Sarah Cassidy is the sort of no-nonsense woman you might expect to be headmistress of a primary school. But Cassidy doesn’t do children, and she doesn’t do husbands, either. She’s 43, single and celibate – and determined to remain so. Each night, she fastens a wire chain, known as a cilice, around her upper thigh. The device has sharp prongs that dig into the flesh, though generally it doesn’t draw blood. To most people, it sounds a peculiarly masochistic practice. Yet Cassidy says it serves a very different purpose: it suppresses her desires and atones for her sins.
Quite what those sins might be is hard to imagine. For Cassidy isn’t just good, but very, very good. She doesn’t drink, abhors drugs and has never had sex. She’s also a senior female figure in Opus Dei, one of the most controversial forces in the Roman Catholic church. Portrayed as shadowy and sinister in Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, the group has been accused of obsessive secrecy, elitism and misogyny, and criticised for its methods of recruitment.
But it’s the ‘mortification of the flesh’ – a ritualistic form of self-harming practised by many Opus Dei members – that’s attracted the most widespread condemnation.
In a bid to correct false impressions, Cassidy has agreed to meet me to discuss what attracts women like her to such an austere and, frankly, painful expression of faith. I meet her and fellow Opus Dei member Eileen Cole at the group’s $11 million London headquarters, where Cassidy now lives.
First, though, some background. Opus Dei (Latin for ‘Work of God’) was founded in Spain in 1928 by Roman Catholic priest Saint Josemaria Escriva. Its doctrine focuses on the lives of ordinary Catholics, who aren’t priests, nuns or monks, yet who believe that everyone should aspire to be a saint.
Today, the organisation claims to have 87,000 members worldwide, of which around 500 live in Australia. About 70 per cent are so-called ‘supernumeraries’ – married men and women with normal careers. They contribute financially to Opus Dei, and though not formally required to practise ‘mortification’, many choose to do so. More committed are ‘numeraries’ such as Cassidy and Cole, who pledge to remain celibate, generally live in Opus Dei houses scattered around the world, and often work directly for the organisation.
Mortification is part of their daily routine, including use of the cilice and periods of fasting. So, every evening, just before she does the washing up, Cole, 51, straps the strand of barbed wire round her leg and leaves it digging into the flesh for two hours. It sounds like agony, but she insists it’s “less painful than a bikini wax”. And besides, pain is the point.
“It’s an easy way of knowing you’re doing penance,” says Cole, who lives in an Opus Dei centre in London. “I wear mine above my thigh. If you go swimming, you don’t want to leave a mark from where it’s been. To be honest, it’s the fasting I find most difficult.”
Still, many of us would struggle to comprehend what drives two intelligent, articulate women such as Cassidy and Cole to cause themselves pain on a nightly basis.
Perhaps understandably, given some of its strictures, the movement is often condemned as a cult. Certainly, Cole’s parents saw it that way. Her mother has passed away and her relationship with her father remains strained. They couldn’t understand how their only daughter, who’d never given them a moment’s trouble, left home at 17 to join Opus Dei.
So how did she become involved?
But, hadn’t the boyfriends and parties excluded her from becoming a senior official of Opus Dei – a role which demands celibacy? Cole forces a smile.
Within months of discovering the movement, Cole was whisked away to Spain by her spiritual mentors, where she spent three weeks praying and considering her future. This was part of her training before she could become a full member and it was then that she began wearing the cilice.
Critics have slammed Opus Dei for its methods of recruitment, which include ‘love bombing’ potential members with affection and praise. The requirement for recruits to hand over large proportions of their income has also raised concern. (Today, the organisation owns buildings worth millions of dollars all over the world, funded by member donations.) Meanwhile, members don’t normally divulge their involvement, leading to a concern that Opus Dei is seeking to establish itself as a version of the Freemasons.
Still, membership keeps growing by the thousands, with women particularly targeted. There’s even a Opus Dei magazine ‘for and by young people’, with articles such as ‘Six tips for the perfect picnic’ and ‘The internet detox’.
But this is no ordinary from of ‘sisterhood’. Unmarried male and female numeraries are segregated in the Opus Dei houses where many of them live, with only limited contact between the sexes. There’s also a subgroup of female numeraries known as ‘assistant members’ who perform the cooking, sewing and cleaning and ‘serve’ the men. (Men never serve the women.) I find one assistant member at the London HQ shut away in a room with her head bent over a pile of mending. It doesn’t look much like fun.
I wonder how an educated woman such as Cassidy, who studied physics at university, can condone such inequality. Again, she speaks of “God’s plan”. She was 19 and part-way through her degree when she decided to give her life to Opus Dei. She was also in a relationship with her first and only boyfriend, but maintains that a life devoted to faith was always on the cards. Her mother and uncle were both members of the movement.
Cassidy is an enviably serene woman. The eldest of five (with four younger brothers), she was nine when her mother joined Opus Dei.
“I was an intense, reflective child and not very attractive,” says Cassidy. “My parents had a deep relationship with God and passed that onto us. We used to pray every day – say grace before meals and prayers before bed. We’d pray when my dad lost his job or I didn’t get the exam results I wanted, or when my mother lost a baby.
For Cassidy, having a boyfriend didn’t seem as important as it was to everyone else.
“I didn’t like the promiscuity at university,” she adds. “I rejected it as part of my lifestyle.”
But surely it’s a seismic leap from eschewing promiscuity to self-harming? Cassidy was 20 when she started wearing the cilice.
It’s a fair point. After all, which is more peculiar: women who endure the agony of, say, Botox injections or waxing, in order to be beautiful, or Opus Dei devotees who strap on a cilice as a sign of spiritual devotion? Still, I can’t help feeling that most women would consider it a strange God who requires them to do the washing up wearing a chain of barbed wire.