Stephen Gallup's Reviews > The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
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's review
Jun 24, 2016

really liked it

This is a startling, disturbing story. At first I felt vaguely repelled by it, because the aged Mary portrayed here is a reclusive husk of a woman, someone who has endured horrors and learned to distrust or detest the people around her, and has long since abandoned any illusions about the goodness or importance of life. She's nothing like the serene, trusting mother of Jesus we've been given in Scripture and doctrine. For me she evoked instead a certain elderly woman I once knew, who'd been through her own sorrows and had acquired a vague generalized scorn for everything. I did not enjoy that lady's company (and she could not possibly have cared less had she known).

Also, like other readers, I found Mary's voice perhaps more modern, or more Western, than is plausible. But that's just speculation. Human nature probably doesn't change all that much.

As the story progressed, I became more engaged, because, alas, this Mary is talking about perspectives that intersect with my own. They may not intersect with actual events in the life of Jesus. One would hope this is not the definitive word. But this story is one of those explorations of viewpoints actual participants or witnesses might've had in situations that have since been interpreted and reimagined to the point of becoming unreal for us. (I'm reminded of a Robert Coover short story told from the perspective of a neighbor when Noah was building the arc. Or to use another example, there's Tom Stoppard's famous spinoff from Hamlet.)

Many years have passed since the crucifixion. Back then, Mary knew well in advance that her son was in danger, and she tried to warn him. He'd paid her no attention whatsoever. Then she imagined there might be a way to prevent the execution from happening, and later even to get him off the cross before he died. Contemplating the memory now, she observes, "I moved from thinking I could do something, to realizing I could not." She'd had absolutely no effect on the implacable course of events. The only thing she had a hope of accomplishing was avoidance of her own imminent arrest and murder. She therefore escaped, and now she's living out her days in Ephesus, where certain unnamed disciples or scribes continually ask her to confirm points of the story they are writing. She claims to be willing to help, but isn't saying what they want to hear. The New Testament they eventually produce will contain none of her input.

The Annunciation, in this telling, seems to have been something those storytellers have invented for their own purposes. She's flummoxed that they would imagine such a thing.

I wondered why there was no reference to James, whom I always thought was her other son. I understand now that, according to Catholic doctrine, James was a cousin rather than a sibling. This is an example of how very sketchy our understanding of the details must be.

She corroborates some familiar episodes, but they're not so familiar here. I noticed right away that the sequence doesn't match my understanding. For example, she's got the wedding feast, in which Jesus turned water to wine, occurring pretty much at the end of his ministry rather than at the beginning. That and all events mentioned are presented with no understanding of their significance, and with a distracted focus on other things, especially the ever-present hostile observers. As for the Lazarus story, well, as far as she can tell the guy may indeed have come back from the dead, as is claimed, but the life to which he returns is still a kind of walking death, the stuff of a bad dream. She sees nothing to celebrate in it. And she heard no noble words from the man suffering on the cross. That episode was just one excruciating horror, which comes across all too vividly in this account. She definitely sees no meaning in it. The Resurrection, as far as she is aware, was only a strange dream that she and Mary, the sister of Lazarus, somehow shared.

Mary acknowledges the attraction of a sweet, consoling interpretation, but says reality has "more weight ... All this is easy to imagine. It is what really happened that is unimaginable." And thus, when the disciples tell her Jesus' death served to redeem the whole world -- everyone who has ever lived or ever will live -- she retorts, "It wasn't worth it!" No promised benefit could justify the suffering she saw him endure, and that to some extent she endured with him.

Although she had been unable to change the course of events, she still sees no reason why a far better outcome could not have been easily obtained. If she could wish or pray for anything at all, it would be for none of it to have happened.

On reflection, I see no necessity for this story to be about Mary, and that's the main attraction it has for me. It's a story about how to interpret the anguish we experience in life.

I've experienced my share.

I continue to do so.

I think faith is supposed to empower one to accept that our suffering is part of God's greater purpose, and to believe that everything will be made perfect in the end. Having mentioned Job in the second blog post linked to above, I should here acknowledge God's response to Job's challenges: Clueless mortals were not around when God set up this universe and therefore have no basis for passing judgment. All we can do is trust. I daresay most believers find this very difficult at times. For the Mary in this story, it's impossible.

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June 24, 2016 – Shelved
June 24, 2016 – Finished Reading

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