Dancing Hula in the Quest for Holiness
Jane Reckart, mother of six, studied engineering at Stanford University
January 15, 2010
Everything I know about Catholicism, I learned from members of Opus Dei. I was an engineering student at Stanford when I met the man who was to become my husband. He was in Opus Dei, but to my inexperienced eighteen-year-old eyes, unschooled in organized religion, he was just a very Catholic guy, and I didn’t want to be shut out of what was obviously an important part of his life.
I took classes about Catholicism from a priest of Opus Dei in order to explore Catholicism and decide if it was a faith I could embrace. I remember leaving each class thinking, “This makes so much sense. I wonder why everyone isn’t Catholic.” In due course, I became a Catholic, but I found the classes to be so helpful that I continued taking them. By the time I graduated from college, I had become a supernumerary member of Opus Dei.
I valued the Work because of the rich Catholic doctrine it provided me, but what clinched the deal, what moved me from thinking “these guys teach pretty cool stuff ” to “I want to be a part of this,” was the founder’s overriding love of freedom. There is a story about St. Josemaría that I have heard several times, although each time it has been slightly different. This is my favorite version:
St. Josemaría once described a vocation to Opus Dei as like being on a path. It is one path, leading to God, but how each of us chooses to travel that path is indeed a choice, a free choice. We can walk straight ahead, zigzag a bit, do cartwheels, dance the rumba, or ride a motorcycle. We are perfectly free to live the spirit of Opus Dei in the way that fits our own individual circumstances.
That appealed to me because throughout life I never felt that I totally “fit” anywhere. The American dream, indeed, the American way of life, seemed to be designed for someone else, someone who didn’t fit my description.
My parents were immigrants to the United States, so we had the whole first-generation thing going on: they had accents; we ate different foods; what we did eat, we ate differently because we held the knife and fork differently from everyone else. I even had dual citizenship with the United States and Great Britain because when I was born, my father was not yet a U.S. citizen.
Not only did I not fit in nationality-wise; I didn’t even fit in racially. Ethnically, I was consigned to checking the “other” box when completing standardized forms, as my father is a Caucasian from England, and my mother is a cinnamon-skinned Jamaican. Nothing like checking “other” to make you feel different from everyone else.
While most American fathers were busy climbing the corporate ladder, my parents took a mildly hippy-ish tack, taking us with them to Micronesia, where my father was a Peace Corps staff doctor. I spent my childhood in the tropics, climbing guava trees and learning to swim in rivers, while my peers back home were tooling around on skateboards and roller skates. One has no need of those without paved roads, let alone sidewalks. While my stateside classmates spent their free time listening to the American Top 40, watching The Brady Bunch, and giggling on the phone, we had neither radio, TV, nor phone. When my father was needed at the hospital, an orderly was sent to our home to rap on the window to summon him.
Later, we moved to Hawaii, where we did have some American cultural necessities. We had a phone and TV, although the TV shows in Hawaii were broadcast a week later than they were on the mainland, so each year we watched Thanksgiving specials while in the throes of preparing for Christmas. Our town did have a movie theater, but it doubled as a storage center for coffins, so no one ever sat in the first few rows. Furthermore, with Hawaii’s strong Asian population, the usual fare was kung fu movies. While on the other side of the Pacific, girls my age were taking ballet to increase their poise and grace, I danced hula, learned ancient Hawaiian chants and made fragrant leis.
I went to college in California, after determining that I’d never survive more than an hour from the ocean. Even in college, however, I didn’t really “fit.” I was the only person I knew who came from a family of six children. To make it worse, my family wasn’t Catholic or Mormon, so its large size didn’t make sense to anyone. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “Why would anyone have so many kids if they didn’t have to?”
Even after graduation, I still didn’t “fit.” While my classmates went on to become executives, doctors, and lawyers who planned on having a child or two in the future, I became a stay-at-home mom to six children in rapid succession. I even still dance hula on occasion. The pinnacle of my dancing career was probably the time I performed, three days before delivering our oldest son, for an especially appreciative audience.
What I learned from St. Josemaría’s love of freedom is that it didn’t matter that I didn’t fit. I wasn’t supposed to fit. God made me the way he did for a reason, and it is my role as a Christian to be open to his promptings so I can fulfill what he wants of me. I actually can’t wait to find out how a Jamaican/English hula-dancing engineer with six kids fits into his plans. I know it won’t be dull.
Opus Dei has enriched my life incredibly, both in a practical sense and in a more spiritual sense. Practically speaking, and looking honestly at statistics on marriage in the Unites States, without the Work, I might not still be married to my husband, whom I love very much. St. Josemaría taught that one’s husband is one’s path to sanctity. With that in mind, I think I must be much holier now than I was before I met my husband—or at least, it feels that way some days. St. Josemaría taught us to love our husband’s defects, and I love my husband’s, even if some days I love them through clenched teeth. It helps to know that while I am clenching my teeth, he is also trying hard to love my defects, like the way I put the newspaper in the recycling before he has finished reading it, or the way I whiz through the kitchen and put away the milk, right after he has pulled it out in preparation to pour himself a glass.
Another practical consequence of my association with Opus Dei is that without the support of the Work, I wouldn’t have all these children who fill my life to overflowing with love, tickles, and laughter. All my life I dreamed of having a large family, like the one in which I was raised, but I was caught unprepared for how debilitating pregnancy would be for me. I was sick, listless, and depressed for months with each pregnancy. I never would have had more than one or maybe two children if I hadn’t learned from St. Josemaría that in generously welcoming children into our family, even when it is difficult, and in sharing with them the love God gives to us, we are building up society and sharing in God’s work of creation.
Spiritually speaking, without changing what I do each day, whether it is scaling mountains of laundry or driving to volleyball practice or making yet another PB&J, Opus Dei has added new depth to everything I do. St. Josemaría taught us that our work is not an obstacle to spending time with God. On the contrary, our work can be prayer, when we do it well and offer it up to him. Thus, when I was scrubbing toothpaste off the blinds the other day (evidence of what I can only presume was someone chasing somebody with a loaded toothbrush), as long as I was doing it out of love for God and not focusing on what I’d do to those kids once I caught up with them, I was praying. Pretty amazing concept.
Offering work to Christ gives meaning to what I do. That’s important, when what you do is change diaper upon diaper, interspersed with cleaning up spilled milk and policing interminable squabbles among siblings. There has to be more to life than just not strangling my kids. There is. St. Josemaría taught us to embrace the cross, especially the little crosses that God sends our way each day. And I’ll tell you, if finding an exploded pen in a dryer full of clothes— not once but three times in as many weeks—isn’t a cross, then I don’t know what is.
The Work provides me with a moral compass for the ethical decisions that crop up daily, like the weeds in my garden. I’ve been especially grateful for that compass when teaching our children how to apply Catholic morality to their hectic, very twenty-first-century lives. All parents have moral standards that they want to pass on to their children, but Opus Dei has helped me articulate those standards to my children and explain why they are important. Thus I can say, “Whacking your sister with a Power Ranger is not wrong because I said so, but because we all need to learn to control our anger, and in fact, isn’t it wonderful that you have a sister who provides you with so many opportunities to control yours?” In addition, the Work has given me the confidence to stick with those moral standards, even when it seems like no one else does. That helps when the kids come home for the umpteenth time and plead, “Please may I have a Gameboy/ Nintendo/ electronic gadget of the moment? I am the only one in my class who doesn’t have one.” Instead of worrying that I might be mistaken, if indeed we are the only family in the greater Tucson area that does not own said toy, I can confidently, albeit wearily, explain that our time is a gift from God, so we should spend it well on homework, chores, or even conversing with our family.
I learned how to be a mother from my mom. I learned how to be a Catholic mother from my friends in the Work. I remember with gratitude one friend in particular, who was pregnant with her sixth child when I was pregnant with my first. She let me come over and go sledding with her kids— it was my first winter with snow. She also taught me that shopping for children’s clothes at second-hand stores made absolute sense because kids outgrow their clothes before they wear them out. We still shop at second-hand stores, and the money we have saved on clothes has been put to more meaningful use. Christian poverty, as I learned it from St. Josemaría, lies in not filling your heart with things, but instead using material goods to fulfill God’s plan, while being detached from them so your heart is available to love God. This has been indispensable when I discuss with my teens why they can’t have name-brand jeans, or a car that’s younger than they are.
I learned that God gave us our skills and talents for a reason, and we need to make them available to him to use in his great plan. I also learned that God didn’t give me certain skills, and that too was for a reason.
Take cooking, for example. I am a horrendous cook, and to make matters worse, God so designed our digestive systems that I need to cook three times a day just to keep my family alive. I have had plenty of time to contemplate how God’s plan could be advanced by my being a miserable cook, while scraping yet another inedible meal into the sink. First, it is helping me to be more humble. Humility is rather an ephemeral virtue and can be difficult to pin down and apply to our lives, not to mention the fact that sometimes, especially in matters of pride, I am a slow learner. So God gives me three opportunities each day to pray, “Cooking this meal really is beyond me and I don’t want to do it, but with your help and out of love for my family, I will try again.” Second, I have learned that I show my love for my family and for God through my work, even when it is work I find difficult. Third, my children have become more understanding, seeing me struggle daily with my lack of culinary skills. They’ve learned not to say, “Yuck! This tastes disgusting!” Instead, they give me a hug and say, “Mom, thank you for working so hard on dinner, but this one really isn’t my favorite.”
Perhaps most fundamentally, Opus Dei has provided me with a coherent framework around which I have built every aspect of my life. At the simplest level, the daily rhythm of my life is punctuated by the norms of piety I learned from the Work. Going to daily Mass, doing mental prayer, reading a spiritual book, and saying the rosary are chances for me to reach up to God, give him a hug, and thank him for my husband, my children, and the many other blessings he gives me. But the concept of a framework for life reaches far beyond how I schedule my day. It extends to how I see my family, do my work, make daily moral decisions, and even to the high value I place on friendship. There is no corner of my life that hasn’t benefited from my association with Opus Dei, and for that I will always be grateful.
Women of Opus Dei: In Their Own Words, eds. M. T. Oates, Linda Ruf and Jenny Driver, published by Crossroad (2009)
List of Contents
- Roland Joffé and St Josemaria Escriva
- Cardinal Franz König, Archbishop Emeritus of Vienna
- What Happened?
- Dancing Hula in the Quest for Holiness
- His words reached people’s souls
- The Work of a Film Historian
- I had yet to know anything of Christianity
- He can put everything right
- She sewed a prayer-card into the inside of our clothes to protect us
- My heart missed a beat
- I thought holiness was only for priests and religious
- Finding in God the truth about himself