The Wartime Birth of a Spiritual Classic


Last fall brought the 70th anniversary of the publication of The Way, a small volume of 999 points for meditation and prayer composed by the founder of the Catholic group Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva. When the book appeared in Spain in the fall of 1939, its author thought it would sell a few thousand copies at most. Up to now nearly five million copies have been sold, The Way has been translated into over 40 languages, and it has been hailed as a modern Imitation of Christ. Drawing on St. Josemaria’s pastoral experiences with people of all kinds—men and women, old and young, students, soldiers, bishops priests, patients in charity hospitals, aristocrats, and many others—The Way was written in the tense circumstances of the years immediately before and during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. The excerpt that follows, covering the wartime period, is from Russell Shaw’s newly published book Writing The Way: The Story of a Spiritual Classic.

In his history of the Spanish Civil War, Hugh Thomas calls Spain on the eve of that conflict a country "constructed on quarrels," where "no habits of organization, compromise, or even articulation [were] respected, or even sought, by all. Insofar as there were traditions common to all Spain, these were of disputes." In general elections held in February 1936 the victory of a left-wing Popular Front coalition touched off a fresh wave of revolutionary and anticlerical violence by groups even farther to the left. In July, after months of indecision and plotting, the army finally moved, and on the 17th of July, a day earlier than intended, a long-anticipated uprising got underway among units in Spanish Morocco.

Fifty churches went up in flames in Madrid the night of July 19-20. As control slipped out of the Republican government’s hands, the militias of revolutionary parties, particularly the communists, took to the streets. By this time, the DYA Academy [Opus Dei’s first center in Madrid] had moved to quarters on Ferraz Street, near the Montana Barracks. Father Escriva and several friends were there when fighting broke out, and they watched the bloody battle in horror. As the fortress fell to its attackers and the defenders were slaughtered, the priest donned blue overalls and slipped out of the apartment with the others. "A bad night, hot," he recorded in his journal that day. "All three parts of the rosary.—Don’t have my breviary.—Militia on the roof."

Religious persecution was soon in full swing, not only in Madrid but in other places where Republican forces or the anarchist, socialist, and communist militias who were the Republic’s most active and effective early defenders held sway. As the struggle turned into a war of attrition, the persecution slacked off, but at no time in the next three years did it cease.

Blame the Victims

Much has been written about this war, and disagreements persist about what happened and who was to blame. One thing certain is that large numbers of foreigners went to Spain in these years to assist one side or the other, and Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union supplied important military aid to their respective Spanish clients of the right and the left.

George Orwell, future author of Animal Farm and 1984 and a man of the anti-Stalinist left, served with a dissident communist military unit on the Aragon front from late 1936 until he was seriously wounded in mid-1937. In a book about his experiences, Homage To Catalonia, published in late 1937, Orwell dismisses as a "pitiful lie" the claim that leftists attacked churches only if they were used as bases by Nationalist forces.

"Actually churches were pillaged everywhere and as a matter of course," Orwell reports, "because it was perfectly well understood that the Spanish Church was part of the capitalist racket. In six months in Spain I only saw two undamaged churches, and until about July 1937 no churches were allowed to reopen and hold services, except for one or two Protestant churches in Madrid." The author’s own biases are in full view in his reference to the Church as "part of the capitalist racket," but what he says leaves little doubt that systematic attacks on churches did take place.

Brutality and atrocities on both sides marked the war. Numbers remain in dispute. According to one credible set of figures, there were 70,000 executions in the Republican zone and 40,000 in the Nationalist zone, with another 30,000 executions carried out by the Franco government from the end of the war until 1950. These deaths were over and above the hundreds of thousands of soldiers killed in the fighting. Among Church personnel, the executed included 12 bishops (including the bishops of Jaen, Lerida, Segorbe, Cuenca, Barcelona, Almeria, Guadix, Ciudad Real, Tarragona, and Teruel, and the apostolic administrators of Barbastro and Orihuela), 283 religious sisters and nuns, 4,184 priests, and 2,365 religious men. One estimate of the overall death toll is mirrored in the title of a well-known novel: One Million Dead.

Historian Michael Burleigh calls the killing of clergy and religious "the worst example of anticlerical violence in modern history," surpassing even the French Revolution. "There was no evidence that the clergy had aided the military uprising, nor that houses of God were misused as rebel arms dumps," he notes. As for claims that the Church in Spain had "brought this catastrophe on its own head," Burleigh remarks: "Even then it was fashionable to blame the victims."

If Only This Could Last!

After the war broke out, Fr. Escriva at first took refuge in his mother’s home, then, hoping to escape detection, moved about among the apartments of friends. Sometimes he was simply on the street. One day a man who looked like him was lynched outside the building where he was staying. A doctor who was a friend from Logrono days provided him and his Opus Dei companions a hiding place in a mental asylum, where they remained for some weeks. In March 1937 the Honduran consulate took them in, and they joined close to a hundred other people already there. Their situation was not uncommon. Altogether, some 13,000 refugees sought safety in embassies and consulates in Madrid during the war.

Living conditions in the consulate were difficult. The place was badly overcrowded: Escriva and his friends occupied a single room on a hallway where more than 30 people were living. The food was poor and sparse. Time hung heavy on people’s hands, with boredom, tension, and fear gnawing at everyone. Writing to Opus Dei members in Valencia, Father Josemaria provided a semi-humorous but realistic description of the accommodations:

There isn’t room to spread out all five of our mattresses. Four are enough to completely carpet the floor. . . . When camp is struck, we have two mattresses, one on top of the other, folded up and put in one corner, the blankets and pillows tucked inside. Then a small space. Then the two mattresses of Jose B. and Alvaro, arranged in the same way, and on top of them, rolled up very tightly, with a funereal black cloth to cover it, Eduardo’s thin mattress.

Immediately adjacent is the radiator—five wheezing elements—on top of which is a board from a chest of drawers. This serves as a table for our food supplies and for six big cups, only superficially clean. One window, which looks out on a dark patio—very dark. Beneath the window, a small packing crate, with some books and a bottle for the banquets [with a suitcase or two placed on top, the crate became an altar for celebrating Mass]. . . .

Although we have now reached the door, I won’t make you leave the room. (You can enter whenever you like—the door doesn’t shut; there’s something wrong with it.) The only thing left for you to admire is the rope that cuts across a corner of the room and serves to hold five towels. And also the beautiful lampshade, of genuine newspaper . . . Don’t even think about touching the light switch, because if you do it will be a lot of trouble to get the light back on; the switch is broken.

The priest faced up to the challenge of sustaining morale by setting a daily schedule for himself and the others: Mass, with a homily or later a talk, prayer, reading, study, conversation. It worked. Later one of those young men wrote: "Sometimes we thought, If only this could last forever! Had we ever known anything better than the light and warmth of that little room? As absurd as it was in those circumstances, that was our reaction, and from our way of seeing things it made perfect sense. It brought us peace and happiness day after day."

Crises of Saints

Both then and later, Fr. Escriva as a matter of principle did not discuss politics, but he knew as well as anyone what was happening in Spain—and elsewhere in Europe during those years—and he was deeply troubled by it. At bottom, he attributed the tragedy to a failure of faith. A point in The Way sums up both the problem and its solution as he saw it: "I’ll tell you a secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men ‘of his own’ in every human activity. Then . . . pax Christi in regno Christi—‘the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ’" (301).

Although he was convinced that in the end faith really was the remedy for the ills of the world, it had to be real faith lived out authentically, not the kind of faith that can be put on and taken off like an article of clothing to suit changes in the weather. "Have you ever bothered to think," he demanded, "how absurd it is to leave one’s Catholicism aside on entering a university or a professional association, or a scholarly meeting, or congress, as if you were checking your hat at the door?" (The Way, 353).

With thoughts like this on his mind, it was here, in the difficult circumstances of the Honduran consulate, that he started work on what he now consciously intended as a new book—the book that was to be called The Way.

Points along the Way

From April to July of 1938 he wrote a hundred new points for it. Many originated in his homilies and meditations. The little group rose early in the morning, straightened the room, and rolled up their mattresses, which they then sat on while they prayed. After prayer, Fr. Josemaria preached, using the day’s Gospel as his theme. Mass followed. Varying this pattern, he occasionally spoke at night as a kind of prayer vigil before lights-out.

As soon as possible after he’d spoken, his remarks were recorded from memory by one of his companions, a young man named Eduardo Alastrue. Later the priest reviewed and corrected these semi-transcripts; and the engineer Isidoro Zorzano, whose Argentine birth allowed him to move freely in the city, stopped by the consulate regularly to pick them up and circulate them among others on the outside.

The sources of numerous points in The Way are clearly visible in Alastrue’s sketches of Escriva’s talks.

On April 6, 1938, for example, he spoke of people who claim they’re ready for great sacrifices and heroic acts, yet can’t master themselves in regard to the small trials of everyday living. Very likely this was immediately relevant to persons and events in the physically cramped, emotionally strained conditions of the Honduran consulate. In number 204 of the book, with only slight alterations, it becomes: "Many who would let themselves be nailed to a cross before the astonished gaze of thousands of spectators won’t bear the pinpricks of each day with a Christian spirit! But think, which is the more heroic?"

On May 15, criticizing something he called "confusionism"—defined as the indiscriminate fusion of error and truth—he spoke of people who seemed to carry their hearts around in their hands, offering them to every passerby. In the book this is: "You give me the impression you are carrying your heart in your hands, as if you were offering goods for sale. Who wants it? If it doesn’t appeal to anyone, you’ll decide to give it to God" (The Way, 146).

And in a meditation preached on June 21 we read, "All our fortitude is on loan," which in the book stands alone as number 728.

Finally, though, desperate for freedom of action, Escriva and his friends left the consulate, traveled to Barcelona, and made the hazardous crossing out of the Republican zone over the Pyrenees into France, then back into the Nationalist zone. He spent 1938 in Burgos, the Nationalists’ wartime capital, engaged in pastoral work, writing, and correspondence, with frequent trips to visit soldiers at the front.

He also worked on his new book. In the first 11 or 12 months in Burgos, proceeding at his customary pace, he composed another 139 points. Then, in a "big push" from December 20, 1938, to January 20, 1939, he produced 325 more. Typing the manuscript began on January 23. The final text is dated March 19, St. Joseph’s Day.

As usual, his working conditions were far from ideal. Lacking elbow room, he spread scraps of paper with handwritten notes on his bed in order to experiment with different ways of organizing the material by shifting them around. "I wish I had a table as big as three beds," he remarked. Years later, asked if anyone helped him write The Way, he said, "No, nobody." But quickly he added, "Well, friends helped me arrange the notes on top of the bed."

As the long, exhausting war finally drew to a close, Fr. Escriva on March 27, 1939, hitched a ride in an army supply truck, and as the victorious troops entered Madrid, so did the priest, wearing his cassock. Later he was to write: "Never put up a cross just to keep alive the memory that some people have killed others . . . Christ’s Cross is to keep silent, to forgive and to pray for those on both sides, so that all may attain peace."


Russell Shaw is the former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and author of 20 books.

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 3.