Do women need ascesis?

I recently interviewed the developer of Exodus90, a spiritual exercise aimed at Catholic men who want to find spiritual freedom through prayer, ascesis, and fraternity. One thing lots of people wanted to know: Why is this only for men? Why was there no companion program for women?

Although I have mixed feelings about the program in general, I was impressed by his answer to this question. He said that, while “there’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community,” the program had been written with men and fatherhood in mind, so he didn’t want to just — boop! — shift it over to women. But people kept pressing him to write up and market a version for women. He said:

“We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, ‘Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to?’

“Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women.”

I have my own theories for why this may be. Warning: I’ll be painting with a broad brush here, so please keep in mind that my words won’t apply to every last individual human. (I know you’re going to complain anyway, but at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

In general, women are introduced at an early age to the inescapability of suffering, and to the ultimate helplessness of humans in the face of nature and before the will of God.

When women hit puberty . . . Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image: Portrait of a Young Woman As a Sibyl by Orazio Gentileschi (Wikimedia) / Public domain

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12 thoughts on “Do women need ascesis?”

  1. I also wanted to add that I find that penance/ascesis is too often conflated with self-improvement and can very quickly become ego-driven. I wish I could find the exact quote, but Mother Superior in In This House of Brede says it best…”The purpose of penance is not victory, but surrender.”

  2. Yes! I remember crying to my husband when our oldest was a few weeks old that I wished I could just step off my cross and take a nap. But the misery of postpartum, breastfeeding, and sleep deprivation weren’t something I could avoid even though I very much wanted to escape. What I wish is that Exodus90 would use their very popular platform to encourage men to “opt in” to the crosses of their vocation. Instead of insisting on 7 hours of sleep, insist on getting up with the baby! If you are going to follow a special diet, then take on the meal planning and cooking too. I know the program was originally intended for priests and seminarians, but with so many lay men joining in, it seems like there is a real opportunity to challenge husbands and fathers to step it up a notch in their vocation.

    1. I totally agree with you here. The older generations seemed to be better at accepting suffering and trials. I can only say this from witnessing older family members when “stuff” happens. It seems that the more affluent society has become, the less inclined we have become to accept unexplained situations that cause us to suffer. I feel like these programmes are a little bit of “feel good” where we endure this deprivation of pleasures so that we can tick off a box. It’s all good and well and I guess it makes us stronger. But, the true surrender to God is when we accept those trials we have no control over or didn’t ask for.

  3. We need to be careful not to assign ourselves as women a special victim status that exempts us from trying difficult things. There have been women ascetics throughout history. No, E90 wouldn’t work for most women, but neither does it work for most men. Even the wives who came on here to speak well of the program acknowledged that their husbands are not following it to the letter. Nor should they.

    Just like women, men learn at puberty that they do not have complete control over their bodies. Unwanted erections, wet dreams, voice changes, etc. In general, women and men opt into parenthood the same way – through consensual intercourse. Women as a sex have been given the amazing gift of being able to nurture life before its born. That right there is the difference. How is it that women can understand ceding control better than a man whose biology forces him to cede control to his woman – she alone will be nurturing his own flesh and blood for nine months.

    Women choose every day to care for their born children. Or not. Just like men. Good parenting is a choice. There are parents choosing to take a crappy, backbreaking job at an Amazon warehouse so they can buy diapers for their kids. And then there are parents who are blowing their Amazon overtime pay on cigarettes when their kid needs a new pair of shoes.

    My husband and I are currently living a very cushy life. But there are only a few things on the E90 list that we’re not already doing. Marriage, parenthood, and now middle age don’t really go well with the excesses E90 is helping its adherents conquer. Warm showers in our house are the worm caught only by the earliest bird. And if paying tuition doesn’t count as profligate spending, we haven’t done that in more than a decade. And if I eat sugar (or just any old carbs), I know a hot flash is less than 20 minutes away so I haven’t had a cookie or a piece of bread since last summer. Nor have I consistently had 3 meals a day in a couple of years. The same is true for my husband (only his motivation for cutting out the carbs and intermittent fasting is not perimenopause – it’s keeping Type 2 at bay). But, rest assured we still have plenty of worldly comforts that keep our focus away from the Lord. Just not E90 things, which seem tailored to a very specific season of life (i.e. young, good health, no attachments) and very specific addictions (video games, leisure time, spending).

  4. Dear Simcha, thank you so much for this article. There were a few points that resonated deeply with me and helps me understand why I have concerns with this program or don’t understand. One other commenter indicated that maybe this is a program for you young unmarried men. Which I wonder to. However you stated that you have thoughts about the program I wonder if you would mind sharing them
    Thank and God Bless!

  5. I had read several other works by this author on sex and spirituality that seemed profoundly wise and faithfully presented the Church’s teaching for modern audiences, so I was not sure at first why the article bothered me so much. It seems so close to the mark, and yet so far. Perhaps I am misunderstanding how ‘ascesis’ is used in modern Western theology. But my main concern is the decision to understand ‘ascesis’ only as extreme forms of self-willed physical discipline, thereby privileging male choices and separating them from women’s experiences of suffering. In Orthodoxy and Greek Catholicism, ascesis is simply ‘training’: it is every Christian’s call to shoulder the Cross and die to oneself. Ascesis is for everyone. But ascesis will look different for different situations. Children, pregnant and nursing mothers, the sick, and the infirm elderly are not bound by strict fasting rules, yet everyone is called to do what he or she can. A person living in the world usually does not fast like a monastic. I understand that Roman Catholicism has similar rules.

    Yet the East also seems to understand that ascesis entails our spiritual response to the situation in which we find ourselves, often unwillingly: ascesis isn’t simply ‘extra’ disciplines we take on from time to time. Sickness, depression, poverty, humiliation are all opportunities for us to reach out to God. Mothers are ascetics (). An Orthodox friend of mine recently published a book on infertility, in which she suggested that our responses to infertility can be a form of ascesis. By these standards, the sufferings that women undergo physically and on behalf of their families are all opportunities for ascesis. As Fisher points out, women don’t gain wisdom and humility automatically: she implies that these gains are made by turning to God in the midst of suffering.

    I understand that Fisher’s primary aim is to remove a burden of guilt from women who feel pressured to ‘do more’, and this is a worthy aim. But by assigning ‘ascesis’ primarily to men’s experiences, this article seems to create two standards, two separate ‘male’ and ‘female’ spiritualities, and that seems deeply problematic, lest the idea creep in that men and women have different forms of salvation. We are all saved by the Son of Man, Jesus, and we all call upon the Mother of God for her intercessions. We all ‘put on Christ’ at baptism. We are all to imitate Jesus and Mary. In Lent, the Orthodox sing the Canon of St Andrew of Crete, interspersed with readings from the Life of St Mary of Egypt, the great ascetic who comes alongside us in our journey to Pascha as a model of deep humility and repentance. And there are hundreds of examples of women saints and martyrs who serve as models of asceticism to all of us, both men and women. None of these saints have lives that look exactly like mine, but their stories still give me courage and hope to train a little harder in my own unique circumstances as a woman.

  6. My sister-in-law sent me a link to Cana90, which sounds like everything I think the other “90” things should be doing and aren’t. Their whole thing is “discern WITH your spouse, and recognize that your actual state in life is already giving you a lot to work with here!” Their approach actually reminds me a lot of your “God doesn’t want to talk to a list, He wants to talk to you” which is what Exodus90 misses (as far as husbands and fathers; I have a feeling it’s a great idea for 20-something guys who need to grasp that priesthood isn’t “bachelorhood with saying Mass.”)

  7. Very very true. I’ve had similar thoughts about why (in general! In general!) women are more relationship-focused then men: I recently gave birth to our second child, in the town where we’ve lived for three years — a six-hour drive from our nearest family member. While we did have family come stay with us closer to my due, in the final weeks of pregnancy I went over and over my options for what would we would do with my oldest child (3.5 years old) if I went into labor before my family arrived. If we hadn’t made any friends in those three years we had been living there, our main option would have been my husband staying with our son while I went to the hospital. The no-friend, worst-case scenario for him would have been missing our daughter’s birth…but the same scenario for me would have meant driving myself to the hospital while in labor and then giving birth without any psychological support in the room. Ergo, the consequences of not making friends would have been much worse for me. (Luckily, we have made lots of nice friends who absolutely would have stepped up to care for our son! But the point is that those relationships are an almost biological/survival need for me in a way that they just aren’t for my husband.)

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