“I have been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that, or lessen what it did to me.” This is how Mary, mother of Jesus, remembers his death in Colm Toibin’s new novella, “The Testament of Mary.” In Mary’s telling, her son’s death is a classical tragedy; it may arouse pity and fear, but it will not bring about redemption.
As the novella opens, Jesus is dead and Mary is in hiding in Ephesus. Two unnamed men visit her, asking for details of Jesus’ life. The story Mary tells is painful: how the charismatic Jesus attracted an unruly following of “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers” eager to believe that the old world was coming to an end; how, at first reluctantly and then more eagerly, Jesus believed his followers when they called him the Son of God; how he raised Lazarus from the dead and turned water into wine; and how he was put to violent death.
Throughout the narrative, Mary reproves herself for abandoning her son before his death; having been warned that she will be rounded up next, she slips away with St. John before her son gives up his spirit – and for not more fully participating in his grief, because “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.”
Toibin’s Mary is very different from the Mary we’re accustomed to. She’s stubborn and skeptical, devoted to her dead husband, Joseph, and religiously promiscuous: In the final, lyrical scene, Mary prays to “the great goddess Artemis.”
Despite its unorthodoxies, “The Testament of Mary” is a very simple – one might say classical – tale, showing how violence, even redemptive violence, frustrates our attempts to make sense of it.