I read The Testament of Mary before dawn on this Easter Sunday. A coincidence, but not altogether without significance. It is an Easter Sunday direct-dialed from heaven: every color in the dyed-egg basket is reflected in spring’s delicate light - from the cornflower blue sky to the coral-pink sunrise to the daffodils in scene-stealing yellow. It is a day to believe in Resurrection and rebirth. Yet, I am not a Believer in the Christian sense. That Jesus was a real man I have no doubt. That he was a chosen being born to a virgin and endowed with super-natural powers I cannot accept. In that, I share heart and mind with his mother Mary, as envisioned by Colm Tóibín.
These 81 pages are grim and transcendent: they are a mother’s reckoning with herself, a full acceptance of grief and guilt. Years after watching as her son was crucified on a cross in front of a jeering mob, Mary shares the experience of being the mother of a demagogue.
Mary is witness to the cheerful, vulnerable child who develops into an arrogant, impassioned man. She presents his miracles as she observed them, not discounting them entirely, but offering enough doubt that we question not her loyalty, but the sanity of those who remain convinced. Ultimately, however, the greatest theme to her recollections is the question “Was it worth it?” And the mother can only respond, “No.”
Mary fled to Ephesus after her son’s death, in fear for her life. There she finds greater peace with the ancient gods than with her own Judaism or the new faith bound to her son’s life, death and the legend of his resurrection. But she is haunted by two men who appear in her home to interrogate her. They are her captors and her protectors, disciples of the Christ not present at his death (Tóibín explains in this Guardian podcast that one of the men is John, which is confusing to this reader, as John is one of the principal witnesses of the crucifixion; the other, impossible in historical terms, but right in its literary context, is the officious and vaguely threatening Paul). These men urge and pressure Mary to relive that horrible last day so they can record and share the gospels they are writing. Mary reveals her testament as a mother hollowed by the guilt of what she witnessed but could not prevent.
In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air last year, the author rejected the notion that Irish writers are natural storytellers, that they are imbued with an instinctive affiinty for words. Tóibín stated that he writes the silence, the space between the words. Nowhere in his work has this been more evident than in The Testament of Mary. This is not a work of religion, nor of faith or doubt; this is a book about a mother (a theme present in many of Tóibín’s works) and the empty space left at the death of a child. Mary never once speaks her son’s name. The unnamed dead represents the black, empty space Tóibín explores.
In the same podcast, the author also discussed what it cost him emotionally to envision the crucifixion of Christ - to set himself in that place of excruciating physical pain. It is rendered with terrible beauty, told in the voice of a mother who feels every moment of her son’s agony.
Mary is a symbol of peace and serenity and (disturbing) devotion. Colm Tóibín offers a brave and agonizing dimension she is rarely granted: that of a tortured and lonely mother, living alone with her grief. Whatever your beliefs, I hope you will allow Mary, as Tóibín does, an even greater dimension -one of a mother’s humanity and grace.