Mater dolorosa is certainly a title that can be applied to the Mary of Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary, but the sorrow in her voice rests on a fulcrum of anger and fear. Permit, please the metaphor, to let me say the balance tips towards rejection, and the traditional role she rejects rises away, almost thrown from her grasp. Her novelistic end weighs heavily towards escape, if only imaginary, into a sensuous human realm: “a city filled with wells and trees.” “The world has loosened, like a woman preparing for bed who lets her hair flow free.” Of that other world, of the death of her son, of his crucifixion she says, “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.”
Of course, much meaning lies with the “its” of “It was not worth it.” This is the judgment offered by Mary as she approaches not a meeting of those who follow The Way but a Temple of Artemis. She rejects her son’s career and death, denies its supposed meaning, and questions the whole notion of redemption. The directions she favors she summons in the very last words of the book: “And I am whispering the words, knowing that the words matter, and smiling as I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place who linger in the air to watch me and hear me.” All that is the good news of the gospel, she turns from for the humble consolations of this pagan life.
Toibin, in an NPR interview last year with Terry Gross, explained that he had approached the story of Mary as a novelist, and that as he began to inhabit her consciousness, he let the character develop in its own idiosyncratic ways. A reader has to take the unconventional portrait for what is suggests about the traditional Marian narrative.
From the start Mary is defensive of her son, worried over the rag-tag group who follows him and who appears to second the increasingly wild claims he makes for himself. Her mother’s gaze is simply unable to penetrate the life her estranged son is living. “When I rose to embrace him, he appeared unfamiliar, oddly formal and grand, and it struck me that I should speak now . . . ‘You are in great danger,’ I whispered.” She knows that the authorities, Jewish and Roman, are tracking his every movement, but her sun refuses to pay her heed.
She has a close informer and protector, Marcus, who relates to her the summoning to life of Lazarus, the miracle hardly provoking her wonder: “the world around remaining stilled and silent, and my son too, I am told, stilled and silent, as Lazarus began to weep.” She comments further, “They felt, as I felt, as I still feel, that no one should tamper with the fullness that is death.” Jesus’ miracles are signs of power, but of a disruptive sort that Mary sees as violating the processes of nature.
The estrangement is furthered; Mary declares to Marcus when he tells her Jesus is to be crucified and that she, as his mother, is also in danger,” I am not one of his followers.” He replies that she will be sought out no matter what, and he gives her a means of seeing Jesus before his Passion. She lives his coming ordeal in anticipation on her journey south to Jerusalem and once in the city finds her son already in custody and she housed with his followers, a group she distrust and fears. She witnesses with them the trial of Jesus from the square below Pilate’s place of judgment, and finally, stands at the cross, awaiting his end.
Here Toibin makes most clear her demarcation from the Passion of her son: she flees from Golgotha, aware that her life is threatened because of her association with Jesus; she makes this confession: “I will say it now because it has to be said by someone once: I did it [fled] to save myself. I did it for no other reason.” She asserts that she has dreamed that she stood by the cross, held him in the traditional pieta, doing all that is demanded of a mother. But here, she makes the assertion that, in effect makes the novel, “I tell the truth not because it will change night into day or make the days endless in their beauty and comfort they offer us, we who are old. I speak simply because I can, because enough has happened and because chance may might not come again.”
Toibin’s Mary asserts her self-knowledge, of her weakness, of her unease over her son’s extraordinary life and mission, to separate herself from any distortion of her truth in her anticipation of what will happen to her life’s history. She will not be subsumed into a pattern; she does not believe in what her son has done, nor does she want to be part of such a working out of a plan which she rejects.
“This is over now, The boy became a man and left home and became a dying figure hanging on a cross, I want to be able to imagine that what happened to him will not come, it will see us and decide – not now, not them, And we will be left in peace to grow old.”
The abstraction of the sentence, “became a dying figure,” denies Jesus even his crucified humanity. His mother longs for what is normal, for a life of human generation, linked to the children of women who shuffle of to their deaths having led lives as the gods let them live.
There is an affront in this portrait, surely; but the writing is such, as I hope that the excerpts show, that we go beyond confrontation with an alter-Mary, into the plethora of responses that Jesus in his manhood must have evoked. We have here the gospels at a slant, and the perspective fascinates by way of an invitation to reread and rethink the impact of one who said, “I come not to bring peace but the sword.”