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  • Holy Power, Holy Presence: Rediscovering Medieval Metaphors for the Holy Spirit
  • Anna Harrison (bio)
Holy Power, Holy Presence: Rediscovering Medieval Metaphors for the Holy Spirit. By Elizabeth A. Dreyer. New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007. vi + 344 pp. $24.95 (paperback)

In the fourteenth century, the visionary activist Catherine of Siena (c. 1347–80) wrote about the Holy Spirit as a waiter, who serves us food, the Son—roasted on the wood of the cross—on the table that is the Father. In the equally image-laden writings of the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), the Holy Spirit is the kiss that emboldens the bride (the soul of the devout monk) to draw closer to her bridegroom, Christ. For the Benedictine polymath Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), the Spirit is viriditas (God’s bountiful “greenness”), which makes the soul fertile. Such evocative snatches of imagery offer a compelling glimpse into the range of medieval musings on the Holy Spirit, and they constitute the greater part of the pleasure of reading Elizabeth Dreyer’s Holy Power, Holy Presence: Rediscovering Medieval Metaphors for the Holy Spirit, which combs works associated with Augustine (354–430), Hildegard of Bingen, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure (c. 1217–74), Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–after 1416) for evidence on the place of the Spirit in pre-modern Christian religiosity. Holy Power is a frankly theological and explicitly spiritual enterprise, which arises out of Dreyer’s commitment to studying the ideas, attitudes, and experiences of Christians in the distant past as a resource for systematic theology and the discipline of spirituality, as well as to provide a stimulus to Christians’ “experience of the Trinity.” While she pursues this commitment with passion, those interested in the fine-grained details of the past, in all its “otherness,” may well become impatient with this emphasis on present theological and spiritual relevance.

According to Dreyer, today’s theologians have largely limited their reading in the late antique and medieval sources to formal theological treatises and have failed to attend to “historical texts recounting religious experience” (24). They have done so, she contends, driven by the assumption—anachronistic for these periods—that theology and spirituality are inherently discrete disciplines. Such selective reading has helped fashion a skewed and anemic picture of Christians’ historical engagement with the Holy Spirit, Dreyer argues, abetting a long-held misapprehension that the western Christian theological tradition has neglected the Holy Spirit and contributing to the impoverishment of modern religious life. Although none of the writers whom Dreyer considers produced a formal treatise on the Holy Spirit, their work indicates nonetheless that Christians have historically been more preoccupied [End Page 104] with the Holy Spirit than many of us may have imagined. Dreyer champions efforts to the plumb such texts as Julian of Norwich’s Showings, Augustine’s On the Gospel of John, and Bonaventure’s The Soul’s Journey into God for the religious assumptions of their authors, recognizing that imagery in writings from a variety of genres is pregnant with an abundance of nuanced theological insights. If Dreyer tempts some among her readers to search out for themselves texts like those about which she writes, this will likely be her book’s finest achievement.

Dreyer intends Holy Power for a broad audience, including the general population of adult Christians, medievalists, specialists in the discipline of spirituality, ministers, and systematic theologians. Its first and last chapters anchor Holy Power firmly in the present. The first chapter offers arguments now commonplace in the discipline of spirituality but which are important to this book’s project—the history of spirituality ought to inform continuing theological inquiry, for example—and it is here that Dreyer lays out her understanding of the way in which images function. The final chapter includes consideration of the ways the larger study can enrich pneumatology. Reproductions of illuminations, paintings, and triptychs tucked between chapters illustrate how the Trinity and the Holy Spirit were visually depicted between the twelfth and seventeenth century; they offer small delights, but I found myself wishing they were integrated with the text. In the book’s central chapters, Dreyer examines in succession...


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