I’m having a longer Lent than usual this year. Most years it begins on Ash Wednesday. This year, however, it started on January 4 when I decided to join a small group of local men, including some parishioners, to participate in a program called Exodus 90, which basically extends Lent from its official 40 days to 90 days (the amount of time experts say it takes to form new habits). So, if you think about it, I’m actually more than halfway through my Lent while the rest of you have only just begun yours. Don’t be jealous.
The Exodus 90 program first appeared in 2013 and has slowly grown in popularity among Catholic men ever since. It is structured around three pillars – prayer, asceticism, and fraternity. The program encourages its participants to set aside an hour for prayer each day, providing daily readings and reflections as helpful guides. The asceticism part is also pretty intense. It includes cold showers, no snacking, sweets or alcohol, no internet or social media beyond what one needs for work, no video games and no non-essential purchases, among other things. Most people blanche at the mention of cold showers, but I find trying to be disciplined about internet usage most challenging (not that I like cold showers). Finally, the men involved in the program agree to meet once a week to check in and share their experiences, including their fidelity to the program of prayer and ascetical practices.
Overall, my experience with the program has been positive. It has definitely been a bonding experience among the men in the group. The most interesting thing I’ve discovered through the program of asceticism is not just how attached I am to things, but also how thoughtlessly I typically indulge in food and drink, social media, and most other things. The Exodus 90 program has forced me to think more about what I’m doing and to be more aware of my desires. Whereas under normal circumstances I would give no thought to taking a piece of chocolate from a bowl in the office kitchen, or spending 30min scrolling mindlessly through some social media feed, buying something on Amazon, or having a beer at my sister’s house – now, I think about it. On those special occasions when I decide to have sweets, watch a show, or have a drink, I do it intentionally, not mindlessly. The effect of this, I’ve found, is that I appreciate and enjoy these things much more when I freely choose to have them rather than thoughtlessly indulging in them as I’m normally accustomed.
Asceticism has always been a part of the Christian life. Our Lord fasted during His time in the wilderness. The Apostles made fasting part of their spiritual disciplines. Saints throughout the centuries have observed ascetical practices, and the Church has always taught that asceticism is necessary for growth in holiness. Jesus Himself tells us: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.” We do not take up these disciplines to prove how strong we are. We do it to discover how weak we are, and how much in need we are of grace. We can also offer to God the discomfort that comes with our Lenten disciplines for various intentions – such as for an end to the pandemic, for renewal in the Church, for the souls of deceased family members, for loved ones who struggle, in atonement for past sins. As someone who typically tries to avoid asceticism, this experience of Exodus 90 has been good for me. It has reminded me that asceticism is not just about denying ourselves but learning how to truly delight in the good things that God has given us and to give Him glory through our proper enjoyment of them.