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Testimonies and Other Writings

The following is the work of the individual author and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc.

FATHERS DON'T LET YOUR SONS GROW UP TO BE OPUS DEI RECRUITS by John, Opus Dei prospect at age 14, Northeast USA


I would like to relate my story of my brief association with the Opus Dei organization in the United States. As I now approach middle age, I am amazed at how a short, two year association during adolescence could so profoundly impact one's life. To this day, I feel anger towards the organization.

Like some who came to the organization, I along with my fellow male eighth grade graduates of certain local Catholic Grade Schools in the Boston suburbs in the early 1970s was solicited to participate in a program of "Special Studies" on Saturday mornings. Pre-Law , medicine, literature and engineering, I believe were the offered subjects. Nowhere did the name Opus Dei appear on the brochure. With the level of  analysis and forethought that is typical of a 14 year old, it seemed like a good idea because: 1) I was academically oriented ; and 2) it was held at the school located next door to the hockey rink, so I could walk from practice without parental supervision. The courses were indeed interesting (dissecting rats, learning the internal systems of mammals, reading Gideon's Trumpet about a landmark US Supreme Court case) and presented with an informality that made regular school seem boring. Following classes, we exited to the playing fields or parking lot for a football, soccer, street hockey or basketball game. We (now) ninth and tenth graders had a great time with the program.

If that was not enough to capture our interest to continue with the Special Studies program, we were allowed to smoke cigarettes. A powerful enticement to a ninth grader of this era. Mixed with the academic and athletic, it was a venue for a kid to pretend that he was independent and grown up, because after all, he was doing all of this without parental supervision. The cool college guys who served as the instructors said that it was ok, so that made it all the more compelling.

The hook set, then the older members of the group, who had already begun their association with Opus Dei, started to invite the new guys over to one of their houses for a Sunday night. "We have a talk, eat snacks and sometimes watch a movie" was the pitch. I later learned that the fathers of these guys were members of the organization, "supernumeraries" I believe was the phrase. Oh and yes, we were allowed to smoke as well. It seemed like a good idea, so we went. The Sunday night sessions now featured a priest for the first time who held a "meditation", a prayerful reflection for about 30 minutes. The meditation was a wonderful opportunity for self reflection and prayer, despite the insertion of "thou shalt not" type of directives in the homily. Afterwards, we dispersed and went our way until the following weekend.

Eventually, the new guys were pulled aside, one by one, with a strongly persuasive invitation to come into the Opus Dei center located in Cambridge MA, near Harvard Square to spend Saturday night. Again, the allure of being off on your own, having to take the T (subway system) to the coolest center of the universe, (in our limited life experience that is ) Harvard Square, was incentive enough to go. The Saturday nights began with greetings, followed by meditation and a movie or game of charades or something like that. We smoked and joked and stayed up late. Sunday morning was Mass followed by a breakfast served by uniformed women who were by far the most deferential (speak when only spoken too) group I had ever seen. A morning meditation and the group disbanded.

With time the outings included mountain hiking, beach swimming and work days. Leaf raking, landscaping and similar tasks performed at the organization's  houses, followed by football or another sport. The combination of work and spirituality was ideal for me, as I was struggling to make sense of my alcoholic father and what I perceived to be his lack of leadership within my family. In the summer of my tenth grade, I participated in a "work camp", a one week stay at an organization-owned retreat camp which was in great need of painting, cleaning and trail and road building. Again the physical demands of the work along with the spirituality was compelling to me. We had daily mass, morning and evening mediations and doctrinal instruction in the evening. Sports comprised the later afternoon. Again the camp was staffed by women who served us. We did not deal with any culinary matters.

The meditations always included a repeated message in addition to spiritual instruction. The rules of life included, get up as soon as you awake; take a cold shower (no option there, the water was cold); avoid popular magazines with inappropriate pictures of women (Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated were identified with specificity), movies and books and of course do not masturbate. Ok, that would be about what one would expect from a religious organization projecting its view of emerging sexuality in teenagers. So I was not surprised, but found it a little odd that the cool college guys were so obsessed with that subject. It was as if they were following a script--it came up at least three times in each meditation.

However the more disturbing aspect of the condemnation of the modern culture was that it went beyond the titillation aspect of photographs. The modern press and movie industry was not to be trusted nor read because it preached a message inconsistent with the organization. And thus began my serious distrust of the organization. I thought it ironic that an organization which aspired to bring holiness to the world through the individual acts of thoughtful people would also seek to so distance itself from that world. While the great ascetics of this world could do so, most of them accomplished such a feat in their adulthood. Preaching to teenagers to ignore the so called evils of the world (which included anything that was not consistent with Catholic orthodoxy) is a guaranteed method for failure. What are you so afraid of I wondered? Why at the time of intellectual awakening would you want to shut down the inquisitive process that is indeed the strength and beauty of youth?

During the work camp, we had two one-on-one sessions with the priest or chaplain. I informed him that in contrast to many of the others around me, who were proclaiming their virtue by working in the local rectory or church, I did not feel very holy, and certainly would not pretend to act in such a way.  I felt deeply spiritual and connected to God, yet I did not feel that I had the gift of faith. A thoughtful man, he acknowledged that not all of us receive such a gift, but we have to work at it.  I also inquired of him :"where are the women and less well -off members of society in the organization?" His straight forward and honest response was that the women did the cooking and the poorer persons did the manual labor. The mission of Opus Dei as I was told, for my economic and intellectual class, was to become fully educated and indoctrinated in The Way , become a professional and then go out and influence business and public policy in way to bring Catholic sensibilities to all aspects of daily life. As I approach middle age, I cannot argue with the wisdom of such a business plan, especially one executed with the precision practiced by Opus Dei. However the sheer cynicism of such a plan for an organization claiming to present Jesus Christ's life and work was, and still is, repugnant to me as a Christian.

As I struggled to read The Way and reflect more on my relationship with God and the organization, the overall experience began to sour. It became apparent to me that Opus Dei elevated itself over the work of God: it elevated itself over the bulk of the members of the Church. The then Monsignor Escriva was deified in a manner which could only have made Mao Tse Tung proud. Opus Dei viewed itself as being better Catholics than the rest of the faithful. Sorry guys, I thought the parable of the Pharisee suggests such a philosophy was a sin against God and His people. I have always placed my trust in Jesus and his words as captured in the Gospels; I have come to learn that with man's frailties, the true saints in this world go unheralded. And they certainly do not go about creating a cult of personality because they think they can do better than Jesus. Monsignor (now Saint Jose Maria) Escriva for me fell within the category of self made, egotistical hero. 

Moreover, it intentionally cultivated a class-consciousness that I found to be contrary to the words of Jesus Christ. Not once did any of the "cool college guys", who were numeraries in training, advocate, recommend or suggest that helping the poor or misfortunate was our calling in life. To the contrary, the once "cool college guys" over time displayed an incredible judgmental attitude and arrogance that "we" were better than our brothers who were less fortunate. Whatever sense of fraternity that was developed for me in the early days quickly began to dissipate as I saw the true colors of the organization. 

My final session with the organization was a Saturday night sleepover in September of my junior year of high school. A new chaplain was assigned to our group.  In a one-on-one session that could only be described as stilted, he forbade me from reading news magazines (Time, Newsweek etc), was aghast that I read the New Republic and Atlantic Monthly (which were in my house due to my "liberal" older brothers) and suggested that I had sinned for seeing a movie that summer, The Day of the Jackal due to a brief scene of female nudity (to this day I wonder how he knew if he had not seen the movie himself). He was also not impressed that I admired my liberal older brother who had been working to assist legal immigrants with rent control efforts (a then important issue in cities in the United States).  He never smiled and was ultimately dismissive of me. His demeanor and derisive judgment of me only confirmed for me the decision which I knew I had made before attending this last session.

About 8 years later, I had the opportunity to run into one of my fellow recruits who also happened to be a close childhood friend. He was a full fledged member of the organization, a numerary, I believe. He had lived in the Centers in Cambridge and New York City. Ironically, we ran into each other at Good Friday services at our former Parish Church. Even more ironically, we went out for drinks with my sister who he knew, and one of her female friends. That evening was a reminder of all that had turned me away from Opus Dei. My buddy, a former state champion swimmer, who unlike the rest of us in our adolescence, did not smoke, chain-smoked and pounded numerous Manhattans as he pontificated on the various ills of the world. What spewed forth was the attitude of a hardened old man, which was troubling because we were just 23 years old. Anti-Semitic ("the Jewish controlled press"), anti- democratic, elitist propaganda fomented from him. Anger and frustration was being vented with each topic. He did not even sound like a Christian anymore. He tried mightily to avoid the obvious feminine qualities of our table mates, as if blinders had been attached to his head. It was an unnatural scene. I felt badly for him because I felt that he was a ticking time bomb.  I was not certain what he had acquired in Opus Dei, but I was certain that the message of Jesus that we had both learned outside of Opus Dei was not the one of hatred that a few Manhattans had released.

This rambling and admittedly non-scholarly personal vignette does have a conclusion. My principal objection to the organization then and especially now that I am the father of two young boys, was the sly and disingenuous manner in which it sought recruits of a vulnerable age. No, no one put a gun to my head, nor cut me off from my parents, but the pressure was applied in subtle as well as direct ways. Indoctrination of the youth, with the purpose of attaining a political goal, which after all, was the unequivocal purpose of recruiting boys from the suburbs of Boston, is abhorrent no matter how practiced. It is especially abhorrent when it is accomplished through a religious organization. I may have learned my Baltimore Catechism in the second grade, but I was raised by my family to be a Catholic of compassion who has a responsibility to my fellow man; not simply the Catholic Church. And certainly, not to an organization that deifies anyone other than God and His Son.

I am not jumping on the currently trendy bash Opus Dei bandwagon spawned by the  success of The Da Vinci Code, a work that I can only describe as a fictional page turner, and nowhere near true literature or historical scholarship. It has however prompted me to read more about the organization that I never fully committed to and am quite relieved I never did so. The practices highlighted in the novel were not suffered upon us teenage recruits.  The fact that young adults would elect to participate in some of the rituals identified in the novel and acknowledged by the organization is a choice that only those individuals can resolve on their own. I remain mystified however as to the notion that self-inflicted physical pain can somehow bring one greater holiness or closer to God. Rather, I think it is an act of great hubris (consistent with my opinion of St. Jose Maria Escriva) to think that we children of God could or should even attempt to simulate any form of physical suffering such as that endured by Jesus during his crucifixion. God chose his only Son to suffer so that we may have eternal salvation. For that we should be eternally grateful, respectful and penitent.  Imitation in this regard is not flattery, but in my opinion, misguided and false piety.  For an organization to impose such a misguided approach on others is a perversion. Jesus did not say at the Last Supper, imitate what I am to endure tomorrow as a way of remembering me. I believe he said take and eat of This Body and you shall have a chance at eternal salvation. Follow me and your chance is greater.

Rather, writing this posting  has been a stream of conscious therapeutic exercise for me, as it releases all of that which I felt as a teenager.

A final note, perhaps of disclaimer. My lingering anger indicates I have not learned one of Jesus' messages to turn the other cheek and forgive.  I have left the Catholic Church, but practice regularly in the Episcopal Church and am raising my children to focus on the virtues of living a just, moral and service-oriented life: service to God and their fellow man and woman. Did I learn this message in Opus Dei? No, I learned it before I ever went to the first meditation. The good news is that after leaving Opus Dei, I was more committed to it than ever before, because I saw the perversion of the message first hand. And for that I suppose I should be grateful.

 

Posted May 22, 2006