USCC Watch: Jung-Seasoned Psalter

“I saw a wooden cross vested in a green chasuble—the same cross before which I had knelt on Good Friday, silently offering God my gifts,” begins the author of Image Guidance: A Tool for Spiritual Direction, recounting one of many spiritually liberating explorations of Jungian archetypal images and “collective unconscious.” The author continues,

The cross discarded the chasuble, tugging and pulling at it as though it were an ill-fitting sweater; then the cross raised itself from its roots, revealing a tiny tree, greening and growing in its place, stretching and spreading, laden with opalescent pears and gleaming apples. As I marveled at the tree I heard the words, “You are the gift.” And I understood that I would bear fruit….

That same cross has returned on a regular basis, but this time vested in a white cloth. In one image sequence I became tangled in the cloth and had to break free, but in another the cross offered me the cloth which became bridal veil instead of shroud. I took this as a sign that I was being called to a new stage in my spiritual journey. . . . Some months later I came across the identical cross, complete with a woman waiting in prayer, painted on the walls of an ancient citadel on the island of Gozo, off Malta. I was startled by the “coincidence.”

In the Chapter “Myths and Symbols,” describing their use in counseling and how they helped her to call forth her own “inner child,” the author returns to Malta:

Mystery was present in the Neolithic temples scattered all over the island. As a teenager, I explored the womb-like clusters of stone. . . . Here, after all, the feminine principle predominated: life issued from the womb of the goddess; death was a return to that womb where one could be reborn. Perhaps I felt drawn to that image of inspiration, intuition and receptivity—”the sleeping lady”; crudely carved with exaggerated breasts and hips as she reclines on a couch, the figurine is thought to represent a priestess receiving divine intelligence in her dreams. The temples spoke to my unconscious in deep and significant ways.

The author makes it clear that “receiving divine intelligence”—as well as giving it—is part of her daily routine. Claims such as this are not unusual from the many New Age gurus who have cropped up like mushrooms in the dank spiritual atmosphere of our decaying society. But the author of this “practical step-by-step” guide to interpreting symbolic and poetic images from the “collective unconscious” towards “self-discovery” is not an ordinary store-front healer (although says she was a “store-front poet with an amateur writer’s group”). Nor is she just another of the confused campus ministers or religion teachers on Catholic campuses—although she serves in both of these posts at DePaul University in Chicago.

In fact, the author, Elizabeth-Anne Vanek, was a poetry consultant member of the subcommittee on the Liturgical Psalter produced by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), just published by the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Liturgy Training Publications.

The ICEL Psalms are available in two versions; the complete Psalter, with an explanatory essay by the late Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., and Psalms for Morning and Evening Prayer. The latter volume also includes ICEL’s version of the Canticles used in the Divine Office, as well as hymn tunes and introductory chapters by ICEL members, Frs. Stuhlmueller and Peter Finn, and Sr. Mary Collins, O.S.B., a feminist theologian at Catholic University of America.

Although both books were explicitly composed for liturgical use, neither are approved for liturgical use, both bear a “surgeon general’s warning” on the title page claiming that they are published only as a “study translation,” and readers are invited to comment. Evidently on this condition, the NCCB’s imprimatur was given to both ICEL Psalter volumes by its president Cardinal William Keeler (Baltimore) on the recommendation of the Ad Hoc Committee for Review of Scripture Translations, whose members are Bishops Richard Sklba (aux., Milwaukee), Donald Trautman (Erie), and Emil Wcela (aux., Rockville Center).

How did a New Age psychic-healer-poet get appointed to the committee which has been for three decades the primary Catholic source of liturgical translations for the entire English-speaking world?

She was selected for this five-year work by Fr. Stuhlmueller, Vanek says in her essay “On Translating the Psalms” in The Catholic World (July/August, 1995). She quotes an essay she wrote before her involvement with ICEL:

When bureaucracy stifles growth, the poet must sing songs of creation; when ritual becomes, dry and uninspiring, the poet must breathe life into the assembly; when words lose their impact, the poet must discover new ways of describing lived experiences; when the church’s primary symbols are reduced to stereotypes and when God’s Word is trivialized, the poet must cry out in anguish for all to hear.

She was enthusiastic about the Psalter project, she says, “because of their effectiveness in facilitating the dance of the Spirit,” and because,

the very words we selected, the images we highlighted and the rhythms we orchestrated would influence the ways in which the assembly encountered God. . . . we were like midwives freeing pre-existing poetry from the womb of archaic structures and mistranslations…. Instead of singing praise, I could rail at God; I could sob like a child, scream as though demented. . . . We set specific moods and expanded the creative potential of images to make them more inclusive.

Ms. Vanek’s views are not, sad to say, inconsistent with those of ICEL members of long standing influence who collaborated with her. As extreme as the ICEL Psalter project is in creating new “dynamically equivalent” Scripture texts, eliminating not only masculine pronouns, but entire theological categories, it did not go far enough for Sr. Mary Collins. She expresses her disappointment in “An Introduction to The Translation”:

Still, it must be acknowledged that the final text of this psalter is a skin only three-quarters full of new wine. Once the project had been completed, ICEL forwarded the psalter to the Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine for the imprimatur, which that body gives for biblical translations being published in the United States. The Committee on Doctrine reported back that it had decided earlier “in principle” that it would not give the imprimatur to any biblical translation, however successful, that had avoided calling God “he.” The principle at issue, presumably theological but perhaps more mundane, was not elaborated. Arithmetically, the translators returned to undo some of the original work. The version published here is the result. All involved wanted to get this psalter in circulation even in a compromised form. But this liturgical psalter is published as a study text, inviting your comments. Those who pray these psalms may want to enter deeply into prayerful reflection on the gender issues that challenge the church today. A second edition may finally present the text that was intended for publication now.

Leaving aside whether Sr. Collins’ description of the process of securing the bishops’ imprimatur is entirely accurate, we do find her scriptural image interesting. Filling an old wineskin with new wine bursts the wineskin, spilling the wine and destroying both, according to all three Gospels in which this parable of Jesus appears. Is this double destruction really what ICEL members and the bishops who approved this Psalter project intend?

Let’s try another scriptural allusion: if a psalter is without savor, of what use is it? What should be done with it? Since the bishops were prevented from making a considered collegial decision on this ICEL translation, it looks as if the Holy See will have to decide.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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