big summer read: a really radical mary?

This summer, the York St John Literature programme invited students and staff to read and respond to Colm Tóibín’s 2012 novella The Testament of Mary, a study of the mother of Jesus of Nazareth as she comes to terms with her son’s crucifixion at hands of the Roman Empire. In this post, Chris Maunder critiques Tóibín’s conservatism and points to more radical challenges to the Cult of Mary.

By Chris Maunder

I started this book with some relish. For many years, I have been a researcher of the cult of the Virgin Mary; I have written one book, edited another, written several articles on the topic, and there are more publications to come. I particularly like provocative work about Mary that is prepared to undermine some of the old myths: controversial feminist academics like Jane Schaberg and Mary Daly, for example, or authors of novels on Mary such as Michèle Roberts. I once introduced Dutch feminist Els Maeckelberghe’s Desperately Seeking Mary to a group of Catholic deacons in training; it so upset them that they refused to engage with it. I wasn’t invited back to speak the next year! I am by no means averse to upsetting the status quo. So why was I so disappointed with The Testament of Mary?

I understand where Colm Tóibín is coming from. Ireland is a land of deep disillusionment with the Catholic Church, after all the scandals about various kinds of horrendous abuse by priests, nuns, and monks: films such as The Magdalene Sisters or Philomena give us a profound sense of that. I first encountered Colm Tóibín when, as a journalist, he wrote about the epidemic of moving statue sensations in Ireland in the mid-1980s. He has been an acute observer of the decline of Catholic Ireland, where priests were once treated as dignitaries before the days of Father Ted. There is no doubt that he is a skilled author, a craftsman of words in the Irish tradition of writers, and worthy of awards.

But the character of Mary that Colm Tóibín portrays is a pathetic and isolated victim of a life gone sour in a patriarchal world of illusion and cruelty. She does not have the spirit of the feminist rewriting of Mary, who resists authorities and subverts convention. The feminist Mary rebels against the very religion that promotes her by being a woman of sexuality, of defiance, of building community amongst women who are marginalised. This has a basis in the Bible itself in the account of the visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, Mary’s utterance of the hymn of social justice, the Magnificat, and Mary standing by the Cross with Mary Magdalene. Whereas feminists give us a Mary redeemed from Catholicism, a figure that even revolutionaries can look up to, Colm Tóibín gives us nothing but shadows, and we are pitched into the depression that has invaded the religion of modern Ireland but without being cheered by the gaiety and subversive spirit that one associates with that nation.

Worse, Colm Tóibín is not even consistent with his stand against the Christian religion. Is the Bible a myth or isn’t it? OK, we can accept that it has sentimentalised Mary and that it could not have been easy being the mother of an executed rebel rouser under Roman occupation. Yes, the Bible has stories whose historical accuracy is very questionable. Why then, in this book, are particular events in the Bible taken as if they literally happened? Why not say: they made it all up and Mary’s story is very different from the one you expected? That would make a good read. But if in your reconstruction you accept the Biblical accounts as originally written, then it is more difficult to disregard the Gospel message. For example, in The Testament of Mary, the raising of Lazarus occurs exactly as one reads in John 11. Wouldn’t a Mary who had witnessed the raising of the dead retained some sense of wonder, of recognition that something extraordinary was happening that was worthy of belief? If she did not, surely it would have been better to regard the resurrection of Lazarus as part of the illusion? In Colm Tóibín’s account, all that is added to the Bible story is a depressed Lazarus, who wishes that he had been left in the grave. While appreciating what the author was trying to do, I wish he had left this novel there too.

Colm Tóibín takes away from us the Mary who, because of her own life experience, provides support for the many women in areas of crisis across the world, especially those who have had to cradle dead children as victims of violence. The Pièta (the traditional image of Mary holding Christ’s body under the Cross) is replaced by a Mary who runs away and sees nothing of the Passion. If she has so little to offer us, why write about her? The answer is, once again, that she represents the contemporary disillusionment of Catholic Ireland, and it is a gloomy story that won’t provide much in the way of solace. But other sad Irish stories – The Magdalene Sisters, Philomena – offer more that help us understand these things, as they deal with real people and contemporary lives. The Testament of Mary is about an imagined Mary who falls between two stools. On the one hand, she will be uninteresting to the non-religious (except for the few who have a near religious mission to deride religious belief). On the other, she will also profoundly disappoint the believer, even the radical and rebellious one, because they will not be able to find any vestige of the supernatural spark of human courage, hope, and warmth that Mary has represented from a variety of perspectives, often contradictory, but reaching across time, race, gender, and political persuasion.