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.

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Want to send a positive Brexit message to Europe? Back Arsene Wenger for England manager

Boris Johnson could make a gesture of goodwill. 

It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Sam Allardyce, who coveted the England job for so many years, before losing it after playing just a single match. Yet Allardyce has only himself to blame and the Football Association were right to move quickly to end his tenure.

There are many candidates for the job. The experience of Alan Pardew and the potential of Eddie Howe make them strong contenders. The FA's reported interest in Ralf Rangner sent most of us scurrying to Google to find out who the little known Leipzig manager is. But the standout contender is Arsenal's French boss Arsene Wenger, 

Would England fans accept a foreign manager? The experience of Sven Goran-Eriksson suggests so, especially when the results are good. Nobody complained about having a Swede in charge the night that England won 5-1 in Munich, though Sven's sides never won the glittering prizes, the Swede proving perhaps too rigidly English in his commitment to the 4-4-2 formation.

Fabio Capello's brief stint was less successful. He never seemed happy in the English game, preferring to give interviews in Italian. That perhaps contributed to his abrupt departure, falling out with his FA bosses after he seemed unable to understand why allegations of racial abuse by the England captain had to be taken seriously by the governing body.

Arsene Wenger could not be more different. Almost unknown when he arrived to "Arsene Who?" headlines two decades ago, he became as much part of North London folklore as all-time great Arsenal and Spurs bosses, Herbert Chapman or Bill Nicholson, his own Invicibles once dominating the premier league without losing a game all season. There has been more frustration since the move from Highbury to the Emirates, but Wenger's track record means he ranks among the greatest managers of the last hundred years - and he could surely do a job for England.

Arsene is a European Anglophile. While the media debate whether or not the FA Cup has lost its place in our hearts, Wenger has no doubt that its magic still matters, which may be why his Arsenal sides have kept on winning it so often. Wenger manages a multinational team but England's football traditions have certainly got under his skin. The Arsenal boss has changed his mind about emulating the continental innovation of a winter break. "I would cry if you changed that", he has said, citing his love of Boxing Day football as part of the popular tradition of English football.

Obviously, the FA must make this decision on football grounds. It is an important one to get right. Fifty years of hurt still haven't stopped us dreaming, but losing to Iceland this summer while watching Wales march to the semi-finals certainly tested any lingering optimism. Wenger was as gutted as anybody. "This is my second country. I was absolutely on my knees when we lost to Iceland. I couldn't believe it" he said.

The man to turn things around must clearly be chosen on merit. But I wonder if our new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - albeit more of a rugger man himself - might be tempted to quietly  suggest in the corridors of footballing power that the appointment could play an unlikely role in helping to get the mood music in place which would help to secure the best Brexit deal for Britain, and for Europe too.

Johnson does have one serious bit of unfinished business from the referendum campaign: to persuade his new boss Theresa May that the commitments made to European nationals in Britain must be honoured in full.  The government should speed up its response and put that guarantee in place. 

Nor should that commitment to 3m of our neighbours and friends be made grudgingly.

So Boris should also come out and back Arsene for the England job, as a very good symbolic way to show that we will continue to celebrate the Europeans here who contribute so much to our society.

British negotiators will be watching the twists and turns of the battle for the Elysee Palace, to see whether Alain Juppe, Nicolas Sarkozy end up as President. It is a reminder that other countries face domestic pressures over the negotiations to come too. So the political negotiations will be tough - but we should make sure our social and cultural relations with Europe remain warm.

More than half of Britons voted to leave the political structures of the European Union in June. Most voters on both sides of the referendum had little love of the Brussels institutions, or indeed any understanding of what they do.

But how can we ensure that our European neighbours and friends understand and hear that this was no rejection of them - and that so many of the ways that we engage with our fellow Europeans rom family ties to foreign holidays, the European contributions to making our society that bit better - the baguettes and cappuccinos, cultural links and sporting heroes remain as much loved as ever.

We will see that this weekend when nobody in the golf clubs will be asking who voted Remain and who voted Leave as we cheer on our European team - seven Brits playing in the twelve-strong side, alongside their Spanish, Belgian, German, Irish and Swedish team-mates.

And now another important opportunity to get that message across suddenly presents itself.

Wenger for England. What better post-Brexit commitment to a new Entente Cordiale could we possibly make?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.