On Writers

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin

Penguin Books ISBN 978-0-241-96297-8 104pp $19.99.
For Book Club.

Related years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary’s memoir expresses no pride in her son’s godliness or recognition as the figurehead of a new religion or anticipation of her own sanctity, but the tones are of rage and fearfulness and apprehension of terrible consequences.

‘I am not one of his followers,’ she says, watching his early converts vying for position, the clever power play begins, just as it would, for two thousand years, continue.

In a conversation between May and her two guides, her minders, the Christian myths begin to arrange themselves. ‘I felt the enormity of their ambition and the innocence of their belief.’

The terrible cruelty of the crucifixion, as she watched it, fleeing before he was cut down, may be a reason she refused to take a compatible religious path. Instead of glimpsing her own route to sanctity she withdrew from Jewish practice in favour of Roman paganism. The goddess Artemis appears near the book’s beginning and again near the end. Her last sentence is polytheist with a ritual incantation in a form of words: ‘smiling as I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place who linger in the air to watch me and hear me.’

Now an aside: because I’m thinking about the action of Natural Selection on religions. The Abrahamic religions all permit only the writing of the ancient lawyers to be considered as scripture, and modern learning is considered sinful, then Natural Selection may work to diminish the population of their believers. In Christianity an example is Jehovah’s Witnesses and the sinfulness of blood transfusions, in Islam Afghanistan’s Taliban have proscribed inoculations.