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Men challenge one another with Lenten ascetic practices


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John Burger - published on 03/13/21

Giving up comfort might include cold showers or carrying weights.

“What are you giving up for Lent?” is a common question Catholics hear around Ash Wednesday. We’ve come to expect answers representing specific material objects: sweets, alcoholic beverages, etc.

But what about “comfort” in general? It’s not a concept one often hears in answer to that question. But when you think about it, it makes sense: if you compare the 40-day season of Lent to Christ’s 40-day sojourn in the desert, you realize that that was the major thing He did without: comfort. 

One group of Catholics are intentionally putting that concept into practice, while encouraging one another to tough it out for the long haul of lent. It’s a group of men at St. Rita’s Church in Alexandria, Virginia, who have developed a regimen loosely based on the Exodus 90 program. 

Exodus 90 is a 90-day program of spiritual exercises for men, conceived of by a priest at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, to “help seminarians focus on God and break deeply ingrained attachments to distractions such as social media” explains the Arlington Catholic Herald

Some men at St. Rita’s took the concept and fashioned a 40-day version for other men in the parish, the diocesan newspaper reported. 

“Their boot camp-like approach to Lent involves prayers and spiritual readings, but also ascetic practices such as daily cold showers and group hikes with rucksacks full of weights,” says the article, by staff writer Leslie Miller.

“Men don’t want to just sit around the room and talk about our feelings,” said Brian Worth, who organized the group with another parishioner, Jeff Cuiper. 

“A lot of guys respond to a challenge,” Cuiper told the Herald.

“Worth and Cuiper found Exodus 90 inspiring and aimed to make some of the program’s concepts a little more accessible to men in their parish seeking a new level of spiritual growth this Lent, with the support of a band of brothers,” Miller wrote:

They like to quote the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”

“We wanted to encourage people to take that small step, but make it something doable,” said Cuiper, a retired federal contractor.

He chose passages for daily reading and reflection from Searching for and Maintaining Peace, by Father Jacques Phillippe. The group also is using the Lenten devotional Memento Mori (Remember Your Death) by Pauline Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, whose books and social media posts aim to help people reflect on their own mortality in order to grow closer to God.

Worth and Cuiper came up with nine ascetic practices and encouraged men at St. Rita’s to choose five of them. They might commit to getting on a regular sleep schedule, taking showers no warmer than room temperature, or abstaining from alcohol, sweets, social media or electronic entertainment. 

“We’re taking a step back from the comforts of this world and saying, ‘It’s OK that I don’t have a beer tonight, or a hot shower,’” said Worth, a lobbyist on Capitol Hill. “That doesn’t determine who we are.”

The men meet for Friday morning Mass and breakfast, and and Wednesday nights they challenge themselves by hiking for an hour. Some take on the extra challenge of filling their backpacks with 40-pound weights.

Doing the ascetic practices as a group helps the men bond and “brings the guys together and strengthens the parish,” Cuiper said. “Some really appreciate the chance to brute it out with the other guys. We need community and commiserating, but it also keeps people on task.”

Read more:
Exodus 90 is changing men’s lives


Read more:
When your Lenten sacrifice is chosen for you

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