I was on a flight last month part way into what turned out to be a 13-hour, multi-leg trip to get home from a work trip when the flight attendant asked the man sitting next to me and me what beverage we wanted and if we wanted, the pretzels or the cookies. I sighed, ordered a black coffee, and turned down the snack offer despite being a bit hungry. The man next to me asked for tea with no sweetener and also declined the snack with a bit more enthusiasm than myself.
I noticed that he was reading a great Catholic book that I also enjoyed. We got to talking about Lent, and, to my surprise we rejected snacks and sweet beverages for the same reason—we were both participating in a program called Exodus 90.
As of Easter, I have officially completed Exodus 90 for the second year. For the 90 days leading up to Easter, I parted ways with many comforts including beer, warm showers, sweet drinks, and snacks. The program, called Exodus 90, requires that participants agree to many life changes, or “disciplines,” as the program calls them, for 90 days. Exodus 90 was worthwhile, and I plan to do it again. That said, I would suggest ways the program could be even better.
The multitude of disciplines of Exodus 90 are:
- Read part of the Book of Exodus each day, along with a short reflection.
- Pray for an hour each day (or at least do 20 minutes of silent prayer).
- Only take cold showers.
- Do not eat snacks between meals.
- Do not drink soda or sweet drinks.
- Do not eat desserts or sweets.
- Do not drink alcohol.
- Do not use mobile devices for unnecessary tasks.
- Do not use the computer for unnecessary tasks.
- Do not play video games.
- Do not watch TV or televised sports.
- Listen only to music that “lifts the soul to God.”
- Do not make non-essential purchases.
- Check in with your “Anchor,” another man participating in Exodus 90.
- Get a full night’s sleep of at least 7 hours.
- Exercise three times a week.
- Make a nightly examination of conscious.
- Attend a weekly Exodus 90 “fraternity” meeting.
- Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
- Do not eat meat on Wednesdays and Fridays.
As you can see, this is the equivalent of making a long list of challenging sacrifices for Lent, deciding to do everything on the list, and making the sacrifices for over twice as long as Lent. While a number of the disciplines I already did and, thus, were no big deal, others were daily challenges and the source of considerable discomfort. The experience was not unmanageably miserable but has been one of the more formidable challenges I’ve faced in the last few years. (Undoubtably, my wife is snickering to read the last sentence and noting that I have not experienced nine months of pregnancy and childbirth. This is a fair point.)
To start the program, you devise a “why”—or reason for making so many uncomfortable modifications to your lifestyle. You can choose whatever you like. I picked to “be free of distractions that keep me from being available to my wife and kids and to make better sacrifices to give more glory to God and to be a more effective apostle.” While I can’t say that I succeeded in all the disciplines, I think that Exodus 90 helped me get closer to this goal.
The most helpful and worthwhile disciplines for me were checking in with my anchor, weekly group meetings, prayer time every day, no snacks, no alcohol, limiting mobile devices and computer use, and not making unnecessary purchases.
I appreciated checking in with my anchors daily, as they are great guys and provided much encouragement. I really couldn’t have gotten through the program without that personal contact. I also got to know two incredible and inspiring Catholic men through our anchor relationship over the last two programs. Similarly, the weekly meetings were essential for completing the 90 days, as it would have been impossible to keep up with this inconvenience without some outside motivation. Additionally, I met some great guys whom I would not have otherwise met.
My group, or fraternity as Exodus likes to call it, met early on Saturday mornings, allowing most of the guys to go to Mass afterward. Given our shared struggles with the program, I got to know the guys well, and we always had plenty to discuss. I looked forward to the meetings every week.
Snacks, fasting, and phone use must tap into some deeply ingrained, primal instincts as those limitations proved very difficult and only got slightly more manageable as time passed. At least for me, being hungry and bored proved demoralizing at times, though it did make me appreciate my meals and the company of others more. My rock bottom was being in a hotel room while traveling for work, hungry and with no entertainment options. I did some paperwork and went to bed. In the morning, I felt great and was healthier and better rested than if I had more options.
Giving up beer was the sacrifice that gave me the most pause when considering whether to participate in Exodus 90. I make beer, so I initially thought Exodus required giving up my primary hobby for three months. Ultimately, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and I didn’t give up brewing. I brewed an oak-aged sour during my first Exodus, and it is ready to bottle now, over a year later. In my second year, I talked to my spiritual director and the fraternity and decided to keep up my typical brewing schedule but only to drink beer when we were allowed to relax a discipline on Sundays and feast days. I didn’t miss drinking beer too much after the first week or two. I realized I like brewing and designing beers as much as drinking them. Exodus also had an excellent reading series on beer culture that highlighted my favorite beverage’s spiritual and social aspects.
The only discipline I struggled to find value in was listening to music that “lifts the soul to God.” That’s pretty vague, but I figured it ruled out most of the rap and hard rock I usually listen to, even the great Catholic musician Lil’ Wayne. I’ve tried to enjoy Christian music but really can’t get into it. To meet this discipline, I set my phone so I could not listen to music with the “explicit” code. I usually listen to a ton of music, and cutting out much of what I enjoy was not great but I did it.
I was interested to read the Book of Exodus as my dad made our family watch the Ten Commandments with Charleston Heston every year. It’s a quirkier but more rewarding book than I recalled. I found the struggles of Moses leaving Egypt surprisingly relatable to the struggles of moving forward with your family, job, and responsibilities while abandoning sin and bad habits. A surprising amount of Exodus involves detailed construction instructions for the arc of the covenant and other holy items, and I must have skimmed over those sections in the past. The Exodus 90 people provide a helpful reflection on the Book of Exodus reading each day. Most of the reflections were good though I would have preferred to have readings from the saints or something more timeless.
Exodus 90 featured a well-done and easy-to-use app, though I did find myself wishing I’d just got a book version as I didn’t like having to check the app every day as one of the main goals and struggles was to spend less time on my phone. In the end, I just used the app for the Exodus reading and reflection instead of checking off each discipline each day. In the second year, keeping up with the readings became much more challenging as I largely remembered what they said from the previous year.
Limiting time on checking my mobile phone was one of my least successful goals. Increasingly, I use my phone as much as my computer for work and writing. The line between necessary and unnecessary mobile device use is blurry in my life. However, staying off social media and news sites felt good despite the challenge. I didn’t feel that out of the loop, only getting my news from the daily print versions of the Findlay Courier and Wall Street Journal a la the 20th century. What surprised me was the distance I felt from current events compared to many people I spoke to. I did not spend much time worrying about the Ukraine or the economy, which I’d credit to having distance from the 24-hour news cycle.
Was It Worth It?
Ultimately, this challenge is only worth undertaking if it helps you improve a) as a person and b) spiritually. So how did this admittedly challenging experience fare?
From a human perspective, Exodus 90 does help you to make better, healthier choices with many personal benefits. For example, few would doubt the benefits of exercise, sleeping more, using mobile phones less, and not thinking so much about news and social media. I felt healthier and was no less happy than I was before. Some of the more challenging disciplines even closely mirror popular health practices. Though I wasn’t watching TV, my local gas station plays videos while you fill up. One of these videos discussed the benefits of cold showers and another about intermittent fasting. There is a surprising amount of overlap between Christian ascetic practice and popular health trends.
The spiritual benefits of Exodus 90 are more nuanced. Making a ton of sacrifices for religious reasons would logically make a person more “religious.” But Christianity is more than just being good at a variety of pious practices. At the same time, Jesus himself engaged in more severe ascetical practices than virtually anyone today (40-day fast in the desert anyone? Matthew 4:1-11) and that does suggest that the Christian life should incorporate some types of sacrifices.
I think that the benefits of ascetic practices such as those required in Exodus 90 are not in the activities or sacrifices themselves, but in wether the activities make you tend toward something better. In other words, even if you cram your day with religious activities, this does not count for much if the activities do not help you to be a more virtuous and loving person. St. Francis de Sales expressed this well:
One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness;–and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbor’s blood, through slander and detraction. Another man reckons himself as devout because he repeats many prayers daily, although at the same time he does not refrain from all manner of angry, irritating, conceited or insulting speeches among his family and neighbors. This man freely opens his purse in almsgiving, but closes his heart to all gentle and forgiving feelings towards those who are opposed to him; while that one is ready enough to forgive his enemies, but will never pay his rightful debts save under pressure. Meanwhile all these people are conventionally called religious, but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Veritatis Splendor Publications (2012), Kindle edition.
I’d suggest that even if you nailed Exodus 90, checked every box, and achieved super-human levels of self-sacrifice, it does not amount to much without a change of heart towards your neighbor. But the act of sacrificing, with humility and the right intention, does tend to lead to a change of heart, or as St. Francis de Sales would say, being devout. Exodus 90 does a good job of reminding you to focus on your “why”.
I also think that a person well accustomed to minor self denial will find it easier to make the selfless choices required by Christianity. Christianity lived well is incredibly demanding. And I am not just talking about following moral rules and practicing the self-restraint to avoid sin. The Beatitudes, at the core of the Gospel, make great demands of Christians to not do what they would really like to do. Being poor in spirt, meek, being merciful, making peace, and enduring false witness do not come automatically to anyone, having small children dispels that altruistic vision of human behavior.
Christianity can require acting in ways that are contrary to human impulse. Extrapolating the Beatitudes to Catholic Social Teaching, the need for individuals to sacrifice self interest becomes even more clear in the preferential option for the poor, the universal destination of goods, and solidarity. If you can’t walk past a tray of cookies without grabbing one it seems unlikely you will have much luck placing the wellbeing of the poor ahead of your own self interest as required by the Gospel.
I strongly believe that practicing minor sacrifices makes it easier to make big sacrifices. In this sense, Exodus 90 has a lot of spiritual value.
How Can Exodus 90 Be Improved?
The most obvious, but also difficult, way that Exodus 90 could be improved is to tailor the disciplines to the needs and stage of spiritual development of the participant. Exodus 90 has a ton of disciplines. For some, it really is the corporal mortification equivalent of running a marathon without training. The anchor relationship and the group meetings are what makes this approach attainable. However, outside of Exodus 90, I would suggest that most participants could benefit from just focusing on a few of the disciplines and mastering them before moving on to others. However, it takes a quality spiritual director to know what practices would actually help a person to spiritually develop and, unfortunately, there are not many good spiritual directors out there to help laypeople.
Given the Exodus 90 is for a limited period and there are a ton of support through the process, I think that most people could successfully complete the program, and benefit from it, even though it does not necessarily leave you with a tenable game plan going forward in the absence of development of one-on-one plan with a spiritual director. The program could benefit from incorporating one-on-one meetings with quality spiritual directors to help men figure out which disciplines actually are helping them and should be a focus though I acknowledge that would be difficult to pull off given the number of participants.
A final risk that I’ve seen occasionally in Exodus 90 is participating in the program in a way that inconveniences others. This is particularly important to avoid in the case of married men participating in the program. The individual nature of many of the Exodus 90 disciples could easily wind up making a person more wrapped up in himself without some care. I would argue that rule number one for a married man doing Exodus 90 should be, in the words of St. Josemaria that “[o]urs should be mortifications that do not mortify others….” Christ Is Passing By. If a completely voluntary 90-day challenge inconveniences your wife and kids, then I’d say you should reevaluate your approach. One major difference that I noticed in the “field guide” of Exodus 90 is that this year’s guide did a better job making clear that if you family makes a dinner containing meat on a Wednesday, you just need to eat the meat and it is up to the participant to plan special meals and the like.
Overall, I’m proud that I participated in Exodus 90 and got through the challenge. It’s probably not the best fit for everyone, but most Catholic men would greatly benefit from the program. I feel like I achieved my “why” of being more available to my family, and believe that I’ve improved my self-discipline. I plan on doing it again next year, but until then, I will enjoy cold beer and Lil’ Wayne.
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