Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient Testament of Marywith me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood…But I am not being hunted now. Not any more. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. …They think I do not understand what is slowly growing in the world; they think I do not see the point of their questions and do not notice the cruel shadow of exasperation that comes hooded in their faces or hidden in their voices when I say something pointless or foolish, something which leads us nowhere. …They are too locked into their vast and insatiable needs and too dulled by the remnants of a terror we all felt then to have noticed that I remember everything. Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.”

“Of the two men who come, one was there with us until the end…I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw. I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.”

“I remember too much; I am like the air on a calm day as it holds itself still, letting nothing escape. As the world holds its breath, I keep memory in.”

There are those around Mary who want to help her and there are those whom she intuits are a threat and sometimes the line between must seem very thin. “Just as my two friends who visit are looking for my voice, my witness, this man who played dice (for her son’s clothes), and the strangler (a man who had a huge bird in a cage and rabbits in a bag and strangled the rabbits to feed to the bird), or others like them, must be looking for my silence. I will know them if they come and it should hardly matter now, since the days left are few, but I remain, in my waking time, desperately afraid of them.”

To appreciate this account, empathy for a mother who has witnessed her son’s death by extreme violence of a kind that would be defined as cruel torture in contemporary terms is essential. The account is creative fiction, yes, but the likelihood that it happened this way is strong. That she believed her son innocent of a crime punishable by death is also likely and that she was confused about the events that brought about his death is an extremely likely possibility. The publisher’s blurb on the jacket says that “Tóibín’s tour de force of imagination, language, and compassion provides a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.” The latter may happen if the reader can overcome the disinclination to exercise compassion where a story so submerged in our culture by rote repetition of the events  that compassion for Christ’s mother has been leached out of the details over time.

It seems simple but many readers have rejected Tóibín’s interpretation. Perhaps they are not so very different from the men around Mary immediately prior to the crucifixion: “They have no interest in my fear and the fear all those around me felt, the sense that there were men waiting to round us up too when we sought to move away, that there seemed no possibility that we would not be held.”

While waiting for the inevitable, Mary recalls events of her son’s childhood: …”the day our son was lost and how we found him and what was said. I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’,’the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”

She recalls speaking with him on one occasion over a meal before he left home: “He gathered around him, I said, a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young. Not one of you was normal, I said, and I watched him push his plate of half-eaten food towards me as though he were a child in a tantrum. Yes, misfits, I said. My son gathered misfits, although he himself, despite everything, was not a misfit; he could have done anything, he could have been quiet even, he had that capacity also, the one that is the rarest, he could have spent time alone with ease, he could look at a woman as though she were his equal, and he was grateful, good-mannered, intelligent. And he used all of it, I said,  so he could lead a group of men who trusted him from place to place. I have no time for misfits, I said, but if you put two of you together you will get not only foolishness and the usual cruelty but you will get a desperate need for something else. Gather together misfits, I said, pushing the plate back towards him, and you will get anything at all – fearlessness, ambition, anything – and before it dissolves or it grows, it will lead to what I saw and what I live with now.”

For me, the above speech appeared entirely realistic and I believe it did succeed in making me think differently about the bible stories I heard and learned as a child. The same is true for the story about Jesus being lost and then found in the temple : the coloured pictures presented in Sunday school of a rosy cheeked Jesus surrounded by the elders of the temple answering questions for them? Imagine a child, even an exceptional child, being so received by the elders of one of today’s religious sects. And yet, I never questioned the likelihood as I sat in a circle every Sunday. How many of us did? What image did we have of Jesus’ mother? These were all images created generations after the actual events and devoid of the dirt and poverty and political turmoil and intrigue of the times. Tóibín’s attempt to provide us with another image of Mary and her son inspired me to revisit some research topics I have not looked at in a long time. It might do the same for you.