The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions (review)
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John Peter Kenney The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions New York and London: Routledge, 2005 Pp. xv +160. $115 (hardcover), $33.95 (paperback).

Mystic crystal revelations and the mind's true liberation offer bewitching topics for scholarly investigation by busy and distracted moderns. The construction of a long debate over the meaning and practice of mystical experience exercised the imagination of twentieth-century scholars, to whom it was particularly appealing that a common experience could be discerned among adepts of numerous religious and philosophical traditions.

Against that syncretic realism, nominalism has had a great deal to say. Given the ineffability of mystical experience and the verbosity of some practitioners in expressing that ineffability, it is hard to know whether the states of mind and consciousness experienced by a modern Zen monk, an ancient Christian bishop, and a browser of the New Age shelves at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco have much at all to do with each other. The risk is open and acknowledged that incomparables will be compared.

Yet the fact of an emergent, mainly modern, western tradition of interpretation of the Christian past as marked by experiences that one might as well not quarrel with calling mystical is undoubted. I once lent a copy of Thomas Merton's Contemplative Prayer to a graduate student, who returned it a few days later with the quite confident remark that this was not contemplation at all; it was mysticism. That student knew something about mysticism. As long as we keep in mind the act of construction that links together practitioners and writers across the centuries and gives the word functional currency, we can indeed speak of it usefully.

John Peter Kenney speaks of it here very usefully indeed. I will begin by praising two virtues of this book often left, where they exist to be praised, for a summative last paragraph. It is above all else a calm, measured, and wise book, one that makes arguments but never becomes argumentative; and it is written with great restraint and lucidity. This is the unusual book that makes a marked scholarly contribution but is accessible to a very broad range of general readers. It is a handsome and admirable volume built on learning and meditation so deep and so lightly worn that they may escape notice, but they should not.

Kenney approaches Augustine by a familiar path, the Plotinian one, but it is a path he has made very much his own, as in his earlier Mystical Monotheism: A Study in Ancient Platonic Theology (1991), and so he speaks from real knowledge. Even Courcelle was not quite the Plotinian that Kenney is. Perhaps only Jean Pépin of modern Augustinists has done his Plotinus so well, but he was far less lucid in what he had to say of Plotinus and of Augustine's debt to Plotinus.

The core of the book, consequently, is a differentiation of Augustine from Plotinus, one that emerges as a familiar but newly seen and freshly sensed faultline between the Christianities that descend from Augustine and the Platonic heritage. Put in a nutshell, Augustinian mysticism fails, knows that it fails, accepts that it [End Page 117] fails, and lives in the assured hope of success—success in the domain of eternal life. Kenney puts his exploration of this meditated failure firmly in the context of Augustine's religious hope and in so doing naturalizes what historians like Brown and Markus have made to seem sometimes strange. Brown (Making of Late Antiquity [1978], 100): "The Christians looked to the earth alone. They claimed power from heaven, but they had made that heaven remote, and they kept its power to themselves to build up new separate institutions among upstart heroes on earth." In Kenney's hands, this desacralization of earth is no longer paradoxical but deeply understood as a fundamental constituent of mature Christianity. For that reason, the mysticisms that owe some inheritance to Augustine stay grounded in church, everyday life, and a holistic view of Christian community.

The form of the book is, as the title advertises, a rereading of the Confessions, following ground that specialists will find familiar but...