Day 19: The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
This daring novella is a first person narrative by the Virgin Mary as she recounts events in her life and that of her son, culminating, of course, with the crucifixion. She is being interviewed by two visitors who want to record her testament for the narrative they are writing about her son.
She is not very co-operative since she knows they have a specific agenda: they want stories which will substantiate that Jesus was the son of God, and they become angry and impatient when what she says does not accord with their version of events. She resists their badgering, their “vast and insatiable . . . [and] earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story” and refuses to be manipulated to say what they want to hear. She says, “I will do for them what I can, but no more than that. . . . I cannot say more than I say.” She has reason to suspect them when she discovers that a dream she shares of her son’s resurrection becomes recorded as fact.
Mary is not the paragon of endless patience, loving kindness and mercy central in Marian doctrine. She is a stubborn, intelligent (though uneducated), and independent woman. She dislikes her son’s followers, calling them “a group of misfits, who were only children . . . or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. . . . Not one . . . was normal.” She flees before her son actually expires because she is convinced she must do so in order to survive, and she admits, “I must let the words out, that despite the panic, despite the desperation, the shrieking, despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh, despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine.” These are hardly the words we would expect to hear from someone considered by some to be the blessed mother of all mankind. Mary remains fiercely devoted to her deceased husband and finds comfort, not in a synagogue, but in the temple of Artemis.
Most significantly, she is skeptical of her son’s identification as the son of God. She sees her son as someone who fell in with the wrong crowd: “Gather together misfits . . . and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.” She has a profound sense of loss and waste: she says that her son “could have done anything, . . . he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent.” She feels he was not genuine when he was preaching to his disciples; she says “his voice was false, and his tone all stilted.” She does, however, acknowledge that she did sense something extraordinary about him: “I saw a power fixed and truly itself, formed. I saw something that seemed to have no history and to have come from nowhere.”
There are people who would regard this book as blasphemy, but I see it as a humanization of Mary. She is a human mother who suffered unimaginably by seeing her son suffer in unimaginable ways. Speaking of the crucifixion, she says, “I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that, or lessen what it did to me.” Who cannot sympathize with the portrayal of a lamenting mother who expresses grief at the sacrificing of her son by crying, “’I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.’”
I highly recommend this book; it is beautifully written and challenges the reader to consider another view of a woman mentioned in both the Bible and the Quran.