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,
Nightmarish Experience in Opus Dei
(This story was translated into Spanish by an ODAN supporter and
posted onto the www.opuslibros.com website. To
read the story in Spanish, click
Pesadilla en el Opus Dei.")
Sharon Clasen, Former Numerary
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
13, "Get rid of those useless thoughts which are at best
a waste of time."
945, "You are badly disposed if you listen to the word of
God with a critical spirit."
261, "I forbid you to think any more about it. Instead, bless
God, who has given life back to your soul."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
Cult Mind Control
by Steve Hassan, Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont, 1998
Way by Josemaria Escriva, Scepter Publications
Clasen has also written How
Opus Dei is Cult-like for the ODAN website.
Revised May 28, 2003