March 17, 2013

Toibin’s ‘Testament of Mary’ a short, incomplete portrait

“The Testament of Mary” by Colm Toibin (Scribner, 81 pages, $19.99)

“The Testament of Mary” by Colm Toibin (Scribner, 81 pages, $19.99)

I have long been a fan of fiction that gives sacred figures – icons, really – new and creative interpretations (as, for example, “Our Lady of the Lost and Found” by Diane Schoemperlen or “Testament” by Nino Ricci).

I come at it from an unapologetically Christian perspective, as well as with the eyes of a seminary graduate with a liberal/progressive take on interpreting Scripture.

If we Christians believe the two holiest figures in Christianity – Jesus and Mary, his mother – were human (as well as divine), then we must take the implications seriously. Nor does it make sense that human interpretation of either Jesus or Mary stopped with the writers, compilers and editors of our Bible.

I looked forward to reading Colm Toibin’s book written in the voice of Jesus’ mother – a novella at 81 pages and, as it turns out, originally a one-woman play.

Perhaps it should have stayed a play.

Not that the language isn’t richly beautiful, as one would expect of Toibin.

Not that some of the thoughts and characteristics he gives Mary could have been impossible, given the trauma she experienced seeing a beloved child die an agonizing, shameful death.

Not that Jesus’ resurrection as a dream, and the gospel writers as fanatics determined to scribe history as they wanted it to be, beggars belief – even if I don’t happen to believe those things. Toibin is entitled to do so.

The serene, shining, blue-clad figure of centuries of church art has not necessarily served Mary well. I’m sure that Jesus gave her plenty of heartache and that she understood little of what he was doing or why.

I’m equally certain that she was a woman of strength, courage, native intelligence and just plain grit. But the Mary in Toibin’s novella shows none of these characteristics.

Though correctives on our idealized views of Mary are valuable, 81 pages is too few to do her any more justice than does a clay statue with downcast eyes. With this text, I would have found her more compelling onstage.

As one reviewer of this (not unexpectedly controversial) book has pointed out, most if not all writing about Mary is really about Jesus. And that’s ultimately where my disappointment lies.

Mary describes Jesus arriving at the wedding at Cana (the setting for what is considered his first miracle, changing water to wine) “wearing rich clothes … and moving as though [they] belonged to him as of right.”

There are many things I might be able to entertain about who Jesus could have been, but imagining himself privileged is not one of them.

The scriptural record is clear that Jesus grew up poor, lived poor and until death identified with the poor, and all the outcast and marginalized of his society.

That view of Jesus makes it hard for me to find Toibin’s portrait of Mary compelling.

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