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.