The 90-day challenge of asceticism and prayer is bearing extraordinary fruit in men’s lives.
Our society is desperate for good men, bold in holiness, whose actions are an antidote to the rampant cowardice and selfishness so prevalent in our culture. Such men are free to be who God created them to be, bearing in mind that true freedom is found not merely in “freedom from” restraint, but “freedom to” do what’s right:
Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude … There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. (CCC 1731, 1733)
One particularly rigorous—and thus particularly fruitful—program is a relative newcomer to the spiritual scene: Exodus 90, a 90-day spiritual exercise for men that “provides a path to freedom through prayer, asceticism, and fraternity,” said James Baxter, its co-founder and executive director.
“When we look to the Book of Exodus, we see in the Israelites a powerful image for men today,” Baxter said. “The Israelites are enslaved not because they are weak, but because they are strong and growing. As a result, the Pharaoh fears them and their taskmasters oppress them further. This is so similar to men today, who are so full of potential and power, that the Devil enslaves them to sin and worldly distractions out of fear for what they might do if they responded to God’s high calling.”
Exodus 90 began as a seminary formation program, started by a priest named Fr. Brian Doerr at Mount St. Mary’s Theological Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
“The goal was to grow in personal freedom, so that these young men might become the priests they were called to be, for God’s people,” Baxter said. “They committed to the fundamentals of our faith in a new way: a regimen of daily prayer, acts of asceticism or self-denial, and meeting together for accountability and encouragement.”
The results were telling: Many men called Exodus the most critical factor in their formation for the priesthood. After years of success, a question was raised: “If these seminarians were in need of this life-giving and liberating spiritual exercise, what about laymen everywhere who do not have the luxury of a formation house?”
Baxter got involved at that point, with the jump to opening up the program to laymen. That was less than 5 years ago, but already more than 20,000 men have taken part in the program, with thousands more joining in the next challenge, which starts on January 13.
“Most of our men start in January to end on Easter Sunday, depending on where the date falls each year,” Baxter said. “This couples together the desire for New Year’s resolutions and a penitential Lent.”
To be clear, Exodus 90 is an intense and challenging program, certainly not for the faint of heart. Here’s a list of what a man commits to doing when he signs up for it:
- Make a daily holy hour.
- Read each day’s provided scripture and reflection.
- Take short, cold showers.
- Practice regular, intense exercise.
- Get a full night’s sleep (at least seven hours is recommended).
- Abstain from alcohol.
- Abstain from desserts and sweets.
- Abstain from eating between meals.
- Abstain from soda or sweet drinks (white milk, black coffee, and black tea are permissible).
- Abstain from television, movies, or televised sports.
- Abstain from video games.
- Abstain from non-essential material purchases.
- Only listen to music that lifts the soul to God.
- Only use the computer for work, school, or essential tasks (e.g., paying bills).
- Only use mobile devices for essential communications; cut out non-essential texting, app, and internet use.
- Take Wednesdays and Fridays as days of fasting. (Abstain from meat and only eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.)
- Attend Weekly Fraternity Meetings.
- Check in with your Anchor (an accountability partner) daily.
All of this is a very tall order that would be tough for anyone, and especially a person in the midst of the world, caught up in its endless demands. Yet this is precisely why it’s so needed, and so powerful. With so many worldly comforts stripped away, men find themselves open to God’s will and finally able to hear His voice through the cacophony of daily life.
For any men intrigued by Exodus 90 but not sure if they can follow through on such a big commitment, Baxter offered the following advice:
“Exodus is challenging, but it is possible. We’ve seen tens of thousands of men make their way through with success. Three things will help to get started on the right foot: write your why, form a fraternity, and read the Field Guide. 1. Pray over why you want to make your Exodus now and whether or not the Lord is inviting you into this experience now. A good motivating reason that has been blessed by the Lord will get you through times of difficulty. 2. Make sure you’ve got a fraternity for the journey. If you are learning about this for the first time, invite 5-7 men to accompany you. Take some time in prayer to ask Christ about the men in your life that he may be calling you to invite. Think of men from work, church, school, or elsewhere in your community. Consider talking with your priest and see if he might have any suggestions or know of any fraternities in the area that are forming. Exodus is not a self-help program, and you will need your brothers when you’ve been through a Lent (40 days) and have more than another one to go! 3. Before you begin, make sure to read what we call the Field Guide. It lays out the elements and catechesis for the spiritual exercise and provides so much more to help you get started.”
Men are also encouraged to discuss the program with their wives and make sure that they are fully on board with the plan before committing to it. (More information about the impact the program has on wives and families is here.)
In less than five years, thousands of men have seen their lives change for the better through Exodus 90. Baxter shared a few stories of what men had to say about the program after completing it.
“Last week at the FOCUS conference in Phoenix, I met two men who joined religious orders, and another who became a lay missionary with FOCUS, because in their words, ‘Exodus freed me to respond generously to the Lord’s calling,’” he said.
Another man wrote, “Who knew that the secret was a simple life, that the magic happens when we rid ourselves of all of the ‘meds’ we had been giving ourselves all at once? I thought it was a recipe for failure—all those changes at one time—it was the reason it was so successful!”
As Exodus 90 continues to spread, thousands of men are growing greatly in holiness and self-denial, freeing them to become the bold and generous leaders our world needs. As their prayers and sacrifices bear fruit, and they continue to open their hearts to God’s will for them, one can only imagine the immense good that will diffuse through the world—and look forward to its lasting impact.