Mary Wakefield visits one of the group’s halls of residence and meets not albino assassins but a more pious version of Trinny and Susannah
After three hours with Opus Dei women at Ashwell House in east London I wandered west, half-stunned, like a cat hit by a car. At Oxford Circus the usual loons were saving souls: ‘Repent now, turn to God!’ from a woman on the south side. From a north-end traffic island, megaphone man provided the antiphonal response: ‘Seek salvation before it is too late!’ And in my pocket my mobile, ringing with a message from an Opus Dei publicity man. ‘Hi there! When you’re finished at Ashwell House, come to Notting Hill to have tea with Sebastian. He’s a supernumerary and he plays the cello! I think it’s important that you meet him.’
Maybe, but I wasn’t sure I could. I’d had enough. It wasn’t that Opus Dei had been unexpectedly sinister or murderous, like Silas, the anti-hero of The Da Vinci Code — after all, St Josemariá Escrivá beat himself till he bled, so I’d been expecting, hoping for, gothic. It wasn’t even that they were sallow and enigmatic, like Ruth Kelly, Opus Dei’s representative in the Cabinet. Instead, the members I’d met had been so mysteriously well-balanced and comfortable in their skins as to be actually frightening. If I had to sustain eye contact with another well-adjusted, devout young Catholic, I thought I might start swearing, or crying.
Ashwell House, a hall of residence for female students, is owned by Opus Dei but open to all — some students are members of what’s known as ‘The Work’, some are agnostic. It’s a business and, like most Opus Dei operations, self-supporting, impeccably run — a testament to the efficacy of Escrivá’s grand idea: that lay Christians can seek holiness not despite the daily grind, but through it.
I was shown around by Ashwell’s directors, Eileen and Sam, both 40 or so, both numeraries of Opus Dei — celibate, devout, wearers of the now famous cilice, a spiked chain strapped around the thigh for an hour or two most days to mortify the flesh.
Ashwell House was quiet, the walls a startling salmon pink, and my first impression of Sam and Eileen was of a quieter version of television’s Trinny and Susannah, the hosts of What Not to Wear. Sam, dark-haired, in a high-collared red chiffon shirt; Eileen, blonde, made-up, in a V-neck lined with sequins. After a quick tour of the premises, ‘a good environment for clean-living students’, we settled in a common room for coffee and life stories. ‘I was an Anglican,’ said Sam, ‘at a little CofE school, but my experience of Anglicanism was of nice middle-class ladies in hats going to church on a Sunday, and I wasn’t satisfied. I thought, there must be an objective truth, and this isn’t doing credit to it. Then I met a Catholic girl who seemed to be cheerful and great fun, and started going to meetings with her. She was in Opus Dei, so I went to classes, then joined as a numerary.’ Simple! She smiles. How could you be sure this was your vocation? ‘I wasn’t!’ said Sam. ‘It’s more like being in love and deciding to get married — everything points in the same direction, it all makes sense and there’s a feeling of tremendous happiness.’
After admission to Opus Dei, there’s an order to a numerary’s day — morning prayers, daily Mass, daily rosary and an intense focus on hard work. They also hand money over to the movement. How much? I asked Eileen. ‘It’s up to you, up to your conscience,’ she said. ‘A peasant family, for instance, might give two carrots. You use the money that you think you need and give the rest. A good rule of thumb for what to spend on yourself is, “Would a mother of a large, poor family buy this for herself?”’
Eileen’s story is much the same as Sam’s. ‘Though I’d always wanted to get married and have children, I knew at 17 that my vocation was to be a numerary. I felt, unfortunately, this is what God wants me to do! It fitted like a key in a lock.’ But didn’t your parents mind? ‘Mine were very unhappy,’ said Sam. ‘They said, “You can’t leave home until you’re 21.”’ But did you? ‘Yes.’
‘Opus Dei doesn’t try to alienate you from your parents; we obey the fourth commandment,’ said Eileen. ‘But a lot of members join when they’re young and so the parents are overprotective.’ Both women seem baffled by this. ‘The only explanation I can give is that parents don’t trust the judgment of their children,’ said Eileen. ‘It’s odd, because it’s not as if the child has started taking drugs; they’ve just decided to give their life to God.’
‘Would you like to meet some of our young members?’ said Sam, and then followed an odd hour interviewing supernumeraries (the marrying kind). First up was Melissa, green cardigan and suede boots, with a breezy public-school manner.
‘I liked Opus because I met people who were young, vibrant, sporty,’ she said. ‘To be honest, all the Catholics I’d met before had been old and nice but, you know, not like me.’ She laughed. ‘Now if I feel like a big fat load of zeros, I remember I’ve got Christ in front of me and I can do anything!’
Next Olivia, 21, pink ballet shoes, pink top. ‘My mum met The Work through her dentist. I wasn’t that interested, but then I went to an Opus school in Nairobi in my gap year, and when I came back I found I wanted to take my faith seriously. Now I’m much happier!’ Then Nadia, another former Ashwell resident; and by the time Mary, 22, wandered in, I felt like a GP. Hello, sit down, how are you today? Any aches and pains? ‘When things bother me, I can ask for help,’ said Mary. ‘I thought I’d hate it, but you feel like the people here actually do care about you.’
Another articulate girl in fashionable trainers, another 20 minutes of almost non-stop eye contact. I stared, for a change, at a row of ceramic donkeys on the windowsill — which an ex-Opus Dei friend of mine told me stand somewhere in every Opus house, symbolising the need to work for God.
Everyone seemed well turned out, clever, devout, but where were the regular messed-up folk? Where were Dan Brown’s freaks, his everyday weirdos?
Eileen and Sam came back with a typically efficient press pack and a ‘List of names for Mary Wakefield, Ashwell House, 1 May 2006’. So what about a disabled member? I asked. Someone who is unable to work, and therefore unable to support herself financially as Opus Dei rules require? Would they receive any financial help? ‘They would have the usual income support from the government,’ said Eileen, ‘and there’s always work to do. There’s someone here who has MS, for instance, and she has a lovely little job on reception.’ And do the elderly get any financial help after a hard life donating every bean? ‘It’s important that they do the work they can. Your work gives you self-esteem,’ said Eileen.
Before I left, Sam admitted that the hype around The Da Vinci Code sometimes got her down. ‘It’s been a great opportunity for us but also difficult,’ she said. ‘We’ve been afraid of the press in the past, but we’re beginning to realise that not all journalists are out to get you. Some of them,’ she said cautiously, ‘can be normal human beings.’