The Gift of Asceticism
To practice asceticism is to open up to God’s grace through acts of self-denial. God has given us the gift of asceticism to unite ourselves with him in a more complete way. When we practice asceticism, we do so in a sanctified manner only when we rely on God who first provides us the grace and invitation to do it—never by our own self-assertion or as our personal accomplishment.
When we live apart from regular, disciplined asceticism, we consciously (or unconsciously) steal from ourselves and those around us the many opportunities to know God as more satisfying than material things, to experience his providential love, and to unite ourselves to Jesus Christ on the cross. The practice of disciplined asceticism is not something to be done just for a penitential season or for only ninety days. It is the Christian way of life.
In prayer, we add something to our day. In asceticism, we deprive ourselves of something. Acts of asceticism can be practiced both as a form of penance and as a form of offering. The following section explains how you can effectively practice penance and offering as an Exodus Man.
Ascetic Acts as Penance
What is penance? Penance is the interior “conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others” (CCC1434). Acts of penance are outward signs of this inward conversion that express contrition and love for God.
“Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance towards the evil actions we have committed” (CCC1431). Practicing asceticism as penance helps you toward a profound conversion. It will aid you in making the reorientation of life that you are seeking, away from idolatry and toward unity with Christ—from slavery to freedom.
Scripture has many examples of men making acts of penance, whether for their own sinful actions and imperfections (as in the case of David [2 Samuel 12:16–23] and Job [42:6]) or for the sins of others (as Nehemiah did on behalf of God’s people [Nehemiah 1:1–11]). Through these and other passages, Scripture shows us that outward acts of penance are a necessary part of spiritual life. However, without interior conversion, “such penances remain sterile and false” At the same time, “interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures, and works of penance” (CCC 1430). We need both interior conversion and outward acts of penance if we want to attain freedom and sanctity. Thus, God invites us: “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and tear your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:12–13).
The disciplines of prayer, asceticism, and fraternity are designed to help you unite inner conversion and external acts of penance, so as to provide you with a framework for success. God prompts our conversion of heart. He invites us to acts of asceticism as penance, and he will provide us with the grace to live out each act of discipline—if we daily choose to accept his loving grace.
Ascetic Acts as Offering
A second blessing that comes of ascetic acts is their value as an offering to the Lord for our holiness and the holiness of those we love. The Church calls us to “partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ” (CCC 2205). Many of the world’s comforts, though good in themselves, can hinder us from fulfilling this call because they steal our opportunities for sacrifice.
Think about our modern way of life. We rest each night in climate-controlled homes. We rise each morning from a comfortable bed, take a hot shower, and grab food out of our refrigerator to enjoy an easily prepared breakfast. The hardest thing to suffer may be when we arrive at work and are forced to endure the elements for a grim thirty yards as we trek across the paved parking lot from our car to our office space. Yet still, we complain.
Let’s be honest. What do we modern men in our western world have to complain about? What do we have to offer up? Within these ninety days, if you are able to realize the power of suffering in the spiritual life, acts of asceticism will quickly become indispensable to you and your spiritual work as a Christian man.
Each discipline that you embrace in Exodus 90 will provide you with an offering for yourself and for your family. The suffering of saying “no” to alcohol may be difficult, but if you see that your “no” is really a silent “yes” as an offering to the Lord, then your mindset will change. Instead of being annoyed by the “no,” you become grateful that you now have a “yes”—a gift that can benefit your wife, your children, your friends—to offer to the Lord. This comes through uniting your sacrifice to the cross and prayerfully offering the sacrifice to the Lord for your specific intention.
St. Paul demonstrates this truth in his letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24). When our suffering is united to the suffering of Christ “it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC 1521). The cross brings salvation.
As you make your exodus, you can participate in the suffering of Christ by joyfully uniting the small sufferings of your daily disciplines to the cross on behalf of specific people. For example:
Jesus, I offer this “no” to my desire to watch the championship sports game today as a “yes” to you, the one true God. I unite my small suffering to the cross for my wife. I pray that she may know your love more fully. Amen.
These ascetic disciplines will equip you with the prudent suffering you need to make your daily offerings to the Father by way of the cross. Whether your life is comfortable or not, (post the fall of man) suffering is a sanctifying gift from the Father. When you offer it back to the Lord for your sanctity and the sanctity of those you love, it becomes a gift put to good use.
The Ascetic Disciplines
Exodus 90 contains a specific list of ascetic disciplines. As you review the list, you may notice that the disciplines touch most aspects of daily life. Some will be very easy for you, and others will be more challenging. If some of the disciplines seem unnecessary because you don’t struggle with them, commit to doing them anyway. If some seem too hard for you to handle, commit to those, too. In both situations, the Lord has gifts he wants to give you. Your commitment to following him by way of these disciplines will dispose you to receive those gifts.
List of Ascetic Disciplines
- Take short, cold showers.
- Practice regular, intense exercise (at least three days a week).
- 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.)
Nearly all Exodus Men have admitted, after reading this list, to thinking about how they will modify it. They want to take control. But if being “in control” has not led you to freedom before, what makes you think it will help you now? Remember, the Exodus Men who have gone before you are praying for you. Look back at your why. Let go of your need to be in control. Follow the Lord. He will provide you with sufficient grace to make your Exodus out of Egypt and into freedom.
As one man expressed after completing his Exodus, “If you’re going to do Exodus 90, do Exodus 90. There is no ‘lite’ version.” A key part of the discipline involves the willingness to put aside personal preference and submit to something outside of yourself. If you choose to follow all the disciplines except the cold showers, you are certainly doing something—but you are not doing Exodus 90. If you choose to embrace all the ascetic disciplines but you decide not to read the reflections, again you are doing something—but you are not doing Exodus 90. The point is not that Exodus 90 in all its details is the only possible way to follow Christ. Rather, it is that you will not learn true freedom until you are willing to follow a path that isn’t of your own making. If you are ready to give your life to God, give him the whole of your life, and don’t hold any part of it back.
Of course, there is always a need for prudence. If there is something in your life that makes taking up one of the disciplines reckless or imprudent, don’t take it up. Let your fraternity know of any disciplines you aren’t able to practice so that you can live these ninety days in the light, and your brothers can best hold you accountable.
Christ puts it simply for us: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it” (Luke 9:23–24). The practice of asceticism is challenging. It is a sacrifice. It is the cross. Take up your cross and offer your whole life as a worthy sacrifice to the Lord, holding nothing back.
Again, be alerted to two common temptations men face: pride and fear. If you struggle with pride and think that you can perfectly handle these ninety days on the strength of your own willpower, give up control and let God lead. If you are afraid of failure and put too much weight on what others will think of your results, look away from yourself and let God lead. God alone is the provider; God alone is the liberator. It is a hard and simple fact: you cannot free yourself. But put yourself fully into the hands of God and make this exodus, and you will grasp Christ’s roadmap to freedom—and he will lead you to the greater freedom you seek.
Sundays and Solemnities
Sunday, celebrate the Lord’s Day. Every Sunday your fraternity is permitted to relax one discipline together to remind you of the glory of God and of heaven. All Solemnities are celebrated with the same principle. (Suggestion: allow one dessert. It is strongly recommended that you do not relax technology-related disciplines.) Choose the discipline you relax as a fraternity so as to preserve fraternal unity and accountability.
Some men who take up Exodus 90 will be tempted by pride.
We cannot earn God’s grace by doing acts of asceticism, by living the disciplines perfectly, nor by adding to or modifying the ascetic disciplines to make the experience more conducive or even harder. Such acts are not in keeping with the spirit of the exercise. This exercise is made to help men see the need to give up the control they cling to. Ever the more, the particular disciplines are in place for us men to embrace the spirit of complete surrender God is calling us to. This takes humility.
Some men will be struck by a fear of failure.
If God has invited you here, God will provide you the grace to live out these disciplines, and he isn’t asking any more from you than he has the ability to help you bring to completion. Now is an ideal time to stop looking at your weaknesses and start looking at God’s strength. Even fear of failure is a call to surrender. Surrender your fear to God in these ninety days.