The Testament of Mary – Colm Tóibín and the reimagining of our culture. (Book Review)

They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us no where.  When I seem not to remember what they think I must remember.  They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to notice that I remember everything.  Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph depicted in stained glass

The bible gives us remarkably little on the figure of Mary the Mother of Christ. She is there at the birth (of course) and part of the essential nativity scene, then she is scolding her son when he leaves her and the family to go and speak with the elders in the synagogue.  She is there at the wedding in Cana and later at the foot of the cross. Her relationship with her son, Jesus, becomes distant after he turns twelve. The family traveled to Jerusalem for passover, and when they packed up to leave with the rest of their community, it took a day for Mary to realise Jesus wasn’t with them. They had to return to Jerusalem, where they found their pre-teen speaking with the Elders in the synagogue.  Mary questions him over his obedience and his loyalty:

When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  But they did not understand what he was saying to them.

 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.  And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52)

It was after both Christ and Mary had died, that the Church addressed the problem of Mary.  Given the ordination of Peter as the first Pope, and the similar ordination of Christ the Man to Christ God on earth manifest, something had to be done about the overwhelmingly impossible existence of the woman who gave birth to God. The virgin birth is well documented in the scriptures, including clues that Mary would have been about thirteen years old when she had her first son. If Mary is venerated and adored through art, literature, music, film and religion today, she certainly wasn’t when she was alive. Given how little scripture there is to go on, much can be done with the image of Mary, and much has been done. Mary has been depicted as saintly in her status as the mother of God and at the other end of the scale she has been examined as a mortal woman, a mother and a distant follower of her son and all that he represents.

When I look back at them I hope they see contempt or some reflection of their idiocy, even though I do not feel contempt, I feel almost happy and I feel amused at how like small boys they are in their random search for ways of showing who is the biggest, who is in command.

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So now, Colm Tóibín gives us a Mary at cause of her omission from the scriptures, not a victim of it. Toibin’s Mary is a prophetess, but not of the benevolence or glory of god, rather of the dangers of fanaticism and the problems that occur when fable becomes fact and then goes on to become the word of God. Toibin’s Mary is mature and cynical about the constant fawning and flattering of her son and through that, wary of any attempts to have this bestowed upon herself. She understands very well that flattery is a form of ownership, a moment of exchange when you agree to “be” for the other. Toibin asks the most irreverent question of all:  What if Mary was an atheist?  What would she make of her son if she didn’t believe?

The talk was of nothing except power and miracles. It was as if the crowd was roaming the countryside like a swarm of locusts in search of want or affliction.

But no one among them thought that anyone could raise the dead. It had occurred to no one. Most of them believed, or so I learned, that it should not even be attempted, that it would represent a mockery to the sky itself. They felt as I felt, as I still feel, that no one should tamper with the fullness that is death. Death needs time and silence. The dead must be left alone with their new gift or their new freedom from affliction.

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There is a measure of distance from scripture required for this examination, but when has theology, art or religion not created distance between itself and the Mary of the scriptures? Toibin’s point is her mythology, not facts, if there are facts to be found. This is a testament in the true sense that it is a version of scripture, refusing the embellishments that have occurred posthumously in the name of spiritual preference, but it is also an account that disallows what we call human nature in favor of a contrary position. Toibin’s Mary flees the foot of the cross before her son is dead, in order to save her own life.  This raises the question at the very heart of our attitude toward mothers, and the saintly burden we place upon them. Toibin’s question here is not “What would Mary do?” but rather “Look what we have done to women in the name of Mary.”

“I was there,” I said.  “I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and 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.”

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Testament is a word that has become synonymous with an account of the word of God and a covenant between a human being and God. By giving us Mary’s testament, Toibin forces the reader into the heart of this contract.  The Testament of Mary isn’t a “retelling” of what happened to Christ from the perspective of an atheist, it’s a call to question the fine print in the ongoing contract human’s have with God, including atheists (for there would be no atheists if there were no God). The Testament of Mary asks each one of us to examine our relationship with the God of our history and make our own declaration.  To deny the bible’s impact, authenticity (as what?) or relevance is to chase after a bolted horse. Instead, our relationship as it exists must be refashioned and reexamined. We want more testaments, not less.  We want need more witness, not less.  The Testament of Mary calls into question the very nature of the contract, the subterranean impact and the subversive counter-impact that is the opportunity for a culture free to listen to voices it could never hear before.

I wanted to ask them if this deliverance would mean that he would not then be crucified, that he would be released, but they all, including Mary, once she was in their company, spoke in a maze of riddles. No question asked, I knew, would elicit a straight answer. I was back in the world of fools, twitches, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost out of breath with excitement even before they spoke. And within this group of men I noticed that there was a set of hierarchies, men who spoke and were listened to, for example, or whose presence created silence, or who sat at the top of the table, or who felt free to ignore me and my companion, and who demanded food from the other women who scampered in and out of the room like hunched and obedient animals.

190957493.336.255The Testament of Mary is published by Scribners.

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