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

What’s the deal with Exodus 90? My interview with James Baxter

 
It’s a highly regimented program that requires guys to commit to daily holy hours and structured weekly meetings with other enrollees for prayer, accountability, and encouragement. But it’s the ascetic practices that get the most press. For ninety days, men who enroll take cold showers, exercise vigorously, sleep seven hours a night, don’t consume alcohol, sweets, snacks, or sweet drinks, don’t watch TV or movies or sports, and don’t play video games; they don’t make non-essential purchases, they only listen to “music that lifts the soul to God,” they only use the computers and mobile devices when necessary, and they fast and abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays.
 
The non profit program “summons men back to the foundations of their faith, stripping them of worldly addictions and reinvigorating their devotion to Christ.” The ninety days may not be long enough to conquer a lifetime of bad habits, but it’s long enough to establish a “roadmap to freedom.”
 
I’ve heard Catholic men say that the program turned their lives around and redirected them toward Christ and family when they’d let bad habits and even grave sin take over their lives. I’ve heard women say that their husbands finished the ninety days more grounded, humble, prayerful, and focused on family life than ever before. 
 
And I’ve heard men say that they were bullied and shamed into joining, and that they found the program to be just one more muscle-flexing club of swaggering and one-upsmanship, with a thin spiritual veneer. I’ve heard women say that they didn’t want their husbands to do it, but he insisted he needed to for his spiritual health, and now he won’t watch movies with her or have a glass of wine; he harasses her to get off her phone because he’s not on his, insists on special meals, and never has time to help her with the kids because there’s always a meeting to go to with his spiritual brothers; and on top of that, he’s cranky all the time because of the things he had to give up. 
 
I’ve heard holy and sensible priests rave about the wonderful spiritual fruits it’s bearing for their flock, and I’ve heard arrogant and foolish priests rave about how it’s transforming soft, effeminate guys into Real Catholic Men. 
 
I didn’t know what to think, so I called up James Baxter, the 28-year-old Executive Director and Co-Founder of Exodus 90, and asked him some questions. Here’s our conversation. 
 
How did you come to be involved with Exodus 90?
 
I went to seminary right out of high school, at age 18. A mentor started me on [this program]. He had been doing it [with seminarians] for about three years, and he said that this program had been fruitful. I discerned the Lord was calling me to secular life. He said, “What if we share this with laymen who don’t have the community of the seminary? Maybe you could get to work on that.” 
 
Was the original program for all seminarians, or some particular group with particular struggles?
 
At the beginning, from what I understand, it was just five guys, all young men who had been struggling with purity in one form or another. It was so fruitful for them, the priest started ten other groups with fifty men over the next few years. It started as an experiment, and multiplied from there. 
 
What changes were made when it was adapted for laymen?
 

To be honest, we didn’t change much [at first]. That was partly due to my ignorance, because I was newly out of seminary. I didn’t know any better. I never saw my role to change what was working, but to share what was working, with one exception: They were meeting more frequently, and that was untenable. 

Most [enrolled men] are laymen, married with children. We encourage our men to meet one time per week, in a short, structured way. 
 
Is there some particular reason this program is especially needed in the year 2020?
 
No one knows about the ascetic tradition of the Church. Few people can even say the word. We had a decision to make. We ended up redefining and re-presenting it. In 2020, it’s been important for us to re-present that important part of our faith, reframing asceticism in a positive way, not a self-demeaning way. 
 
Set the clock back 100 years, and a lot of what we’re proposing [would have been] baked into daily life. Life is now easier, quicker, faster, more comfortable. Sometimes Exodus can be framed as very intense, but it’s very simple stuff. It’s not that challenging once you get into the rhythm of it. 
 
We’d been going along just fine, with a few thousand guys doing the program. Then things broke out last year, and about 10,500 men joined between January and March. With the sex abuse crisis blowing up, men wanted a way to kind of channel their desire for greater holiness and reform in the Church, and they looked to Exodus to accomplish that. I didn’t expect that. That really drove the attraction to the message of freedom we’ve been trying to share. 
 
Is there some specific kind of man who would especially benefit from going through the program?
 

The values of prayer, asceticism, and community, with accountability and encouragement, are so important for every tradition. These values are important for every Christian. But we’re not claiming, “Do this or you’re not Christian.” We would never say anything like that. 

But if these values and principles are not in your faith, then let it begin, and you can let Exodus be your springboard. 

Are there people who would not benefit from the program or who should steer clear? 
 

It’s not for guys with scruples. When we meet men that struggle with that, it could cause them greater anxiety, and that’s not what God wants for you. 

Some guys come to it as if it’s a twelve-step program. We’re front and center that it’s not an addiction program.

My goals are not only about reaching more men, but about supporting men better, and offboarding men who are looking for something, and they found Exodus, but it’s not for them. [We want to be] getting them with a therapist, a spiritual director, support resources within their communities. 

 
What role does a spiritual director play?
 
At the beginning, the ideal was to have priests leading all these groups, but that became untenable. The director is there to keep the train going, to keep presenting the fundamental message of freedom, to offer basic exhortations. To remind everyone what this is about and to keep their eyes fixed on the Lord. In parishes, we’ve seen all kinds of interesting models.
 
Diocesan priests who don’t have great community have been really blessed using Exodus to form priestly communities. We encourage priests to do it with other priests for greater accountability and vulnerability, with men who understand their circumstances. 
 
Is there oversight to keep the experience uniform from group to group, or is there a lot of variation in how it’s carried out? 
 
Here is what makes for a successful fraternity: One, you know what you’re getting into; two, you’ve got a good fraternity of solid men, and it’s not just some machismo exercise; and three, you have the “why.” [You ask:] Is the Lord calling you? What do you want to get out of this? If you’re just going through the motions, it’s not going to take you anyplace you need to go. 
 
When I meet guys through our program, sometimes they’re disappointed by how not-hardcore I am. They expect me to be chest beating. That’s a stereotype of men generally and of ministry for men in the Church. But if you know anything about me, that’s not who I am or how I work. It’s certainly not informing what we’re trying to do. 
 
We’re not trying to be this elite group or the Navy Seals of Catholics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The common thread is a desire for greater freedom, and that takes humility. If I’ve got idols that keep me from intimacy with the Lord and my family, I need to offer that to God so I can be a better spouse and family man. 
 
Yet I’ve heard women say that the program harms their marriage. Their husbands refuse the food they prepare, harass them not to spend time on their phones, don’t get up to help with childcare at night because they need their 7 hours, and seem to value brotherhood with the group more than family time, and that it alienates them because they can’t watch movies together, can’t have a drink together, can’t text. They also say that the required time for study, exercise, and fellowship means time away from family. Is this a problem you’re aware of?
 
Yes, I’m aware. Yes, I’m concerned. I just had my first son, and the idea of not getting up with your son at night hurts me, it pains me. I’ll be thinking about that. 
 
This [was originally] a seminary program, and the frame of marriage and family wasn’t there from the start. For example, the first program didn’t say anything about going to confession or going to the Eucharist. We presumed they would, because it was the seminary. It was the same kind of thing with marriage. 
 

So last year, we overhauled the onboarding. We have this comprehensive section about the Exodus man and his bride. One, how important it is to communicate what this entails with your spouse. If she’s not on board and it’s going to cause a rupture, don’t do Exodus!

Two, Exodus is your sacrifice. It’s not meant to be this burden you throw on anyone else. That’s basic. That’s how the Church presents penances. It’s not meant to be a show. 
 
Say your wife does something . . . say she prepared a meal and she wants you to eat meat, or she wants you to watch TV with her. You should do it. We highlighted that from the feedback we got.  
 
But if guys do struggle with distraction, or working too much, or watching too much sports, [their wives] are going to appreciate this [program]. But [if she doesn’t want her husband to do it], it doesn’t matter if her reasons are great or not. It shouldn’t be disruptive to the marriage. 
 
Why do you say this program is not for women, and you don’t endorse any program that’s been adapted for women?
 
The business folks in my life said it was a huge opportunity, and we should do that. But the whole program presumes you’re a man, and fatherhood is your destiny in one form or another. There’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community; but we’ve written this expression of it for men. 
 
Last year this came to a head. “Where’s your women’s program?” There’s only three full-time guys on this, we’re already trying hard to keep up. 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. 
 
All the women in my life are so much more rooted than most of the men are. Suffering is increasingly absent from most men’s life, but that’s not true for women. They are much more in touch with their own spirits than men are with theirs. It’s not that this is below women, but they’re kind of above this.  
In terms of the spin-offs: I’m not sure what to make of it. There are many each year. Some of them get bigger than others. 
 
My frustration goes back to what we said earlier: The Church has done a beautiful job of teaching about the complementarity of the sexes. But in application, it doesn’t get fully lived out. 
 
What happens if you start the program and you’re still in the middle of it when Easter comes? Do you just keep on being ascetic, despite what the liturgical calendar says?
 
On Sundays and solemnities, you relax a single discipline during the course of Exodus. Our encouragement is to follow the liturgical calendar. The vast majority of men come in at the beginning of the year. 
 
If most people are honest with themselves about how they celebrate solemnities, they’re not doing it well. They’re doing whatever they would like. In the past, solemnities didn’t run roughshod over ascetic practices. If what you call “celebration” looks like gluttony, then Exodus is going to be a threat.
 
It’s important to listen to why people are so much more excited about Advent than they are about Christmas. Advent is so great, but then you get tired of Christmas after you do it for six days. Some of it has to do with our religious practices getting thrown to the wind in the spirit of celebration. 
 
 
It looks like it’s pitting men against women. Did you change this because of criticism, or because you no longer believe it represents what you do?
 
That article is not on our site for a reason. I took it off. It’s not a great representation of where we are today and where we want to go. That article is from the first site, from 2016, and I guess it just stayed there. I don’t have much to say other than it’s not on our site now for a reason.
 
Over 50% of our guys are under the age of 34. That’s an anomaly in men’s ministry. When we look at what attracts young men, I don’t think that kind of [masculinity vs. femininity] stuff really speaks to young men’s hearts. They crave authenticity, a place to be real, a place to be known. This is why we’re flourishing in a way that few other men’s apostolates are. 
 
When we look at the sexes as though it’s a war, and not through the lens of complimentary, we’re not seeing them through the eyes of God. I don’t want to defend that article. That’s why it’s not on our site. 
 
And yet, for instance, Taylor Marshall’s name is on your site, and he’s known for talking a lot about rejecting feminization in the Church. He did that thing where he made fun of seminarians for making gingerbread houses. So you can see why people make the association between Exodus 90 and the kind of men’s groups that do seem to be at war with women. 
 
We rely on media partners to get the word out for us. I don’t do enough telling of our own story. If you listen to that podcast I did with Taylor Marshall, it’s [about] a presentation of freedom through the lens of his testimony. It’s for freedom that Jesus Christ set us free. He didn’t bring up anything like what you mention. 
 
People are going to try to frame the work we’re doing, because of the media partners that share our work. But I hope they listen to us
 
EDIT Jan 15, 5:28
Baxter has asked me to amend his answer. The original version as published is accurate transcription of our conversation, but I am adding his additional commentary as a courtesy, as he does not wish to distance himself from Taylor Marshall. Baxter’s addition is as follows:Your question presumes that Dr. Taylor Marshall is on a “war with women” when he speaks about the feminization of the Church. That’s not true, nor do I believe that to be a fair treatment of him or his work or his mission in the Church today. If you listen to the interview I did with Dr. Marshall, it’s [about] a presentation of freedom through the lens of his testimony. Not many know this, but his testimony (in our first year) shaped me profoundly and how we are going about our work. In it, he shared about the movements he experienced through the ninety-day process. And we have observed them now in thousands of other men. This is why we call Exodus a spiritual exercise and not another program. There’s a spiritual depth to Dr. Marshall that matches his intellect and that has always struck me. I am grateful for him and his help in sharing our mission with men that otherwise would not have heard it.

 
Are you affiliated with Legion of Christ in any way? Is your program inspired by Legion spirituality? 
 
We are not. We have a relationship, but not an affiliation. Frankly, a lot of guys in the Legion of Christ took to Exodus in past year, and the Legion priests took notice, and supported it in their apostolate.
 
That’s what’s been so amazing to me in the last five years. We promise we’re not the next Knights of Columbus. We’re not trying to take your men away. Your men will be more free for the charism or mission you have for them. Exodus layers beautifully into preexisting apostolates. That’s why our site has a lot of partners. We don’t even list half of them. 
 
I’m frequently in contact with people who, if they knew who else I was in contact with, they would be skeptical. But there’s nothing political about us. We are entirely independent. 
 
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My take: In our conversation, James Baxter struck me as sincere and forthright, and very focused on doing the Lord’s work. He answered all my questions as thoroughly as he could, and humbly thanked me more than once for asking the more probing questions.
 
I looked through some of the materials that members have access to, and they look solid, thorough, sensible, and sometimes very illuminating, and they are clear that they provide a roadmap for freedom, not a guarantee of success; and I liked that it strives to exhort men to goodness without resorting to shame as a motivator. 
 
The portion guiding men through talking over the program with their wives was okay but limited, and perhaps overly optimistic about how easily couples communicate and solve differences. I could easily imagine a selfish or immature man distorting the recommendations to bulldoze over her wishes and the good of the family.  I hope that future programs will put more emphasis on the idea that the wife may be a better judge than the husband about whether the burden on the family is too great.
 
I was very encouraged at Baxter’s insistence that the program is not for everybody, and by his awareness that they need to put more emphasis on helping men discern if the program is right for them before the sign on, and more emphasis on helping men find other programs or help if Exodus 90 isn’t right for them. This is one of the marks of a real apostolate that seeks to serve, rather than hungering for more members at any cost. 
 

Because of the rapid growth of the program, and because it’s for laymen and doesn’t involve trained leaders, the information they put out is very vulnerable to misuse, and I’m not sure what can be done about that. There will be some bad groups full of bad guys encouraging each other to do bad things; and there are almost certainly groups that are overly focused on fitness and self-improvement, rather than on sacrifice and surrender to God. I believe this happens. I also believe that some of the groups are places where the Holy Spirit does great things and really transforms lives and families. 

  The group does seem to be taking surveys and making changes accordingly, which is a very healthy sign. They are at pains not to affiliate themselves directly with anyone, left or right, and seem willing to be misunderstood if it allows a wider net to be cast. 

I loved that they refrained from slapping together and marketing a women’s version, and that, when exploring the possibility of making a women’s version, they did not ever intend to write one themselves, but instead sought out the discernment of other women they trusted. (He told me the name of the order of sisters, and they are trustworthy.)
 
I agree with the notion that modern men can very easily fall into a life without physical or spiritual challenges; but that modern women still tend to encounter early on the idea that suffering is inescapable. There are, of course, female ascetics, and modern women do live relatively comfortable lives; but I take his point that this is something that men especially need. I could use some ascesis myself, but I doubt this particular program would do much besides mess with my head. 
 
I wish they would insist that men get their wives’ permission before signing up. (For the record, I would also wish a wife to get her husband’s permission before signing up for something that would affect the family for three months.) If I understand the materials right, a husband is supposed to prayerfully discern whether signing up would be in the family’s best interest, and then do his best to explain his decision to her, and reassure her that it won’t be a bad thing. I wish they would make it very clear that pressuring your wife to agree to something serious but optional is never a loving act. They do a pretty good job of reinforcing the idea that a married man’s vocation is served by serving his family; but since it’s the kind of program that will naturally appeal to more conservative types who are perhaps less prone to listen to their wives, I think they have a special obligation to make it crystal clear, over and over (not just in the beginning and the end) that it’s unacceptable to decide to make your wife unhappy in the name of God. 
 

The marketing overpromises, and is a bit obnoxious. “90 Days to a More Holy, More Healthy, More Manly You!” says a social media ad.

“In just 90 days, you’ll
-get rid of the habits that enslave you
-find true freedom in Christ
-strengthen your spiritual life and relationships”

says the poster in the parish kit.

I mean, maybe you will, maybe you won’t. I guess a little rinky dink is just how you sell stuff, and I don’t really have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the way some guys are pushing other guys to join, insinuating (or just stating) that only lesser man would refuse to take up this challenge. That’s pretty prevalent, unfortunately; but it doesn’t seem to be coming from inside the program itself (at least not since they took down that garbagey page about men who don’t want to be impotent and domesticated). Maybe that’s something they need to swat down more explicitly. I know it drives a lot of guys away, and maybe some of them would really have benefitted from signing on. 

The merchandise and website designs are clean and rugged, but not studded with ludicrously macho imagery (swords, grenades, targets, barbed wire) like so many Catholic men’s organizations. This may seem trivial, but I think it’s significant. 
 
Overall, if my opinion counts for anything, I think Exodus 90 looks like a potentially good thing that should get better as they continue to develop it. It sounds like it can be distorted to harm people, but what valuable thing cannot? It sounds like you will get out of it what you put into it.