Maybe you don’t have to do anything.

Some of the best advice I’ve gotten in my life didn’t sound like advice at all, at the time. It sounded like soothing nothings, like meaningless truisms from someone who didn’t understand what the problem really was. But in retrospect, it was the only possible course of action.

Take, for example, the time I complained to my priest that my prayer life was basically useless, because I was so distracted and couldn’t focus for more than a second or two. He smiled and said,  “Well, just keep coming back to it.”

This advice sounded so dismissive and simplistic at the time. But years later, I have to admit that there is no other advice. There is no trick or shortcut to prayer. As soon as you’re aware that your mind has wandered, just pick up where you left off, simple as that. Prayer is only efficacious because God is listening, anyway, so you just do your best and trust Him to make something out of it.

It was hard for me to see what good advice it was because there was some hidden arrogance in my frustration. I thought my problem was so subtle and complex, there must be a subtle and complex solution for it. But it wasn’t, and there wasn’t. I just need to get over myself and try again.

Another example is something that may especially come in handy to people who are, as they say, extremely online.  Are you ready? Here’s the advice: Sometimes you don’t have to do anything but wait.

This is more or less the advice my therapist gave me when I complained to him about a terrible professional bind I was in. Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image by Antranias via Pixabay 

Doing nothing for Lent

I’ve been awfully busy lately. Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. In between activities, I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.

The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But, he says:

“When the rare slow moment came I would be overwhelmed by the range of emotions that might overtake me: wounds I’d let fester, exhaustion I’d ignored, difficult moments I’d refused to process.

“Where had all this been hiding? Had it been here all along?”

He says:

“When starting to discern becoming a Jesuit, I was forced to take more time outside of my routine to pray. For me, the revelation of silent prayer was that I wanted something different than the life that, on the surface, was quite satisfying. I realized that part of the reason I filled every waking moment with activity was that I didn’t want to listen to that voice that was calling me in a different direction.”

This isn’t exclusively the problem of a young man discerning his vocation. This is my problem. I know what my vocations are (mother, wife, writer), but it’s very possible to do all the right things according to your station in life, and still not feel entirely present in it, because you never stop doing what you do, and just be who you are. 

I hear how clichéd that sounds. It sounds like a poster in the waiting room of someone who smells like patchouli. But the danger of always doing, without ever just being, is very real. If you don’t believe me, then think how hard it is to stop doing the things you do, and just be the person you are, even for five minutes, in front of God. 

It’s hard, very hard to do. Even when we’ve turned off exterior distractions — internet, music, TV, podcasts, physical business — it’s hard to stop the mental wheel. I’ve spent entire hours literally, physically in front of Jesus at adoration, and I don’t even realize until the time is almost up that I’ve spent the whole time jabbering spiritually away, trying to phrase things right so I trap the Lord into giving me an answer or experience I can stuff in my pocket and take home with me. Or at least to fill up the time, because I feel like that’s what I’m here to do: To fill up time. To do something, rather than just to be something. 

He’s not mad at me, when I do this. He’s still glad I’m there. But I think He’s also patiently waiting for me to shut up for a minute so He can do His thing. So He can be His thing. So He can just be God, and I can be who I am, in front of God.

We resist this — or at least I do — because we are afraid. I’m afraid God will tell me that I’m not good enough, or that I need to change something radically. Or maybe I’m afraid there will be nothing, which means — what? That God doesn’t have anything to say. Or maybe He does, but not to me. At very least, I’m afraid that, when I settle and be still, the things I half-know about myself will stop flittering around my head and will land.

But I’ll tell you what, I’m also afraid of living the rest of my life disjointed from myself, with my body and soul out of synch, building my day out of layer upon layer of camouflage, always scampering around like a monkey in front of God and calling that a life. It’s exhausting. I’m tired of it. I’m so tired. 

Braithwaite describes spending time walking in a city alone. He says:

“With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and the parts where it was hard to find God. As Ignatius puts it, I was able to name the consolations and the desolations.

“I noticed the parts of my life–even the challenging ones–that left me feeling energized and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life–even the surface-level happy ones–that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.

“I didn’t solve everything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns. I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions–parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and shows and idle fretting about work—that were my preferred methods.

“Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than try to share it on an online profile. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”

Reading this, I thought to myself, “THAT PUNK!” Because he goes on to encourage us to take quiet walks through our own neighborhoods, to let the still, small voice of the Lord speak to us about who we are. Who has time for wandering around? Not me! I have kids! I have a job! I have dinner to a make and errands to run and emails to answer.

But. I do have time when I wake up in the morning. I have a few minutes where I’m coming into consciousness, and before looking at my calendar and checking all my various notifications, I can place myself in the presence of God.

I do have time in the car when, rather than turning on music, I can have some silence.

I have time when I’m cooking, when, rather than catching up on the news on my smart speaker, I can just do what I’m doing, make what I’m making.

I have time before bed, when I can lay down my novel and think through my day, with all its nonsense and joys and mistakes and frustrations and little triumphs, and, without even analyzing or summarizing or commenting on it, I can turn it all over to the Lord before I fall asleep.

For goodness sakes, I can go to the bathroom without bringing my phone with me. I don’t mean to alarm you, but if God can speak to Elijah on Mt. Horeb, he can speak to you on the toilet. 

I don’t have aimless hours where I can wander and meditate; but I do recall that, when I seek out and lean into smaller moments throughout the day, longer spans of time do tend to open up, once I’m more open to seeing them.  

Braithwaite says:

“Rather than optimize your Lent with a waistline-conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing. Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God. Maybe even while you’re eating french fries.”

Well, I’ve tried everything else, and I’m fresh out of ideas. I guess maybe it’s time to do nothing for Lent, and see how that goes.

***

[Portions of this essay first appeared in The Catholic Weekly in February of 2020.]

 
Image: Rembrandt, Sick Woman, National Gallery of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Lent movie review #1: USHPIZIN

We launched this year’s Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party last week with the Israeli movie Ushpizin (2004).

Before I say anything else, I recommend this movie if you are cold. This is one of the sunniest films I have ever seen. There’s nothing flashy about the way the movie is filmed, but you absolutely feel like you’re in the blazing hot streets of old Jerusalem. You could warm your hands by the natural light emanating from the screen. 

It’s also very emotionally warming, and I was of two minds about that.

The basic plot: A married couple, Malli and Moshe, who fairly recently converted or reverted to their strict Orthodox Jewish faith, have no child and no money, which brings them great grief. They can’t pay the rent, and they also have no means to celebrate Sukkoth, the holiday commemorating the Jews’ exodus in the desert. You’re supposed to erect a booth outside your home and eat and sleep in it, and supply it with “four species,” including a citron, some sort of highly cultivated ceremonial citrus fruit.

I didn’t really understand why Moshe and his wife Malli doesn’t have any money (he works at the temple but hasn’t been there enough lately, so they don’t pay him?), and I was a little confused about who it was who was miraculously inspired to help him; but the upshot is that the couple’s prayers are answered immediately and spectacularly.

But there’s a hitch! Along with the bounty come some guests, one of whom knows Moshe from before his conversion. This puts a strain on everyone, and how they respond to the strain just about wrecks everything. 

One thing I loved is the intimate, friendly way the couple prayed to God. The motions and rituals of their faith felt very foreign, but listen to how Moshe, almost out of hope, talks to God as he sits on a park bench:

Malli has a similarly cozy and intimate prayer life, at one point calling God “a sweet guy,” if I remember correctly. 

But the way God responds to their prayer is the thing that left me feeling a trace bit uneasy about the movie. It was difficult to know how hard to try to analyze what was happening here, because I’m so ignorant about the culture depicted. I want to say what I think it meant that the guests cut the costly citron that was supposed to bring a blessing for a baby boy, but I’m not sure I understood enough of what it meant on the literal level to analyze it on a metaphorical level.  

In any case, it’s definitely a story about trusting God in the simplest way possible, and maybe not trying to over-analyze or comprehend all the twists and turns of providence, but accepting the whole will of God as-is, including the miraculous and the mundane. The couple explicitly references Sarah and Abraham, the faith-filled but childless couple, and also more obliquely Job, the suffering but bewildered servant who accepts that he can’t comprehend God’s ways. And they’re also Moshe and Malli, who have been married five years and buy their clothes second hand. 

This is a couple who love each other so dearly and love God so affectionately and trustingly, it’s lovely to see — and excruciating when those relationships are under stress. In their particular story, they want some things very desperately, and when they pray hard enough, God gives it to them. I have not noticed that this is how it works in real life! But this is a fairy tale or maybe a folk tale.

It’s also very much a beginning. The couple is fairly young in their faith and their life together. Maybe God is showering bounty on them to give them a good start, and it seems very likely that this couple will be up to the challenges the rest of their life together will surely bring, when prayers don’t get answered so directly.

There is also some gentle exploration of what it means to belong to a community, and whether or not it can be righteous to violate the norms. Moshe and Malli are willing to be a little transgressive because they think it’s the best way to serve God, but they also very much draw their strength from the mandates of the community, which is portrayed with utter respect even as its flaws are revealed. Interesting stuff. 

It’s also a very funny movie, with a kind of childlike goofiness that many people don’t realize is very typical of Jewish culture. The couple are married in real life (Moshe, played by Shuli Rand, wrote the screenplay, but neither had acted before), and the connection between them is authentic and familiar. Lots of wonderful, very human relationships in the movie, between friends, between people who don’t trust each other, between elders and the people they advise, between people who feel more or less comfortable in this tiny, intense community.      

We watched the movie on Amazon prime but it’s currently streaming on several different platforms for a few dollars [where to watch]. If nothing else, it will cure you of the idea that orthodox Jews, with all their elaborate rituals and whatnot, use ceremony or spiritual formulas to replace a relationship with God. It’s so tender, intimate, in turn agonizing and joyful — and, as I said, sunny.

Suitable for all ages, although it does have subtitles. Lots of smoking, so if you’re a quitter, watch out. 

Up next: Probably Song of Bernadette, which several people have noted supplies more than you’d expect from the Golden Age of Catholic Hollywood. 

Why do we pray for healing from saints who were not healed?

Every once in a while, you’ll come across someone who giggles at the Catholic practice of honoring a saint on the day of his death, rather than on the day of his birth. They assume this means that Catholics are creepy and morbid (which, okay, is kind of true) or that Catholics are metal and hardcore (which is also sometimes true). Or that Catholics are just kind of weird (which is definitely true).

Of course the real reason we venerate a saint on the day of his death is that it is his birth day: The day of his birth into eternal life.

I was thinking of this when someone posted a prayer request for a friend battling cancer. She mentioned the name of the patron saint of cancer patients, and it suddenly occurred to me how strange that is:  The patron saint died of cancer, and that’s how she became the one we pray to when we want someone to survive cancer. Kind of weird!

There is not, as far as I can tell, any official system for how a saint acquires patronage, but it’s common for them to become the patron saint of the thing that killed them (or of people dealing with the thing that killed them). They’re often portrayed with the thing that killed them — a wheel, a sword — perhaps giving the impression that that thing is what they set out to make their life about. “Hey, it’s-a me, the axe in the head guy!” they seem to say.

But of course it’s the Catholics left behind after their death who decided that that would be Their Main Thing. This is clearly related to the idea that their feast day is the day they died. If it was cancer that killed them, then cancer is the thing that freed them from mortality and let them enter into eternal life. If it was leprosy that killed them, then leprosy was their ticket to heaven. And so on.

Or is that it? I think this view misses the mark and makes Catholics into the morbid, death-loving ghouls we’re sometimes accused of being. If Catholics were 100 per cent on board with the idea that the thing that kills you is the best thing that ever happened to you, then why would we, for instance, ask the patron saint of cancer patients to intercede for the healing of cancer patient?

Because that is what we do: We don’t pray, “O dear Saint Mervintrude, patron of wheelbarrows, my friend is in the hospital after having been run over by a rogue wheelbarrow. Please let him die soon.” Instead, we pray, “Please restore him to life and health.”

So which is it? Do Catholics yearn for a holy death in the company of saints who also died that way, or do Catholics look for escape from death through the intercession of saints who didn’t escape?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image of Peter of Verona, the axe-in-head guy via Wikimedia Commons  license

Don’t bother lying to God

When my mother was a new Christian, she was in with a crowd that put great stock in outward appearances. Since she had many more kids and much less money than everyone else, she felt horribly self-conscious about her house, which was shabby and cluttered despite her constant housekeeping. She got in the habit of saying, if someone stopped by, “Oh, please excuse the house. We’ve been away all day and I haven’t had a chance to tidy up!” or “Sorry about the mess around here! The kids have been sick and I’m so behind.”

Then one day, she just got sick of it. The smarmiest, must judgmental neighbor of all happened to drop in, and she said, “Well, I’m sorry about the house. This is how we live.”

I wish I knew the rest of the story. Did the judgy woman gasp and flee? Did she tell everyone that Mrs. P. lives like a pig and isn’t even ashamed of it? Did she (it’s possible) think, “Wow, that’s kind of refreshing. Someone just told me the truth”? It’s possible that the woman was even grateful that someone trusted her with some difficult information. It’s possible she went away and asked herself why it was that people felt they needed to lie to her.

Telling the truth is says something about us, and also something about the person we’re talking to. When we tell the truth, its a risk to ourselves, but also a great compliment to them.

The older I get, the less patience I have for people who try to shine me on. It feels rude to be lied to. Do you think I’m too dumb to know the truth? Too weak? Too shallow? Who has time for pretense? There’s so much nonsense in the world that we can’t get around. Why add to it by pretending to be someone we’re not?

I’ll tell you something. God is even older than I am, and he has even less interest in hearing lies. My brother Joe tells about a priest who had a big problem. And he was mad. Mad at the world, mad at his situation, and mad at God. So every day, he went into the adoration chapel, knelt before the Sacrament, and told the truth: “I don’t love you, God.”

Every day, every day he did this. Until one day he said it, and he realized it wasn’t true anymore.

I’d like to know the rest of that story, too. I do know that it’s never useful to lie to God. It’s never useful to lie to ourselves about what our relationship with God is. It’s never useful to run away from God, and refuse to talk to him, if we feel like we can’t say the right things or feel the right things. No one has time for that, and it’s an insult to God to even try it. If you feel like you have to hide, then tell him that. If you feel that he’s not fair, tell him that. If you aren’t even sure he exists, tell him that. There’s no time for anything less than the truth.

Utter honesty is a luxury we do not always have with the rest of the world. Civility, duty, and charity often demand that we reserve such blunt honesty from other people, at least most of the time. So do what you need to do when you’re presenting yourself to the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s appropriate to lay it all out there; sometimes you will want or need to be a little more guarded.

But not with God. Never with God. Go ahead and tell him, as you open your front door, “This is just how I live.” It doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility of changing things, if that’s what needs to happen; but God will not help you change until you are willing to talk to him about where you are. He is a gentleman. He only comes in where He is invited. Honesty is an invitation he always accepts.

***
This essay was originally published in 2016.

Image By Miguel Discart (2014-04-05_14-13-49_NEX-6_DSC08220) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

This Lent, be quiet

What to do for Lent? That question reminds me of that old joke about the two seminarians. One of them asks the bishop if it would be okay to smoke while praying.

“No,” his excellency answered sternly. “When you’re praying, you should be giving your whole heart and attention to God.”

Seminarian walks out gloomily and sees another seminarian pacing up and down the courtyard with his breviary, puffing happily on a cigarette the whole time. The first seminarian tells him, “Don’t let the bishop see you smoking while you pray!”

“No, it’s fine,” the second one replies. “I just asked him if it would be appropriate to pray while I was smoking,” and he said, “Yes, my son. That would be most salutary. Pray all the time!”

There are a few different morals here. One is that many seminarians are punks, and there’s a reason they have to be in school for seven years before they’re released out into the wild. The second moral is that bishops . . . well, you don’t want to know what I think about bishops. Let’s move along.

The third moral is that both seminarians were pretty caught up in what they were supposed to be doing, with their hearts and minds and hands (and lungs), and neither one (at least in the space of the joke) is putting a lot of thought into what they are supposed to be . . . being. And even though I smoked my last cigarette 17 years ago, that part feels very familiar.

Even on a lazy day, I’m busy busy busy, accomplishing this, working hard at avoiding that, distracting myself with this, putting a lot of effort into putting off thinking about that, praying this devotion, avoiding that one. I was scrolling through Facebook on my distraction machine this morning, and came across a short essay that smacked me right between the eyes: A Not-So-Radical Proposal for Your Lenten Season: Do Nothing.

The author, Jake Braithwaite, SJ, describes how his life was jam packed with busyness. And he was busy doing good things: working, studying, spending time with friends. But . . .

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

Image: elisandropootcarrillo (pixabay.com) (Creative Commons)

In praise of litanies

When my spiritual life needs a shot in the arm, I sometimes turn to litanies. Many Catholics only encounter litanies on All Saint’s Day, perhaps leaving Mass with the impression that a litany is a prayer for when you have a short amount of time and a giant crowd to propitiate, sort of like a spiritual credits page that scrolls past in tiny print to fulfill your contractual obligation. St Key Grip, pray for us! All rights reserved, Amen.

But there are so many more litanies, and more kinds of litanies, than the litany of saints — which, by the way, is itself so much more than a list, and which has been prayed in one form or another for over 1500 years. The Litany of Saints was first recorded in the time of Gregory the Great around the year 600. According to one source,

“In 590 Pope Gregory was moved by the occurrence of a great pestilence that followed an inundation, and ordered a Litania Septiformis (‘sevenfold procession’): clergy; laity; monks; virgins; matrons; widows; and the poor and children. It was in one of these Litania Septiformis, in celebration of the end of the plague, that the Litany of the Saints was introduced.”

I’d like to see that! Imagine processing down the streets invoking the names of all the blessed — many of whom would have been martyrs — proclaiming to the world that you’re grateful to them and to God that you’re still breathing. That really brings home how personal the communion of saints truly is.

Of course the form of a litany is older than the Catholic Church. Every year at our Passover seder, we recite the sort of wellspring of all litanies, Psalm 136, and it is very good indeed to say the words that the children of Abraham have been saying faithfully for thousands and thousands of years: His mercy endures forever. I love how it slides so casually from the cosmic to the specific. We say:

“To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:
The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:
The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

and then later in the same prayer:

“To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

Poor Og of Bashan! That’s all I ever knew about him, but I’ll never forget him. Even Og could have the mercy of the Lord, if he wanted it.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: By Byzantinischer Maler um 1020 – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148590

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. 
 
****
****
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. 

What kind of woman veils at Mass?

Imagine you are a millennial Catholic woman. You are at Mass, kneeling at the altar rail, waiting to receive Christ in the Eucharist. As you peer at the high altar through your lace mantilla, your heart burns with love.

And into your back burns the searing hot gaze of that weird dude in the pew behind you—the one who once cornered you after confession to let you know your modesty is smoking hot.

I am not making this up. That really did happen to a friend of mine. And, based on a recent meme posted to the Facebook group Traditional Catholic Millennials, her experience may not be unique. The group, which has over 20,000 members, posted a photo of three young women kneeling at an altar rail, veiled and apparently in prayer. The emoji-littered meme exclaimed:

Looking for a good husband? [shrugging emoji] Want to be irresistible to Catholic men?? Simple!

[heart eye heart eye] VEIL! It’s a SMOKING HOT

Trad magnet! [fire fire] #Truth

#GetAHusband #NotPC

And the photo description read:

#BringOnTheTrollArmies TRIGGER WARNING:

It’s so true!!!! Holy men LOVE virtue and reverence for the Eucharist! Inner beauty is SMOKING HOT! [heart eye, panting emoji panting emoji heart laughing/crying fire] Externals show it. Buy one Here: https://www.veilsbylily.com/

Because God forbid there be one hour per week when a woman is not forced to deal with the consequences of whether or not men find her hot.

The cognitive dissonance was jarring if you are not familiar with the bizarre netherworld of outré ultra traditionalists, where pants are verboten because their pockets form a visual arrow pointing to the crotch; where working outside the home is stealing time from your family, but incessantly tweeting about collarbones and hemlines is doing God’s work; and where feminine modesty is a great way to advertise your…modesty.

If this makes any sense to you, I am telling it wrong.

The good news is, it does not make sense to a good many traditionalists, either, millennial or otherwise, and they found the “smoking hot veil” meme revolting and ridiculous. Lily Wilson herself, the founder of Veils by Lily, the website that was promoted in the post, told the group to take the meme down, which they eventually did.

Ms. Wilson thinks the contingent of traditionalist Catholics who objectify women and fetishize veils are in the minority.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine

Photo by kilarov zaneit on Unsplash