Opus Dei, In Everyday Life

Author: Michael Pakaluk

OPUS DEI, In Everyday Life, Michael Pakaluk

--------------------------------------------------------------------------- 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 man. 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 weekday. 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 department.

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 family. 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."