Dear Fr. Edward, I have been considering becoming a third order Carmelite for some time and have taken some initial steps with them in that direction. However, I am in a weekly study that is very powerful to me. It is led by an Opus Dei woman. After hearing what she has to say, and watching her life, I am finding myself drawn to Opus. How do I discern which direction to take? Am I just being fickle and should I stay with the Carmelites, or should I explore Opus more? I didn’t plan on attending this study – it just sort of fell into place by accident. It has been a great experience for me. It seems God is at work here and my interest in the Carmelites is fading. How can I discern the proper path?
First off, I want to congratulate you for your efforts to deepen your spiritual life and for your openness to an ever more serious commitment to living the faith. The world desperately needs the witness of lay people whose lives reflect a deep Christian faith. Unfortunately, the wider culture isn’t very conducive to spiritual values, and it can even be downright hostile to those who want to live the Gospel seriously. Providentially, the Holy Spirit has come to the rescue over the centuries, raising up various entities and movements in the Church to offer support structures for lay people. These entities are an invaluable complement to the support offered by parishes. Such entities run the gamut. There are the third orders, which are societies, or groups, of lay people affiliated to one of the religious orders. The third orders follow a mitigated form of religious rule. Much younger groups include the ecclesial movements, many of which arose in the 20th century. Their names include Focolare, Communion and Liberation, Schoenstatt, and Cursillo. Still other entities include the Neocatechumenal Way and the group you mention, Opus Dei. The latter is a personal prelature, which has its own prelate (bishop) and clergy; it oversees its members regarding certain objectives no matter where they live in the world. In its own words Opus Dei “helps people seek holiness in their work and ordinary activities.”
That you had an interest in one group and now find yourself drawn to another is not unusual. God often leads us along unexpected paths. He brings us to Point A only to eventually lead us to Point B. Along the way we might sample a diversity of spiritualities among various groups, all of which enrich us and help us to discern God’s path. It is not unusual, by the way, to find religious and priests who started out with great interest in one congregation but ended up in another.
This brings us to your specific question: How do you know where God is leading you? You didn’t mention why you were first drawn to the Carmelite third order, or how long your affiliation with it has been. What do you mention is that you happened upon Opus Dei “by accident” and now feel a strong attraction. My suggestion is: There is no need to fight this feeling. If Opus Dei attracts you, it attracts you. Speak with your spiritual director about what you are experiencing.
One good sign that you are on the right path in the spiritual life is that you have a certain serenity as you move in one direction or another. Another good sign is that your spiritual life itself is deepening. So, is your prayer life improving? Are you getting to daily Mass more often? Do you find that you are “clicking” with the spirituality and characteristics of Opus Dei? I don’t know what, if any, commitments you have with the Carmelites. It might be good to pursue one path for now; that is, just focus on Opus Dei or just focus on the Carmelites. See where the path leads. Within a period of time (it’s hard to say exactly how long) the Holy Spirit will likely enlighten you. The important thing is to act, to move, to do something. Attend events. Talk to people who are living the particular spirituality. Find out what you would be getting into; after all, any spirituality worth its salt will be demanding. And above all, keep up your prayer life and frequent the sacraments. Those are the indispensable means for providing fertile ground for the work of the Spirit. Be confident that he wants to lead you to holiness. And rest assured of my prayers for your journey.
Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC
Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.
Art for this post asking about going into a Carmelite or Opus Dei order: Balanced scale of justice, Perhelion, 15 July 2011, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.