The Testament of Mary
The Testament of Mary
Today we celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary.. There are five Mary’s in the University Church, all but one holding the child Jesus in their arms. They’re all different, one looking confidently over the High Street, one gazing in amazement at the babe, the third prostrated in prayer, one in the East and one in the West, looking downward, almost sad.
In the Orthodox calendar, the 15th August commemorates the Dormition of the Virgin, her silent passing into eternal sleep. Traditionally, she is portrayed as the God-bearer, full of grace, fully accepting her divinely ordained and foretold fate, supporting her extraordinary son in his ministry in the small ways she is allowed. Even in death she is quiet, passing away without ripples, without pain.
I feel like we’ve done her a disservice. She is the archetype of the ideal woman and the inexistent woman, destined to be both remembered and forgotten, her layers of meaning stripped down to essentials, distinct from the divine and from humankind, rarely being allowed a voice of her own. She stands alone, full of grace, eternally gazing at the holiness in her arms.
One of my favourite books, The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin, is inhabited by a different kind of Mary. She is nearing the end of her life, having lost everything she held dear. She is angry. She is both watched closely and dismissed as an old sentimental woman. She tells of the other side of that graceful acceptance, of the intense love for the child she bore, the unbearable pain of watching him be crucified and the anger at not understanding the point of it all, the bewildering violence and betrayal of those who she loved and who loved her son. Toibin’s seemingly diminished and aggrieved Mary seems more relatable, a better role model of accepting what is outside of one’s control but being in charge of that acceptance, making informed and defined choices.
I hope it is not too odd to think of a work of fiction as informing my faith but I do feel like it made my patron saint more human to me, brought her closer and made her real.
O Maid amongst the maidens, turn your face,
For when we glimpse you we are not alone,
O look us out of grief and into grace,
Lift us in love made stronger than our own,
Summon the spring in our worst wilderness,
And make us fruitful in your fruitfulness. (Excerpt from O Virgo Virginum, Malcom Guite)