The Testament of Mary
A Novel by Colm Tóibín
2012 / 96 Pages
Full of grace
Testament /ˈtestəmənt/ noun: something that serves as a sign or evidence of a specified fact, event, or quality.
At their very worst, fictional works that rely heavily on the Bible as their source material can be negatively explosive and highly blasphemous, at their best these same works can be critically acclaimed, but these accolades can never arrive without some measure of controversy. Colm Toibin’s slim Man Booker nominated novella The Testament of Mary clearly falls under the latter designation. It’s a wonderful, surprising, and moving piece of literature, but it will most certainly upset a fair number of people who read it and then seek it interpret its contents as being something greater than a piece of fiction. When the book is raised up falsely as having some factual merit and then challenged to stand up against their personal religious or spiritual beliefs it will most certainly fail. If it didn’t, then everything that they have been taught to believe could come crumbling down around their very knees. In order for it to work properly, a belief system must be infallible, and any perceived threat to its existence must be immediately dismissed in any way possible.
Toibin’s story is told through an aged Mary’s eyes and as much as it serves as a fictional testament to the events she witnessed in her son’s life, it’s equally a compelling piece about her own experiences as a simple woman that suddenly, and quite unwillingly, became branded as the mother of the son of God, a title she never asked for, and most certainly never felt comfortable receiving.
What’s truly beautiful about Toibin’s novella is its eloquent and thoughtful use of language as it so heartbreakingly relays the relatable tale of a mother that’s forced to watch her son grow from a small infant that demands her utmost attention in order to survive, into a powerful man who believes that he can bend the world to his will, and then back again, into a crumpled, betrayed, beaten down human being who finally understands the hard truths about how the world works, albeit all too late. Like the best of caring parents, she questions his motivations, actions and abilities throughout his rise to prominence, always with his best interests at heart:
And what was strange about the power he exuded was that it made me love him and seek to protect him even more than I did when he had no power. It was not that I saw through it or did not believe it. It was not that I saw him still as a child. No, I saw a power fixed and truly itself, formed. I saw something that seemed to have no history and to have come from nowhere, and I sought in my dreams and in my waking time to protect it and I felt an abiding love for it. For him, whatever he had become.
Through her own words, Mary, like each one of us, is portrayed as a flawed woman who regrets many of the actions she has taken in her life, and many more still that she didn’t. She’s a grieving, pained woman who dreams of reversing time, of going backwards to that one perfect moment of existence where everything was just right and living within that space for all eternity:
If water can be changed into wine and the dead can be brought back, then I want time pushed back. I want to live again before my son’s death happened, or before he left home, when he was a baby and his father was alive and there was ease in the world. I want one of those golden Sabbath days, days without wind when there were prayers on our lips, when I joined the women and intoned the words, the supplication to God to give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the needy, deliver them from the hands of the wicked.
Where things get controversial is in Toibin’s introduction of several of the apostles as antagonists who want to co-opt her son’s death to change the world for the better. With their ambitious agenda in place, they take each detail of her account of her son’s life into consideration, and then morph into something that better suits their pre-determined agenda for spreading their chosen message. For her part, Mary seems to be telling her testament, in her own words, so that the real truths as she perceives then can be said out loud and revealed before she herself finally passes on to the next world.
Though it may be short in length, The Testament of Mary is long on the raw, emotional, universal power that fuels us all when it comes to caring for, and loving unconditionally, our children. The points that Toibin’s piece so masterfully drives home is that none of us are perfect, we all do our best in any given circumstance, and then live with the results of our actions, good or bad, guilt or pleasure, for the rest of our days. Yes, even the supposed mother of God has regrets, in fact hers may just be the biggest of all.