Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei
By Maria del Carmen Tapia, Continuum Publishing Company, NY, 1997
Book Summary and Review by Tammy DiNicola
As soon as the book arrived, I eagerly began reading Beyond the Threshold, knowing that its words would be relevant to my own life as a former numerary member of Opus Dei. Absorbingly written, Maria del Carmen Tapia’s Beyond the Threshold captivated me with the frightful picture it painted of Opus Dei.
Even though I had been involved with Opus Dei for nearly four years, I was still shocked by much of what I read in Tapia’s book. In particular, the personality of the Founder which Tapia described was more abusive than I had ever imagined.
Though I was a member of Opus Dei much later than Tapia, I can verify that much of what happened behind closed doors during Tapia’s time in Opus Dei, still goes on to this day. Tapia was an Opus Dei member from 1946 to 1966; I was a member from 1988 to 1990. Amazingly, the book does not reflect bitterness or revenge; rather, it is filled with careful reflections and the wisdom acquired when many years lessen the pain of wounds inflicted years before.
In the first chapters of the book, Tapia details how she came in contact with Opus Dei, and what made her decide to become a member. She describes the harshness of her early years in Opus Dei, which was motivated by her desire to follow the path God had laid for her, no matter what the cost. One deep cost was the abandonment of her fiancé to become a numerary (celibate) member of Opus Dei.
As her years in Opus Dei passed, Tapia was given more and more responsibility within the government of Opus Dei, culminating in six years spent in Rome as one of two secretaries for the Founder, Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer.
Before the chapters describing her stay in Rome, Tapia writes of the subtle “shift” in her thinking and behavior. While her initial commitment to Opus Dei was inspired by her desire to please God and follow His will, in the chapter entitled, “The Making of a Fanatic,” Tapia soon began to place more importance on “the will of the Father (Escriva),” rather than on “the will of God.” She writes “to please the Father, pleases God and not the reverse….The Father is turned into the likeness of God.” (p. 100)
Most likely, the shift in Tapia’s thinking and behavior came about subtly, as if through osmosis. The same shift occurred in my own experience in Opus Dei. One of the first beliefs that Opus Dei members acquire is that Opus Dei itself is perfect, in need of no correction; criticism, even constructive criticism, is not tolerated.
At the height of her “fanaticism,” Tapia made the trip to Rome to become one of Escriva’s secretaries. There she experienced the extreme difficulty of working each day with the Founder. Vain and prone to tantrums, Escriva berated and ridiculed anyone in his presence who did not accomplish tasks with absolute perfection. Yet, despite Escriva’s outbursts and harshness, Tapia still considered herself most fortunate to be working at his side.
She had become an Opus Dei fanatic, almost worshipping the Founder. This adulation of the Founder continues to this day within Opus Dei, even now, more than 25 years after his death. Even his predecessor, Alvaro del Portillo, was regarded as a saint by Opus Dei members while he was still alive; at times, members acted almost hysterically in his presence, like teenagers following a pop star.
After her time in Rome, Tapia was transferred to Venezuela in 1956, where she was regional directress of all the Opus Dei women there. During her time in Venezuela, Tapia gained perspectives that she had been unable to see while in Rome, where she was practically blinded by her fanaticism.
However, by doing so she became guilty of the greatest sin in Opus Dei: lack of unity. As regional directress, Tapia made decisions based on her experience and common sensibilities; however, these decisions often went against the grain of the other directresses and priests in Venezuela.
Tapia became more “human,” and less “fanatic.” For example, during her time in Venezuela, Tapia received a directive from Rome that all Opus Dei numeraries should take a monthly outing to the countryside. Because of the jungle terrain in Venezuela, Tapia did not think the directive was relevant, so she decided that numeraries would go to a private beach instead.
Tapia also made a remark to a counselor and a priest in Venezuela that Opus Dei members should be allowed to go to confession to whomever they wanted as long as the confessor was an Opus Dei priest. (Normally, each Opus Dei house is assigned one Opus Dei priest with whom all the members confess.) This comment was considered “murmuring” against the Founder, even though “such freedom is written into Opus Dei documents; it is ‘bad spirit’ if anyone actually uses it. [Tapia] considered all this a serious lack of freedom opposed to the freedom of which Opus Dei members were supposed to be pioneers.” (p. 249)
Tapia also became disturbed at the lack of charity exhibited by her superiors in Rome, including the Founder himself. She described the cruel treatment Opus Dei superiors had inflicted on a young Venezuelan numerary who had had a breakdown in Rome. Tapia was told to pick up the young girl at the airport on her return trip from Rome; however, Tapia did not know of her condition. In such a delicate state, the young girl was sent from Rome to Venezuela traveling alone, and Tapia was horrified when she realized that she had been sedated. No longer wanted by Opus Dei, the girl was cast off with no regard for her safety.
The independence Tapia exhibited would cost her dearly. Suddenly in October 1965, she was called to Rome without being told why. The vague answer she received was that she was going there to rest for two weeks, and then she could return to Venezuela. When Tapia asked to see the note which the Founder had sent, she was refused, which heightened her anxiety. The Opus Dei priests and directresses who had disagreed with her style of governing in Venezuela behaved furtively and would give no straight answers. This only added to Tapia’s apprehension.
While in Rome, Tapia’s anxiety grew daily as she waited for weeks to hear why she had returned to Rome. Under constant supervision, Tapia was not allowed to go anywhere without being accompanied by other Opus Dei members.
It soon became apparent to her that she was being watched and that she would not be leaving Rome in two weeks as had been promised.
During confession and the “confidence” made with Marlies Kucking, prefect of studies in the central advisory, Tapia was told that she was guilty of intense pride. However, when she asked for specifics, they would not elaborate; instead, they told her that they could not understand how she wouldn’t know. They hinted that she had committed atrocities in Venezuela, yet Tapia could not imagine what they were.
In great anguish, Tapia suffered immeasurably; yet the treatment she received in the Opus Dei “prison” began to open her eyes. She began to see disturbing things in the central house in Rome. She writes,
“Rather than a sense of inclusiveness of all countries, everything revolved around Spain; Italian was hardly spoken. In addition, the directors lacked warmth, and there was servility rather than affection for the Father along with a cultic worship of his personality. Family life was not spontaneous, and people were not free to come and go. Above all, there was such a sense of discretion and secrecy that everything had become sheer misery. For example, you were never told when a numerary was coming from another country; you simply met her in the hall or saw her in the oratory.” (p. 244)
Finally, Tapia was called to meet with Escriva. Escriva shouted at her, telling her that she would never return to Venezuela. When Tapia expressed her desire to live and die in Venezuela, Escriva became irate, and told her that she was full of pride.
Crushed by the Founder’s anger and disdain, Tapia wept most of all because she realized that the man she had almost worshipped all of her Opus Dei years, had lied to her. Not only had he sent her to Rome on false pretenses, he also made a lie of the Opus Dei mandate which stated that Opus Dei members may choose in which country they would like to live.
Tapia began to realize that only those people who obeyed to the letter whatever Escriva dictated, enjoyed his affection and “love.”
Tapia suffered even more at the hands of the Opus Dei superiors and the Founder. She could not receive or send mail, nor could she receive or make telephone calls. She was constantly watched, and could not leave the house in Rome. She was continually interrogated, forced to go to confession, and denied any privileges at all. In several meetings, Escriva screamed at Tapia, calling her a whore, a sow, a wicked woman, full of “bad spirit,” worthless.
From October 1965 to May 1966, Tapia was a prisoner in the Opus Dei house in Rome. In the end, she was deemed a “hopeless case” by the Founder, who threw her out of the house. Almost everything Tapia owned had been searched and taken by the Opus Dei members; they even took all her identifying papers from Venezuela.
As she left, the Opus Dei members told her that she was in mortal sin, and that only after a lifetime of penance and prayer may she possibly be saved.
The Founder threatened Tapia if she ever spoke about her years in Opus Dei, he personally would see that she be dishonored.
When Tapia returned to Spain, she remembered the Founder’s threats, and was reluctant to tell anyone the truth of what happened to her. After five months, she explained to her parents the threats she received from the Founder, among them, not to return to Venezuela, and how Opus Dei kept her personal documents, which were never returned to her. Slowly she was able to recover from the hideous ordeal Opus Dei had put her through. While in Madrid she began to work in a prestigious law firm and after a year, she moved to the United States; first to Harvard University, and years later to the University of California where she works presently at the System-wide Office of the Education Abroad Program, located in Santa Barbara.
Decades went by before Tapia published in Spanish, Tras el Umbral, Una Vida en el Opus Dei, (Beyond the Threshold: A Life in Opus Dei) which was a best-seller in Spain. Now published in several languages and several editions, the book has also been a best-seller in Portugal, Germany and Italy.
Tapia details the efforts she made to make her story known during the entire beatification process for Escriva. Opus Dei attacked her character during that time, insinuating that Tapia was guilty of sexual misconduct and rebellion within Opus Dei.
Opus Dei has been very effective in silencing its critics in this manner; they simply make vague accusations insinuating scandalous behavior. In Spain where Opus Dei is a household word, former Opus Dei members who have the courage to speak out against Opus Dei and its practices often suffer consequences.
Even though I had spent several years in Opus Dei, much of the book surprised me. It became clear to me that all of the Founder’s less than perfect traits were not communicated to anyone; the people who wrote about the Founder while he was alive were not allowed to write down anything negative he may have said, nor could they describe the many rages the Founder had. The Founder’s behavior was often crude and inhumane, and self-aggrandizing. As proof of his self-aggrandizement, Escriva not only appointed a person to write about his virtuous behavior, he told her what she could and could not write!
The inner workings of Opus Dei that Tapia described were also appalling to me. There was no real concern for the people who had offered their lives to Opus Dei, especially if they chose to leave or became incapacitated in some way. When Tapia expressed concern about a Venezuelan numerary who was sick with Hodgkin’s disease, the Founder and the directors in Rome did not know who she was and expressed no concern at all for her.
In my own case, this lack of concern for those who leave Opus Dei was demonstrated. The members that I knew while I was in Opus Dei had no interest in me once I was not “part of the fold.” Opus Dei members are subtly taught that it is a waste of time to spend time with anyone who will never be an Opus Dei member.
Tapia also demonstrated clearly that despite Opus Dei members’ commitment to a life of sanctity, backstabbing in Opus Dei was common, and jealousy and envy seemed to be motives behind many of the decisions the directors made.
Tapia also described some of the “cult-like” tendencies within Opus Dei, namely the following: excessive adulation of a charismatic leader (the Founder); indoctrination, the subtle process used by controlling groups to turn ordinary people into loyal “fanatics”; “discretion” or “silence,” effectively used by totalist groups to control members, to make them “pure,” while at the same time not revealing the true motives of decisions made by superiors; an inability by the controlling group to accept even constructive criticism, especially among members who are expected to obey blindly.
After reading Beyond the Threshold, I was amazed to hear of the surprisingly large number of people who leave Opus Dei, voluntarily and involuntarily. Many suffer breakdowns or attempt to commit suicide.
Others, like Tapia, become disillusioned with the practices and uncharitableness of Opus Dei. Many of these have been publicly slandered by Opus Dei in their attempts to discredit anyone who criticizes them, constructively or not. Because of this, I admire Maria del Carmen Tapia for her courage and determination in exposing the truth about Opus Dei.
At the end of Beyond the Threshold appear a number of letters written by Tapia and others, including several letters to the Holy Father admonishing him to hear her criticisms of Opus Dei for the good of the Church and for souls.
Beyond the Threshold is a book for anyone who has been even remotely in contact with Opus Dei. The description Tapia gives of her “imprisonment” in Rome, may remind some readers of George Orwell’s 1984, such are the atrocities committed against her “for the good of Opus Dei.”
Posted to website May 13, 2002