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.

Comments

J Cosgrove | 12/6/2012 - 3:04pm
Mr. Rooney,


Thank you very much for the review.  The reason I did not read the book (it would have been a short read) was that I didn't want to contribute 1 cent to Toibin by buying the book.  I  did investigate it and went to the local library but they had no available copies so I read several reviews on Amazon and elsewhere as well as listen too those here. 


Maybe you should go to Amazon or to Barnes and Noble and publish your review and see how others react to it.  The reviews on Amazon that praise the book are thought very useful so it will interesting to see how one that is negative on the book does with prospective readers.


Again thanks for your efforts.
Tim O'Leary | 12/5/2012 - 3:53pm
Janice #30
I completely agree. I would also add that I never saw Mary as some distant divine, but as a Mother who cares for all her children, and never disparages her children, or thinks them fools or crazy. It is just not how I see motherhood, spiritual or physical.
I think her portrayal in The Passion of the Christ was about as good as one gets in modern media to showing her deep humanity (remarkable that the actress was a pregnant Jew - Gibson didn't know she was pregnant). She sufferred even as she believed. Toibin, on the other hand, is writing the propaganda of the non-believer, and sticking it to the apostles and the Church for his own political purposes.

Marie #29 and Tom #28
Since she was there, she would actually have a much better sense of the realism of the Resurrection than we could have, in the distance of 2000 years. Her sinless holiness would also, in my opinion, give here a deeper sense of its import than most of us moderns could possibly have, with all the doubts brought on by distance.

I also have a completely different understanding of the ''darkness of the soul'' of St. John of the Cross and Mother Teresa. This is where a person of deep faith, who fully trusts in their Savior, has the emotional and spiritual supports removed, so they have to live solely on their faith, on their trust in the Father. It becomes less of an experience and more of a submission of the will to the commitment of belief that one made. It is like Jesus feeling the sense of forsakeness on the cross. It in no way turns into a loss of faith. Indeed, it is the opposite. It is not a period of doubt or atheism, but of heightened faith, even as, or because one carries its great burden. - these are my own reflections of course.
J Cosgrove | 12/5/2012 - 3:31pm
I find this defending of Toibin surreal, especially on a Jesuit site.  Toibin had many choices on the depiction of Mary's humanity but picked one.  It was obviously important to him as he took his play from a year ago in Dublin and turned it in to a novella.  He must have seen that the play hit a sweet spot for the denigration of the Church.  I doubt it has anything to do with the making of money.


And as far as Mary being a uni-dimensioned non human person, I have failed to miss that in my Catholic education and Catholic experiences.  There was a significant part of the depiction of Mary as a human and as a person who suffered.  There are many parishes named Our Lady Queen of Sorrows and there was devotion to Mary based on the Seven Sorrow of Mary.  What inspired the Pieta by Michelangelo. So give me a break that Mary is never depicted as human but always as some type of Pollyanna.


As I said Toibin had hundreds of scenarios to depict Mary's humanity, but he chose one that said Christianity is farce.  Maybe traditional scenarios of which there are many and which showed Mary to be all to human in her emotions were uncomfortable to Toibin.
Marie Rehbein | 12/4/2012 - 10:48pm
This is true: (#28) "As far as Mary rejecting the Resurrection, I doubt she understood it in the same fashion as we do, without the benefit of 2,000+ years of Church Tradition and an entire biblical testament written in light of her Son.  It's entirely possible she would have found the idea of adding to the Hebrew Scriptures as reprehensible."

Further, a writer of historical fiction should try to be as realistic as possible.  Otherwise, it's not historical fiction, but propoganda of some type. 

Thomas Rooney | 12/4/2012 - 10:11pm
@Tim - I was referring to Toibin about the malicious intent.  Brown's intent was dollar signs.

As far as Mary rejecting the Resurrection, I doubt she understood it in the same fashion as we do, without the benefit of 2,000+ years of Church Tradition and an entire biblical testament written in light of her Son.  It's entirely possible she would have found the idea of adding to the Hebrew Scriptures as reprehensible.

You ask "why this is interesting?"  I find it interesting for the same reasons I mentioned earlier; emphasizing Mary's humanity  reminds me that His mother is not only the Queen of Heaven and the Ark of the New Covenant, but also is Miriam of Nazareth, an extraordinary woman, but still a simple person of her time, just as I am a person of my time.  It helps me relate to her.  

It's the same reason why I draw some comfort from the struggles of Mother Teresa or John of the Cross.  They struggled mightily with their faith, sometimes fearing they had lost it (both with the benefit of Church and and full canon of Scripture).  I do too.  And that gives me hope.

I will read Testament with an open yet
????  

Tim O'Leary | 12/4/2012 - 10:02pm
Tom #25
Not sure if your question at the end was meant about the DVC or Toibin's work. I would say that both had a similar intent, to use a ''historical docudrama'' style to paint the Church as some form of organized crime and it's founder or his followers as frauds. It is frankly amazing to me that you miss their motives. I notice that you and others never even respond to the main thesis of Toibin's work - not at all about some despairing and depressing humanity (the essence of atheism), but about the Mother of God rejecting the Resurrection, her son's divinity and His Church. Why is this interesting?

And certainly, considerable effort was made by Dan Brown to justify his thesis, both  outside and within the work (using fictional academic characters to make  definitive pronouncements, such as Prof. Teabing on Nicaea ''until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet...a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.'' (Sophie replies in shock) ''Not the Son of God?'' ''Right,'' Teabing said. ''Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.'' (Chapter 55, p. 233).'' And he later states the vote was close!. What rot!
Tim O'Leary | 12/4/2012 - 9:43pm
Tom #25
Not sure if your question at the end was meant about the DVC or Toibin's work. I would say that both had a similar intent, to use a ''historical docudrama'' style to paint the Church as some form of organized crime and it's founder or his followers as frauds. It is frankly amazing to me that you miss their motives. I notice that you and others never even respond to the main thesis of Toibin's work - not at all about some despairing and depressing humanity (the essence of atheism), but about the Mother of God rejecting the Resurrection, her son's divinity and His Church. Why is this interesting?

And certainly, considerable effort was made by Dan Brown to justify his thesis, both  outside and within the work (using fictional academic characters to make  definitive pronouncements, such as Prof. Teabing on Nicaea ''until that moment in history, Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet...a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless. A mortal.'' (Sophie replies in shock) ''Not the Son of God?'' ''Right,'' Teabing said. ''Jesus' establishment as 'the Son of God' was officially proposed and voted on by the Council of Nicaea.'' (Chapter 55, p. 233).'' And he later states the vote was close!. What rot!
J Cosgrove | 12/3/2012 - 7:00pm
I wish there was an edit button here.  I said ''three thieves'' in my last post when I should said three men were crucified.  I certainly don't consider Christ a thief.
J Cosgrove | 12/3/2012 - 6:54pm
Mr. Rozenzweig,


There is a long line of people in this world today and in past times who have bashed Christianity and The Church in particular.  Toibin would have to wait his turn behind thousands of others to get a hearing but Mr. O'Loughlin has helped him jump the line here.  That is what I was primarily objecting to, not that someone would actually write such stuff.  Much worse has been done but Toibin is just the flavor of the day.


The nature of Christ's divinity and humanness was a hotly debated topic in the early Church.  I believe it was decided at Nicaea that He was both human and divine after considering all the other possibilities.  And because of that we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday at Mass except for the few occasions when the Apostles' creed is used or some other form of belief is used. Those familiar with the history of the Church can be more precise.  And there were Christians who believed in a different nature of Christ for hundreds of years after Nicaea.  I believe Alexandria was a center for one of these groups.  I believe Theodora was going behind Justinian's back on this so the debate was in high secular places as well as within the Church.


As far as the most famous criticisms of Christianity goes, there are many but one I like which I heard recently was by Nietzsche.  He said he could never forgive Christianity for what it did to Pascal.  Which helped me to focus on just who was Pascal and what he did and why Nietzsche would say make such a statement.  I believe Nietzsche counts as an imaginative thinker.  Then there was'' Paradise Lost'' which also showed off the fertile mind of a gifted writer.


I thought over Toibin's scenario and it didn't take long to come to what I believe would have been a much more interesting theme.  There were three thieves at the Crucifixion, all young and all having mothers.  A much more interesting literary voyage would be to find each of these women or even better have them meet some years later and explore their feelings.  All of course would be nothing more than fantasy as is the book in question but I believe a more interesting story.


Yes, Toibin has made Mary into a nobody, she is now just one of tens of thousands of mothers who had their sons crucified.   Why is she any different from the rest?  Maybe more to be pitied because her son was a buffoon to get caught up with such rabble.and get himself crucified for no good reason according to Toibin.  She is more of a pathetic figure than the one to whom billions looked to for guidance.  That is what Toibin has done and because he is a gifted writer does not change what he is attempting to do.


I better stop here or else Mr. Reidy will criticize me for hijacking the thread. 
Kang Dole | 12/3/2012 - 3:40pm
Bear in mind that my patience in arguing with someone who bashes a book without having read it is pretty slender. I recognize that one can get a broad sense of content from what others say, but that is not the same as the sense one gets from actually reading a piece of literature, and I do think that that sense should be in place before making such an utter condemnation of the book.

"Mr. Toibin wrote a piece that negates a lot of things that people have held for 2000 years, makes Mary into just another unfortunate nobody and really does not care for the Church or its message."

Yes, that is a basic conceit of the book-it brackets the known tradition and does something else. So what? If you believe that that is harmful, then so be it-I suppose that's a legitimate, even if very ill-founded objection. If it's that that offends you, then-again-so what? Most people enjoy being offended; I certainly do think that you enjoy it, or you would not forever be on here moaning about the objectional ideas and methods of this blog's authors. If Toibin has offended you, then you are in his debt for providing you with the pleasure of it. Some people like whips and chains, some people like being hurt by ideas. Whatever gets you through the night, as Frank Sinatra liked to say.

And I challenge your claim that Toibin "makes Mary into just another unfortunate nobody," particularly your use of the word "just." The whole work gives you an intense insight into the character's experience-a character isn't "just another unfortunate nobody" when you are made to really know their feelings. Now imagine if you were able to keep all the other unfortunate nobodies that you encounter daily from sinking into the background by remembering that they, too, have just an intense experience of their own pain.

J Cosgrove | 12/3/2012 - 3:24pm
Mr. Rosenzweig,

Thank you for the kind words.  Maybe you could deal with my assessment instead.  I have nothing against art, imagining things, exploring new directions.  I am all for all of these and am constantly seeking new insight on art, science, history, economics, philosophy etc. 


Mr. Toibin wrote a piece that negates a lot of things that people have held for 2000 years, makes Mary into just another unfortunate nobody and really does not care for the Church or its message.  I do know more about Toibin than I indicated.  I saw what he said in the NPR interview.  Mr. Toibin had choices in imagining new things, exploring new directions, what and how he wrote about Mary etc.  But he made a specific choice in what he wrote.  That is the most telling thing of all.  We are defined by our choices at least that is what Sartre said.
Kang Dole | 12/3/2012 - 3:06pm
"And Toibin made Mary into just another person who had an unfortunate experience."
Bravo. I think you kind of managed to get part of the point: what if the experience of Mary was stripped from the Queen of Heaven blue background and grounded in human experience?

There's no real shortage of ways that this scenario can contribute to thinking about incarnation, if you really feel the need to filter this book through theology. Theologians have struggled with the ramifications of divine impassibility with respect to the incarnation of the Son of God, and they have needed to understand how Jesus' human will was not compromised by the divine foreknowledge of the Word. Well, then, maybe the question of what Mary's grief means for her followers if that grief is transformed by her having "to have known the divine plot" is a valid one that offers opportunity for thought?
Kang Dole | 12/3/2012 - 2:43pm
Why am I not the least bit surprised that you didn't really have any basis for anything that you said?  You can't imagine anything but hate as a motivation for reimagining the story, for exploring new directions? Stilted piety: what could kill art faster?
david power | 12/3/2012 - 1:46pm
JR,

I do not know what lead you to write that Toibin hates the Church.
I have seen a few interviews with him and he does not seem to have an axe to grind and I can tell you that in ireland he will be the only person getting people to think of the Mother of God this christmas.
He seems to me to be a thoughtful man not consumed by his sexuality, of course that could just be a public face and maybe he secretly hates all catholics such as his mother and sisters and exteachers who gave him a love of language through a catholic education as they did to Seamus Heaney.
I like the idea in general of this book  but have not been impressed with hardly any account of Jesus and Mary outside the Gospels sad as it is to say.
It is hard to keep on the same page the magnitude of who Jesus is with the earthly account of His Life.
  
Thomas Rooney OFS | 12/3/2012 - 10:06am
I plan to read Testament of Mary.  I've never really prayed and contemplated Mary's life after the Ascension.  From what's been described, I picture this Mary as being an older version as the way I see her in contemplating the Annunciation; I believe she was initially frightened out of her skin when the Angel appeared to her (see Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Annunciation for how I best imagine her reaction).

Mary was human, first and foremost, with the education and learning and limitations of a 1st century woman from Palestine.  Did she fully grasp her Son's mission and the all-time ramifications of His Passion Death and Resurrection?  Was Our Lady of Sorrow's heart healed for all time at Easter?  Or did she bear those wounds long after the tumultuous earthly life of her Son was finished?  Did the Apostles and followers of Jesus annoy the heck out of her from time to time, as they did her Son?

Mary and the Apostles and 1st century Christians spent their earthly lives as PEOPLE.  Not ethereal beings floating around with halos perpetually fixed behind their heads.

6466379 | 12/3/2012 - 9:01am
Considering Mary’s humanity, if she   was about fifteen when the Holy Spirit impregnated her, she would be about forty-eight at the Passion, Death and Resurrection of her Son. A teenage girl and   a middle aged woman, faced with very stressful human involvements at a time in life when supportive reassurance is so important.

Let’s begin on  that day when a messenger announced to her that, she was “super special” to God and  he wanted her to have his baby. That news must have shocked her and she told the messenger that she didn’t know any man, so how could this be?  The messenger told her God would take care of the details. Being  a young girl “full of grace” and of trust in God she said to the messenger, “O.K.,  let  it happen!” Suddenly she felt something wonderful happening within!  Mary’s “Yes,” allowed the flow of the Holy Spirit’s Divine Sperm to penetrate her waiting Egg, specially prepared to produce the God Man and “the Word became Flesh!

Let me quickly add, I fear it may be   grossly irreverent, and theologically incorrect  to suggest that the Holy Spirit was in effect, a “ sperm donner,” a term in common useage today, but  morally unacceptable by our Church, as best I understand it. If so please delete.  But how else, really, could Mary conceive her Child, whom besides being truly God, was also truly Man? Once as John the Baptist preached repentance, noticing the stones all around he said a very curious thing, “God is able out of these stones to raise   up children to Abraham!” So then, God can create a person in any way he wishes, even from stones? Perhaps God generated Jesus in Mary’s womb in a way altogether ”other”, eliminating the need of the “sperm” reference and did it in such a way as to maintain the integrity of Jesus Christ as equally God and Man. Was John the Baptist simply using biblical hyperbole? At any rate Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s life must have been stress-filled, until death as an gray haired and wrinkled  old woman, or senior citizen, at seventy-two. That’s the age traditionally claimed as the time of her death at Ephesus and unless she was miraculously preserved from the ravages of aging the expected must have happened.

 Trying to address Mary’s humanity totally would require postings of book length! So, for the sake of brevity allow me to jump all the way from Mary as a fifteen year old teenager, to Mary as a middle aged woman of say, forty-eight.

It was the task of women to prepare, serve and clean-up after a meal. So, I venture to suggest that probably the Mother of Jesus did diaconal   (lower case “d”) service, I mean table-serving  at the altar-table of First Eucharist, often called the “Last Supper.” Did she also make her “First Communion” at that time, receiving Eucharist from the table? For her it must have been like a second, “Let it be done unto me according to your word” and the Word was once again under her heart!

 While she was cleaning-up with the other women, someone came running with the terrible news that Jesus had been arrested, having been betrayed by one of the twelve men he had chosen. Pale and trembling, Mary rushed from the house looking for her son. Subsequently she found him beaten and bloodied, mocked and  spit on, condemned to death on a cross. Then she saw him  dragged through streets of Jerusalem to execution. Poor Mother Mary!  She heard the nails piercing his wrists and feet and it would be profoundly human if  in total horror she collapsed in grief in the arms of  some friends, emotionally drained.  Then  after three hours of agony saw her Son die a miserable death.  Did she “understand” the salvific connection at least a little, or did   she with her son on the Cross, ask “Why … ?”

Then she buried him.
 A mother is not supposed to bury her child – the child should bury the mother. But in the Passion nothing it seems worked exactly the way it should, yet, in the ultimate everything did work exactly  the way it should have worked -  redemptively!  “Oh my God” Mother Mary must have groaned, tears streaming down her face strained by sorrow and  anxiety, “My poor child, what has he done?” The whole sequent of events were incalculably worse than terrible, but Mary on the verge of physical collapse remembered  Simion’s prophesy some thirty years earlier,  “ A sword shall pierce your heart!” The grace of that moment sustained her somewhat.



Tradition says Mary lived for another twenty-four years, a quiet, but I believe a formative  pillar in the fledging Church after which, at age seventy-two she died and was buried. The Church at Ephesus where she was buried was greatly surprised when her body could not be found  and thus arose from that mystery, the belief that Mary was assumed into heaven shortly after death. A Dogma of the Church defined as such not until 1950, by Pope Pius XII. Mary, our Most Human Mother pray for us!



 
 
 
 
michael iwanowicz | 12/2/2012 - 10:21pm
After reading this post and comments, I was sufficiently intrigued to read the novella. Having done so, it seems to me to that it is nessary to read Toibin's  narrative before offering a critique.

The prose is exemplary; the reimagining is done skillfully; and the effect of the story is chilling yet replete with pausibility. 
J Cosgrove | 12/2/2012 - 9:02am
Someone comes along who hates Christianity, hates the Church and who is a gifted writer, publishes a book which is complete fiction, and in his own words only his imagination,  and it gets favorable press on this site.  Luke, Peter, Paul, hundreds of disciples are all low lifes who hijacked this unsuspecting good guy and got him crucified for their obscene objectives.  That is what the ''Testament of Mary'' is about.  It is not about a grieving mother.  That is just a vehicle for Toibin's hate.


The Apostles and all their hangers on must have been escapees from the local insane asylum.  None of the Gospels, writings of Luke, John, Peter, and Paul happened, it was all a concoction of some weirdoes who only cared about a philosophy of loving everyone. Their intense obsession for love ended up getting an innocent bystander killed for their mis-guided cause and ended up producing an extremely embittered women who hated them.


That is what the Testament of Mary is about.  It is a hit piece by someone who hates the Church and made up out of this hate.  The problem is how could all of those poor souls who were orchestrating the charade get killed for a looney tunes ideology.  Oh, they didn't get killed but were just a clever conspiracy and it all those billions of people afterward who are the suckers.  And here we are 2000 thousand years later and all those priests, nuns, religious and lay people are just as much suckers as were those people of the Roman Empire.  And we foolishly believed that Mary was a loving mother of all of us.
Thomas Rooney OFS | 12/6/2012 - 2:41pm
I now have read The Testament of Mary.  For what it's worth, here's what I think of it.  I will lead off with the following: 

Mr. Cosgrove and Mr. O'Leary, no "I-told-you-so" please.

What I was looking for in Testament was an emphasis on the humanity of Mary, the anger she must have felt at the death of Jesus, the annoyance and exasperation she may have felt toward the fawning disciples trying to understand what being His mother must have been like, lingering doubts of the enormity of who her Son was and what He was in her post- Ascension years; aspects of Mary that could possibly bring me closer to her in prayer.

What I found in Testament was a contemptuous, nasty woman bearing the name of Mary, who ran at the crucifixion of Jesus (whose name is never once mentioned in the novella), who never believed in the mission of her Son while He was alive, and who dies believing the world was never worth redeeming.  Jesus is pictured as a blowhard whose fame and self-importance get the better of Him.  John (who is also never mentioned by name, referred only to as the 'guardian') is imagined as one who contorts and  manipulates every word that comes out of Mary's mouth to invent his Gospel and writings.  A dream Mary relates to her cousin after the crucifixion; that they and John stayed with Jesus until he died, and that Jesus rose zombie-like from the dead is what John turns into the Easter story.  In other words, not only doesn't Mary believe the Resurrection ever happened, Testament's Mary KNOWS it was a figment of her imagination.

AND it what seemed like a cheap stunt (or the cheapest stunt, given the context) is that Mary and her neighbor Farina no longer attend synagogue, but now worship Artemis at a pagan Temple (the author was careful to capitalize it).  I would think modern Pagans would think this a cheap stunt as well.

What struck me more than anything was that Testament's Mary is a complete stranger to me.  Even when recounting the death of her Son, there is no sense of sorrow, no sense of love, no sense of motherhood.  I saw no one I could relate to, and no one to whom I would WANT to relate, were I able to.  There was no Love represented, either from Mary, the disciples, or her un-named Son in Testament.  I am grateful it was as short as it was, or I'd have had to put it down.  I was looking, straining to find some kind of faith, something that approached redemption.  Nowhere to be found, unfortunately.

As cynical as it sounded to me at the time, Tim and JR hit the nail on the head with just about everything they wrote.  But like Doubting Thomas, I just had to stick my fingers in.

Marie Rehbein | 12/6/2012 - 12:23pm
I guess we are all going to have to read the book to find out how Mary has been portrayed.  We need to see if our separate readings of this reveal a Mary who has not even received the grace most people in our day do so that they can continue living after they have lost a child; or so we can see if she continues to struggle despite her knowledge of the Resurrection, given that so far as we know she did not see Jesus post burial; or so we can see if she is simply turned into a God-forsaken atheist by the author, so that people who don't believe can claim that realistically Mary is just like them and none of the stuff in the Bible is legitimate and the Catholic Church is a big scam.
JANICE JOHNSON | 12/5/2012 - 2:22pm
With the caveat that I haven't read the novella, I'd like to make a few comments.  My first thought after reading Michael's blog was:  this lonely, angry , bitter, old woman needed Sr. Helen Prejean.  Now that sounds facetious, but I wonder whateverhappened to one of the bulwarks of our Judeao-Christian faith, forgiveness.  If, as we believe, that forgiveness is a grace that comes from God, surely the Son of God would provide ample graces for his mother  to forgive him, his followers and to heal.  She , too, in her way needed redemption as her feelings were understandable but also self- destructive.  For a man or woman to live to old age in bitterness and loneliness is tragic for that person.

I disagree with Michael's statement:  "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."  Well, I've lived a long time and have read and heard many Catholics speak about Mary's humanity and I don't think I'm unusual in that respect.  Many Catholics I know have related to Mary's humanity.  Just making the Stations of the Cross brings to one's mind and heart the pain she suffered as a mother.  As a mother of a severely disabled son, I know what it is to be angry with God, to doubt God's goodness and providence.  I have often looked to Mary as another mother who experienced the same feelings but, also the great love she had for her son.  That love is also part of the picture.  It seems arrogant to compare oneself to the Mother of God, but I think it is Mary's humility and love of us that makes this possible.

Finally, I wonder at the timing of the publication of this book, during Advent  when Christians are looking forward to celebrating the Incarnation, in which Mary plays a large part.  Being provocative sells books and makes money for the author and publisher.  Frankly, I think there are more interesting, edifying books on Mary; for example, Jaraslav Pelican's book, "Mary through the Centuries".
Thomas Rooney OFS | 12/4/2012 - 4:39pm
Tim writes...

"Tom - would you think it an interesting and innocent idea if some gifted linguist decided to write a book about Lincoln as a racist criminal, or Washington as a closet whatever, or Opus Dei as having self flagellating murdering albino monks (there are no monks in Opus Dei, as far as I know), or Gandhi as a serial killer? Surely, it tells us something very significant about the writer who decides to choose these ideas for his fiction."

You're setting up straw men here, Tim.  The author, as I understand from the review, is writing about Mary as a human being, with human feelings.  Do you deny she had either??  I'm not quite sure why you this with "bad" on the order of racism, murder, or serial killing (you made the comparisons, not me).  If Jesus got annoyed and "rebuked" the disciples from time to time, it would stand to reason that Mary could conceivably do the same...she was with them for a heckuva lot longer than her Son during His earthly life, if tradition is to be believed.

The writer chose to write about Mary as a woman who lost her son, which she surely was.  Again, making a comparsion between this and Lincoln as a criminal racist or Gandhi as a serial killer doesn't hold up.  Being human isn't a crime.

As for the self-flagellating murdering Opus Dei monk, you're correct...no religious orders connected with OD.  I personally found DVC quite 2-dimensional and maybe a bit silly.  Fun chase scenes, but that was about it.  Fiction...not wink-wink fiction, just fiction.  That's even the area in the bookstore where I found it . 

Why do you believe the author had malicious intent?
Amy Ho-Ohn | 12/4/2012 - 4:29pm
On the one hand, it is always rotten style to insult somebody's mother. As a calculated provocation, it can be considered bravery, but in this case it's pretty clear that if anybody offers to fight the author, he'll run to his elite friends and scream that he's being persecuted and targeted and "bullied" by those primitive religious people, which will help sell a few more copies of the book.

On the other hand, most people are not Catholic believers. A non-believer is naturally interested in the question of what it's like to be in the room when a (to him) nutty religion is coming into existence. Nobody objected when John Updike ("In the Beauty of the Lilies") wrote just such a piece (thinly disguised) about the Branch Davidians.

Part of being a small, pure church is accepting that other people do not feel obliged to take your articles of faith seriously. Catholics should learn to be as good sports about it as Mormons are.
Tim O'Leary | 12/4/2012 - 4:17pm
It is true that both the praisers and critics of Toibin and his fictional ''testament'' are doing so with the same level of information (most have not read the book) - the review Michael provides above, the NPR story or some other review. So, there is that caveat. Maybe, Toibin has Mary believing in the Resurrection of her son and the reviewers have completely misunderstood his writing - but I doubt it.

Tom #21 and Marie #22
Given that caveat, I think the key point in Toibin's book is not that he shows Mary as suffering and human, but he shows her as a non-believer in the Resurrection, and in the miracles and mission of Jesus. Again, the reviews claim she strongly dislikes the apostles, even John who was taking care of her in her old age. The conflict in Nicaea was a much finer disagreement among believers, not what Toibin seems to be writing about - the very modern ridicule of Christians by atheists.

Tom - would you think it an interesting and innocent idea if some gifted linguist decided to write a book about Lincoln as a racist criminal, or Washington as a closet whatever, or Opus Dei as having self flagellating murdering albino monks (there are no monks in Opus Dei, as far as I know), or Gandhi as a serial killer? Surely, it tells us something very significant about the writer who decides to choose these ideas for his fiction.



Marie Rehbein | 12/4/2012 - 11:41am
Since almost nobody commenting here has actually read the book, I feel free to jump in with an equally uninformed comment.

Why would there have been a debate as to Jesus's divinity that was not resolved until Nicea, unless the people involved were a lot more like us than like what we have come to believe them to be?

More than likely the apostles did look like weirdos.  More than likely all of today's tragic figures are very much like Mary was back then.  I think this perspective fits perfectly with the theology that I was taught, because it's not just us looking back in awe and envy at a singular time, but us looking around and seeing ourselves as part of that ongoing turn of events.
Thomas Rooney OFS | 12/4/2012 - 8:36am
Wow.  The tearing down not only of an unread book, but of the author AS A PERSON ('his problem is one of the will...It probably points to an inversion in the writer. Poor fellow.') is pretty incredible to me. 

Isn't there something to be gained by imagining and contemplating the fully human aspect of Christ and his Mother?   How do we pray with and talk to and have a relationship with someone we ONLY recognize as CHRIST THE KING and the crowned QUEEN OF HEAVEN???  Please don't misunderstand; I worship Jesus, the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity and venerate of Our Lady, Mary Mother of God.

Sometimes I need my brother and my mom to talk to, however. In such times, I need to remember their humanity.  Books like Last Temptation and Christ the Lord by Anne Rice (a real shame she will not be continuing the series) helped me to do that - it was an aid to prayer and relationship, nothing more.  Did I think for one moment that I was reading anything other than an imagining, a fiction (wink-wink)?  No. 

I'm hoping Testament will do the same for me.  But I will reserve judgment until AFTER I read it.
Tim O'Leary | 12/3/2012 - 11:27pm
I too haven't read this book, but if Michael's description is accurate, I won't. Not enough time in this life to spend imagining the good to be bad and vice versa. The work seems essentially an act of bad faith, an anti-faith. The concept is not that original and is kind of lazy: take a revered figure (the more blessed, the better) and get that figure to do bad things, or express despair and disgust in those who are doing the revering (Salman Rushdie, Nikos Kazantzakis, John Cornwell...). It is designed to outrage, get a reaction, sell some books, be assured to get an award from the anti-Catholic intelligentsia. Say it is fiction but, wink, wink, name it a ''testament,'' and laughably, claim it is revealing some deeper truth after all (Mary's humanity!). 

Someone said that no idea is so crazy that it will not be endorsed by some academic (a tenured academic). Toibin is said to be smart and even gifted. Maybe, but his problem is one of the will. He had choices in how to use his intellect. He chose to pervert an aspect of the faith.  It probably points to an inversion in the writer. Poor fellow.
Jeanne Linconnue | 12/3/2012 - 10:38pm
Abe, thank you for your comments - on this thread and others. They are always interesting and well-put.

I have not read the book. I don't know if I will, but I am glad to see that some are exploring Mary's humanity rather than simply her bland and passive perfection.  The Mary I grew up with was a woman that I could never relate to. She was ''conceived without sin'' - alas, I was not. She was held up as an impossible ideal - a virgin AND a mother. To do that, the rest of us would have to have in vitro, which is condemned by the church.  I never considered her to be a role model because she was presented as so perfect and so passive - not a real woman that the rest of us could look to as a real world ''role model''. 

Later, as a mother, I actually wanted to be able to relate to her, but again, found that I could not. She was a perfect, sinless, mother and a perfect woman (wife, daughter, neighbor, cousin, sister..... perfect) and I am not. Not only that, she had a perfect son - sinless!  No other mother, no matter how partial to her own children she might be, would claim sinlessness and perfection for her child. I used to think that Mary could not possibly understand we ''real'' mothers  with ''real'' kids. So, I spent little time with her.

Then I read a book by Joyce Rupp called 'Your Sorrow is my Sorrow'' that has reflections on Mary's sorrows as a mother, which included Simeon's prophecy, the flight to Egypt, losing Jesus at the Temple, the suffering, death and burial of her son.  This later led me to reflect on the ''joyful'' mysteries of the rosary.  As a mother for a long time by then, I found myself reflecting on those mysteries in an entirely new way. Even though Mary was still perfect and sinless and I still cannot relate to that, I could relate to her as a mother who loved a child, who was afraid for her child, who hurt when her child hurt, and who felt helpless to protect her child, especially when he was no longer a child himself.  I thought about the annunciation - joyful for the world perhaps, but for a young teenage Jewish girl it must have been at least somewhat terrifying. After all, she lived in a culture that advocated stoning her to death of found guilty of adultery and how on earth was she going to explain this pregnancy if Joseph didn't cover for her?  Maybe not so joyful a situation. And those of us who were not born without original sin, her passivity in the face of what could have been mortal danger is difficult for us to relate to. Her confusion and possible fear, however, would be more understandable to we ''real'' women.

 The visit with Elizabeth may have been prompted partly from the anxiety Mary must have felt over her situation. Did Elizabeth worry at all about the dangers of a pregnancy and birth at her advanced age?  Women take comfort from each other. I suspect both felt a mix of emotions over their unexpected circumstances.  Few new mothers would like to be told when their baby was only 8 days old that a ''sword would pierce her heart.''  Not so joyful for mom.  The birth? The circumstances were challening, but that was still probably the one mystery that reflects real joy for Mary herself and not just for humanity.  Losing Jesus at the temple. Every mother knows the sheer terror that grips your heart when a child has disappeared and you don't know where he is. Even an ''almost grown'' child, as Jesus was in his culture and time period, even though he was 12.  Sheer terror. Not a very joyful moment.


I have heard of another book on Mary that sounds interesting also. It's called ''Truly Our Sister'' by Elizabeth Johnson. Apparently it is a bit more theological in focus, as well as historical, but I would like to read it because apparently the author describes Mary as an active participant in accepting her role, a woman other women can really look up to as a role model, rather than the passive, obedient ( and rather spineless and bland) woman the church has too often presented.
J Cosgrove | 12/3/2012 - 2:33pm
David,

I used those words on purpose not knowing any of Toibin's past other than he is Irish and a good writer.  The theme says that the Church is a farce, Christ was a dunce to get crucified for a bunch of crazies, the apostles were scoundrels, the faithful were conned and for 2000 years this charade has been going on.  All that are implications of the book.


Toibin must of known that was the message he was sending in the book.  He is not dumb and apparently a brilliant writer.  We have a tendency to fall for well written material and attractive people without examining the message.


Nothing except an animosity towards the Church fits with this story no matter how well written it is.  If Christ was the Messiah, and Mary was the mother of Christ, she had to have known the divine plot.  Saying she didn't and was embittered makes one feel sorry for her as a mother who lost her son in a tragic way but the implications dwarf one woman's personal sorrow of which we have millions in our world every day that rival this for the last 10,000 years.  And Toibin made Mary into just another person who had an unfortunate experience.


So you tell me why he would do it.  Not out of any love for which the Church's main message is known for.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth | 12/2/2012 - 1:47pm
Financial Times included it in its ''Books of the Year'' yesterday.  Fiction, but George Pendle's little description concludes with, ''This Mary is all too believable.''

 
Kang Dole | 12/2/2012 - 9:52am
Mr. Cosgrove, thank you for pointing out that Toibin's work of fiction is fictional; we are all in your debt for that compelling insight. Thank you, also, for playing blog cop. Angels and minsiters of grace defend us, lest some artistic expression that is challenging be discussed without somebody clutching his pearls in outraged horror.

Anyhow, this complaint that Toibin "misses the mark" because he doesn't present a Mary touched by Easter misses the point: what the New Testament narratives report is irrelevant; there isn't any Easter moment in the novella.

Toibin is an intense writer, with a really strong control over his work-but, to be honest, I found that this didn't fully click for me. I found myself comparing it to David Malouf's Ransom, which evokes the motherly grief of Hecuba in a way that is intensely physical, and has all the more impact for its brevity. For all that Toibin makes the reader recognize that things were roiling within Mary's skull, you get less of a sense of what was happening below the neck.
Bill Collier | 12/1/2012 - 6:09pm
I haven't read the book but I heard the NPR interview of Toibin, too, and while I agree that we should reflect more on the humanity of Mary, I think Toibin misses the mark, at least for the post-Resurrection phse of Mary's life for the reason you said: "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." The Gospels report that Christ appeared to many following his Resurrection. Wouldn't it be safe to assume that one of those people was His mother? And if for some reason He didn't provide Mary direct evidence that He was no longer physically dead, would Mary have doubted Peter and the other Apostles when they related their direct contact with the Risen Lord to her? I ca only palely imagine the great, great sorrow Mary must hve experienced as her Son hung crucified directly in front of her. Still, I can't imagine her being an embittered woman for the remainder of her life, "left to stew in her contempt for her son’s followers, the men she blames for his demise." Mary may or may not have known the fullness of her Son's Divine Plan, but she is one of the privileged few to have had either first-hand, or near first-hand, knowledge that her Son had conquered death, and she must have been supremely comforted by the knowledge that she would see him again           
Beth Cioffoletti | 12/1/2012 - 8:15am
In my friendships with women who have lost their sons to prison for life, I often feel as if I am listening to the agony of the Blessed Mother.
Crystal Watson | 12/1/2012 - 2:52am
I listened to a short intervie with him on the book ar NPR a while ago ... http://www.npr.org/2012/11/13/164960060/testament-of-mary-gives-fiery-voice-to-the-virgin

The Mary in the book doesn't want her son to be tortured to death, even for the salvation of others, and that seems like an understandable reaction for a mother, I think.
Gerardine Luongo | 12/1/2012 - 1:34pm
I believe that for many Catholic women the view of Mary is definately changing. We no longer see her as our grandmother's did, lacking a full range of human emotions. Rather we see her as mother...with all that role entails including the anguish cause by the murder of her son...we absolutely believe her heart was crushed with by the death of her son. Her see her as scared, angry, confused and yes, loving and a women of deep faith. It is her humanity that speaks to usl