Holy through ordinary life

This week the Faith Column will look into the lives of four members of Opus Dei. Nick Thomas tells h

My parents were Anglicans and my earliest memory of praying to God was saying my prayers before going to bed. I remember going to church on Sundays but my two brothers and I were not keen to say the least. Eventually because we were too much to handle we boys stopped going to church altogether and after a while I slipped out of the practice of saying the prayers my mother taught me. My only contact with religion was through the schools I attended. In the school assemblies we would sing hymns and there was usually some talk on an aspect of Christian life. The one I clearly remember was about a Catholic priest who went to live on an island where lepers had been abandoned. He looked after them and eventually caught leprosy himself and died.

When I reached the age of eighteen I was an agnostic. I went to university in London to study Physics at Imperial College. My eldest brother had just finished his History degree at King’s and in his final year he had stayed at Netherhall House, a residence for students. My brother had liked Netherhall and said it was a good place to study. The residence, run by members of Opus Dei, was open to anyone of any faith or none and was more like a family home. After dinner people would have coffee together and there would be a get-together where people would talk about anything and everything.

I found the transition from school to university difficult. The level was very demanding and by the time of my exams I had become quite depressed. One of the chaps living there, a member of Opus Dei, who was a teacher and came from my hometown in the north of England, suggested I should pray about it. He even took me into the chapel of the residence and showed me how to do it. At the time it didn’t appear to have any effect and I didn’t keep it up. But I got through my exams and left Netherhall for the summer vacation. I began to pray and to read about Jesus Christ’s life and his teaching. When I went back to Netherhall to do a PhD in Medical Physics in King’s College Hospital I gradually began to practise my Anglican faith again, helped by the members of Opus Dei at Netherhall and the talks on Christian doctrine given there.

The greatest influence on me at this time was the Mass, which was said every morning in the chapel of the residence. I was overwhelmed by the Catholic teaching of the priest saying the words of the consecration just as Christ said at his Last Supper. “This is my body (…) this is my blood.” The bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. So, when we eat the bread or drink the wine we are eating or drinking the body and blood of Jesus, true God and true man. In the world around me I could see all the efforts and sacrifices people were making to acquire money or material things and yet here in the Mass was this infinitely greater thing: God, my creator and creator of all these material things. And since for Catholics the Mass is also the sacrifice of Calvary, I came to understand that we can offer to God, along with Our Lord’s sacrifice, ourselves and all that we do.

I became a Catholic. The teaching of Opus Dei is that people can become holy through their ordinary lives, so I expect the example of the members of Opus Dei living out their Christian lives also had an effect on me. A year later I joined Opus Dei as a numerary (celibate member). However, since Opus Dei is a family, numeraries still live together as a family.

The founder of Opus Dei, Saint Josemaría Escrivá, used to say that members owed 99% of their vocation to their parents. Mine were a marvellous example to me and my brothers. They had continued to practise their faith (despite our apathy), and they were supportive of me when I decided to become a Catholic. It was a very happy occasion for all of us when they also joined the Catholic Church a few years later.

After my PhD I went into research at King’s College Hospital in Medical Ultrasound and later moved to Guy’s Hospital to work as a clinical scientist in Vascular Ultrasound which involves using ultrasound to diagnose problems with blood flow in the arteries and veins.

I try to go to Mass every day. During Mass I offer to God all that I am going to do that day, the patients I am going to scan, the students I am going to teach, the reports and my research. And I pray for my family, relatives and friends. Whatever may happen that day (good or bad) I offer to Our Lord. The Mass also helps me remember that I am always in the presence of God. This way I try to do my work well for Him. And, whenever there are difficulties, I ask for his help.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser