I was out with friends a while back when one mentioned that she had just finished reading Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, a bestseller that is part revisionist history, part thriller. As my friend described the book, she mentioned Opus Dei, the mysterious, real-life Roman Catholic sect that figures prominently in the novel's plot.

I immediately perked up and, staring at her, said, "I used to belong to Opus Dei." The look she gave me was the equivalent of a hush falling over a room.

Thanks to "Code," Opus Dei is now an infamous name to my friend and to millions of others. According to Brown, the once obscure, mostly lay religious organization is a sinister cadre of Scary White Men (many of the group's members are, indeed, successful professionals) bent on preserving a 1,700-year-old cover-up sustained by the Vatican. Adding to the weirdness quotient in Brown's telling is the celibate membership's practice of ritual self-flagellation.

Others have charged that Opus Dei relies on narcotics and brainwashing to lure prospective members; some who have left the group said they were forced to sever ties with family and friends who questioned the group's practices. More ominously, Opus Dei's founder, the Spanish priest Father Josemaria Escriva, was seen by some as a closet Fascist who was linked to the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

I never progressed beyond its outermost ring and am no expert on Opus Dei, but I seriously doubt the reports of sleep deprivation sessions in stone dungeons; I'm positive no one ever slipped peyote in my Pepsi. What got to me was a more powerful drug: the lure of being part of the elite, of being, well, a Scary White Man in training. When I finally left the group a few years later, it wasn't because I was asked to execute an enemy but because I simply started to grow up. And I began to wonder if they needed to grow up too.

I first encountered the group back in the early 1980s. Not far from where I grew up in northern New Jersey was an Opus Dei center that recruited eighth-grade boys from area Catholic schools, including mine. They offered classes and activities meant to appeal to college-bound, bookish kids like me, stuff like rocketry and trips to museums. As I began to participate in these Saturday afternoon sessions--sprinkled with small dollops of religious instruction--it seemed to me I was being sized up by the men who ran them and that, perhaps, I was making the grade. It felt like I was applying to the Ivy League.

That had a tremendous appeal to me. Somewhere along the way, I had decided I would lead a life of rigorous quality, become someone extraordinary. But I had no idea how to get there. I grew up in a blue-collar town, the kind of place where people changed their own oil and lived in homes packed so tightly that you could almost touch two of them at once with your outstretched arms. Everyone around me was plain as bread--or so it seemed to my 13-year-old, maladjusted self.

The people I met in Opus Dei, however, were cut from different cloth. The chapter I was affiliated with was home to about six laymen who took vows similar to Holy Orders yet kept one foot firmly in the secular world. They were scientists, Wall Street types, journalists for nationally prominent publications--the kind of people I knew existed only because I'd read of them.

Moreover, they seemed comfortable with their status and power in a way that I had never experienced before. To me, being rich meant that everything you bought was neon-bright or Cadillac-big, paid for in cash so new the ink was still wet. Opus Dei, however, taught me that money could murmur as well as shout.

But my attraction to the group was about much more than style. Opus Dei's members are Catholic traditionalists, largely hostile to the liberalizing reforms brought about by Vatican II, when the Church sought to become more inclusive. Members attended Mass in small, opulent chapels where the priest stood for long periods with his back to the pews and the liturgy was in Latin, as was the practice before the reforms of the 1960s. That these men would dare paddle against the modernizing tide suggested to me that Opus Dei's was the path of integrity, a beacon in a damp dark of moral relativism.

It's true, as Brown describes in his novel, that the group is influential, both in the workaday world and the gilt halls of the Holy See. Despite their small number, followers occupy places of authority within the Church and the group clearly enjoys the favor of Pope John Paul II (his spokesman, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a longtime member of Opus Dei). Opus Dei enjoys a special status within the Catholic hierarchy known as a "personal prelature." Such an entity is headed by an Opus Dei member known as a prelate, who lies outside the diocesan structure of bishops, archbishops and cardinals. In 2002, Opus Dei's founder, Escriva, was canonized, or made a saint. The process often takes a century or more after the candidate dies. Escriva attained the distinction not quite 30 years after his death.