a sort of pleading.” As the guests wait for Jesus’ appearance at the wedding at Cana there is “a hushed holding in of things.” The tension preceding the crucifixion is chillingly evoked: “I knew that I was facing into something ferocious and exact.”
We learn the psychological implications of events through the precise evocation of their physical manifestations: “There was a dark vacancy in the faces of some, and they wanted this vacancy filled with cruelty, with pain and with the sound of someone crying out.” “Everybody’s blood was filled with venom, a venom which came in the guise of energy, activity, shouting, laughing, roaring instructions as they paved the way for a grim procession to a hill beyond.” With a poet’s gift for imagery, Toibin describes the scene of the crucifixion: “It was like a marketplace, but more intense somehow, the act that was about to take place was going to make a profit for both seller and buyer.”
Very occasionally, an anachronistic slip-up can distract. Mary complains twice about ill-fitting “shoes” and speaks of someone seeing to her “bills.” Now, it’s certainly possible that people wore shoes and paid bills in first-century Roman Palestine, but it almost doesn’t matter. This is a place where our associations — sandals and piles of coins versus shoes and bills — create doubts that hang in the air, like an annoying buzz. Or like a tiny pimple on an otherwise beautiful face.
For “The Testament of Mary” is a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother’s grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son. Her prayers are directed not to Yahweh but to Artemis, Greek not Jewish, chaste goddess of the hunt and of fertility, but no one’s mother. Mary’s final word on her son’s life and death is the bleak declaration: “It was not worth it.”