A mother’s lament: 'The Testament of Mary'

"I have 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."

This is how Mary, mother of Jesus, remembers her son's death in Colm Toibin's new novella, "The Testament of Mary." For Mary, the crucifixion was not, as Jesus' followers tell her, "necessary," nor was it done, as they claim, so that humankind "would be saved." In Mary's telling, her son's death is a classical tragedy; it may arouse pity and fear, but it will not bring about redemption. As she says, "When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it."

As the novella opens, Jesus is dead and Mary is living in hiding in Ephesus. Two unnamed men, most likely St. John and St. Paul, visit her, asking for details of Jesus' life: They are busy writing the Gospel, building a religion. Mary, however, is busy mourning, and she refuses to satisfy the men's "earnest need for foolish anecdotes or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all." She tells us that "memory fills my body as much as blood and bones," and it is these memories - of blood and bone and violence - that she will share with us.

The story Mary tells is painful: how the charismatic Jesus, "utterly confident and radiant," attracted an unruly following of "fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers," those on the margins who were eager to believe that the old world was coming to an end; how, at first reluctantly and then more eagerly, Jesus believed his followers when they called him the Son of God; how he raised Lazarus from the dead and turned water into wine; and how, finally, he was put to violent death.

And yet Mary relates all of this - the life-giving miracles and the life-canceling suffering - in a voice that is so restrained, so understated and clear, that it renders the pain that much more painful. Toibin puts Mary at the scene of her son's death, and here is how she remembers it: "We held each other and we stood back. That is what we did. We held each other and stood back as he howled out words that I could not catch."

We might think that this is all we can do in the face of such suffering - hold each other and acknowledge the existence of a pain that we can never fully understand. For Mary, however, this isn't enough. Throughout the narrative, she reproves herself for abandoning her son before his death - having been warned that she will be rounded up next, she slips away with St. John before her son gives up his spirit - and for not more fully participating in his grief, because "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."

Toibin's Mary is very different from the Mary we're accustomed to. She's stubborn and skeptical, devoted to her dead husband, Joseph, and religiously promiscuous: In the final, lyrical scene, Mary visits a Roman temple and prays to "the great goddess Artemis."

Still, despite its unorthodoxies, "The Testament of Mary" is a very simple - one might say classical - tale, showing how violence, even redemptive violence, frustrates our attempts to make sense of it. We continue to tell stories because that's all we can do. But, in the end, as Mary reminds us, "no words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night. They will not brighten it or make it less strange."

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