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Master of wolf metaphor comes in lamb's clothing

NCR Staff

Beginning with a horrific depiction of contemporary culture as a raging, fiery, filthy and deadly river, best-selling author and psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés wove an ultimately soothing story of faith and mystery before some 400 listeners attending the opening night of the Catholic Press Association's national convention here May 21.

"I was thinking how the culture appears to truly be a death cult at this time in our lives in almost every direction we look," she said in her talk. "And what promised to be the storyteller of our times, the television set, has turned, in many of its hours, into a hole in the wall in our houses that pours sewage into our homes."

While the talk was rich with provocative images, the irony that accompanied Estés' appearance here was, for the most part, ignored.

Estés is author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, a highly successful nonfiction book dealing with feminine psychology. She has a strong audience among feminists, lesbians, New Age and goddess-religion followers, as well as devotees of Matthew Fox, a controversial former Catholic priest.

Estés says the basis of her work as a psychoanalyst is narrative psychology. In more traditional terms, she sees herself as a cantadora, a keeper of the old stories. Her bleak assessment of modern life carried on in the image of the river, which she said she first used in an essay appearing in the book The Conversation Begins.

Today, she said, parents find themselves floating with their children down a river "overflowing with filth and garbage set afire, and there are snipers of many kinds on both shores. We and our children are crouched in dugout canoes, ducking and weaving our way downriver. A person who says this is not so or that it is only a recent phenomenon, is not yet awake," she said.

In Estés' view, however, there is always a kind of contrapuntal symmetry to the bleakness, a consolation or purpose running concurrently with life's most jarring episodes. So even as the waters of the death cult rage on, another river runs deeper, hidden, the river under the river. "We are traversing at the same time another river, pure, clear and clean ... it is sweet, sweet as it can be." It is that river under the river, said Estés, from which our story of faith is derived.

In a decision that many observers regard as a puzzling irony, Estés was sought out to be the speaker by Francis X. Maier, communications director for the Denver archdiocese and local coordinator of the conference. Under the leadership of Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, who was promoted to the Vatican last November, the Denver archdiocese acquired a reputation for screening speakers in a more demanding way than most other dioceses.

After 10 years in Denver, Stafford was appointed to head the Pontifical Council for the Laity at the Vatican. His successor in Denver, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, was installed April 7.

Estés was chosen to replace Sr. Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, a book that became an Academy Award winning movie. Prejean, previously invited as keynote speaker by the association's board, was rejected by Maier and other officials, presumably because of recent doubts about her stand on abortion and women priests.

Estés, saying she and Prejean are friends, mentioned Prejean in a phrase of thanks at the opening of her talk.

Recently, some church leaders around the country have expressed reservations about Prejean, based on an article a year ago in Our Sunday Visitor, a national Catholic weekly, that left it unclear whether she opposed legal abortion. Some church officials are also concerned that she may favor women priests.

As reported previously in NCR (May 2, 1997), Estés is associated with a variety of liberal causes. Her tape "How to Love a Woman" encourages lovemaking between lesbians. She told Playboy in a 1994 interview that she was honored to have received "honorary lesbian" status from lesbians who appreciate her work. She has taught at a new university established by Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest who ran into trouble with the Vatican over his writings and ultimately left the church. And she has praised the work for women's rights done by the National Organization for Women, one of the nation's foremost advocates of legalized abortion.

Both Estés and Maier avoided controversy at the convention here. In introducing her, Maier merely referred in passing to the attention the choice of speaker had attracted. Just before the convention opened, Maier told the Denver Post, "I don't know about this lesbian stuff," but said Estés was well able to reflect what Pope John Paul II has called "the new evangelization." Maier told the Post that Estés appeals to "the heart, the soul, the need to regain our humanity."

As an example of the Denver archdiocese's previous concerns about speakers, the archdiocesan paper, which Maier oversees, presented a harshly negative assessment last year of such well-known Catholic theologians as Fr. Richard Rohr and Lisa Sowle Cahill. They were among speakers for a program held in the archdiocese under the auspices of an alternative Catholic group.

Injecting a bit more irony into the proceedings, Estés spoke at a press convention before a roomful of journalists who were asked by Maier to refrain from taking photos or using tape recorders, to protect Estés' privacy. Her talk, however, was one of the tapes offered for sale by the conference.

After the talk, Estés explained in a brief conversation that the provisions prohibiting photos and taping were written into her contract with the press association. She said she does not like having her photo taken unless she has some relationship with the photographer because photography is an art form. She also said that when random photos are taken she feels the photographers "are taking away bits of me."

Though avoiding any directly controversial topics, she told one story that poked fun at organized religion and read a riveting poem that juxtaposed a family's rote recitation of the Hail Mary with an Hispanic grandmother's empathetic and earthy conversation with Mary, "my sister ... my child." And in an appeal for conciliation and reflection, she painted a picture of a place, not an escape from the world, but a place where one comes in contact with God and returns to the world strengthened.

"Beyond the places of dissension, beyond this world of argumentation, beyond this locus of clashing and crashing things, egos, temperaments and opinions, beyond all this and not too far down the road ... there is a quiet field in which grow tiny white flowers that when walked upon give off the fragrance of the word of God," she said. "Far away from here, far away from all the dissension and the world of argumentation, locus of clashing and crashing things, not too far down the road there is a field of calm and peace. I'll meet you there."

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997