kenny book cover

Picturing Contemplation

By: Mark Tarnacki
john kenney book

The cover image on John Kenney's new book is a recently rediscovered 400-year-old painting by the Italian master Caravaggio that shows Saint Augustine studying what appears to be a Scriptural text, and then writing.

For Kenney, a religious studies professor, former dean, eminent Augustine scholar and now the author of three books, the painting perfectly conveys "what Augustine is all about" as a Christian contemplative and mystic.

"This is where you want to judge a book by its cover" says Kenney, who feels he scored something of a coup managing to be the first author to use the Caravaggio Augustine image for a book since the painting's re-emergence into public awareness a few years ago. He and his wife, Ann, went to view the painting personally at an exhibit in Ottawa in 2011, and Kenney decided it would make the ideal cover for Contemplation and Classical Christianity: A Study in Augustine, which was published by Oxford University Press and released in the U.S. in January 2014. He suggested it to his publisher and went about securing proper permissions.

"Augustine understands contemplation to be rooted in Scriptural meditation, as shown in the painting. That's where it begins, and then it can advance from there and it returns there, so that it's always a dialogue with God through Scripture that may take the soul to a deeper relationship with the Divine, which is what contemplation is about," he says.

But frequently, and he thinks very often misleadingly, modern readers of Augustine's mystical experiences in the famous Confessions will apply modern categories of interpretation of such experiences. These are categories which, in the context of an Augustine discussion, Kenney sees as thin and overly psychological or concerned unduly with paranormal or mystical ecstasies as a path to self-understanding. They thereby missing the Christian core of what Augustine truly experienced and wanted his readers to know about: that is, touching or glimpsing God's wisdom as an unmerited gift through the grace of Christ, in spite of the weight of our sins.

"What I've been trying to do is put the Augustine back in Augustine," says Kenney, "to put the Christian content back into these remarkable moments that he's trying to describe, such as, for instance, in his famous Vision at Ostia with his mother, Saint Monica."

Asserting and fleshing out such distinctions was an aim of Kenney's second book from 2004, The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions. He says that title was even a bit ironic since "I'm actually trying to move away from that type of thinking," that is, of Augustine as a "mystic," at least as moderns might understand the term.

He describes his latest book as "a prequel, as they say in Hollywood" to Book Two, covering material Augustine wrote before he wrote the Confessions, the main subject of Book Two. His recently published book examines closely what the "unguarded Augustine" was writing in the months between his initial conversion experience and his baptism, as he was coming to understand and define Christian contemplation. The new book tries to understand "this larger concept which the ancients called contemplation," going back to "the earliest stuff, the early letters, trying to understand as Augustine moves his thinking forward and see how this concept of contemplation changes from his first understanding of Christianity," he says.

Kenney's first book, Mystical Monotheism: a Study in Ancient Platonic Theology, begun as his doctoral dissertation at Brown University and first published for a scholarly audience in the early 1990s, was reissued in 2010 by a more popular press that caters to a small but devoted following of readers whose interest is in more generally "spiritual" titles.

Kenney's second and third books on Augustine relate directly to his early scholarly interest in Platonism as that school of philosophy, chiefly as expressed by the pagan thinker Plotinus, was a great influence on Augustine's views about mystical experience and contemplation. Plotinus, Kenney says, felt humans retained a sort of "umbilical cord to the divine," with at least some spark of that divine remaining in each person. But Augustine, knowing too well the depths of his own fallen state, as experienced in his pre-conversion life of libertine debauchery, was less optimistic about human prospects of accessing Divine Wisdom, no matter how deep or practiced one's inward-gazing contemplation might be, at least without the intervening aid of Grace through Christ. Kenney's books, he says, are "in part designed to push back against the modern, highly individual way of thinking of religion, which is not what's going on in Augustine."

"What is important is recapturing the conceptual context of Augustine's thinking, and that requires a lot of work about Platonism," he says. For ancient pagans and Gnostics contemplation was about "recovering the divine without you – you are divine and your deepest self is connected to higher levels of reality." But Augustine's contemplation was something else: "One thing that comes through clearly in these early texts examined in my new book is that Augustine really understands contemplation to be rooted, in the end, in community; he understands it to be rooted in Scripture, in the communal and sacramental life of the Church, because that's what's going to allow the soul to overcome the weight of its sin that has prevented greater insights for him." Augustine, Kenney says, understands the whole project of contemplation as "rejoining the communion of saints who are engaged in an ongoing and eternal contemplation of God."

It's Kenney's hope that all of his books might help a modern individual understand the Confessions better, which is important "because it's one of the ultimate classics of the Christian tradition."

"My books are interlocking parts of a common project of trying to understand," he says.

- Mark Tarnacki

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