Spoiler alert: When all is said and done, the Virgin Mary declares it was not worth it. At the end of Irish novelist Colm Tóibín’s novella, The Testament of Mary , she says it twice: “I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”
Originally performed as a monologue called Testament at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011, this very short work tells the story of Mary living in exile in the ancient town of Ephesus, many years after her son’s crucifixion. She is a bitter and angry old woman, tormented by memories, despairing and longing for death. She is visited regularly by two of her son’s disciples, the gospel writers. It is not made clear who they are exactly, nor whether they are her caregivers or her jailors.
Whoever they are, they are determined to get Mary to tell them the story of what happened. But Mary has never had anything but contempt for her son’s followers, describing them as abnormal misfits, “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers,” and she sees in these two “something hungry and rough … a brutality boiling in their blood.” At one point, she even threatens them with a knife. As determined as they are to get her to tell them the story they want to hear, she is equally determined to tell the real story, “or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang on low trees.”
I have to confess that I too have written a novel about the Virgin Mary, a very different novel about a very different Mary. Given how little is actually known with historical accuracy about Mary, and how seldom she actually appears or speaks in the Bible, she is the perfect candidate for a fictional re-imagining. My novel too is very much about story and truth, doubt and faith, about history as we think we know it and that relentlessly slippery slope between fact and fiction. But that is where the similarity ends.
Tóibín’s Mary is so traumatized by everything that happened, she describes herself as “unhinged.” She cannot even call her son by his name: “I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. … Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.” She is haunted by the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, and especially by the fact that at the crucifixion she made no attempt to save or even comfort her son. Instead she fled to save her own life.
She says, “I watched in horror, but I did not move or make a sound. … I did not cry out or run to rescue him because it would have made no difference. … And maybe I should have moved towards him then, no matter what the consequences would have been. It would not have mattered, but at least I would not have to go over and over it now, wondering how I could not have run towards them and pulled them back and shouted out words, how I could have watched and remained still and silent. But that is what I did.”
Much as Tóibín’s Mary insists that she is going to tell the truth about what happened, in the end she also says, “I do not know why it matters that I should tell the truth to myself at night, why it should matter that the truth should be spoken at least once in the world. … No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night. They will not brighten it or make it less strange. And the day too has its own deep indifference to anything that is said.”
And so the question remains: When Mary says it was not worth it, does she mean that losing her son was too high a price to pay or does she mean that the world was not worth redeeming? When all is said and done, there is no redemption or gladness or comfort for this Mary, not ever, and none for the reader either.
Diane Schoemperlen’s novel about the Virgin Mary is called Our Lady of the Lost and Found, described by one reviewer as “a holy hoot.”