Lay spirituality for a life less ordinary

02 November 2006

Eileen Cole joined Opus Dei as an 18-year-old. Having committed herself to apostolic celibacy, she now works part-time as an interior designer and as an assistant warden in an Opus Dei-run hall of residence for university students in London

ATTENDING Anglican service in Chester Square when I was 14 years old, I considered myself to be post-Christian. It seemed a meaningless, empty ritual, but we enjoyed the walk, trooping down the street to church instead of working at school.

It wasn’t until I met a member of Opus Dei who, like me, was a new sixth former at Greycoat Hospital that I was made to think again. Here, alongside Anglicans, Baptists, and all sorts of other believers, I discovered genuine, operative faith.

Very soon, I began taking some serious instruction in the Christian faith, and it all made great sense. I did not rely on Opus Dei for any other social support; I didn’t get involved in activities or events: I had my own social life. But I felt I was receiving pure gold, a distillation of centuries of truth and holiness: the teachings of the Catholic Church.

I began to practise this faith immediately — it was hard, but my mother, who had long before lapsed, joined me in a quietly surprised and grateful way. We located our nearest Catholic Church and began to attend mass on Sundays and holy days.

Some time after, I asked to join Opus Dei. What had happened? The more I discovered about God, the Church, and her mission, the more I felt the imperious call to adhere to this life. It just so happened that my vehicle of discovery was Opus Dei.

Opus Dei has no creed of its own, just that of the Roman Catholic Church of which it forms a part. Its spirtuality is a lay spirtuality, that is, for ordinary men and women, who may be married, with a family and the usual concerns of life. A small percentage of members commit themselves to celibacy and take care of running Opus Dei centres and tasks of formation. Some of these are ordained as priests and serve the members and all those who attend activities run by Opus Dei.

Why did I join? The idea of sanctification of ordinary work is, in fact, quite revolutionary. To be holy in the work place means to be competent, industrious, fair, cheerful, punctual, and so on, even before thinking of offering that task as a gift to God. If advertisers, artists, marketing people, lawyers, CEOs, bankers, journalists, bus drivers, politicians, civil servants, etc., were to work to the best of their ability, being virtuous, living according to the commandments, it really would be a revolution.

With the emphasis on holiness and responsibility before God, Opus Dei gives the wherewithal, the formation, to cope with the tricky moral problems of modern life and relationships in accord with the Christian message. The care taken of the theological formation of its members and anyone who wants to take part is conscientious and tailored to the individual.

It is necessary to be Catholic to join, but there are thousands of non-Catholic, even non-Christian co-operators who help Opus Dei with their prayer, work or almsgiving. To join, one needs to have had some regular contact with formational activities such as retreats, classes, and spiritual direction over a period of time. A member commits himself or herself by asking for admission, and the prelature of Opus Dei commits itself to giving all the spiritual support it can.

Members strive for holiness by regular prayer, frequently receiving the sacraments, striving to spread the gospel and humbly and constantly trying to practise the Christian virtues. Financial contributions given are an entirely personal matter, and are made according to their means, whether subsistence farmers in Peru or CEOs housewives.

As Opus Dei is about personal holiness, it does not act as a group. Reminiscent of the first Christians, members of Opus Dei look like their peers and go about their own business, but they have a lively faith and relationship with Jesus Christ, whom they take as their model. This includes their attitude towards Christian mortification or the spirit of sacrifice, which should be a reasonable self-denial as has always been practised in the Church: fasting and abstinence in moderation, but with the emphasis on mortification in ordinary things — patience in traffic, punctuality, moderation in all things.

Members do not differ from their fellow Roman Catholics, except having committed themselves before God in his way to taking their faith seriously and down to the last consequences. In return for that commitment they receive a lot if spiritual help.

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