Mortification is for Wimps

In the Four Failures, I mentioned this group Opus Dei, “The Work of God”, and I called them the shining favored example of Catholicism as Obedience. Recently, the group has accelerated its quiet recruiting at Calvert House and on the University of Chicago campus. Well, less quietly now that there’s no priest. I guess this is fitting, given that the first American cell was established near the University of Chicago. Given this place, that doesn’t surprise me. As you might expect, I strongly oppose the group. I can give procedural reasons – a special structure outside every other rule of the church; the personality cult around “Our Father”; restrictions in reading and mail; some leaders’ support of the Franco regime. Those are all important, particularly given my interest in high pressure religious groups and mind control, but the Lenten series of reflections is supposed to be on faith and practice. Instead, I want to critique three points where the group explicitly fails to follow its mandate. According to the propaganda, the group is primarily for ordinary lay people, and tries to act in the world. Here’s a quote from the founder cited on the official webpage:

“Ordinary life can be holy and full of God … Our Lord is calling us to sanctify the ordinary tasks of every day, for the perfection of the Christian is to be found precisely there.”

One of the things about critiques is that it invariably tells much about the critiquer, what he or she finds important. By saying X and Y and Z are malformed, I’m defining not X and not Y and not Z as good practice, as normative. (A normative act is not only well-ordered for an individual, but also should become common practice, the norm.) In this case, that’s precisely the point. Twelve fruits, particularly the musings, is about me; what I do, I think, I believe. Some of what I post is more objective and less personal, like about church seating or courtship or even romanticism. This is not one of those pieces. I’m defining my normative Catholicism in stark opposition to the Escrivites.

  • Secrecy: When I meet someone at a Catholic event who belongs to a religious order, even as a postulant, he tends to bring up his group quickly. In faith type situations it’s important enough to mention, and the people have confidence to do so. Do Opus Dei members do the same? Not that I know. Potential members are even encouraged to not discuss their decision with others, including parents. Are they even decent enough to put signage or religious symbols in front of their New York headquarters? Apparently not. Even their
    official descriptive website article
    does not give the address. I had to search pretty hard through the site to find an address on this page, which is apparently only good if you want to report an intercession. (Also, I think it lists a secondary entrance.) For your information, the almost 50 million dollar building is at Lexington Avenue and East 34th Street, 243 Lexington Avenue.
    I won’t argue that the group should publish a public list of its members. That’s too much. But there’s something lacking in not publishing leaders, phone numbers, and locations of local chapters. Christians are called, according to Matthew 28, to go and make disciples of all the nations, to witness. That involves public proclamation, for how else will the nations know? Not listing addresses or buildings is not witnessing for the group, which supposedly seeks to help people live up to their Christian calling, and supposedly has a universal call. If I had a great way to live my Christian life, I would want to tell everyone, or at the very least every Christian. Yet they don’t seem to do that. Maybe it’s just isn’t so great.
  • Sexuality: Opus Dei has a deformed viewpoint on the concept of sexuality and relations between men and women. Usually sexuality in Catholicism refers to chastity, the condition of being pure, decent, and modest. Often, even chastity gets reduced, to abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage and then fidelity afterwards. That’s a starting point, which I fulfill. But chastity and sexuality encompass more than avoiding penetration. It’s working with women, hanging out, talking, courting, praying; acting in the world. The world has lots of women and lots of men, roughly half each. I need to deal with both halves.
    Look first at the system of Opus Dei. Men and women are kept sequestered; they have different leadership and different structures. That’s not unusual in churches – well, evangelical fundamentalist churches, with Men and Women’s Ministry. Though I bet the group wouldn’t consider that a flattering comparison, their system goes further. I could quote from various writings about how women have inflamed passions, need to be tamed, and so on, but someone could contest context and translation. Besides, I like to focus on actions over words; in this case, the design of the headquarters. The architects, May and Pinska, talk about the challenges given them in this article. The construction went much farther than different ministries. They were asked to build separate entrances for men an women, on separate streets, complete with separate on-site parking for men and women. (I wonder what happens if a visitor accidentally parks in the wrong lot.) This also explains the different intercession address above, and it doesn’t surprise me that tracking prayers became woman’s work. Inside, the architects describe the request for “separation visually and acoustically of men and women within the building.” The retreat center at the top is used alternatively, no mixed groups. No mixed conversation, no multiple gender prayer, no learning from the other sex. Celibacy is enforced through removal and denial. That’s not in the world at all.
    Sexuality is much more complicated than separation. First, there’s the call to marriage for many people. I’m a single guy, and I admit moments of concupiscence, temptation to sexual sin. I can get distracted by short skirts, and I have thought of how certain women would look in a bikini. Am I going to solve that problem by avoiding women? Not at all; imagination rolls right past reality. Maybe some people struggle so much with sexual concupiscence that they should avoid situations with the other sex. They should steer clear. But in no way can that be normative. We humans were made with appreciation of attractiveness and beauty and romantic love. Has anyone read the Bible lately? Like the Song of Songs? Scholars have tried to deny the human focus, interpreting it as God and church. That’s a shame. Go read it. The first verse is “Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth!” Later, “your eyes are doves behind your veil.” “Your lips are like a scarlet strand; your mouth is lovely.” It’s a spectacular view of romantic love; the bride and the groom talk about anticipation, and being chaste, and waiting for one another. Catholic romantic sexuality would be greatly improved by reading it.
    Sexuality also includes how we treat one another, for not all people are called to marriage, but all deal with women and men. Sure, there are differences between XX and XY, but there are many more similarities. I form friendships of both genders, depending on the qualities of each individual person. A majority of my friends right now are female. This makes logical sense, since I have a strong social worker streak. We (I and my male and female friends) talk; we eat; we discuss faith; we pray; we console each other; we assist each other; we hug and touch and live together. I can do all these things and still remain celibate and modest. I don’t want to lose half the world because of a chromosome. That’s what separation does, a grave shame, and it cannot be normative.
  • Mortification: The most intimate members, the numeraries, do physical harm to themselves. This point is not in doubt. They whip themselves at least weekly with a small cord, displayed through the link, a discipline. Many also wear a metal chain around their thigh, a cilice, for two hours a day. Despite some worries, the practice is not physically dangerous, a false criticism. There is historical tradition as well, and no statute forbids the practice. Thus, it’s legal. Yet there is no reason that any person in this current world should physically damage themselves. If the idea is self-punishment or penance, this is sinful. The flagellant has either taken vengeance into hand, a point reserved to God, or attempted to complete reconciliation privately, outside the Catholic guidelines about penance. This also leads very quickly into self-destructive behavior, denying that our bodies are temples of the Lord to be kept whole and in good shape. (Some defend mortification by saying it’s less painful than gym workouts. This is likely true, and some people do punishment via treadmill. But others, like myself, look at healthiness as part of God’s mandate. Gym work keeps my body, my gift from the Lord, in proper shape, while beating it does not.)
    The most common defense is purification through sacrifice. This is completely incorrect, based on a terribly misguided sense of sacrifice and suffering. Sacrifice is the denial of pleasure. Suffering is the assumption of pain. They are very different. For instance, not eating meat on Friday is sacrifice, despite what a Texan might claim. Fish or pasta or cereal can easily substitute without damaging the body, perhaps even improving part of God’s creation. Some things are borderline, like sleeping on a board instead of a mattress. There is extra goodness in a plush bed, so as long as it doesn’t hurt a back or lead to fatigue things are acceptable. On the other hand, whipping oneself does not reduce pleasure; it causes pain. That’s creating suffering. That is sinful.
    Yes, I said sinful. There is so much suffering, so much pain in the world right now that voluntary creating more sins against those in pain. It’s showing a lack of knowledge about people, likely from that secrecy and splitting of the world. Look at my last year, for instance. As a matter of fact, we’re called to relieve suffering, not cause it. Matthew 25 lists the tasks on which we’ll be judged; feed the hungry, hydrate the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the ill, visit the prisoner. Spend time whipping oneself? Not on that list.

Wearing the cilice shows that Opus Dei is not committed to sanctifying ordinary tasks and the ordinary world. Through excessive secrecy, they not only deny the stranger, but also lose track of life. Through malformed sexuality, they not only deny true chastity, but also shrink away from potentially valuable relationships. They can’t realize the needs of the world, because they’re not part of it, and thus must resort to pain creation. To me, it looks like fear. It looks like a six-year-old, perhaps Calvin (and Hobbes), with a secret clubhouse and worries about cooties. That immature fear builds the title of this piece – Mortification is for Wimps.

True strength comes from striding forth, talking with people male and female, speaking the Gospel and trying to relieve their pain. That’s my normative Christianity. It’s what I try to live. Know what? I’m inventing a new practice, the AntiMortification. Instead of whips, there are hugs. Instead of the cilice, there is the flower. Instead of fraternal correction, there is fraternal praise. Instead of private holding pain, there is public relieving suffering.
The other way might be favored now, but I (at least according to the Chrism Mass Gospel, Luke 4) have the truer work of God.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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One Response to Mortification is for Wimps

  1. John says:

    Dear Adam, I agree with most of your observations about secrecy in Opus Dei and your remarks regarding mortification and chastity. But I beg to differ on a number of points. 1) you have apparently acquired a healthy amount of self control–that is, in your platonic interactions with women. Let me begin by qualifying myself. I am not a member of Opus Dei, though I have participated on “Days of re?ollection” (exposopsition and adoration of the Eucharist followed by a brief homily and perhaps an anecdote from the life of Saint Josemaria Escriva) as well a four day retreats at an Opus Dei Center (in my case the Murray Hill building in midtown Manhattan).
    I agree that to some extent at least the protocols and practices may appear to promote deformed views of human sexuality: but to be fair, let’s put things in perspective. The Murray Hill Center on 34th St. is a few blocks from porno shops–midtown is rife with them–a lot of young men are bombarded by the opportunity of casual sex–both heterosexual and homosexual–which thinks nothing of going for a drink with a girl before engaging in the most initiate of acts with her (or him) without even having exchanged names. Any organization that promotes mindfulness concerning sexuality, chastity or celibacy, if discerned as appropriate, is welcome. So-called catholic groups, including “singles” groups do indeed promote drinking, which leads inevitably to casual sex, with its tremendous repercussions of unwanted pregnancy, marriage without love, the contraction of venereal disorders, as well as ruined courtships and relationships between men, as well as chaste men and women who may be in the process of discerning holy orders. There is no question that numerararies are–unfortunately like the priesthood– filled with celibate homosexuals. No one can chastise them for that. Personally, I sometimes feel that if married men were welcomed into the priesthood there may have been less sexual abuse of children. Let’s face it. People are sinners, and regardless of their intentions, human sexuality is complex, as is its sublimation. Is it any wonder then that priest often find their natural sexual desires unnaturally directed at children or men (in seminary, etc.) I feel that the culture of celibacy is well-intentioned but underestimates the weaknesses of the flesh and the depravity of our sinful nature. Opus Dei is culturally Spanish and conservative, and in many respects the manner in which they dispense duties between men and women may also seem so. The ideal of Catholic family life has been rendered all but impossible by the demands of a market economy and the cost of raising a family. Try finding a catholic family that does not use birth control (of any kind–including coitus interruptus, which, as we know, are sins). I think the Prelature which has among its members celibate numeraries are right to create such segregated environments–for whatever reason they feel an apostolic call to celibacy, which is not a vow, and can be broken if necessary. As far as supernumeraries are concerned, they are married members of Opus Dei, and presumably do not have a “deformed” sense –to use your words–of human sexuality. So, I believe, that a lot of the young single men I’ve met in Opus Dei are probably 1) homosexual 2) heterosexual, but anxious to avoid premarital sex and do spend time with the opposite sex, as instructed by Opus Dei priests, peers, and spiritual advisors. Many whose vocation for married life is clear are encouraged to pursue relationships with women, but to avoid prolonged courtships, and avoid premarital intimacy (as well as pornography). All this is great advice. Opus Dei priests are either hand picked among existing numeraries–after some time–and are asked by their bishop to join the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross. Diocesan priests, whether Jesuit or Carmelite or what have you can apply to become Opus Dei priests. Apparently, being in an order does not preclude, in canon law anyway, becoming a member of the Prelature. Spiritually, it is complicated; but it assumed that any advanced disciple/apostle can recognize where his or her true vocation lies and how to reconcile any seeming spiritual inconsistencies, if any, which may arise. I am of course a novice, but strongly believe that involvement in Opus Dei can only strengthen ones Catholic faith, which in today’s day and age can be difficult. Yes, it does sometimes seem a bit cultish, but that may be more due to the world and its fearful misunderstanding of Opus Dei than the Prelature per se. Opus Dei is very circumspect in its spirituality and in its theological orientation: around oneself and his relation to others, his work, and Christ, and to his call to be like Christ, that is, to be or become a saint in the world. Is mortification involved in this process? I would dare say it is! Jesus himself fasted and prayed for forty days and nights and Satan was still brazen enough to tempt our Lord. Perhaps, it is true that mortification is a more European practice, perfected to some extent by the Italians and Spanish who are familiar with the cilice and the flog. It is true that mortification should never become extreme or harmful, physically or psychologically, and that while I would agree that suffering ought to be limited for spiritual purposes to the absence of pleasure, that so long as pleasure is not found within mortifying pain–a phenomenon common in our sadomasochistic culture–then pain itself whether self-inflected or not, can have spiritual value, insofar as that in mortifying the flesh which so often contradicts our resolves, as Paul notes in Romans, we fortify such resolve and become more attuned to resisting temptation, rather than adopting Oscar Wilde’s method, that is, to rid of temptation by yielding to it. Also, in mortification we can identify our own pains and tribulations with the passion of our Lord, and become less enamored by comfort and luxury, which lead of course to spiritual if not physical sloth, and the other deadly sins which promise perdition. A little mortification, though perhaps culturally unacceptable, should not necessarily be dismissed outright. After all, the world has become once again much like Sodom and Nineveh, because man has given in to his every want and desire, and thereby forgotten God in the process. He has become defiled in his mind and in his soul such that he is possibly beyond repair, for even when the Holy Spirit intervenes, there is some cultural relic to cynically remind him that Jesus and his resurrection are phantasms and that we may as well drink, be merry and sleep with whom we may (in fact, as is now the case, marry them). Catholics like us are in danger of becoming increasingly marginalized in a world that does not welcome our good news. Indeed, it may one day cost us our heads, as the infidel lurks closer both from within and without. I appreciate your criticisms of Opus Dei; but, I dare say that indeed they are doing “God’s Work!” And that the world is better for it. Perhaps you might read a little about this group: I recommend John Allen’s objective book, and possibly a biography of Saint Josemaria, and one of his many books of aphorisms. He was a true saint, and learning about Opus Dei, though initially forbidding and mysterious, is now seen to be open, inviting and generous. Thank you. In Christ, John Sebastian

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