The instructor, a Presbyterian, called my choice to preach about Mary “bold.”
We were asked to choose a piece of scripture and then deliver a ten-minute sermon. Because it was the start of Advent, I chose the annunciation from Luke’s gospel. To me, Mary’s calm and passive acceptance of what was about to happen to her seemed somewhat odd. After contemplating the passage, I decided to read aloud some of her response verbatim, but employ a tone of incredulity, bewilderment, and perhaps even sarcasm. I’ll spare you the details of an otherwise forgettable sermon, but my choice to characterize Mary as surprised and perhaps hesitant made a mark on my Protestant peers, whose characterization of Catholics included a belief that we hold Mary on such a lofty pedestal that she is, perhaps, free from human emotion.
It was with this in mind that I read the newest book from Irish author Colm Toibin, The Testament of Mary.
Toibin offers an account of some of the most familiar gospel stories—Jesus walking on water, his arrest and trial, and the crucifixion—from the mouth of Jesus’ mother, Mary. The story begins post-Good Friday, and the reader is guided back through Jesus’ life by an aging, embittered, distrustful woman who, with her husband dead and her son murdered by the Roman authorities, faces her last years alone, even as she is surrounded by Jesus’ followers: “my protectors, or my guards, or whatever it is they are.”
The novella offers a deeply, if at times painfully, human portrait of Mary, tearing asunder the robes of red and blue that envelop her in paintings and sculptures, pointing to her unique role as Theotokos, mother of God. Instead she is cast as a character more akin to Becca, the protagonist from the film Rabbit Hole, a good but broken woman whose son dies tragically, and as a result, is unable to cope with life in ways that would seem normal to those who haven’t suffered through such a liminal experience.
While the dual nature of Jesus—he was fully human and fully divine—is hammered into Catholics from a young age, Mary’s status seems far more ambiguous to the average Catholic. Of course she is fully human, but she is also blessed among women, conceived without sin, ever virgin, and, perhaps to some, considered to be something of a co-redeemer of humanity. That many Catholics thus view Mary as something of a distant deity herself, rather than fully human with complex emotions, questions, and even doubt, is not surprising. Toibin’s work asks us to do just that, to consider the human-ness of Mary and the emotions felt by a mother whose son was put to death for reasons that aren’t quite clear. She laments:
I did not think that the cursed shadow of what had happened would ever lift. It came like something in my heart that pumped darkness through me at the same rate it pumped blood. Or it was my companion, my strange friend who woke me in the night and again in the morning and who stayed close all day. It was a heaviness in me that often became a weight which I could not carry. It eased sometimes but it never lifted.
The problem with Toibin’s take, perhaps to people of faith anyway, is that there is no Easter Sunday for Mary, at least not in the earthy, physical way the gospels report. If Thomas believed after feeling Christ’s wounds, Mary is left to stew in her contempt for her son’s followers, the men she blames for his demise. Her life, quite understandably, changes dramatically at Golgotha, and Toibin’s Mary never moves past that dreadful experience. For this Mary, her son, whose name she cannot bring herself to say aloud, was led to his death by madmen. There is no peace in salvation, for though she understands what her son’s followers are concocting, she does not subscribe to their ideas or share their faith in his resurrection.
For some, Toibin’s work might be scandalous. Those like my preaching instructor might think Catholic reverence for Mary would compel us to dismiss this story outright. But for many Catholics, while The Testament of Mary might be challenging, it shouldn’t be upsetting. Our saints are indeed holy, but they must always remain fully human. That is how they have value for us, serving as models for our own journeys. That we might be compelled by Toibin to recall and reflect on Mary’s humanity rather than her seemingly quasi-divinity is a welcomed challenge.
I finished reading this short book just as news of Dorothy Day’s possible canonization hit the papers. Day’s path to sainthood, should she attain it, is not typical. Her story is a reminder of the beautifully messy tableau created by life’s many experiences. There is saintliness in all of it, and Mary’s life, a fully human experience encompassing joys and pains, extremes many of us will not be asked to endure, is worth considering in full.