The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

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You must read this book! I urge you: read it! I loved it.

At just over 100 pages, it will not take long, but the unsettling feeling will remain, causing you to reflect and ponder and maybe even ask Mr Google some questions about Mary. You may search the Gospels to find what they actually say about Mary.

The story is not a surprise, we all know the climax is the crucifixion, but the shocking characterisation of Mary will haunt you. The emotion of her account of the crucifixion is that of a mother – her anguish, pain, guilt, watching helplessly as her son dies. She just wants her boy back. It hit me in the gut more than any account has.

Other scenes come from the Gospels with a very unsettling perspective. The raising of Lazarus is not one of joy but appears as a scene from a horror movie as he emerges from the grave. Slowly, the figure dirtied with clay and covered in graveclothes wound around him began with great uncertainty to move … It was as though the earth beneath him was pushing him and then letting him be still in his great forgetfulness and nudging him again like some strange new creature jerking and wriggling towards life.” Lazarus’s return is not without cost. His family hide and Lazarus returns to a world of pain. Lazarus, it was clear to me, was dying. If he had come back to life it was merely to say a last farewell to it. He recognised none of us, barely appeared able to lift the glass of water to his lips as he was handed small pieces of soaked bread by his sisters. And later he, lay again in a darkened room and could not speak. His sleep was peppered with moans and cries.

But the focus is, of course, on Mary’s relationship with her son. Here is a mother, not the mother of God who is aware of her own role in saving humankind, as the mother of the Church. She wants none of it; she just wants her boy who needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as he learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep. Her guilt at not having tried to do something while he was on the cross haunts her for the rest of her life, denying her the ability to sleep or smile.

Mary is telling her testament, her account, in exile guarded (whether in protection or held in isolation is not clear) by the disciple John, who appears to be forcing her to recall miracles and events to assist in his writing of his Gospel, his truth. Even to the point that he tells her what she experienced at conception and denies her account, saying she was there at the end when she says she fled before he died. While she doesn’t trust or like her guards, she admires in the guards their dedication and deliberation and knows that their story will thrive and prevail.

The imagery is powerful. The motif of flesh and blood and bone (pp. 4,12, 70, 74, 81) recalls John’s account of Jesus’s words at Capernaum, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” (John, 6, 54)

Two questions for you. What do you think happened to Mary, sister of Lazarus, when she disappeared in the night during their escape after the crucifixion? And what are the words that Mary knows that matter and whispers to the shadows of the gods at the end?

Today’s decluttered item = I have always felt I have to hang onto Christmas cards in part for the sentimental value and in part to reuse the front to make new cards and tags for next year. Why lie to myself? I know I won’t reuse them and even if I plan to do so, chances are I won’t find where I store last year’s cards when the time comes anyway. So into the recycling bin, sparing me clutter and guilt.

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One thought on “The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

  1. Pingback: A few plays and movies | lucinda sans

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