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The man doing penance advised his associate to cover his head with a blanket; but the observer could not stop his ears. "Soon," said the witness, "I began to hear the forceful blows of his discipline ... there were more than a thousand terrible blows, precisely timed. The floor was covered in blood." That is not an early Da Vinci Code draft. It is a description of Opus Dei founder Escrivá's routine by his eventual successor, quoted in a biography of Escrivá. Escrivá emphasized that others should not emulate his ferocity. But numeraries are expected, although not compelled, to wear a cilice, a small chain with inward-pointing spikes, around the upper thigh for two hours each day, and to flail themselves briefly weekly, with a small rope whip called a discipline.
With rare exceptions, even angry defectors don't cite self-mortification, as it's known, as their deal killer. Lucy, a former numerary assistant (see box, following page), told TIME it was "nothing. It's not like The Da Vinci Code." Catholic laity and luminaries, including Mother Teresa, have used it to identify with Christ's--and the world's--agony. San Antonio Archbishop José Gomez, an Opus member, notes self-mortification's tie to Opus' roots: "In the Hispanic culture," he says, "you look at the crucifixes, and they have a lot of blood. We are more used to sacrifice in the sense of physical suffering."
WHAT ABOUT RUMORS OF MIND CONTROL?
Self-mortification resonates with critics because, as Allen points out, it provides a metaphor for what they see as an "inhumane approach within Opus Dei, which demands a kind of dominance over its members, body and soul." Unnerving stories have been passed by ex-numeraries to journalists or posted to the anti-Opus website odan.org Many involve charges of deceptive recruiting, with prospective members unaware that the events they are invited to are Opus', of numeraries' realizing only belatedly that Opus expects them to sign away their paycheck and curtail relations with their families. The music they play and the publications they read are allegedly controlled, and they must report their own and others' deviations as part of a system of "fraternal correction." Center directors are portrayed as little dictators. Complaining to local bishops is futile because of Opus' semi-independent status. The critics claim that when the numeraries try to leave, they are threatened with damnation. Experts who have helped extract the disaffected have likened center life to a cult. And Martin, the America editor, contends that he gets "dozens" of calls yearly from parents saying the group has estranged or brainwashed their numerary children.