Wednesday, April 3, 2013

just finished: The Testament of Mary

I picked up Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary a few weeks ago and read it all in one go on a Saturday morning. It's a fairly short book, fewer than 100 pages, but its power is perhaps disproportionate to its length. I'm still thinking about it.

The book's premise is fairly simple: an aging Mary, the mother of Jesus, gives a haunting first-person account of her life, an account that insists on honesty about her doubts, her fears, even her visceral distaste for her son's followers. Several of these followers act as shadowy figures throughout her narration, not only in the days leading up to the crucifixion but also in the present, as they hover around her life (ostensibly to protect her) and stubbornly record whitewashed versions of the stories she tells them for the Gospels that will eventually enter into our canon.

This is a bitter Mary: she has lost her only son. She has lost her dear husband Joseph. She has lost her community, her safety. She has lost the holiness and peace she felt, in earlier decades, celebrating the Sabbath (the passages in which she reminisces about these days of rest are among the book's most beautiful).

Mary does not outright reject the miracles she hears of and witnesses--perhaps because she lives in an age of enchanted imaginations. But the miracles are not unambiguously good: she sees Lazarus, raised from the dead, as a frail and devastated shadow of his former self. As for miracles less tinged with pain, Mary does not seem to outright believe, either. Her concern, in all these events, is of the spectacle her son is making of himself. Her concern is for his safety as a troublemaker in a politically volatile time.

This is her concern at the terrible crucifixion, as well--her son's safety and, when a rescue ultimately proves impossible, her own safety. The whole ordeal is overshadowed by a sense of conspiracy, of uncertainty over who is trustworthy, who is involved in the plot to kill Jesus and those involved with him. By Mary's shame-filled account, she runs away from the crucifixion with two companions who are also at risk, even going so far as to terrorize families to procure food and donkeys during their panicked flight.

The resurrection, per Mary's view, seems to be wishful thinking on the part of demoralized followers: they derive it, in part, from an uncanny dream she and another woman share and report. Jesus's heavenly origins, likewise, are later extrapolated from Mary's descriptions of her sense of mystery and holiness in the early days of her pregnancy, a sense that she suspects many women feel. Those around her are insistent on taking the events of her life, of her son's life, and recasting them in light of redemption, in light of divinity. Mary does not see redemption: she sees foolishness and pain.

Tóibín seems to be writing against something, against the cult of Mary that holds her up as mediatrix of grace, endowed with a superabundance of faith, honored by heavenly proximity to the Father and the Son. In The Testament of Mary, the mother of Jesus is an embittered doubter, a staunch materialist with no hope of an eternal future, her eyes open only to the political and religious spheres of men that stole her greatest joy.

I imagine that the book is harder to swallow for Catholics than for Protestants, who don't generally share the deep veneration of Mary and her exemplary faith. My Baptist Bible training does call to mind the Magnificat of Luke 1. But it also calls up Mary and Jesus's family coming to take him away, their fear of his apparently unbalanced and risky behavior outweighing any sort of faith in his mission and divine origins. Mary's frankness, her doubting, might even be looked upon as a refreshing portrayal of a truly human response to radical loss. Indeed, the book's willingness to venture into the depths of a mother's grief is perhaps its primary strength.

But I feel as though we miss something important with Tóibín's Mary, both in terms of characterization and in terms of gender politics. His representation of her anger and regret renders her character all too thin--where is the love, the tenderness that justifies such a depth of sorrow? Imagining the picture of Mary the faithful (present at the cross and in the upper room with the eleven, agreeing to become the theotokos, or God-bearer) as a later construction of men who twisted her stories, imagining her as turning away from her Judaism towards Aphrodite, imagining her as loathing even the scent of men--these are secularist visions, but they are hardly feminist. Instead, they contribute to an unhelpful binary that sees the church as a wholly male enclave, with women left beyond the pale.

For those of us who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus while rediscovering the often overlooked biblical and historical roots of women's participation in the faith, The Testament of Mary steals away one of our exemplary figures, flattening her dynamic blend of faith and doubt--a blend we see in nearly all the Bible's (and history's) accounts of Jesus's disciples. Per Tóibín's perspective, it seems to be a compliment that Mary is not counted among the (dubious) faithful. But my heart is stirred with the crazy hope of resurrection, and so I can't help desiring a Mary whose life, like mine, is a stew of competing sorrows and joys, losses and budding love.

Perhaps that's the most honest final summation: it all comes down to desire. We are always left to use our imaginations when we seek to make sense of this woman, for the Bible tells us only so much, and the churches' traditions are rich with contradictions. Colm Tóibín has imagined a Mary with her own sort of moral integrity, a refusal to accept a logic of redemption that is repugnant in the face of radical suffering. I can admire such integrity. Still, I'm rooting for redemption.

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