[Editor's Note: Read an interview with the author here]
Several times in the past year, I have found myself in a car for an extended period with members of Opus Dei. On July 9, 2004, for example, I headed up into the Andes Mountains with Father Clemente Ortega, pastor of Saint John the Baptist of Matucana-Huarochiri Parish in the town of Matucana, in the diocese of Chosica-Huayacan, maybe two hours outside of Lima. Ortega, fifty-two, also covers twenty-four smaller parishes in outlying, isolated mountain villages. Some of them are no more than seventy kilometers from Lima as the crow flies, but it takes him four or five hours in a jeep to reach them by narrow dirt paths. His communities are lucky to see him once every three weeks, and Ortega, a central-casting version of a no-nonsense priest, gets up to the mountains more often than most; some Andean communities see a priest once every two months, or less.
Ortega is a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, but his rectory in Matucana belies images of Opus Dei elitism. For one thing, there is no running water, so if you want to use the toilet at night, you have to haul buckets of water upstairs to the guest room. For another, the contract for his telephone does not permit international calls, and there's no cell phone coverage this far out from Lima, so one morning I found myself in a scene from the 1980s Michael Douglas movie Romancing the Stone, desperately trying to scrape together enough change to use the one local phone that could make international calls in order to phone in corrections to that week's Word from Rome column.
Ortega's rectory in Matucana belies images of Opus Dei elitism.
As I drove with Ortega up the mountain, and as we wound our way on the narrow dirt paths that pass for roads in this part of the world, I noticed a number of roadside shrines with small monuments and flowers. Thinking this was some unique Peruvian devotion, I asked Ortega about it. "Oh, no," he said. "Those are spots where someone died in a car accident." It was not the most reassuring comment as we whistled around blind corners at what suddenly seemed breakneck speed. (In reality, it took us all morning to cover what amounted to ninety miles.)
In the midst of all this, Ortega at one point pulled a rosary out of his pocket and announced that it was time to pray. The other couple of Opus Dei numeraries in the truck whipped out their rosaries as well, and, shouting to be heard over the rumbling of our four-wheel-drive jeep, Ortega led us through the joyful mysteries of the rosary.
In any number of other circumstances—driving from Barcelona to Barbastro in Spain, for example, or from Lima to Canete in Peru, or from downtown Nairobi to the airport for a flight to Kampala. Uganda—I have had a similar experience, though none quite so hair-raising. One minute we're talking local politics or sports, and the next minute we're reading a passage from Escriva and then spending time in quiet meditation. This is one dimension of what Opus Dei members mean by being "contemplatives in the middle of the world." They don't have to retreat into specifically "religious" enclaves in order to pray, but they can do so from within their ordinary daily settings, where they work and play and live. Prayer, in this sense, is a natural extension of daily life.
The concept of contemplation in the middle of the world, however, cuts deeper than simply praying in the car rather than in the chapel. The idea is that all of one's life is a prayer, that there are no separate compartments of existence marked off as "religious" and "secular." Worship and praise of God do not, in this sense, require doing anything specifically "religious", though Opus Dei members, as we have seen, follow an ambitious program of daily religious observance. Those are means to an end, which is to infuse everything one does, the most ordinary tasks in the middle of a busy day, with a contemplative dimension.
One minute we're talking local politics or sports, and the next minute we're reading a passage from Escriva and then spending time in quiet meditation.
Maria Olga Gallo Riofrio a twenty-two-year-old Peruvian who lives at an Opus Dei university residence in Peru but who is not a member, summed up this spirit in a conversation outside a school for mentally disabled kids in Lima, the Ricardo Bentin School, where she is a volunteer teacher along with several members of Opus Dei. "These kids have problems, and Opus Dei is trying to help them," she told me. "To them, teaching these kids is just as important as being in Church. In fact," she stressed, "it's no different than being in Church. This is prayer, too."
Susan Kimani, fifteen, is a student at the Opus Dei-affiliated Kianda School in Nairobi, Kenya, and she's one of those "fifteen going on forty-five" teenagers, a strikingly poised and articulate young woman who seems ready to walk into a courtroom or a corporate boardroom and hold her own this afternoon. Kimani is not an Opus Dei member, but she described their idea of a seamless integration of life as she's experienced it at Kianda. "At other schools, what happens in class and what happens in life are two very different things," she said. "Here, life is life. You can talk to teachers about your problems at home, with your friends. In a lot of other places, people can be suffering in class and the teacher would never know. Here, they know you inside and out, and there's a natural interest in you as a person as well as a student."
Among other implications, if lived properly, this spirit should make the transition from specifically "religious" contexts back out into the secular world virtually seamless. An Opus Dei member is not supposed to be one person in church, or in a center, and another person in the stock market or the operating room or the barbershop. The transition from one to the other setting should be effortless—or to use the word most commonly invoked inside Opus Dei, "natural." One should approach all the aspects of one's life with the same spirit of reverence and contemplation, avoiding a kind of spiritual or moral schizophrenia. This idea, in Opus Dei argot, goes under the heading of the "unity of life."
Ultimately, the 'spiritual life' is nothing more or less than human life. Nothing falls outside that.
Unity of life, as Opus Dei sees it, is about discovering a lens through which all of one's life can he seen as a single, whole thing. This, members say, is what transforms a series of random or isolated movements, the end-less string of hours, days, and years that make up a life, into a meaningful unity—a work of art. The spirit of Opus Dei is supposed to transform a multitude of different steps and contrasting movements into a single dance, so that at any given moment one realizes that one is always one and the same person. Sometimes, in religious contexts, people speak of their "spiritual life," referring to their prayers and practices of piety. But for Opus Dei, the "spiritual life" must include work, friendships, social life, family—everything. Naturally, this is supposed to have an impact on how Opus Dei members do whatever they do. Ultimately, the "spiritual life" is nothing more or less than human life. Nothing falls outside that. There are no compartments that aren't labeled "God's business."
One of the consequences of being "contemplatives in the middle of the world," as Opus Dei understands it, is that it tends to evaporate the "religious" as a distinct category of experience. One's most "religious" experiences may be in the office, on the playing field, in the kitchen, on the street, in the bedroom or in the hospital. Escriva once said that his monastic cell was the street, meaning that an Opus Dei member is supposed to walk out of church for the same reason they walk in—to be in union with God.
Finally, "unity of life" also leads to an attitude of taking everything one does seriously, whether it's a corporate deal invoking billions of dollars, a piece of legislation that could have enormous social consequences, or taking the garbage out at night. Just as one should not compartmentalize one's moral instincts or doctrinal beliefs, likewise one should not "shut off" the sense of service to God just because a given task is, from a certain point of view, less important. The idea is that one should not pursue excellence in some areas of life and tolerate mediocrity in others simply because, from an external point of view, they may seem less important. This reaches down into the very basic aspects of daily life: one will rarely find an Opus Dei member, for example, who is sloppy in dress or personal appearance. Within Opus Dei there is an enormous attention paid to what are usually called "the little things," meaning the small tasks of daily living that, from the point of view of eternity, take on an enormous significance. The old bit of wisdom rings true in a special way for Opus Dei members: "If something's worth doing, it's worth doing well."
...one never knows where prayer ends and the rest of life begins.
If lived properly, being a contemplative in the middle of the world means that one never knows where prayer ends and the rest of life begins. To return to Father Clemente, it's not that, from his point of view, our drive into the Andes included a few moments of prayer. It's rather that the entire experience was a prayer, and a few moments of it were explicitly phrased as such through saying the rosary.