OPUS DEI, In Everyday Life,
It seemed to me that the best way I could convey what Opus Dei
is about, would be to describe a typical day in my life as a
member of Opus Dei. Of course, each member has a different life,
with different situations and different problems. Furthermore, I
am not and do not claim to be a "model" member of Opus Dei, for
there is no such person: we all strive to love Christ better,
but we all have the same fallen nature.
The alarm rings at 6 a.m. I fumble across the night table in the
dark to shut if off, when I realize that I put the clock on a dresser
across the room. So I stumble out of bed, shut off the alarm, and
then I kneel and say "Serviam!" - I will serve you, God. Then, still
kneeling, I make a morning offering.
Thus begins a day in my life as a member of Opus Dei - that's Latin
for "Work of God," or "The Work," as we call it colloquially. The
"Serviam!" echoes St. Michael's valiant pledge of allegiance to God,
in contrast to Satan's "I will not serve." It reminds us that our
vocation is one of service to God, to the Church and to our fellow
I feel quite weary, but my thoughts turn to a friend of mine in Opus
Dei who is a custodial supervisor and who has already been at work
for half an hour. Of course, I'm tempted to reset the alarm and go
back to bed, but I remind myself of a saying of a wise, holy man: "If
you wish to become a saint, first of all start rising early." I
shuffle into the living room and sit in a chair. Then I begin fifteen
minutes of spiritual reading and reflection on a passage from the
Gospel. After a few minutes, I turn to the book I have been
working through at the advice of my spiritual director, the
Introduction to the Devout Life, by St. Francis de Sales.
Members of Opus Dei make a contract with the Prelature of Opus Dei -
a contract, not a vow - to live a "plan of life," as it is called.
This includes certain daily spiritual practices and acts, or "norms
of piety." Members of Opus Dei do not take vows because our vocation
is a lay vocation, not a religious vocation. Although a small number
of members of Opus Dei are priests incardinated in the Prelature, the
vast majority of us are lay persons, who wish to serve God totally,
without in any way changing our position in so ciety.
Our daily spiritual reading includes some time spent reading the
Gospel. Through reading the Gospel we hope to become intimately
familiar with all the details of Christ's life, so that we can have
an almost intuitive sense of how to imitate him in the ordinary
circumstances of our lives. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus
Dei, wrote in a book entitled _The Way_, which has been acclaimed as
a modern spiritual classic, "May your behavior and your conversation
be such that everyone who sees or hears you can say: This man reads
the life of Jesus Christ" (n. 2).
In many ways the spirituality of Opus Dei resembles that of the
Devout Life. This resemblance was noted by Pope John Paul I (while
Patriarch of Venice). But he also explained the difference when he
wrote: "Msgr. Escriva went further than St. Francis de Sales in many
respects. St. Francis proclaimed sanctity for everyone but seems to
have taught only a 'spirituality for lay people,' whereas Msgr.
Escriva wants a 'lay spirituality.' Francis, in other words, nearly
always suggests for the laity the same practical means used by the
religious but with suitable modifications. Escriva is more radical:
he goes as far as talking about 'materializing' - in a good sense -
the quest for holiness. For him, it is the material work itself which
must be turned into prayer and sanctity."
After reading, I spend some time in mental prayer - in fulfillment of
another norm of piety. The current Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Alvaro
del Portillo, who worked closely with the founder for 40 years, has
stated that the "secret" of Opus Dei is prayer. Our prayers are our
primary contribution to the renewal of the Church, and our apostolic
efforts bear fruit only insofar as we are faithful in prayer. As
Escriva wrote: "First, prayer; then, atonement in the third
place-very much 'in the third place'-action" (The Way, n. 82).
Without prayer we would be mere activists.
After mental prayer, it's 6:45 and time to wake up my eldest child,
Mikey, who is in first grade, and also my wife, Ruth, who drives him
to school. I try to let Ruth sleep as late as possible, since she is
usually up at night with our youngest child, Maria, who is six months
old. (Our other two are Max, age 4, and John Henry, age 2.) I get
Mikey's breakfast, make his lunch and give him some help getting
dressed if he's running slow.
It's not unusual for one of my three boys to wake up early and
stumble into the living room while I am saying my prayers. They know
I am praying and will just snuggle in my lap quietly. Sometimes one
will want to say a prayer or ask me a question about God. That's fine
- another voice in the conversation.
The Prelate of Opus Dei has said that "the original thing about Opus
Dei" consists not in the norms of piety which we live - these are all
traditional practices in the Church - but in "the spirit with which
all this is done, the unity of life where the faith one professes is
fused with the secular work each member carries out as his own
responsibility." This unity of life commences at the beginning of my
day. For example, I might reflect on how I wish to be more thoughtful
and cheerful in little acts of service in the household throughout
the day - and then I try to start acting on this resolution over the
hubbub of the breakfast table.
My wife, who is also in Opus Dei, drives Mikey to the parish school
and then goes to the 8 o'clock Mass there. Meanwhile, I shower and
then attempt getting in a solid hour of studying before going to
work. I try to use this morning hour for the systematic reading of
St. Thomas Aquinas. I am a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard
University, a tutor in the philosophy department, and also the Head
Librarian of the philosophy library, which I must open at 9 a.m. each
An important part of the vocation of any member of Opus Dei is
"study"-whether he or she is a housewife, philosopher, automotive
mechanic or office worker. By "study" is meant some deliberate plan
of reading and improvement, regarding one's job or simply involving
those things that make someone a better and more well-rounded person.
My "study" at the present time takes a particular form; for someone
else it could be reading history, or attending to developments in his
field or becoming immersed in a significant novel; or becoming
informed about important moral issues such as abortion and
euthanasia. "You pray, you mortify yourself, you labor at a thousand
apostolic activities...but you don't study. You are useless then,
unless you change your ways. Study- any professional development-is a
serious obligation for us" (The Way, n. 334).
During my 20 minute walk to work, I say a Rosary, using a small "rope
rosary" which I can finger easily in my pocket. I also carry a small
bronze crucifix with me which was cast by an order of nuns at Dachau.
It was a gift of my sister-inlaw. Many members of The Work will place
a pocket crucifix before them on their desk or work bench, if this is
possible, as an aid to offering up one's work in unity with Christ's
sacrifice on the cross.
After opening up the library, straightening the chairs, and reshelving
books, I settle down to a morning's work at the librarian's desk near
the entrance, where I check bags and handle reserve reading while
doing my own research and reading. This morning I am taking careful
notes on Aristotle's Topics, examining closely any passages in it
that might be relevant to my dissertation, which is on Aristotle's
theory of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics.
All of my fellow graduate students and professors, and many of my own
students, know that I am a practicing Catholic, since I am pretty up
front about it. Most of them, I believe, respect me for it (or are
curious), not least because the intellectual and philosophical
tradition of the Church is generally held in high regard in my
A few of my friends know I am in Opus Dei. Like everyone else in The
Work, I don't go around with a sign or a medal advertising my
membership. In fact, to draw attention to my membership in any
extraordinary way would be contrary to my vocation, since its essence
is to strive to love Christ totally without in any way altering my
position in the world. Hence, if it is appropriate to mention or
explain Opus Dei in a natural manner in a conversation, then I'll
speak about it, otherwise not. No doubt, because this is how we
proceed in Opus Dei, some people think that The Work is "secretive."
But clearly this is not a matter of being secretive but rather of
being unassuming and natural.
During my morning work at the library, I try to live in the presence
of God by making frequent aspirations and by saying short prayers.
For example, I will often offer up each hour of work for a different
loved one or friend, perhaps for someone who is sick, or who is
thinking about returning to the sacraments, and so on. Sometimes I
try to say the 'Memorare' to Mary frequently or pray to St. Joseph
for direction or to my guardian angel for assistance. To be honest,
it is difficult to learn, through developing little habits of piety,
how to live a life of prayer in one's work. It's a constant and daily
struggle - yet for me it is part of "taking up my cross daily" and
following after Christ.
A struggle I have in my daily work concerns being cheerful toward
those who ask my assistance in the library-students who need me to
get a book for them, for example, or who ask where the photocopying
machine is, or who need change for it. Of course, the sole purpose
for my job is to tend to these needs. But, human nature being fallen
as it is, I get annoyed at these interruptions in my studying and
find it difficult to be cheerful. I find it helpful, at times, to
recall some sayings from The Way. "Don't say, 'That person bothers
me.' Think: 'That person sanctifies me'" (n. 174). And "Many who
would let themselves be nailed to a cross before the astonished gaze
of thousands of spectators, won't bear the pinpricks of each day with
a Christian spirit! But think, which is the more heroic?" (n. 204)
At noon I say the Angelus, a traditional prayer about our Lady. I
work until one o'clock, when an assistant librarian comes in for the
rest of the afternoon. Then it's time for lunch which I usually have
with an undergraduate. It's a good chance to talk with students about
the work they are doing or simply to keep in touch with friends.
Everyone at Harvard is busy, and everyone has a different schedule,
so it requires a genuine effort to maintain friendships. Friendships
won't form and deepen if you don't aim at this deliberately.
The marvelous aspect of The Work, I think, is the importance placed on
friendship. Members of The Work are encouraged to be good friends to
their family and neighbors. In fact, as we understand it, the
principal way in which we are to be apostolic is through being good
friends to others. "Those words, whispered at the proper time into
the ear of your wavering friend; that helpful conversation you manage
to start at the right moment; the ready advice that improves his
studies; and the discreet indiscretion by which you open for him
unsuspected horizons for his zeal-all that is the 'apostolate of
friendship'" (The Way, n. 975). We aim to bring others to Christ
through sanctifying our friendships, by intimate and thoughtful
one-on-one discussions and by acts of kindness and consideration.
Members of The Work are also encouraged to begin apostolic endeavors
on their own initiative. For example, for the past few summers I have
organized summer discussion groups on John Henry Newman's writings. A
friend of mine started a pro-life group; another friend has formed a
group for couples to discuss Church teaching on marriage and the
I teach tutorials several afternoons a week, but today I have no
teaching responsibilities, so I work from 2-5:00 in the philosophy
library on my dissertation. I try to live now another custom I have
been encouraged to practice, which is to work especially hard for
three solid hours in the afternoon, avoiding unnecessary noise and
distraction. During this period, I try to identify myself with Christ
for the three hours he hung on the cross. Here it is especially
important to put love into those little details of one's work. "By
neglecting small details," the founder of Opus Dei wrote, "you could
work on without rest and yet live the life of a perfect idler"
(Furrow, n. 494).
My work happens to be intellectual in character. Cardinal Poletti
wrote, in his decree introducing the cause of beatification and
canonization of Msgr. Escriva (May 12, 1981), that "of particular
note is the attraction which the spirituality of the Servant of God
has for educated people: students, university professors, and
professional people of all sorts appreciate the great vitality of a
message in which the interior life and the effort to achieve a
serious professional competence constitute two equally necessary
aspects of the path to God." We should be thankful for this, I think,
while recognizing at the same time that people of every station in
life are members of Opus Dei. As Cardinal Poletti continued:
"Likewise, employees, farm workers and factory workers, parents and
children, men and women-in short, all sectors of civil society ('the
people in the street,' as Msgr. Escriva used to say) find in this
spirit an aid for discovering the divine plan for salvation hidden in
the tiniest realities of life."
I go to the five o'clock Mass after work. From the earliest days
after the founding of Opus Dei in 1928, Msgr. Escriva constantly
spoke of the Mass as "the center and root of interior life." On the
way home from Mass, I will think about the day and say some vocal
prayers quietly. My boys run to meet me at the door; we exchange
kisses and hugs, then I kiss my wife hello and sit down to open up
the mail and listen to the stories about Mikey's day in school and
about what everyone else did. Sometimes there is time for wrestling,
rough-housing or a game of catch before dinner - if not, we usually
find time afterwards. I do the dishes after dinner and then help the
children take baths and get dressed. Tonight my wife has to go to a
meeting: She is president of the state pro-life organization and is
usually out a couple of nights a week for meetings. After prayers and
books, the kids are in bed and the lights are out-ideally-by 8:00.
Then I'll spend another brief period in mental prayer before
beginning whatever I have to do in the evening.
Once a week I go to a class of formation at the center of Opus Dei in
Cambridge, Elmbrook University Center. My class is attended by other
members like myself and is led by a non-married member who makes a
commitment to live a celibate life in a center of Opus Dei. These
members generally work as professionals in the world, trying to grow
in sanctity through their work, and they live family-style with
others in a center. The vast majority of members are, however,
married and with families. Every other week I'll meet with a
celibate member for spiritual direction. We'll talk about my trials
and difficulties in the spiritual life, my efforts to live the
virtues and the way in which I treat my family and friends. Spiritual
direction in The Work is not psychological in character; it's not
simply the "sharing of feelings." Rather, it's a means of receiving
friendly, practical advice about how to love Christ better.
Celibate members receive a thorough training in theology, philosophy,
and ascetical principles; they give spiritual direction in accordance
with the received wisdom of the great saints who wrote on the
subject, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Individual freedom, discretion, and judgment are greatly valued in
The Work, and this is especially the case in spiritual direction. The
precious value of individual freedom was a constant theme in the
teaching of Msgr Escriva. "Respect for freedom stems from love," he
wrote, and, "I am of the opinion that a Christian has to be
passionately interested in civil and social progress while realizing
the limitations of his own opinions, thus respecting the opinions of
others and showing love for legitimate pluralism. Anyone who does not
live in this way has not fully grasped the Christian message. God, in
creating us, took on the risk and adventure of our freedom."
In the evenings, when my wife comes back from her meetings, or I from
mine, we spend time together over a cup of tea, talking about the
day. Naturally, we especially like to swap stories about funny things
the children said or did. Or, if we need to make a decision about the
household, this is the time we'll talk it over. Before bedtime we
each make a general examination of conscience, which should be an
indispensable practice for any Christian. And so my day comes to a
close. It was a fairly ordinary day-nothing especially earthshaking
or unusual. Yet, for most of us, this is the stuff of sanctity - "We
discover the invisible God," the founder of Opus Dei wrote, "in the
most visible and material things. There is no other way, my children.
Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else
we shall never find him."