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The Testament of Mary

Mater dolorosa is certainly a title that can be applied to the Mary of Colm Toibins 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 sons 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 mothers 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 Pilates 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.Toibins Mary asserts her self-knowledge, of her weakness, of her unease over her sons extraordinary life and mission, to separate herself from any distortion of her truth in her anticipation of what will happen to her lifes 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.

About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.



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For some time I have resented, and rejected, the popular depictions of Mary as an insipid woman who lacks spirit and even intelligence. I think of her as a strong woman; how else could she have endured what she did? The few references to her in the Gospels beyond the Annunciation and Nativity, are about all we have to go on. But her firm approach to Jesus, who at twelve announced that he had to be "about my father's business," says much about her insistence on her own authority in dealing with a pre-teen who was anxious to go his own way. Similarly, at the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus said "what is that to you and to me?" regarding the host's running-out-of-wine dilemma, Mary just quietly told the waiters to obey Jesus' instructions. No ordering, begging or argument there. Jesus, now a grown man, apparently performed the water into wine miracle out of deference and respect for his mother.Colm Toibin's fictional picture of Mary as angry and disgusted makes no sense to me. But I think we do Mary a disservice by trying to make her into the sweet, obedient, yes person we typically see in our Marian literature.

I know I am not alone in my distaste for the passive, insipid Mary that Catherine describes so aptly. Tobin's work sounds like it simply wanders so far afield in its portrayal that it really isn't even an "alter-Mary, " but a person entirely unrelated to the historical Mary, and in that respect it might be interesting but not terribly helpful. Best artistic rendering I have seen of a Mary written "outside the lines" without severing all essential connection with the real Mary of Nazareth: BBC TV's 2008 production of "The Passion." She does not figure hugely in the story, but she packs a punch when she does appear. Very much worth watching, if only for this rare treat. I believe it can be watched piecemeal on You Tube; Amazon UK sells the DVD, but you need a region-free DVD player to use them (or a good computer drive). There was a plan at one ime ti bring it to HBO, but not sure that ever happened.

You really don't know Mary the Blessed Virgin Mother of God or You would be praying to her for protection from evil. See how powerfully and simply she showed the Children of Fatima the Vision of Hell, where poor souls go. It is the same place souls go who insult The MOTHER OF GOD, GO TO HELL UNREPENTANT, BECAUSE, "THE MEASURE U MEASURE OUT WILL BE MEASURED TO U" FOR ETERNITY, BECAUSE GOD IS ETERNAL.WITH JESUCRUX,MARY


I know Jesus will forgive you, but I think you're an sleazebag.

St Louis De Montfort said in his book devotion to the Blessed Virgin that in the last days the Blessed Mother would raise up an army to defend her honor and battle the heretics and haters of God.

The play's plot is offensive to all of Christianity and I suspect that's why it was written. Controversy sells. Colm Toibin, if he has real talent, might look to creating something that uplifts humanity in a world that sorely needs it.

I'm really sorry that the cranks got hold of this thread. I think Toibin's portrayal of Mary offers some fruitful ideas and invites contemplation. I wrote about it on my own blog here:

Thank you for directing me to your blog post. The complications of the Incarnation are part of its mystery. "I bless when I understand."

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