On the street where I live, it’s very cold. The great contemporary artist Lea Marie Ravotti tells me by email that the only sane thing to do in this weather is to read good books and visit virtual Christian antiquities. Here’s a site Lea likes, and so do I — a well-stocked online museum from the town of Rome’s ancient port, Ostia. Be careful, though. Hours spent on this site will pass like minutes.
Ostia is dear to the heart of every patristics nerd. It’s the place where Augustine bade his mother earthly farewell — a climactic scene in his Confessions. Late last year, Robert Louis Wilken treated of that scene in a short review of John Peter Kenney’s The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Re-Reading the Confessions. Wilken sees Augustine’s narrative as apologetic in its intention. Augustine wants to distinguish Christian contemplation and mysticism from the phenomena touted by his former chums, the neoplatonists.
And the apology has to do not only with religious ideas but also with the practices of a concrete community. Kenney shows that the Confessions displays a self-conscious ecclesiology, that Christian contemplation is rooted in the Church’s Scriptures and life. Which leads him to the neglected final books of the Confessions, which seem to have little to do with the Platonism of the central books. By the time Kenney has finished his analysis, the ascension passages in the middle of the book seem less the fulcrum of the Confessions than one piece in a much fuller argument whose meaning is discovered only at the end. In the latter books, the “vocabulary of audition” anchors contemplation more explicitly in the Scriptures. “I listened, Lord, my God; I sucked a drop of sweetness from your truth.” The delights of contemplation can be achieved, says Augustine, by adhering to the “solid firmament of your Scripture,” for there God holds conversation with us.
In book thirteen, the final book, the Church, “your spiritual people,” is the vehicle and context for Christian contemplation. But it is Augustine’s treatment of Monica that seals the argument. She is, writes Kenney, “an unpromising candidate for high contemplation in the Plotinian style.” The famous vision at Ostia was not that of the solitary seeker-it was an experience shared by Augustine and Monica. And the reason Monica was capable of intense and total concentration was that she had made continual confession of her faults and of her Savior. Her contemplation, writes Kenney, “is an ecclesial moment” that “emerged in the schoolhouse of souls that is the Church.”
Wilken says that The Mysticism of Saint Augustine is a book worth reading; and I believe him.
Here’s the famous painting of Augustine and Monica’s Ecstasy at Ostia.