Cambridge, MA. I spent a little time this week reading The Testament of Mary by the Irish novelist, Colm Tóibín. It is a meditation in the voice of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in her old age, as she looks back on her life. I needn’t summarize it here, since America has already printed a fine review by Diane Scharper, which you can read first.
The Testament of Mary draws on the Gospel according to St. John, and not the other Gospels, and thus is directly limited to the wedding feast at Cana and the terrible, climactic scene where Mary stands by the cross of her crucified son. The wedding and crucifixion scenes are connected in Tóibín’s telling, since Mary had gone to the wedding primarily to try to get her son’s attention and warn him about the danger his “signs” was bringing upon himself. That he changed water into wine — without her prompting — was a marvelous thing that she too was not prepared for, but which was also out of proportion with ordinary reality, as if a warping of the world most people could comfortably tolerate, just as the raising of Lazarus (recounted here as before Cana) was an upset to the expected, inevitable pattern of life followed by death. Eventually the signs of Jesus become too much, and they must kill him. Unable to stop the inevitable and sway her son to play it safe, she leaves the wedding before he does, and returns home. (I was reading the book, by the way, in hopes of using it for my homily today, on the wedding feast at Cana, but decided it would have been too complicated to do so. For the same reason, I also omitted reflections on the “Cana of Galilee” chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, since high school my favorite chapter in any literary work. If you've never read it, you can find it here.)
In reading the book, my interreligious radar turned on as well, for at the beginning and end of her Testament Mary confesses her “secret,” low-key but real connection to Artemis, the great goddess whose great temple stood in Ephesus, where Mary lives out her last years. As Tóibín recounts Mary’s visit to the temple, she recollects: “And then I remember turning and seeing the statue of Artemis for the first time; in that second, as I stared at it, the statue was radiating abundance and bounty, fertility and grace, and beauty maybe, even beauty. And it inspired me for a moment; my own shadows fled to talk to the lovely shadows of the Temple. They left me for some minutes as though in light. The poison was not in my heart. I gazed at the statue of the old goddess, she who has seen more than I have and suffered more because she has lived more.” Later, struggling still with her memories of her son who died so horrible a death, she not so much prays to Artemis as shares memories with her, mindful of her presence, as if one mother to another, telling “the story of what happened and how I came here.” On the last page of her Testament Mary admits how sometimes alone in the morning she goes to the temple of Artemis, “when I awake or later when there are shadows coming over the world, presaging night. I move quietly. I speak to her in whispers, the great goddess Artemis, bountiful with her arms outstretched and her many breasts waiting to nurture those who come towards her. I tell her how much I long now to sleep in the dry earth, to go to dust peacefully with my eyes shut in a place near here where there are trees.”
This is a fictional account, of course, and Tóibín is unlikely to win any awards from the Church, or find his book for sale in the Vatican bookshop. He is, to be sure, not a Catholic theologian. But in the whole of the book, and in these brief moments where Artemis is mentioned, he perhaps catches something of an experience we need not entirely rule out in our own meditations on Mary. Even if today we for the most part accept the slow growth of Christian consciousness in the earliest Church, and even if we recognize, in theory at least, how it took a long time for the Gospels to be composed and finalized, perhaps we still are too confident about what this early period must have been like for those closest to Jesus, those who loved him most. Mary, who pondered “all these things in her heart,” as St. Luke says, is shown by Tóibín to be slow in settling the meaning of her son, slow in accepting the growing sureness of the Church about who Jesus was, what happened, and what her own role was at Cana and at the Cross. We might say that even for her, Jesus truly was God, and that in part means that he was even to the end, and after it, a mystery to her. When the boundaries were not yet fixed, Tóibín is suggesting, it is not inconceivable that Mary, like her son, was open to things later foreclosed. And so, in a way that the Church could not receive and record, because such things had no room in a world focused on Jesus and his Blessed Mother, Tóibín’s Mary found a connection to Artemis and talked to her.
I recount all of this here not to suggest that what Tóibín imagines was the truth of Mary, or that his images give us reason to do the same as did his Mary. But in our world, a world where many religions flourish and it is nearly impossible to exclude the images, words, shadows of other faiths from our own meditations and prayers, we might take to heart this gentle, albeit sad, account of Mary, who loved Jesus more palpably and concretely than anyone else, and who also found in Artemis, that Mother in Ephesus, a kindred spirit. We might welcome, quietly, into our meditation the images and words and shadows of other religions, so hard to welcome by way of good theology.
So Mary is now the patron of interreligious humility and learning? Perhaps too much of a claim to make. But read The Testament and see what you think about Mary there, in the beginning, and Cana, and Artemis, when the mystery of Jesus was still stark and raw, and the Church had not yet found its language about its boundaries. At least imagine the possibilities before saying no.