ST JOSEMARIA ESCRIVA AND THE ORIGINS OF OPUS DEI:
(1) The Day the Bells Rang Out
(2) The Path Through the Mountains
By William Keenan
(Gracewing, 2004, 2011, softcover, 316pp, $ 45.00 each. ISBN: 0-85244-581-4/5)
These are two separate volumes of a planned trilogy, the biography of St Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei who was canonised by John Paul II in 2002. With the third volume underway, it seems appropriate to evaluate these two available volumes in one review.
The author, William Keenan, is a prolific English Catholic writer, journalist, playwright and novelist. He writes a regular column for the Catholic Herald and is the author of three mystery novels and and numerous plays for BBC Radio.
His plays include Margaret Clitherow, the heroic story of a Catholic wife and mother from York who maintained a room at her (Anglican) husband's house in the Shambles, within a "stone's throw of the Cathedral", where Catholics could secretly hear Mass. After ten years she was eventually betrayed and executed, crushed to death by heavy stone weights. Margaret was canonised as one of the Forty English and Welsh Martyrs.
The first volume tells the life of St Josemaría from his birth (1902), through his childhood in the foothills of the Pyrenees and up to November 1937, the time of the Spanish Civil War. The second continues the story through the Nationalist victory in 1939 until 1946 when St Josemaría was able to visit Rome after World War II.
The biography is compelling reading, and indeed has the flavour of a thriller. The core of the first volume is the experience of a fugitive priest in the first year of the Spanish Civil War, caught up in the vicious tensions of contemporary Spain and a religious persecution in which 7,000 bishops, priests, brothers and nuns were murdered in Republican and Communist dominated areas of the country.
The book is based closely on the personal and intimate notes of the priest so that the reader experiences the terror unfolding as the weeks pass. However, amid the chaos and mayhem there are vivid glimpses into the soul of a man searching for sanctity in a world gone mad.
Slowly but surely, Josemaría explores and spreads a vital spiritual message for our times: that holiness is not merely for priests and religious, but for everyone through prayer, the sacraments, and the everyday duties of a Christian.
Meanwhile, Josemaría had founded Opus Dei in 1928 and was to become a major contributor to the rediscovery of the lay apostolate. The end of the first volume has Josemaría and his companions planning to escape from the Communist zone to continue their work in freedom.
The second volume begins with their flight through the mountains of Andorra – and via Lourdes in France – to the Nationalist south of Spain. The title suggests a deeper sense in their spreading the message of Opus Dei, namely a new path to holiness and ministry in the world; and when they met endless challenges Josemaría would remind his colleagues of the words of Psalm 103-104:10: "The waters will make a path through the mountains."
Over 87 short chapters, Keenan shows Josemaría and the first members of Opus Dei to be living in grim poverty, but filled with confidence, good spirits and zeal.
Eventually, after World War II, Josemaría was able to spend some weeks in Rome and the second volume concludes at the this point. The third will be eagerly awaited.