Do women need ascesis?

A few years ago, I interviewed James Baxter, 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 Baxter’s 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. 

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

When women hit puberty and realize that menses are their fate for the next 30 or 40 years, they get smacked right across the face with the notion that their bodies are not under their control, and there are larger forces at work in their lives. They learn that, while there may be things you can do to mitigate suffering and helplessness, you won’t be able to escape it entirely, and the best you can hope for is to either replace it with a different kind of suffering, or just to accept it and try to become stronger through it.

(I’m not even going to talk about sex, here. Hey, maybe someone should write a book about that.)

Then if they get pregnant, intentionally or not, the next nine months hammer that lesson home: Your body is not your own. Your life is not your own. What you do affects other people, even possibly fatally. At the same time, this thing that is so very intimate is also very much out of your control. Life can happen within you. Death can happen within you. Very often, there is nothing you can do.

Then comes childbirth, with its unpredictability, its glory and its terror.  Like grandmother Mary Rommely said, “When a woman gives birth, death holds her hand for a little while. Sometimes he doesn’t let go.”

Show me a woman who feels the same about life before and after giving birth, and I’ll show you . . . I don’t know what I’ll show you, because I’ve never seen it.

Then comes raising a child, and learning to live with the idea that every effort you make to nurture this child goes toward the loss of that child. Helping your baby to grow means helping your baby to grow away from you. Every inch of life is an inch toward loss. You’re simultaneously responsible for the life of another human, and forced to accept that you cannot protect them from suffering and sorrow.

Motherhood means understanding they will die without you, and also your whole work is to teach them to live without you. You’re constantly preparing your own heart to be broken.


Women already know they are not in control. Women already know their bodies are going to let them down. Women already know that life is shot through with loss and helplessness. Women already know you can’t always make things better by trying really hard. Women already know that God is immense and that they are very small. Women already know that God can make Himself small to be within us.

Or at least they can know these things, just by paying attention to the things that happen to them over the course of a lifetime.

Women are, as we all know, fully capable of strolling through womanhood vapid and selfish and shallow. They can flee from the reality of the suffering and loss that are baked into human life, and many do.

But the thing is, they do have to actively flee from it, because it’s front and center, inside and outside and all around them, every day.

It’s not so for men.

Don’t get me wrong: Men suffer. Individual men suffer, some at an early age; and manhood presents its unique trials and deprivations. Life asks a lot of men, and without the personal, sometimes brutal sacrifices of men on behalf of people they care for, life would grind to a halt. So you don’t have to start yelling at me about firemen and soldiers and guys who uncomplainingly stand in ankle-deep freezing water while their wives are snugly home in bed.

But, in general (in general! in general!), men must actively choose to take on these sacrifices. They must decide to accept suffering. They must be willing to step into a role where they lay down their lives for other people: To work for other people, to put their bodies in the way of danger, to deny themselves, to take responsibility for their own behavior. It’s a choice.

It’s not that life is harder for women than for men. Everybody’s life is hard! It’s that women have to opt out of suffering, whereas men have to opt in.

And that, perhaps, is why spiritual guides for women are less apt to insist on a lot of regimented self-denial and ascesis as the road to God: Everybody needs it, but men often need a push to go down that road, whereas God has (in general! in general!) already set these things in front of women, and we find Him in learning how to accept them with grace, rather than with fear, anger, and resentment.

So, while I could certainly use some ascesis in my currently rather soft life, I don’t think I really need the lesson that ascesis is meant to teach. I already know it, because I’m a woman.

Well, what do you think?  I will readily admit that this is half-baked idea, but every woman I’ve talked to knows exactly what I’m talking about.


Photo by Daniela Fazendeiro
A version of this essay was originally published at The Catholic Weekly on March 4, 2020.

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9 thoughts on “Do women need ascesis?”

  1. Sounds true and freeing to me.
    Every Lent I feel left behind when my hubby fasts on bread and vegetables when I’m barely able to giving up on chocolate.
    Then I remember everything I had to give up (and hope will have again to !) when pregnant. Birth pain. Sleep deprivation when breastfeeding. Having to carry a todler with a sore shoulder.

    I remember one night when baby #1 was 3 m old and hubby away at workall week long. I had an horrible toothache and anxiety over the roofs. I lived in constant fear to throw the baby out the window. All I wanted was sleep more than 3 hours a row. Yet I had to wake up and take care of the baby.
    That’s when I realized I did not need to go far away on a ministry or wake up at night to pray in order to follow Christ. My cross was there.
    It’s easier to do penance you chose than bearing weaknesses and trials that just happened to fall on you. Yet these sufferings opened gates on my heart that could not be opened when I was the selfish young student who felt so pious for waking early on Sunday morning to pray one hour.

    1. “It’s easier to do penance you chose than bearing weaknesses and trials that just happened to fall on you. Yet these sufferings opened gates on my heart that could not be opened when I was the selfish young student who felt so pious for waking early on Sunday morning to pray one hour.”

      Very well said! I learned this too.

  2. I’ve heard (but it might just be one of those pseudo-anthropological ideas that people repeat) that tribal cultures often have trials and rituals through which boys achieve manhood, but no trials are required for girls (although they may still have rituals) because menarche signals the beginning of womanhood, with its inherent trials.

  3. I don’t know how this adds to the conversation, but I have never had so much control over my hormones as when I deny myself all sugar and grains. I can do full on water only fasts for days on end (it’s not easy, but I can do it. It would be unthinkable if I were to try to fast after having had even a single slice of toast, because bread just leaves me hangry, hangry, hangry). Personally speaking, there’s always been an easy predictability to my cycle, but I’ve heard anecdotally from other extreme low carb women that complete denial of sugar (including many fruits) and grains brings about an easy, pain free cycle within a month or two.

    Every time I read that asceticism list for Exodus 90, I conclude that it’s a list targeted primarily at young, childless people, probably mostly gamer types, who, I believe, are predominantly men. It’s sort of funny (cute, even) to many of us caregivers that a full night’s sleep would be on a list of anything other than luxuries. And what would eliminating non-necessary mobile communication with a child or a spouse look like? Unhealthy, I’d say. Or would all interfamily communication be considered necessary? Then where’s the sacrifice? I maintain that the E90 asceticism is a young, single person’s list.

    1. Eh…I’ve poked around their site, and I’m not sure I agree. Granted, my husband has never participated in it, but the site is loaded with things like “your wife MUST be on board with this before you commit” , “If you’re doing something with your family that technically violates the guidelines, the needs of your family take precident” and “Discern whether this is a good time to take this on; if there’s other obligations you need to fulfill, then that’s the cross you’re being asked to carry.” The original program was written by young single guys, but at least a couple of them have since gotten married and it seems like they’re doing their best to recognize that family life is complicated and not a one sized fits all thing. And it’s a broad enough list (cold showers, no video games (my husband still plays them and we’ve been married eight years), no sweets, no alcohol, no Monday night football ) that I think someone not able to do all of it could still do a lot of it.

      I think the idea is to do as much as you can and form a community with other men who are also trying to be holy. Which…I think a lot of men need that.

  4. It was very healing for me to encounter this when you initially published it. I also read a writer somewhere who noted that when Jesus and Paul are telling people to embrace self-denial, it would have been understood at the time that they were really focused on telling the men. I spent 13 years married to an abuser, and eight years fighting for an annulment all the way up to the Rota, and the last thing I needed was people telling me that I needed to deny myself more.

  5. I think men are confronted with the idea of self denial before women. Because *in general* the impulses and desires that are baked in and natural to most young men *in general* are impulses that immediately need to be tempered and controlled. A woman will most likely become less selfish the moment she becomes a mother but a young man has already been practicing self denial for most of his life. I think we are dismissive of men’s suffering because we believe that they should not have to suffer. “No normal person would just want to have sex with every other woman they see.” “No normal person would want to throat punch a person for getting in their way.” But the impulses for sex and violence are what keep the world going round and the bad guys away. And men are shamed for even having to fight against their impulses.

    I agree with your assessment of women’s struggles though, in general.

    1. uh huh. But there’s a big difference between “You have this tremendous power and you need to learn how to control it” and “you are ultimately powerless and you need to learn to accept it.”

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