Opus Dei’s Box-Office Triumph

By Paul Fortunato, an English professor at the University of Houston-Downtown (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/06/06):

As a member of Opus Dei, I would like to thank Dan Brown and Ron Howard for “The Da Vinci Code.” Why am I not outraged like so many other devout Roman Catholics? Because I think we could not have wished for a better result: critics attack the film (and, retrospectively, the book) as boring and annoying and cartoonish; and because everyone is seeing it anyway, many people who would otherwise have no interest in Opus Dei are curious, allowing us to explain what we are really about.

For the record, I do wear a spiked metal band on my leg for a couple of hours a day just like the movie’s murderous Opus Dei numerary, Silas (that’s always the first question). But I do not wear a robe, except at graduation ceremonies. I’m an English professor at a state university and am finishing a book titled “Modernist Aesthetics and Consumer Culture in the Writings of Oscar Wilde.” So much for stereotypes.

I joined Opus Dei as a numerary, a member who has committed to celibacy and lives in an Opus Dei center, when I turned 18. My father is a supernumerary (one of the married members, who account for around 80 percent of us). He never encouraged me to join, though he and my mother taught me to pray and to love the ideas of St. Josemaría Escrivá, the order’s founder, on turning work into prayer.

I knew early on that I wanted to pursue a deep communion with God, since that’s what allows me to be truly happy. And I wanted to enjoy all the richness of the secular world. (All right, all except sex, which undoubtedly is one of the richest parts of living in the world.) This is where the adventure begins. Can one be totally focused on God, praying meditatively for hours a day, and also be totally focused on the world — making money, competing or collaborating with colleagues, going out with drinking buddies? The answer, for me, is yes.

My academic work has been in the area of consumer culture, specifically the fashion world and its impact on art. Can consumer culture be combined with contemplative prayer? For us in Opus Dei it can. Our ideal is the life Christ lived before his public life, his life of ordinary work in an ordinary family. God became a man and made human realities divine.

Naturally, when I began teaching at my university last August, I was nervous: Were my liberal academic colleagues going to like me, or at least put up with me? Were my chances for tenure in peril? I was fairly straightforward in talking about who I was, and that was a bit of a shock to many at first. I suppose it still is a shock to some.

On my first day there, after saying I was in Opus Dei, one person remarked, “Wow, you’re going to have to explain that.” But I did explain — and for the last two months, I’ve done quite a bit more explaining. I’ve even made a point of wearing shorts around so that people can see that the thigh band, the cilice, leaves no marks. I have answered questions about what contemplative prayer is, about why Opus Dei has been associated with right-wing groups, particularly in Latin America, and about what “corporal mortification” — intentional physical pain — really is.

Curiously, I have found that liberals — perhaps more than conservatives — often get the idea of mortification. They understand that merely giving money to help the needy is inadequate and patronizing. One key element behind corporal mortification is to feel solidarity with the poor and the suffering, denying oneself some comfort, whether it be by fasting or wearing a cilice.

I have explained what a relief it is to make my life uncomfortable, how liberating it is to unplug from the consumerist, instant-gratification culture that dominates us. Without the cilice, I find my life as an American consumer unbearably comfortable.

So thank you, Ron Howard, for making it almost impossible not to talk about Opus Dei with my colleagues and acquaintances. You have made my job quite a bit easier. My only request is that next time you leave Jesus and Mary Magdalene out of it.