Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin


What a strange idea to recount Mary's take on the life and death of her son Jesus.  She tells the story as an old woman near death, wishing to tell the truth, struggling against her "minders" who want to shape the story.

In Toibin's telling she is skeptical of his ideas and wholly dismissive of those who see him as the son of God:  

"He was indeed the Son of God," he said.  And then, patiently, he began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son's conception as the other nodded and encouraged him.  I barely listened.  I had other things to do.  I know what happened.

 After her husband died, young men began to gather around her son and she says, "Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me,…something of their awkward hunger or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them…."  Later she calls them fools, twitchers, malcontents, and stammerers.

She reveals herself as a grump in describing her reaction to weddings, as she dislikes the laughter and talk and the waste of food and drink.  She describes the bride and groom as a couple to be sacrificed for the sake of money or status or inheritance.  

When Jesus has been taken into custody, the minders appear and those gathered say a great deliverance in the world will occur.  She asked if this meant he would not be crucified; the responses were just riddles to her.  She was told she and her friend Mary must leave before Jesus dies; someone else will take him from the cross, clean him and bury him.  Much to her regret, she agrees, and runs for her life.  She tells that some days later both she and Mary dreamed simultaneously that he came back to life.  Though she maintains this was a dream, she and Mary were awakened by water rising from a well and that he was borne on that water.  Her friend Mary held him and placed him across Mary's lap.

Mary lives the remainder of her life quietly in hiding, visited regularly by minders who bring her food and explain the importance of his life and death to her and interrogate her, hoping for certain answers from her that she is unwilling to give.  They explain that he died so that mankind would be saved.  She asks

"Who has been saved?"  "Those who came before him and those who live now and those who are not yet born," he said.  "Saved from death?"  I asked.  "Saved for eternal life," he said.  "Everyone in the world will know eternal life."  "Oh, eternal life!" I replied.  "Oh, everyone in the world!"  I looked at both of them, their faces hooded and something appearing dark in their faces  "Is that what it was for?"  They caught one another's eye and for the first time I felt the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief.

And later she continues, "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."

She describes those who come to visit her this way,

They are not fools.  I admire how deliberate they are, how exact their plans, how dedicated they are, how different from the group of unshaven brutes and twitchers, men who could not look at women, who came to my house after my husband's death and sat with my son, talking nonsense through the night.  They will thrive and prevail and I will die.

While Mary is an anguished mother in this telling who wants life for her son, she tells us of a "simultaneous dream," letting us know she might have chosen to believe something else.

 Colm Toibin, Testament of Mary, Scribner, 2012, 81 pages. (I read the Kindle version.)

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