In the manner of recent catch phrases where someone won’t “confirm or deny” something, today I am neither recommending nor not recommending that you read Colm Toibin’s novella “The Testament of Mary” that I recently obtained from the library and read in one sitting. But if you choose to read it, you may love it or hate it. You may think it is blasphemous or a great piece of fiction. You may embrace the totality of it or think it should be at a minimum tossed in the trash, and that only because we don’t burn books. I guarantee you that regardless of how you react to it, you will spend a lot of time thinking about it after you put it down. Under certain circumstances in your background, you may need to be brave to read it.I came to read this book because of a review in the L.A. Times on April 22, not about the book, which was published last year, but about the Broadway stage play, which incidentally closed after 16 performances. I was intrigued with what I read about the how this author presents Mary. And with my bringing to the book a fairly traditional religious but non-Catholic acquaintance with the New Testament Mary, the Mary that is the mother of Jesus, I wondered if I could even be objective to begin with. Since most of you know that I do enjoy books with a religious bent to them, and since I figured I’d never get to the Broadway production of it, I’d better read the book.
To start with, Toibin’s Mary is the mother of Jesus but not because of a virgin birth. She states that her son is a mere man, not the Son of God. Toibin begins his story with Mary in her old age, living in Ephesus and having some contact with what the reader assumes are the “Disciples” as we know them from the New Testament, but she indicates they really want her cooperation in documenting him as the Son of God and she says in so many words that she can’t do it because it isn’t true.It is Mary’s voice that Toibin writes in. In a short 70-some pages, the reader hears Mary as she describes things like the resurrecting of Lazarus, the Cana wedding’s miraculous “changing of water to wine”, other familiar New Testament happenings and of course, the crucifixion. I must admit that as simple and beautiful as Toibin's writing is, it is very difficult to read. What I found surprising is that regardless of my own position at this time, I found myself holding my breath as I read powerful words that fly in the face of what I have heard and understood my entire life.
In November of last year, Mary Gordon, herself a powerful and poignant writer, ended her review of this book as follows:For “The Testament of Mary” is a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother’s grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son. Her prayers are directed not to Yahweh but to Artemis, Greek not Jewish, chaste goddess of the hunt and of fertility, but no one’s mother. Mary’s final word on her son’s life and death is the bleak declaration:….” I leave it to you to pursue Gordon’s full commentary on this amazing book.
Interestingly, the Broadway show closed long before it was scheduled to end. The day that it announced it was closing early was also the day it received 3 Tony nominations. The closure was not that there were nightly protests outside the theatre because of what the protesters called blasphemy, but because the nominations were not for any of the biggies (show, lead, etc.). They were for minor technical things – a real snub, according to some. I imagine one can read into that a whole bunch of things, maybe true and maybe not.
At any rate, the play is not the book. The book is out to be read, if you are interested -- and if you are willing to appreciate a writer’s creativity and his amazing piece of writing. And brave.