Thoughts on Opus Dei

A Milwaukee TV station has a profile of Opus Dei, and finds it to be nothing like the way it was portrayed by Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code.

I found Opus Dei to be a great help to my spiritual life in my time as a Catholic. I had an Opus Dei spiritual director, Fr. Michael Barrett, for about seven years; I’d see him monthly for an hour of conversation and confession. I attended periodic evenings of reflection and a yearly silent retreat. I was never a member, but was a “Cooperator.”

Spiritual direction consisted of talking to Fr. Michael about what was happening in my life, at work and at home, what were the challenges, and how I was responding to God’s call. Then he’d ask, “So, how’s your prayer life?” And we’d talk about that. Then as we came to the end he’d ask, “Confession?” He’d grab his stole and I would recall some things that I had likely already mentioned, he’d give some advice for how to combat those sins, give me a penance (an “Our Father” or the “Memorare,” most often), I’d say an act of contrition (usually, for me, “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”), and then he’d pronounce the absolution.

Retreats usually went from Thursday to Sunday at Featherock. They’d include reflections by the priest, in which he’d sit at a small desk at the front of the chapel, and in a quiet voice reflect on some aspect of the spiritual life. These weren’t intended to be lectures that you might take notes on, but prompts to prayer–you are to sort of half listen while you are praying, and use his reflections to look at your own life and relationship with God, and give you things to pray about. There would be talks in the living room by a lay member of Opus Dei about faithfulness in work and family obligations, and keeping up with prayer in the midst of a busy life. In between, there would be times for corporate prayer (mass, the rosary, the stations of the cross) and individual prayer (either in the chapel, your room, or wandering the grounds). A library was available for spiritual reading, again, as an aid to prayer. Silence is maintained through the retreat. You talk to one another at the beginning, before the first meditation, but then don’t speak to one another again until the final meal. There is opportunity for you to meet with the priest for spiritual direction. Silence is observed during meal times, though someone will read from a spiritual book or a recording will be played (e.g., John Cleese’s recording of The Screwtape Letters).

The evenings of reflection are like a mini-retreat, with reflections by the priest, a talk by a lay person, and individual and corporate prayer.

What I liked about Opus Dei was that it presented a practical spirituality. It had a realistic assessment of life and our normal struggles, and asked us to be faithful to our responsibilities, to do the best job we could at work, and to make time for prayer each day. I like the simplicity of St. Josemaria Escriva’s understanding of prayer–we are children of God, and in prayer we talk to our Father. He scorned fancy techniques or “creative prayer experiences,” including sitting in silence (“leave silence for those whose hearts are dry”) in favor of the use of simple prayers that can be learned by children and childlike conversation. It reminded me of Ellen White’s teaching about prayer in Steps to Christ–“Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. Not that it is necessary in order to make known to God what we are, but in order to enable us to receive Him. Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.”

There are different levels of participation in Opus Dei. One can go to the retreats, evenings of reflection, and spiritual direction with no connection at all. One can be a Cooperator, as I was–this just means you’ve formalized this relationship of appreciation, but again, without being a member of Opus Dei, or even a Christian. Supernumeraries are members who live in their homes, usually married, and make specific commitments (Scott Hahn, a professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, is a supernumerary). Numeraries are celibate members who live in a Center and are most available to help in the organized apostolates or ministries of Opus Dei, though most of them continue to have full time jobs in the world.

The numeraries live an intense life of asceticism and prayer, including the use of the cilice (a spiked bracelet worn on the upper thigh a couple of hours a day) and the discipline (a braided cord with which the strike the back or buttocks while praying alone, especially on Friday). In the movie version of The DaVinci Code these were portrayed in a greatly exaggerated fashion. An Opus Dei numerary once showed me the actual items; he said most supernumeraries never even see them, but he thought it important that I know what they were like given my role in the archdiocese. The discipline weighs about two ounces, and is made of cotton thread. It’s very light macramé, and if you hit yourself repeatedly, very hard, I suppose you might get a slight stinging sensation. You certainly wouldn’t break the skin or draw blood or bruise yourself. It’s meant to be a subtle reminder of Christ’s scourging. The cilice (the Latin term for “hairshirt”) is of looped wire, with some tines that press against the skin. It is meant to be uncomfortable, and to remind one of Christ’s crown of thorns. These are things that were once used by every Catholic monk and nun, and still are used by a number of religious orders (and in much more serious fashion than is done by Opus Dei).

I speak in this way of the discipline and cilice only to put them in perspective. I don’t see them as part of a healthy spiritual discipline. They can lead to pride, can be a tool for spiritual masochism, and can give a sense that you are doing something to atone for your own sins. Opus Dei spiritual directors acknowledge the first two points, and therefore even numeraries must inform their spiritual director of what they are doing, and must stop if the director suspects an unhealthy attitude or practice. But Catholic theology does hold that your actions can atone for your sins–that penance, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, all go towards making satisfaction for the temporal punishment due to sins. I don’t find that Scriptural.

The many good things in Opus Dei spirituality reminded me of things I knew in my childhood, encouraging me to resume them. They also highlighted the deficiency of much Protestant thought and practice–one of my Lutheran seminary profs scoffed at the mention of “spirituality”; the idea of personal devotions was dismissed as “pietistic.” One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism was the richness of its spirituality, which stood in contrast to the impoverished spirituality of mainline Protestantism. I think there’s value in having a disciplined spiritual life, including having those to whom you can be accountable, and small groups of like-minded believers among whom you can get support–these have been an element of all spiritual revivals.

And yet there were other aspects of Catholic spirituality, such as this idea of satisfaction, that is very prominent in Opus Dei, that reminded me of Protestant critiques to which I had shut my ears. The critiques of the Reformation remain valid, and need to be underscored and shouted anew in this day when spirituality is so popular. Yes, we need discipline in our spiritual lives, but we are justified by faith alone; we sing, “nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” None of our spiritual disciplines can add to our justification or atone for the past–only the blood of Jesus can do that. They are ways to live in the present, and tools to help us overcome bad habits and instill good ones.

One thought on “Thoughts on Opus Dei

  1. I used to be (some years ago) a numerary of Opus Dei and today I’m a Cooperator.

    I just want to say that you’ve portaited the Work in a very sincere and objective way, pretty much like it is.

    I’m glad to know the Work has helped you (somehow) in your spiritual path, just like it still does to me.

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