Why I belong to Opus Dei
In the light of the Da Vinci Code kafuffle, Steven Russell asks: What is Opus Dei?IF Opus Dei is a secretive organisation, someone seems to have forgotten to tell its members and officials.
In the light of the Da Vinci Code kafuffle, Steven Russell asks: What is Opus Dei?
IF Opus Dei is a secretive organisation, someone seems to have forgotten to tell its members and officials.
You might imagine everyone wanting to lie low. The Da Vinci Code would lead you to believe that members of Opus Dei are either Machiavellian schemers, ready to countenance murder to stop secret information threatening the very existence of the Church, or sinister monks prepared to do the dirty work.
But a request to its London press office, made more in hope than expectation, brought forward a local member happy to explain what his faith was about.
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Former mariner and antiques dealer Hugh Arnold lives on the Suffolk-Essex border. He's 76 and has been a member of Opus Dei for more than 25 years. He doesn't duck any questions and, despite the furore, he doesn't particularly feel under fire.
“The book and the film in a backhanded way did Opus Dei an awful lot of good, because it brought the subject to the surface and people took an interest in Opus Dei for once - 'Who are you and what are you?' - and that did us good. I dare say it's made people join Opus Dei - I don't know that for sure, but I wouldn't be at all surprised.”
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When questions about the organisation began to appear in the media he took note, but says claims such as Mary Magdalene marrying Jesus are nothing new. In any case, he adds wryly, it hardly falls into the category of being a high-class book.
“To any sensible person it's quite apparently rubbish - the whole book is rubbish - and it shows, really, how we've sunk as a nation in intelligence; that we can be taken in by that sort of thing: anti-religious, anti-Christian rubbish.”
One of Dan Brown's controversial elements concerns the use by a “monk” of a cilice - a spiky device worn around the thigh - and the discipline: a whip for self-flagellation. Opus Dei argues the depiction of such penance is greatly overplayed.
An element of small sacrifice is encouraged, but Hugh says this might involve foregoing a second helping of food. “Or it might actually be doing something: doing a job that I don't like doing but that my wife particularly wants done. I don't want to do it but I'll do it - and smile! It might be like that.”
It's designed to remind Christians of the suffering of Jesus - to put things in perspective.
But physical mortification, like whipping, is not part of your routine?
“No, no. The numeraries might do that, but supernumeraries” - the vast majority of members, like Hugh - “don't do that, normally. There's nothing against them doing it if they want to, but it's getting a bit weirdy and out of this world, isn't it?
“If you go to the bathroom and start flogging yourself with a corded whip, your wife wouldn't like it and the children would wonder if you'd gone off your rocker!”
(Numeraries are those committed to celibacy and often living in Opus Dei centres - the arrangement allowing them to devote much of their time to the work of the organisation. The institution says that while some members make limited use of the cilice and discipline, “the Church teaches that people should take reasonable care of their physical health . . . it is simply not possible to injure oneself with them as the book and film depict”.)
Hugh adds: “A lot of men in Opus Dei, I believe, probably take a cold shower in the morning as a mortification. You don't have to do that; you can choose something else. But I think probably quite a lot do. I don't now, because we don't actually have a shower in this house and filling the bath with cold water takes a long time!”
Hugh became a Roman Catholic as a young man. Years later, a friend from Sudbury introduced him to Opus Dei.
“Peter started doing what we call in Opus Dei an apostulate with me; in other words he was just showing me a little bit about Opus Dei; because a lot of Christians, you see - Catholics as well as others - really think something like this: 'I'm a Christian . . . go to church on Sundays . . . keep the 10 Commandments if I can. And that's all I need to do.'
“And, of course, it isn't. If you really want to be a Christian, you've got to love God and, rather like that film says” - we've just watched a video showing members talking about their faith - “you've got to do everything well.”
Eventually, he says, the penny dropped in the late 1970s and he joined.
“All Christians should live their life in Christ. What Opus Dei specifically says is that ordinary people with ordinary jobs can live their live in Christ, and should do it by making their jobs and their families, and everything, absolutely important . . .” - and helping and loving other people as well.
“In other words, we don't go around preaching. We just do our work well and try to smile and be friendly with everybody: no class distinction - no any other sort of distinction, either. People are people are people.”
How would Hugh's life be different if he wasn't a member of Opus Dei, though still a Catholic?
“It could be just the same, if I was living to the best of my ability. Unfortunately human beings like to settle for an easy option, and if they can carve out a belief mentally - carve out a sort of a tunnel, a way, for themselves - they say 'If I go to church on Sundays (I might even go on other days too, if it's important enough); if I'm faithful to my wife . . . and, er, yeah, I want to make money, you see. I must be honest about making money . . .'
“Now, Opus Dei is really saying 'Look, chum, that's no good. You've got to try to be a saint. Everybody has got to try to be a saint. You don't necessarily become a canonised saint, but you've got to do things perfectly.'
“So that means you've got to be perfectly faithful to your wife. And that means not just not going to bed with anybody else, it means not thinking about anybody else; not putting yourself in danger of thinking about anybody else - like seeing pornographic films or reading nasty books, you know, where it's all sex, sex, sex. This is what's so wicked about our present society. Young people are brought up on it; it's thrust into them.
“So, in a sense, Opus Dei is simply saying 'Look: Society is going off the rails. We're going to try and help it come back to the rails.'”
Membership, then, offers extra motivation and added encouragement to be a good Christian? - an extra standard to strive for?
“I think all those adjectives are viable. But why should one join? I think you join because you are called; it's a God-given call, really. It's a vocation to Opus Dei; we all believe that.”
And Opus Dei is also a gentle form of evangelism, aiming to spread its message - about the way we should treat each other - as widely as possible?
“Yes, indeed. It simply is an organisation to promote Christian living, and the only way with promoting Christian living is being Christian yourself - and, that way, helping other people to see that that's the best way to live.”
As a member of Opus Dei he is expected to attend Mass each day. There is also half an hour of prayer in the morning and 30 minutes in the afternoon, “and more or less you can choose your time”. A member should also do 15 minutes of spiritual reading each day, as well as reading part of the Bible.
Hugh attends a monthly evening or afternoon of recollection - concentrated devout thought, essentially. Members also go on an annual retreat, and attend a course that lasts between one and three weeks.
There's a weekly meeting known as a circle, attended by a numerary from London - “in our case a young doctor of physics”. Hugh and other local members - a man from Ipswich, one from Felixstowe, and another living out in the wilds - take turns to host the meeting in each other's homes.
A circle features a reading of part of a gospel, a commentary, and a talk. It opens and closes with prayers.
A typical talk might be about respecting the opposite sex, or it could be about encouraging good in the world, or combating the bad. “There's enough of that; should be easy to find,” says Hugh.
He feels society has become distinctly unchristian, “seemingly by deliberate policy of the media and (through the) law”.
The Arnolds don't have a television as such. “We metaphorically speaking threw that out of the window years ago and said 'I'm not paying for that filth.'” They do cherry-pick from the listings in Radio Times. “We have a screen and get our daughters, son-in-laws or whatever, to tape for us anything that we think is really, really good.”
Such as wholesome old films.
“Last night Sally and I watched Magnificent Obsession. It's a bit of Hollywood gulch, you might say, but it was surprisingly nice, a really lovely film, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. What you call a weepy, I think.”
With The Da Vinci Code film now out, does he hope the hoo-hah will start to die down?
“I don't hope anything. It's done, as I say, quite a lot of good. It's brought everything out into the light; it's made a lot of people think 'I've never thought about Opus Dei before, but I'll go and find out about it.' And that's a good thing - because there's only good to find out about Opus Dei.”
THE warmth of Christian folk he met in Liverpool led to Hugh Arnold becoming a Catholic.
He became a midshipman with the Merchant Navy in 1948, aged 18, before later choosing to take stock for a while.
“I thought I'd like to see a bit more of life than just the sea. So I left the sea for a period and took a job in Oxfordshire, a short fill-in job, and then got call-up papers.” Hugh went on to win a commission and spent two years with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, serving in places such as Korea and Kenya. It was during this time that he became a convert.
“It was the Liverpool people in the Merchant Navy whom I met when I was a very young man, a very callow young man who didn't know anything about anything, really. They were so warm-hearted and good and kind.”
It was in Kenya that London-born Hugh met his wife, Sally, who came from a Catholic family. Two of their 12 children were born in Kenya. He left the army, and the family headed back to England in the early 1960s.
It wasn't long before they moved to the village on the Suffolk-Essex border that they still call home.
After one or two jobs, Hugh returned to sea and became a master mariner.
When the family had grown to seven children, a more traditional job ashore was called for. “So I swallowed the anchor in the mid to late '70s, probably.”
He started an antique-dealing business in Nayland, and at one stage also had a branch in Sudbury. It did very, very well - “so well that I had a shop in the West End of London, which was a silly, stupid, swanky thing to do. I was getting above my boots, really. Just a waste of money; never sold anything!”
Hugh is now retired, but his Opus Dei commitments and assisting his local church keep him busy and fulfilled. There are also 21 grandchildren to enjoy.
In Opus Dei terms, Sally is known as a cooperator - someone who does not belong to the institution but supports its aims. Hugh says his wife prefers not to become a fully-fledged member, but does host a monthly group for women.
Men and women are on an equal footing in Opus Dei, he stresses (the organisation puts the membership ratio at about 50:50). “The only thing is that women can't be priests - but no Opus Dei woman wants to be a priest,” he laughs.
What is Opus Dei?
Founded in Spain in 1928 by Catholic priest St Josemaría Escrivá
It's part of the Catholic Church
Its name is Latin for “Work of God”
Has about 83,000 lay members and 2,000 priests
People join by choice, and remain free to leave
Mission: To help people turn their work and daily activities into opportunities for growing closer to God, for serving others, and for improving society; to spread the Christian message that everyone is called to holiness and that all honest work can be sanctified (made holy)
Holiness means following Jesus Christ, imitating him in thoughts, feelings, words and deeds
Opus Dei complements the work of churches by offering classes and pastoral care that help people develop their spiritual life and apostolate (spreading of the gospel)
On The Da Vinci Code claims:
“Like all Catholics, Opus Dei members have great appreciation for monks, but in fact there are no monks in Opus Dei. Opus Dei is a Catholic institution for lay people and diocesan priests, not a monastic order.
“Opus Dei's approach to living the faith does not involve withdrawing from the world like those called to the monastic life. Rather, Opus Dei helps people grow closer to God in and through their ordinary secular activities.”
On crime: “Opus Dei is a Catholic institution and adheres to Catholic doctrine, which clearly condemns immoral behaviour, including murder, lying, stealing, and generally injuring people. The Catholic Church teaches that one should never do evil, even for a good purpose.”