The Interreligious Mary of Colm Tóibín

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.

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michael iwanowicz
5 years 12 months ago
I concur with Fr. Clooney that we cannot know or understand all that Mary ‘pondered’ in her heart about her son, Jesus. Whether in Luke or John, we only read snippets about the mother/son relationship with Mary and Jesus. As with many writers, Toibin offers a depiction of Mary in her mourning and future life experience to posit a sense of her early doubts and confusion.
Frank Gibbons
5 years 12 months ago
Artemis and her brother Apollo, in order to please their mother Leto, slaughtered the fourteen children of Niobe. Niobe's crime? She had boasted of having more children than Leto. Artemis hardly seems a kindred spirit for Mary. I think it is a huge stretch to imagine that Mary, a faithful daughter of Israel, would seek solace from a polytheistic deity.
J Cosgrove
5 years 12 months ago
This is the third time this book has been reviewed by authors on America, all generally favorably in some aspects. Contrast these three articles with the review of the novella by a frequent commenter here at America. "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."
Thomas Rooney OFS
5 years 12 months ago
Hey that's me!!! Thanks, JR~
Amy Alznauer
5 years 8 months ago
This is a beautiful review, a great contrast to the reactive responses which can't stomach a fictionalized Mary. To imagine a shadow Mary - not Mary of the Gospels - but the Mary she could have been, the choices that were waiting for her at every turn, the ways it all might have gone differently is not only a great literary feat (at the hands of Toibin at least) but an act of imaginative theology that helps make the way of faith more clear, and as Clooney suggests, the way of humility more clear. This review - - also gets at the triumph of The Testament of Mary. Toibin's Mary is the Mary we would have been, but she wasn't.
Rory Connor
5 years 8 months ago
According to Fr Cooney: " 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....." Indeed Mr. Toibin sounds remarkably like an anti-cleric. Suppose that an anti-Semitic author wrote a similar debunking play about Moses and that a very liberal Jewish critic urged his fellow Jews to look beneath the surface and consider its true artistic value and what lessons Jews should learn from the play etc. Would this lead to some sort of rapprochement between Jews and those who hate them - or just to increased hatred and contempt on the part of the anti-Semites?
Christopher Buczek
5 years 8 months ago
I understand the value one commenter expressed in contemplating a doubting, angry "fictional" Mary—which is supposed to give us a renewed appreciation for the fidelity and steadfast acceptance of the actual Mother of Christ. At least, in charity, I think that is what is being proposed. I haven't read Tóibín's novella, but I did see his play on Broadway. It played more as an onstage diatribe than a successful work of drama for my tastes, but there is one crucial aspect of his story which is being overlooked here. If we follow Tóibín and imagine a Mary who is being held prisoner by a sect of fanatic followers hellbent on divinizing her executed son, we must also accept her judgment of him as a deluded, pathetic, suicidal false prophet. Flannery O'Connor famously wrote that if Jesus were not God, he would have been a liar and the crucifixion simple justice. This is the ultimate premise Tóibín is asking us to accept. Should you feel the need to deform your understanding of the gospels that far in order to renew your faith, perhaps you might ask yourself why. Look, I get the impulse to revivify our image of Mary, to peel away the celestial robes and golden crowns and incarnate her again in the physical world, sharing our human nature. But aren't we invited to do that every time we meditate on the rosary? Isn't it remarkable that two of the joyful and sorrowful mysteries overlap in space and time? The presentation in the temple is the occasion of Simeon's recognition of the infant Jesus as Israel's longed-for Messiah, and simultaneously his prophecy of Christ's passion and death and Mary's suffering. The loss of the child Jesus is concomitant with his being found in the temple after three days. The triumphs of our Savior and his mother are all wrapped in their defeats—which is a mature and profound teaching on what it means to be a human being. The Virgin who hears the prophecy of her son's untimely end is every mother who is wracked by the news that her child has been sentenced to an unjust death. The Mary and Joseph who search for their lost child are every family torn asunder by war or poverty or forced exile. The mysteries of our Catholic faith contain and subsume every aspect of our human condition, and provide the grace we need to face and make sense of them and ultimately find healing. There is no need to step outside of the tradition to understand this, we need only enter more deeply into it.


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