Making Modern-Day Martyrs using Medieval Methods

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by Sharon Clasen, Former Numerary

While many Catholic religious organizations now question whether corporal mortification brings a person closer to God, the lay organization Opus Dei embraces corporal mortification in their program of making modern-day martyrs. The use of the cilice, a barbed-wire chain worn around the groin for two hours each day and the disciplines, a flagellation device, is well-documented by former numerary (celibate) members. And Opus Dei’s 1950 Constitutions, whose operational and governing paragraphs are still in effect say:

“They conserve faithfully the pious custom of chastisement of the body to keep it in a state of servitude, by wearing a small cilice for at least two hours a day, taking the discipline and sleeping on the floor once a week, making adequate provision to safeguard the health.” [1]

Yet Opus Dei continues to downplay their use saying that “It’s just like getting the body in shape for a marathon,” or by saying that "only the unusually ardent members use them." While running and exercising have obvious health benefits for the body, Opus Dei’s fundamental objective of corporal mortification is the killing of the body -- as the Latin roots of the words suggest -- because the body is an obstacle between the soul and God. Escriva taught “Paradox: To live one must die.” (The Way, #187) [2]

I found out to what extreme this philosophy is carried out when I began to have doubts about my numerary vocation after living in an Opus Dei center for two years. They assigned me a new spiritual director to get me back on track with my life-long commitment to the organization. She was the same age as me, 24. She took me on pilgrimages, and I explained to her that I wanted to leave because I wanted to get married some day. She laughed and told me that the lives of the supernumeraries were far worse and that “men are jerks in pants.” In addition to spending more time with me than our usual weekly fraternal chat, she assigned me the following spiritual reading:

  1. St. Theresa of Avila’s autobiography, where she wrote, “I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form . . . He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest types of angel who seem to be all afire. . . In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire for the great love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.” [3] Her words inspired Bernini's marble sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Therese (1646), located inside the Cornaro Chapel of the baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome. [4]
  2. The secret internal document in which Fr. Alvaro del Portillo describes an incident which happened while he and Escriva were hiding in the Madrid’s Honduran consulate in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. This testimony is recounted in Andrea Tornielli’s book on Escriva and is translated by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter, ““Escriva would ask for the use of the bedroom alone when it was time for his spiritual practices. Once, however, his chief aide, Fr. Alvaro del Portillo (who would later succeed Escriva as head of Opus Dei), was sick and could not leave the room. Escriva thus told Portillo to cover his head with his blanket. Portillo described what followed: ‘Soon I began to hear the forceful blows of his discipline. I will never forget the number: there were more than a thousand terrible blows, precisely timed, and always inflicted with the same force and the same rhythm. The floor was covered with blood, but he cleaned it up before the others came in.’” [5]

What first attracted me to Opus Dei was the message that ordinary Christians could sanctify their work in the middle of the world. However, this new knowledge about ecstasies and cruel self-mutilation confused me. I thought I had joined a lay organization, but more and more it was revealing itself to me to be a religious organization. It went against my nature to do violence to myself as Escriva had done, but I dismissed my inner voice and trusted the judgment of my spiritual director. Trying to emulate the founder, I found some tiny metal safety pins and pressed them into the knots of my whip in order to inflict more pain. Feeling guilty for doubting my vocation, I whipped my back with more pain as a way to punish myself. While it is true that some who have suffered much pain have achieved greatness, it is also true that great suffering can cripple people inside. Those who become crippled might believe that they would not be able to survive in the world without Opus Dei’s walking stick.

Following are two testimonies from other former numeraries regarding their experiences with corporal mortification.

1. From “Whips, Spiked Garters and Bloodshed... My Terrifying Life in Ruth Kelly’s Religious Sect”, by John Roche, The Mail on Sunday, UK, January 23, 2005 [6]

”As a member of Opus Dei, I was expected to undertake a weekly discipline of private self-flagellation 40 strokes with a waxed, corded whip. We were encouraged to 'draw a little blood' and frequently told how 'the Father' the founder of the organisation drew so much blood that he spattered the walls and ceiling with it.

I loathed it but my conscience gnawed at me to take it more frequently. When I asked if I could increase the number of times I carried out the practice I secretly hoped that permission would be refused.

Instead, it was granted enthusiastically and, for the next 13 years, I took this discipline three times a week.”

2. From “The Bitter History of a Numerary in Opus Dei”, by Agustina López de los Mozos Muñoz, Marie Claire magazine, December of 1988. (rough translation by Sharon Clasen) [7]

As much as I could, I went around adjusting myself to the idea that now I was not a “normal” person, even though they insisted over and over that we were normal. Each new thing that they told me to start living distanced me from the idea that I was normal.

One afternoon, I entered the bedroom of a numerary and, since there was no chair, I sat down on the bed and felt something hard. I felt a sharp blow. Was it me? Where had I just sat? The numerary who was with me laughed.

- Did you hurt yourself?
- A little. But what kind of a bed is this?
- Well, you see, we numeraries sleep on top of a table, without a pillow, that has a certain height that when covered with a bedspread looks like a normal bed in case someone passes by who is not in the Work.
- And why do we sleep on a table?
- The Father says that the women need to keep their bodies in check, that they should not give them certain comforts because it is a source of temptation.

I raised the bedspread, and, indeed, there was a blanket covering a table instead of a mattress. On top of this were the sheets.

The first day I slept on the table, I passed the night in vigilance. The only position that it allows is laying on your back and you can not turn part way because your bones dig into you, and it’s even harder to sleep on your stomach. You have to imagine what it would be like to sleep on the floor. But, after several months, you get used to it. Still I needed to find out about the other detail related to the bed; rather, to the pillow. It was in one of so many of those talks, where they explained to us the custom of the Work: the watch day. One day a week, each numerary feels as if she is in charge, spiritually, of the rest of the people of the Work and she must make a special mortification, in addition to praying more than usual. On her watch day, she uses a phone book for a pillow. The combination of the table and the telephone book is a difficult experience to explain.

Another day, also by chance, being with a numerary in the office who worked inside the dormitory, I saw that she removed from the closet a tin, which looked like one filled with chocolates or caramels. I asked her if she would give me one, and she told me it was empty. I heard something move inside, and since I felt as if I was close to her, I asked her what was inside. She looked at me with a mocking smile, telling me that she could not tell me, because it would have to be my director who could explain it to me, but since I had brought the topic up . . . I opened the box and took out a very strange belt; it was of braided wire, with the points not filed down on the inside. And taking it by one of the two ribbons tied onto each end, she picked it up, and told me, “This is a cilice.”
- Excuse me?
- Daughter, a cilice. Haven’t you ever seen one?
- I promise you no.
- Well, the numeraries use it for two hours every day.

At that moment, I didn’t know how they could have used the cilice for two hours every day, because I had seen many numeraries and never had I seen this strange belt.
- Look, you put the points facing the thigh, at the height of groin, and you tie it on with the ends of the ribbons.
- I don’t believe it.
- Yes, seriously; it’s another norm; two hours every day, minus Sundays and church holidays.
- But you must put it on the flat side, because those points!
- That depends on the generosity of each one. The normal way to do it is to make it a corporal mortification, and if you are going to do it, you do it well. You have to squeeze it as much as you can. You wear it under your skirt and no one will notice.

From then on, they gave me my cilice and I put it on for two hours every day. One day on one leg, and the next on the other. When I took it off, I noticed points that were starting to appear in my flesh, leaving me full of small bloody wounds, one from every point. The next day, I would use the cilice on the other groin, and in that way, it would leave one day in the middle for me to heal. But I never finished healing. The worst was in the summer because since our dormitory had a pool, my bathing suit didn’t cover the wounds. And since we all used it, it was not good to show the marks of your penance. For that reason, also, the numeraries wore bathing suits with little skirts - like those worn by pregnant women or our grandmothers. I remember that during those weeks, instead of putting it on my groin, I attached it to my waist. In that way, the tracks stayed better hidden and the pain was not so strong. I imagine that I was not the only one that this occurred to because in one of our talks, the director insisted that the cilice be worn on the groin, and not anywhere else. So I stopped putting it on my waist.

[Definition of groin in the American Heritage Dictionary: “the crease or hollow at the junction of the inner part of each thigh with the trunk, together with the adjacent region and often including the external genitals.”]

It was necessary to wear it inside the house; which is to say that no one could go out onto the street wearing it. The reason they told me was that it would be shocking if someone had an accident and someone took me to the hospital. The danger of wearing it in the house was if someone bumped into you in a hallway and bumped you in the exact place where you were wearing the cilice. In those situations, you smiled forcibly and remembered the family of the person who had bumped into you. Sitting with a cilice fastened to your groin was also not something to be laughed at. Once you had positioned yourself, it would not occur to you to get up for anything in the world. And with all manner of naturalness, without losing your smile, which is your very good spirit.

I learned about the "disciplines" after being in the Work for a little more than one year. It is another form of corporal mortification. It is a whip made of cord that ends in little points. It is used on Saturdays, and only on Saturdays. You go into the bathroom, lower your underwear, and on knees, you whip your buttocks during the time it takes to pray a “Salve.” I have to say that I recited the “Salve” at one hundred per hour, because the cracks of the whip on such a painful area leave the skin [in carne viva] for much of the time while you are reciting your prayer.

I had already left the house of my parents, not without any problems for that reason, and lived in a center of The Work. There was not a day that I did not find out about a new "custom" or a "norm" that the numeraries live, and they have to live them to such an extent that, if they do not do it, must confess for that reason, although objectively is not a sin nor a serious offense.

- It is good spirit to always shower with cold water...
- Good, but in the summer.
- In the summer and in the winter; if not, what merit would it have?

And after the night on the table and with the telephone directory for a pillow, in the winter, to the frozen shower. More than once, I thought that an infarct was near. But I survived. Now I doubt if my hygiene was complete because in one minute I showered myself from head to toe."

In closing, I would like to ask the reader if the above testimonies sound like the lives of ordinary people in the middle of the world. Opus Dei insists that they are not a religious organization, yet they are run by priests and they continue to hand out cilices and disciplines to new recruits. From the above testimonies, one can see how it is possible that the use of corporal mortification in Opus Dei can lead to abuse and perhaps even infection. But since Opus Dei does not have the oversight of the local bishops, and because they use their own internal medical doctors, there are no checks and balances. Opus Dei's smiling talking heads only show the glossy magazine images to the mainstream media, and they cover up the hidden truths by dismissing the criticism of former members with the wave of a hand as if to make them disappear. But as the Opus Dei priest in Roberto Bolaño's novella By Night in Chile confesses, "little by little the truth begins to rise like a dead body.” [8]


[1] Opus Dei 1950 Constitutions.doc, #260

[2] The Way by Josemaria Escriva, Point #187

[3] The Life of Teresa of Jesus, The Autobiography of Teresa of Avila, translated and edited by E. Allison Peers, from the Critical Edition of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D., 1565, p. 164. St. Teresa was born in 1515. Her mother died when she was 14, and she entered the Carmelite Convent in Avila, Spain in 1536 when she was 20.

[4] The Ecstasy of Saint Therese (1646), located inside the Cornaro Chapel of the baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

[5] "Incomprehensions about Opus Dei," by John L. Allen, Jr., National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002

[6] “Whips, Spiked Garters and Bloodshed . . . My Terrifying Life in Ruth Kelly’s Religious Sect,” by John Roche, The Mail on Sunday, UK, January 23, 2005

[7] From La historia amarga de una numeraria del Opus Dei (The Bitter History of a Numerary in Opus Dei) by Agustina López de los Mozos Muñoz, Marie Claire magazine, December of 1988. (rough translation by Sharon Clasen)

[8] By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolano, Chris Andrews (Translator), New Directions Publishing Corporation, December, 2003. A surreal Chilean novella about the death-bed confessions of an Opus Dei priest who lived under Pinochet's rule.

After posting this article, another former numerary sent me this quote, which I thought was fitting:

"The idea that one has to undergo years of superhuman trials, be walled up behind convent walls or kill oneself with various ascetical practices before one can aspire to contemplation is a Jansenistic attitude or, at the very least, an inadequate presentation of the Christian tradition. On the contrary, the sooner contemplative prayer can be experienced, the sooner one will perceive the direction toward which the spiritual journey is tending. From that intuition will come the motivation to make all the sacrifices required to persevere in the journey."

Source: Thomas Keating, Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian Contemplative Life (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc., 2002), p. 27.