A Life in Opus Dei
By Maria del Carmen Tapia
Continuum. 364 pp. $29.95

Go to the first chapter of "Beyond the Threshold"

Go to Chapter One

The Way of the Faithful

By Paul Baumann
Sunday, August 10, 1997; Page X11
The Washington Post

This book features a beautiful, intelligent and suggestible young woman, a ranting, sexually obsessed leader, cadres of "fanatical" followers, sadomasochistic disciplines, international intrigue, betrayal, psychological torture, banishment and continued persecution. In short, all the ingredients for a first-rate thriller -- let alone a fascinating spiritual autobiography. (Think of what Saint Augustine did with a few purloined pears!) So why is Maria del Carmen Tapia's chronicle of her nearly 20 years in the controversial (read authoritarian, theologically conservative, secretive and allegedly power hungry) Catholic organization Opus Dei so dull?

One reason is that the author can't bear to leave anything out -- any slight, any dreary chore, or (more amusingly) any pair of "piercing dark eyes." Her story begins in 1947, when her employer at a Spanish intellectual journal introduced her to Opus Dei ("the Work of God"), what the Roman Catholic Church calls a "secular institute" working in the highest echelons of the church and now elevated to a "personal prelature." In the fashion of "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," Tapia discovers that many of the people she works with in her secular job are associated with the mysterious religious group. (Opus Dei's ties to Franco's government were informal but extensive, especially with the Spanish Ministry of Education.) Encouraged by her boss, Tapia is drawn toward "the great adventure: to give up everything without getting anything in return; to conquer the world for Christ's church; a contemplative life through one's everyday work; to be missionaries, without being called such."

Breaking with her fiance and going against her parents' wishes, Tapia commits herself to a rigorous life of celibacy, asceticism and proselytizing. Absolute trust and obedience are demanded by her religious superiors. She rises quickly through the hierarchy, "becoming a secretary to Monsignor Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, Opus Dei's Spanish-born founder, and eventually is appointed to head the "women's section" in Venezuela. Separation of the sexes and subordination of women were essential aspects of Escriva's "macho" ethos. For women members, building "the work" entailed maintaining a growing number of residences (just reading about all the cleaning, ironing, cooking and waxing is enough to convert one to secular humanism) and ceaselessly trolling for new recruits. According to Tapia, Opus Dei set its eye on the intellectual elite, the well-to-do, and the socially prominent.

There are "various ways to belong to Opus Dei's "apostolate in ordinary life," including roles for married couples. Tapia became a "numerary" or full-time member. She took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, lived in women's residences, attended Mass daily, went to an Opus Dei priest for confession every week, submitted to "conferences" in which her behavior was scrupulously examined, practiced self-flagellation, and was under constant surveillance, just as she kept a pious and wary eye on those around her. In retrospect, Tapia uses the terms "police state" and "totalitarian" to describe her austere and regimented life. She accepted it all as part of her ongoing "spiritual formation." In retrospect, she characterizes the process as "the making of a fanatic," and Opus Dei as a sect animated by a cult-like veneration of Escriva.

Opus Dei's claim to originality is that it has taken the traditional devotional practices of a religious order (Jesuits, Franciscans, etc.) and made them available in a compelling way to those in the secular world. In other words, of Opus Dei's reportedly 75,000 members, fewer than 2,000 are priests, while the rest are "lay" lawyers, doctors, engineers and presumably even butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. This worldly religiosity was the brainchild of Escriva (1902-1975), author of the instructional spiritual work "The Way" (1935). Escriva was beatified, many say with undue haste, by Pope John Paul II in 1992. Beatification is the second of three steps in declaring someone a saint. As Tapia notes, Opus Dei is reported to have exploited its influence with the Vatican during the vetting of claims for Escriva's saintliness.

The reader of this book will conclude that Opus Dei is not what it piously claims to be, but he or she will be disappointed in Tapia as well. Beyond the Threshold's constant barrage of unfamiliar names and rehash of the minutiae of the author's life reads like an interminable entry in an alumni magazine. In fact, as Tapia reveals some 238 pages into the book, she wrote much of this account 30 years ago as "an exercise in mental health" after Escriva expelled her following a Kafkaesque juridical proceeding.

Tapia has a disturbing story to tell, one of potentially serious concern for the Roman Catholic Church, where Opus Dei has been favored greatly by the current pope. But because she has failed to tell her story well, her heartfelt warnings are not likely to reach those who most need to hear them.

Paul Baumann is executive editor of Commonweal Magazine.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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