Colin Tóibín’s novella, The Testament of Mary, is a retelling of the Gospels through Mother Mary’s voice, one that is noticeably silent in the bible itself. I hope to place The Testament of Mary next to its source text, The Book of John in the New Testament, as an adaptation and a new, fifth testament, to explore motherhood and the feminine as Tóibín’s version of the Bible. If we place these two texts next to one another as a progression of storytelling, giving voice to the mother of Christ on his last days on earth, this raises two significant juxtapositions. On the one hand, The Testament of Mary juxtaposes Mary’s lived experience of her son’s death to the story the Gospel writers want her to tell. “‘His suffering was necessary… it was how mankind would be saved” 1 one Gospel writer proclaims. “‘Saved?’” Mary questions, “‘Who has been saved? … It was not worth it’” 2.
On the other hand, the book juxtaposes Mary’s lived experience of her son’s death to the story she wishes she could tell. “I would leave him alone if I had to,” 3 she declares, “And that is what I did,” but Mary likewise dreams: “I held my broken son in my arms when he was all bloody and then again when he was washed, that I had him back for that time, that I touched his flesh and put my hands on his face, which had grown beautiful and gaunt now that his suffering was over” 4.
The questions this contradiction raises are: What is being said by presenting not only the enforced, male, traditional version of the Gospel but also Mary’s own wishes as “false”? In the end, are the two alternatives more like or unlike each other? Is one alternative to lived experience being offered as more “true” or valuable than the other? What is the text finally offering as “the truth?”
On the one hand, The Testament of Mary places Mary’s lived experience of her son’s death in opposition with the story the Gospel writers want her to tell. The novella begins with two men who visit Mary in the years after her son’s death. They are trying to write what will be the Gospels, but she has a different story to tell. She views them and her son’s followers as “misfits,” as men who were “children,” and who “could not look a woman in the eye” 5. Right away, Mary discredits our narrators. She further challenges them by suggesting that Jesus’s miracles are rumor and story, not fact. When there is talk of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, Mary says, “It struck me on hearing something each of them said that neither of them had actually been there… I asked her if she had personally been in the crowd that day and she smiled and said no” 6. Although Mother Mary doesn’t outright say the story of Lazarus is a lie, we assume that rumor plays a powerful role. There is also talk of Jesus walking on water, and Mary, again, questions the verity of this miracle. “It was then, I was told, that he appeared to them in the moonlight and he was, or so my neighbors murmured that he was, actually walking on the water as though it were smooth dry land” 7. In relaying this information, Mary’s use of the phrase “or so my neighbors murmured,” casts doubt in the reader’s mind. As Mary remembers the tales she’s been told, she says “For those who gathered and gossiped it was a high time, filled with rumours and fresh news, filled with stories both true and wildly exaggerated” 8. Rumors cloaked in truth, news mixed with folklore, Mary is aware that unless she has seen it with her own eyes, she cannot be certain of the stories we are told in the Gospels. Her ambiguity illustrates the notion that these Gospel writers might, in fact, be unreliable narrators, whilst she is telling not a story fed by the many voices and skewed versions (or even skewed memories), but rather her own, tactile memory of events only she witnesses.
The most textually identifiable difference between Mary’s story and the Gospel writers’, can be traced through the Gospel of John, in which Mary appears and speaks for one of the only times in The Bible. In the Gospel of John, at the wedding of Cana, the scene goes as follows:
“When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’
‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’
His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’” 9. Jesus then changes the water into wine. In the Gospel of John, Mary is painted as a catalyst for the miracle, whilst Jesus is humble and reluctant, saying “My hour has not yet come.” In The Testament of Mary, she tells a quite different story.
Tóibín’s adaptation diverges sharply from the Gospels. In Mary’s retelling, she is not the instigator of Jesus’s first miracle, but rather comes to the wedding at Cana to bring him home and prevent the inevitable—his crucifixion. She begins by warning her son that he is in great danger and that he must leave with her immediately to save himself. Mary pleads with her son, yet before she can so much as conclude her supplication, he moves away from her, and begins to perform.
“‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ he asked, and then again louder so that it was heard all around, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’” 10. Mary draws attention to the fact that Jesus is performing, that he amplifies his voice so that the entire wedding can hear him. This is leaps and bounds from the reluctant and humble Jesus painted in the New Testament.
Mary responds: “‘I am your mother,’ I said. But by this time he had begun to talk to others, high flown talk and riddles, using strange proud terms to describe himself and his task in the world. I heard him saying—I heard it then and I noticed how heads bowed all around when he said it— I heard him saying he was the Son of God” 11.
Here, Mary has no involvement in the changing of water into wine. She says nothing of it. Instead, she is trying to bring Jesus home, and as a last resort, she exclaims “I am your mother,” asserting her feminine power. Jesus ignores her, and goes on to claim that he is not her son, but the Son of God– a masculine betrayal.
In contrast to the Gospel, the book also calls attention to Mary’s lived experience when Toibin has Jesus instigate the changing of water, not Mary. As people exclaim hysterically that there is no more wine, Jesus calls forth six containers and “changes” them into wine. Mary, however, remarks, “I do not know whether each one contained water or wine, certainly the first one contained water… But in the noise around us I was being included somehow as if my presence had helped to change water into wine” 12. Mary actually suggests that the story we read in John is one derived from gossip, from the “noise” at the wedding, people talking and extrapolating.
The book also calls attention to Mary’s lived experience rather than the claims of the Gospel writers when, Mary, after experiencing the horrors of the crucifixion, sitting out the last of her days with the men who visit her to write the New Testament, is keenly aware that they are telling vastly opposing narratives. Hers, filled with pain and passion and evocative detail. Instead of merely saying that she watched her son die, dying to save the souls of mankind, she remarks on odd and formless details. A man feeding a caged bird, “the fact that [her] shoes hurt [her], that they were not made for this bustle and this heat,” preying on her mind, “sometimes as a distraction from what was really happening” 13. The Gospel writers don’t need this kind of detail or distraction, the painful truth that often comes with grief. Mary is distracted and appalled and haunted by the crucifixion, but the Gospel writers are concerned with symbols and nouns and simple, inarguable fact. Mary says, “They want my description of these hours (the crucifixion) to be simple, they want to know what words I heard, they want to know about my grief only if it comes as the word ‘grief’ or the word ‘sorrow.’” They want Mary to distill her lived experience into a digestible narrative. They are not asking her to write a novel about the pain of losing one’s child, they simply want grief and sorrow as symbols of his divine, idealized path.
“Even though one of them witnessed what I witnessed, he does not want it registered as confusion, with strange memories of the sky darkening and brightening again, or of other voices shouting down the moans and cries and whimpers, and even the silence that came from the figure on the cross. And the smoke from the fires that grew more acrid and stung all our eyes as no wind seemed to blow in any direction. They do not want to know how one of the other crosses keeled over regularly and had to be propped up, nor do they want to know about the man who came and fed rabbits to a savage and indignant bird in a cage too small for its wing span” 14.
Mary notes that the Gospel writers don’t want a distraction from the lessons and doctrine they are telling, and so her very specific understanding of the events are much too riddled with confusion for the redemption arc they are painting for Jesus and mankind.
Although both Mary and one of the writers saw the same event, the same savagery, it is
Mary who fixates upon her feelings, and her specific experience of watching her son die.
Whilst Mary feels “that he (one of the disciples who can be conflated with the men writing the Gospel) did not mean what he said, but he had learned it and come to believe it was all the more true and impressive because of that” 15, Mary’s truth is not learned—it is a truth of experience, of seeing and feeling and watching, a truth shrouded in an intimate grief, not merely a symbolic death.
If Tóibín juxtaposes Mary’s lived experience to the story the Gospel writers want her to tell, he juxtaposes with equal energy Mary’s lived experience to the story she wishes she could tell. In vivid detail, the last third of the novella is dedicated to a brutal and harrowing description of Jesus’s death. Hers is a mother’s grief, and she relays it with intense and unwavering detail. Although Mary is committed to telling the story as brutally as it happened, not merely as a symbolic journey through the Gospels, she also yearns for an idealized story as well. “It seems hard to fathom now that I stayed and watched this,” Mary muses, as she remembers watching her son, thorns gouging his brain, nails at the hinges of his hands and feet, “that I did not run towards him, or call out to him. But I did not” 16. As Mary imagines what she could have done, she remarks that it is strange, that as a mother, she is perplexed by her cowardice. And yet, she reminds her readers that she did not run out to him, that instead she was distracted by her shoes hurting and the heat, ashamed that she found distractions from what was really happening. In the midst of it all, the crowd hungry for blood, Mary finds herself at odds with what she remembers. “I moved from being distracted by the coldest thought, thoughts that if this was not happening to me, since I was not the one being crucified to death, then it was not really happening at all” 17. Even in the midst of her lived experience, one that she insists to the Gospel writers is the one she needs to tell, Mary is confused and hoping for a different reality, one where the crucifixion never happened at all. “It seems hard to fathom now,” she proceeds, “that I stayed there and watched this, that I did not run towards him, or call out to him. But I did not” 18.
Although Mary remains fixed in her desire to tell the truth, she allows herself, after she flees the crucifixion, to dream of what might have been, because she is, in fact, ashamed that she did not stay. “I move now between the things of this world that are precise, sharp and close by, and some bitter imaginings” 19, she admits.
“I would leave him to die alone if I had to,” she admits, “And that is what I did” 20. Mary continually asserts herself as Jesus’ mother, remembering the Sabbath days when she was young and her son but a child, doing all she can to protect him. But once the life within him waned, and the threat of death pressed down on Mary herself, she abandoned her son, and left to save herself.
“For years I have comforted myself with the thought of how long I remained there, how much I suffered then. But I must say it once, I must let the words out, that despite the panic, despite the desperation, the shrieking, despite the fact that his heart and his flesh had come from my heart and my flesh, despite the pain I felt, a pain that has never lifted, and will go with me into the grave, despite all of this, the pain was his and not mine. And when the possibility of being dragged away and choked arose, my first instinct was to flee…” 21.
Despite the fact that Mary birthed this son, the fact that their pain should be shared, she left her son in solitude with his own unwavering pain and fled so that she would be spared.
Mary asserts that she must remember how she didn’t stand by her son, but her musings quickly turn into a poetic and almost romantic dream of what might have been— almost reminiscent of the Gospels themselves. Her language, when she speaks of the “dream in which she held [her] broken son in [her] arms,” becomes akin to the poetic vision of redemption in the Gospel of John “in” the New Testament. “[She] imagines his face, which had grown beautiful and gaunt now that his suffering was over.” She remarks that “a man had been made to die splayed out against the sky on a hill so the world would know and see and remember,” and Mary imagines herself the quiet mother, grieving at the foot of her son—a symbol for the world, her grief a quiet and digestible one. Here, her diction becomes Biblical, and this vision becomes false like the narrative of the Gospel writers. She turns Jesus into a symbol, rather than remembering the pain of his death.
What is being said by juxtaposing these two oppositions, one in which Mary’s lived experience is contrasted with the Gospel writers and the other in which her lived experience is being contrasted with her wish about how she might have lived? In the end, are the two alternatives more like or unlike each other? Is one alternative to lived experience being offered as more “true” or valuable than the other? What is the text finally offering as “the truth?”
Tóibín sets Mary against her son and his followers, thus discrediting their miracles as our inherently feminine narrator. Mary insists throughout the book that she is Jesus’s mother, and that her actions are motivated not by his life as the Messiah but her desire to protect her son as the brilliant man he is, sans miracle. She often recalls the times before he moves away, when he was a child. “All my life I loved the Sabbath,” she says, “the stillness of the morning … going to my son’s bedroom to be with him, to hold his hand and hush him if he spoke too loudly” 22. Mary recalls this time when she took care of her son, and had a motherly power to hush him when he spoke too loudly. As he grows, however, Mary no longer has control as a mother, and she watches the “easy” gentle boy turn with his disciples. As he addressed them in the early days, she remarked that “his voice [was] all false, and his tone all stilted,” that she “could not bear to hear him” 23. But that alone, once his followers had left, “he was gentler, like a vessel from whom stale water had been poured out… and when night fell he was filled again with clear spring water which came from solitude, or sleep, or even silence and work” 24. Mary sees Jesus at his most intimate, when he is alone. Mary recognizes that although his followers are “misfits,” he was “the rarest” 25. The writers of the Gospels did not see that part of him, they only know him in his “displayed manliness” 26. At the wedding in Cana, Jesus talks over Mary, and does not let her speak although she insists that she is his mother. Despite his obdurance, Mary makes it clear that although “the man (Jesus) who sat beside [her] at the wedding feast of Cana, the man not heeding [her], hearing no one, a man filled with power, a power that seemed to have no memory of years before when he needed [her] breast for milk” 27— despite all this—Mary insists that “the power he exuded… made [her] love him and seek to protect him even more than when he had no power” (41). She goes on to say that she no longer saw him, at the wedding, as a child, but rather with a fixed power, “truly itself” 28. Her motherly love does not limit itself to childhood, but rather extends as Jesus becomes a man in his own power. Although she disagrees with the insolent, boyish behavior of his disciples, and, as noted, defies the story they hope to tell, she still seeks to protect her son—she recognizes his brilliance. The Gospel writers are merely concerned with the symbol of Jesus—the rumors of changing water to wine, the performative nature of his masculinity, and his arms outstretched on the cross—not a dying son, but a symbol of eternal life. She does not imagine the divine, but rather, the visceral experience of new motherhood. While the Gospel writers explain that Jesus is the Son of God, and begin to tell a false narrative, Mary argues that his disciples “were hiding when he died” 29. While her false narrative is motivated by love, theirs is motivated by symbol, even if they weren’t there. This leads me to conclude that Mary’s stories (both what she tells and what she wishes she could) are the truer ones—unconcerned with the course of history, but rather being human and experiencing her son’s demise through a mother’s eyes.
Now that we have concluded that the story Mary wishes she could tell is a truer one because it is from the perspective of a mother, someone who loves Jesus not because he is the Son of God, but her earthly son, is one alternative to lived experience being offered as more “true” or valuable than the other, and what is the text finally offering as the truth?
Mary is irrevocably haunted by the crucifixion, and her inaction. As the story unfolds, Mary continues to insist on telling her story, the one most unbiased in the religious zealousness surrounding Jesus, despite the fact that she did the wrong thing. Mother Mary has been historically painted as a symbol of virgin, feminine perfection. Monuments erected in her honor, iterations of her story told time and time again, entire branches of Christianity formed with her image fixed. She is seen in museums and churches and stories across history, yet, as we noted, her presence in the Gospels is one of silence. The Mother grieving at the foot of her child, a loyal figure fixed in the heart of Jesus and those who find salvation in his love. But Toibin makes his Mary the primary storytelling. She is far from silent, even when her words cut deep in her own soul. Mary almost lets herself dream of holding her son, of being the Mary the Gospel writers want her to be, come into the day with her and fix itself in her reality. She almost lets herself fall victim to the idealized story of Jesus of Nazareth, and her divinely feminine place within it.
However, Mary resolves to not be beguiled by the dream she has. “From then on,” she determines, “I wanted dreams to have their place, to let them belong to the night. And I wanted what happened, what I saw, what I did, to belong to the day. Until I died I hoped that I would live in full recognition of the difference between the two. I hope I have done that” 30. She builds from what happened, to what she saw, to what she did—emphasizing in threes that she did not hold her dying son—she could not save him. There is also ambiguity here, in her resolve to remember: she ends by saying “I hope I have done that.” Mary is not entirely sure. But her last interaction with the Gospel writers— before Toibin ends the novella with her poetic death— reveals that this ambiguity is not simply to leave us questioning if Mary remembers correctly, but to emphasize her noble humility in juxtaposition with the two idealized versions of the story with which we are presented. If her idealized version is almost true in its interference with her life, then it is also valuable in illustrating her commitment to telling a painful truth. Mary confesses to not only the Gospel writers, but to us, our readers, that she failed to be brave in the face of pain, watching her son die as a mere “symbol on the cross.” “‘It was not worth it’” she intones to the writers.
In the book, she ends by visiting the statue of Artemis, the goddess of bounty, her breasts and her body to nurture. In the New Testament and the canon of art that follows, Jesus is seen as a giver of life, his blood spewing from his rib (where breast might be) into his followers’ mouths like milk. But Mary, at the end of her life, looks not to Biblical symbols, but rather at Artemis, a goddess bound to the earth, to femininity. Mary does not end living in the false glory of a false story—whether or not her truth is truer than that of the Bible, it is true to her, and she wakes in the night desiring a more plentiful future for her son. She wakes and dreams and the hope of a different future pushes out the darkness and grief. Despite her cowardice at the crucifixion, it is her bravery as an author and her grief as a mother that surpasses the pursuits of the writers at her home. Mary both resists the Gospel writers—she won’t give them easy words like “grief” and “sorrow,” but rather insists on telling the grisly truth. But she also resists the temptation to dream of being with her son after his death, basking in the sweet glow of his symbolic crucifixion. Mary resists both false stories, and thus resists her silently feminine place in history—and earns our respect as a result.
- The Testament of Mary, Colin Tóibín, (Simon and Schuster, 2012) 78
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