and Other Writings
following is the work of the individual author and does not necessarily
reflect the views or opinions of the Opus Dei Awareness Network,
Modern-Day Martyrs using
Sharon Clasen, Former Numerary
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 (see
photo), a barbed-wire chain worn around the groin for two hours
each day and the disciplines (see
photo), 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:
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
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,
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
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.”  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. 
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.’” 
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.
are two testimonies from other former numeraries regarding their
experiences with corporal mortification.
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 
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.”
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)
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.
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
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.
raised the bedspread, and, indeed, there was a blanket covering
a table instead of a mattress. On top of this were the sheets.
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.
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.”
- 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.
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
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.”]
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.
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
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
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?
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."
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.”
Opus Dei’s 1950 Constitutions,
The Way by Josemaria Escriva, Point #187
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
of Saint Therese (1646), located inside the Cornaro Chapel
of the baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.
about Opus Dei," by John L. Allen, Jr., National Catholic
October 11, 2002
“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
Historia Amarga de una Numeraria del Opus," (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)
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.
Clasen has also written My
Nightmarish Experience in Opus Dei and How
Opus Dei is Cult-Like for
the ODAN website.
April 8, 2005
posting this article, another former numerary sent me this quote,
which I thought was fitting:
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."
Thomas Keating, Foundations for Centering Prayer and the Christian
Contemplative Life (New York: The Continuum International Publishing
Group Inc., 2002), p. 27.