My Nightmarish Experience in Opus Dei
by Sharon Clasen, Former Numerary
After I left Opus Dei, I had nightmares almost every night for ten years. Opus Dei, a lay organization approved by the Catholic Church, claims to do the work of God, but their methods compare to those described in Steve Hassan's Combatting Cult Mind Control. Hassan breaks mind control down into four components: behavior, information, thought and emotional control. After I describe how I gradually got lured into Opus Dei, I will show from my personal experiences how they used these techniques to control my life.
My involvement with Opus Dei began innocently with the recommendation of a friend that I look into Bayridge Residence as a housing solution. I was a naive and idealistic freshman at Boston College when I applied to live at Bayridge. All I knew about Opus Dei was that they ran the spiritual activities at the residence. After I moved in, I started to have doubts about being able to afford living there. The director of Bayridge admissions, who was a numerary (celibate member), and whom I will call Maria, assured me that God would provide the necessary means for me to live at Bayridge. Upon her recommendation, and for the first time in my life, I prayed over this decision, and when I did find a part-time job, I was led to believe that my moving into Bayridge was providential. Soon after moving in, Maria offered to give me Catechism classes toward the goal of my converting to Catholicism, and we started meeting on a weekly basis for this reason. She talked to me about God, the existence of guardian angels, and informed me that French kissing was a mortal sin. She paid a lot of attention to me; for example, from time to time, she would even leave little chocolates for me on my pillow. Another resident, whom I'll call Anna, who had graduated from The Willows Academy, a college-prep school, whose overall religious education is entrusted to Opus Dei, befriended me and also took me under her wing. Anna would invite me to go to mass with her during the week, and taught me the necessary prayers and gestures to follow along. She also invited me to attend my first meditation, and my first retreat, where I learned all about hell. With much encouragement from Maria, Anna and many other residents, I prepared to receive my First Communion. On this day, I was showered with gifts, cards and congratulations saying how I had been specially chosen by God to receive his graces.
This special treatment culminated with an invitation to travel to Rome during Holy Week as part of an Opus Dei-sponsored group UNIV. I did not realize that this trip was designed specifically for recruiting members to Opus Dei. Both Maria and Anna accompanied me to Rome. I was one of a select few in our group who received a special ticket to attend an Easter Vigil celebrated by the Pope. Maria tried talking to me about joining Opus Dei while visiting the crypt of the founder of Opus Dei, but I delayed my decision because of the pressure I felt during this week. However, she did not give up on me that easily. In May, Maria and the director of Bayridge, also a numerary, invited me and some of my other Bayridge friends to a weekend getaway at a cottage in New Hampshire in order to live "the spirit of Opus Dei." We did not have to worry about any of the preparations. The administration even packed all of our nice groceries. I remember wearing a white suit on Sunday, the same one I had worn to the Easter vigil in Rome. During a private chat with the director, she complimented me on how pretty I looked in the suit. She told me that when she joined Opus Dei as a numerary, she cried and cried because she had wanted to have a baby, but now God had rewarded her because she felt as if I were a daughter to her. Soon after, I joined as a supernumerary, a member who can get married and have a family. They told me not to become a numerary right away, not until I had more spiritual formation.
As a supernumerary, I started to feel the control Opus Dei was having in my life. When I started to date as a sophomore, the director asked me what my boyfriend and I talked about, and told me not to discuss religion or Opus Dei with him. She advised me to have him contact someone in the men's branch. Since I was still in the honeymoon stage of my new vocation, I did not understand why I should have to suppress talking about my life in Opus Dei, but I blindly obeyed. While I was spending my junior year abroad at the University of Navarre in Pamplona, Spain, which is openly run by Opus Dei, my spiritual director recommended that I try to befriend English-speaking students who were not familiar with Opus Dei, and invite them to the English mass on Sundays at one of the university chapels. I felt torn about this because I was trying to learn Spanish and wanted to make friends with the Spaniards in my classes.
After returning home from Spain for my senior year, Maria was influencing me to become a numerary. In her talks, she discussed the higher calling of a numerary. Her message was clear -- supernumeraries were necessary, but unless you were a numerary, you were not giving everything you could to God. In my fraternal chats with her, she told me repeatedly that I should make myself available to the will of God. Wanting to do His will, I finally gave in to the pressure and became a numerary in May 1985. The directors told me not to tell my family that I had joined since "they would not understand." In the fall, I moved back into Bayridge. Several days after joining, the director took me aside and handed me a small blue-flowered hand-sewn bag filled with a cilice, a spiked chain worn around the thigh for two hours a day. The bag also contained a small whip called the disciplines used to whip the back or buttocks. Up until this point, mention of these instruments of self-inflicted torture had been downplayed, and now reality was starting to set in.
But it was not until I moved into Brimfield, the Opus Dei Center of Studies for numerary women in Newton, Massachusetts, that I started to feel that my freedoms were being openly restricted. According to Hassan, the first component of mind control is behavior control, which "is the regulation of an individual's physical reality. It includes the control of his environment - where he lives, what clothing he wears, what food he eats, how much sleep he gets - as well as of the jobs, rituals and other actions he performs." The atmosphere at Brimfield, where I began the two-year course comparable to a seminary (we had classes in theology, philosophy, Latin and Spanish, and Opus Dei) was strikingly different from that of Bayridge. Now, I had to ask permission to meet with my sister, with whom I was very close and was often met with discouragement, and my whole schedule was regulated. The director told me I would have to wean myself from my family because Opus Dei was my family now.
Opus Dei does not reveal all of the lifestyle changes numeraries make before they join. On the day I moved in, I found out that we were supposed to get rid of old family photographs and that we slept on a slab of plywood placed on top of our mattress. We were also supposed to sleep without a pillow one night/week as well. Every night at 6:00 pm, we sat down to dinner, and were expected to eat what was on our plate. On several occasions I asked my spiritual director if I could skip dessert as some of my clothes were tightening to the point where the director bluntly told me that I needed to start wearing a girdle. She told me to choose some other corporal mortification instead so I felt forced to eat the dessert. After gaining weight - I'm not sure how much since there was no scale in the house - the director sent me out shopping with the assistant director. She picked out skirts for me which were two sizes larger than my old ones. When I was a member, female numeraries were not allowed to wear pants, except while exercising. Soon after moving in, I was told that Opus Dei would like for me to leave my job at Boston University and work full-time for Bayridge Residence as their public relations coordinator. The directors always talked about the founder's need to have more members in the field of communications.
The second component of mind control is control of information. Hassan says, "information is the fuel we use to keep our minds working properly. Deny a person the information he requires to make sound judgments, and he will be incapable of doing so." At Brimfield, we had to check all books, articles, newspapers, and magazines with the director, who kept the Index of Forbidden Books under lock and key in her office. In his book of spiritual advice, The Way, the founder says in point 339, "Books. Don't buy them without advice from a Catholic who has real knowledge and discernment. It's so easy to buy something useless or harmful. How often a man thinks he is carrying a book under his arm, and it turns out to be a load of trash." One of my housemates, who was in the Honors Program at Boston College, could not read most of the books on her lists. She said she prayed to the Holy Spirit for infused knowledge. She started developing nervous habits like pulling out her hair and eyelashes. We could not even watch television without a chaperone. For example, I became frustrated because I wanted to watch the local news to help with my job, but I was only allowed to watch the World News with Peter Jennings with the director sitting beside me. Some nights I would sneak upstairs to watch the 11:00 pm local news, but one night I got caught. Soon after, I was assigned to labor-intensive chapel duties, which included cutting and arranging flowers on the altar every night, and washing and ironing all of the priests' linen vestments and altar cloths, which took me most of Saturday to complete. While I was ironing in the basement, I felt like Cinderella, longing for my freedom.
The third component of mind control is thought control, which "includes indoctrinating members so thoroughly that they internalize the group doctrine, incorporate a new language system, and use thought-stopping techniques to keep their mind 'centered.'" In classes on Opus Dei, we were frequently reminded, "You are Opus Dei." Opus Dei refers to the indoctrination of their members as "formation." The means of formation in Opus Dei, which we were taught to embrace and be deeply appreciative of as "the way" to salvation, are divided into the following categories: those which occur on a daily basis (60 minutes of meditation, mass, recitation of the rosary and preces, 15 minutes of spiritual reading, examination of conscience at the end of the day), weekly basis (confession, fraternal chat with a director, circle or talk about a certain virtue), monthly basis (day of recollection), yearly basis (retreat and annual course) and some are considered "always," - like cheerfulness, obedience, and presence of God. For example, while we were commuting or walking, we were encouraged to say the rosary or other prayers. In addition to all of the above means of formation, we had classes every night of the week, so that we had absolutely no free time in order to think. Learning Spanish and Latin are very important in Opus Dei because all of the original documents from the founder are in Spanish, and many of the prayers, like the mass and the special Opus Dei prayer called "the preces" are recited in Latin. Quotes from the founder in The Way illustrate to what extent Opus Dei tries to control the thoughts of its members.
- Point 13, "Get rid of those useless thoughts which are at best a waste of time."
- Point 945, "You are badly disposed if you listen to the word of God with a critical spirit."
- Point 261, "I forbid you to think any more about it. Instead, bless God, who has given life back to your soul."
- Point 856, "Spiritual childhood demands submission of the mind, which is harder than submission of the will. In order to subject our mind we need not only God's grace, but a continual exercise of our will as well, denying the intellect over and over again, just as it says 'no' to the flesh."
Emotional control, the fourth method of mind control used by cults, "attempts to manipulate and narrow the range of a person's feelings. Guilt and fear are necessary tools to keep people under control." Opus Dei discourages numeraries from spending too much time with their natural families because this takes away from the "needs of Opus Dei." During the year I spent at Brimfield, it became an effort for me to meet with my sister because I was so busy and because Newton was farther away from Boston. One night I came home after dinner because I had met my sister, and the director scolded me in front of everyone. I started to grow discontent. I started speaking about my unhappiness with the director. Playing upon my fear of hell, she told me that leaving Opus Dei was like getting a divorce and that I would be excommunicated from the Catholic Church, without which I could not be saved. Also aware of my doubts, another numerary, whom I will refer to as Theresa, told me that she had a dream about the end of the world and that I received a sentence of two years in purgatory.
But it was a personal family crisis that made me realize to what extremes Opus Dei would go to control the emotions of numeraries. One Saturday night, I got a phone call from my mother, who told me that my sister was in the hospital due to an unfortunate accident. I wanted to rush to her side. I ran to find the director and tell her of the crisis. Showing absolutely no emotion, she told me that I would have to wait for Maria to finish her dinner and then she would drive me there. We were not allowed to visit our families without a chaperone. I had to wait for her to finish her dinner and her social cup of coffee. I thought it was very strange that no one else shared my sense of urgency and emotion. I returned that night to Bayridge, and was required to attend an all-day retreat on Sunday. At 4:00 pm, I returned to the hospital, but once again slept at Bayridge. On Monday morning, my aunt called me while I was working. She was quite upset. In a stern voice, she told me that my mother needed me now, and that I had better come home. At that very moment on the telephone with my aunt, I "snapped" out of their mind control. I went upstairs to pack my suitcase and I knew that I would never return.
Even after I did walk out the door, that was not the end of my experience with Opus Dei and their attempts to control my life. After a couple of days, the director called me and asked when I would be returning. I said that I was not. She tried to convince me to return to the center, by saying "Opus Dei is your real family." For four months after I left, I was harassed by members of Opus Dei. Maria actually came to my place of work. When I told her I was busy and on my way to a business meeting, she followed me on the subway, all the while talking at me about how if I did not come back, I would go to hell. And Theresa kept calling to set up times when we could meet to make sure I was still living "the spirit of Opus Dei." Finally, they gave up on me.
Before reading Hassan's book, I focused on rebuilding a life for myself and had buried my cult-like experience in my subconscious. It was trying to come out in my dreams, but I was not ready to deal with it yet. Now that I understand how Opus Dei uses the same four methods of mind control used by cults, I no longer have nightmares about trying to escape.
The Way by Josemaria Escriva, Scepter Publications