But it was not, worth it?

Testament of Mary credit Brigitte Lacombe

If the world was saved by the death of Jesus, was it worth all the effort?

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (see review here and here) is the latest in long line of English literature based on material from the Bible. It follows in the tradition of Lew Wallace, Robert Graves, Jenny Diski, Norman Mailer and others who have reworked Bible stories. What emerges is not necessarily the Church’s teaching. The material is explored as human experience rather than divine dictat.

Tóibín’s Testament tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is both a novella and a play. In the latter, recently finishing its season at London’s Barbican (see review here) actress Fiona Shaw plays a Mary half-crazed with grief and severely critical of the position that she has been placed in by her son and his followers.

Tóibín’s is clear about his intention. Unlike the New Testament authors, he gives Mary a voice. He visualises her living in exile resenting the custody of her ‘guardians’. He tells her version of the events of the last few days of Jesus, using mainly material from John’s gospel and, in particular, the story of Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead.

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But it was not worth it


In the week that Fiona Shaw completed her final performance of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary at the Barbican theatre, St Paul’s Cathedral announced the arrival of ‘Martyrs’. This is the first of two video installations by Bill Viola and Kira Perov that will enhance the power of the St Pauls to explain what faith makes people do. The full title is ‘Martyr (Earth, Air, Wind Water)’ and depicts the agony and death that each element can inflict on a martyr. Intriguingly the other video will be about Mary.

Tóibín’s Mary is a severe, grief stricken mother deeply distrustful of what has become of her and her son. His name she cannot speak; for he had inflicted too much on her and for little good that she could see. The play ends as it begins with a wry, cynical questioning of his followers’ claim that the death would change the world.

Twice Mary says: it was not worth it. What he endured, what she suffered, was too high a price. But in the second saying of it there is a hint of a question. But it was not, worth it?

Martyrs raise the same question. There are always people who believe their death will make a difference. There are always those who believe that their death is the cost they will pay for what will change things for good.

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The Garden


It is only a place.

A gracious place, somewhat chaotic;

But my sort of place.

Early morning is best.

Bird song and still air;

soft breeze and a kind sun.

It’s all growing well this year.

It was the mild winter:

they say.

But it did not grow.

It has died with the hint

of this season’s buds

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Why windingquest?


Man hath still either toys or care;

He hath no root, nor place to one place is tie,

But ever restless and irregular

About this earth doth run and ride,

He knows he hath a home, but scarce knows where;

He says it is so far,

That he hath quite forgot how to go there.


He knocks at all doors, strays and roams;

Nay, hath not so much wit as some stones have,

Which in the darkest nights point to their homes,

By some hid sense their Maker gave;

Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest

And passage through these looms

God ordered motion, but ordained no rest

Henry Vaughan 1621 – 95; Welsh poet and physician

Vaughan begins his poem ‘Man’ by noticing the stability of flowers and vegetation. They have their place. But not ‘Man’. We are never still. We are the home-seekers who never arrive home. We are in constant motion. The settler is a contradiction of human nature. It is the traveller who is truly human. Even the rocks that thrust through the hillsides of Wales have more a sense of where they belong than those who clamber over them.

As a shuttle thrusts tortuously through a loom so the human being is destined to weave intricate patterns of hope and suffering which shape our destiny.

This ‘winding quest’ became the title of a translation of the Old Testament written by a Dartmouth RE teacher, Alan Dale. It was ahead of its time both in its style and aim to open up the heart of those scriptures. But the title was remembered and fits my intention.

For if there is a straight road I invariably prefer the lane. It is not that it is ‘less well travelled’ but I judge it might be more interesting. For the highway which irons out the contours and removes the corner can become dull and tiring. A winding path may hide its surprises but they test the accepted and reveal what cannot be anticipated only expected.

Jesus shouldn’t be left to the mercy of Christians

In a recent article in Christian Aid Magazine Susan Durber, Christian Aid’s theology coordinator, reports the astonished reaction of a BBC1 Question Time audience to Jeanette Winterson’s use of the words of Jesus to back up her point in a discussion about poverty.

Winterson later reiterated her point on Twitter:

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Durber expresses her delight at the warm response Winterson received. This is unsurprising after all Winterson’s comment supports Durber’s own view of Jesus as the radical subversive. For the Christian Aid theologian declares that ‘to be Christian is to hear that voice [of Jesus] and keep trying to listen to it’.

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