I am not superhuman

Opus Dei member Olivia Darby stresses that members of Opus Dei are just like everybody else. She gi

If you have learned about Opus Dei from the media and Da Vinci Code, it is easy to believe that it is a shadowy sect, governed by some sinister Dr No type figure, high on power and attempting world domination.

I am a member of Opus Dei. I take the bus with you. I walk past you in the street. I might be behind you in the supermarket queue, and you might buy me a drink at a bar. I am 23, I work for a charity, I love cooking, reading, and walks along the Thames. I struggle to get up every morning and I find it impossible to be tidy. Superhuman – I don't think so. When my brother asks me whether I've been brainwashed, I can only sigh, "I wish!” Maybe Opus Dei could wave a magic wand and help me keep my room tidy!

I am in the middle of the world – your world – but you probably wouldn't notice me amongst the hundreds of other people you pass on your way to work. I'm not a nun. I do not live in a dungeon, nor an ivory tower. Members of Opus Dei live their lives side by side with everyone else.

I guess this can lead to the other fear – the infiltration of society by a group of people who you don't quite understand. There are two good reasons to laugh at this. Firstly, I am free. Contrary to popular expectations, I have never been instructed to kill any infidels. I joined Opus Dei four years ago. I think I may have got an inkling of this if it were the case, and if someone did ask me I would a) say no, and b) make them an appointment with their doctor. Secondly, there are about 500 members of Opus Dei in the UK, out of sixty million people. None of us has super powers!

But hold on, I may have missed the key point: the vocation to Opus Dei is a vocation to be saints in our daily lives. Saints have to emulate Jesus. They have to love people. Saints are people who try every day (even though they might not always succeed) to love God a little bit more, and consequently make the lives of those around them easier.

What does this mean to me? I work with around 180 disadvantaged children a week. I chose this work because I hope I can have a positive impact on their lives. But perhaps more importantly, I try to see each child as an individual, as a child of God, just like me, regardless of their religious background. With so many children, there is the temptation to see them as numbers, and just look at the statistics (x number passed their exams, no one got pregnant this year). But the real point is to develop the personality of each child, to help them to learn about themselves, to pass their exams so that they can give something back to society. Too see the joy on a girl's face when she realises that she is worth something after she has helped a younger child achieve something.

My vocation means looking after my friends. Not to be a fair weather friend, but to be there through thick and thin. My vocation means that of course I want my friends to come closer to God, because I believe that fulfilment comes through loving Him. But this does not mean that I would pressure them into it. My boyfriend is not a Catholic. I would love him to share my faith, but faith is a gift –it cannot be forced on someone. I love him just the same.

My vocation means trying to build a deeper relationship with God, through daily Mass, prayer and sacrifice. People get a bit worried about the sacrifice bit. But really, we all make sacrifices for the people we love. You don't know that someone loves you until they give you their last rolo. And we make so many sacrifices for much less important reasons- stilettos, leg waxing, nails so long that you're almost disabled (vanity, vanity). What is forgoing salt or getting up on time for love of God compared to blisters from too-tight shoes?

I chose to join Opus Dei. No one even suggested it to me before I said that I wanted to. And ever since I have been a firm believer in St Augustine's "our hearts our restless until they rest in You alone, O Lord". Accepting my vocation, which crept up on me and was never in my life-plan as a teenager, has given me a great peace. I couldn't have said no, not because anyone forced me, but because saying no to God, when he has called you, does not make one happy. Trust me - as a nineteen year old it wasn't what I had thought I wanted - but I was also quite sure it was the right thing to do. I'd be lying if I told you it was always easy - as I said before, I'm not superhuman - but it is always worth it.

Olivia Darby joined Opus Dei at age 19. She is now 23 years old and works for an educational charity helps disadvantaged children in London.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue