February promises longer days and the first glimmers of spring, but its arrival also heralds the approach of Lent on 2 March. Ash Wednesday doesn’t always fall in this month – it can be as late as 10 March – but it is never too far off once we have left January behind.
With Lent on the horizon, we start to reflect on fasting, almsgiving and asceticism. The normal rigours of the penitential season will be familiar to many of us, but there are those who are already well into an even stricter and more demanding devotion known as Exodus 90. This is a sort of extended Lent, lasting for the 90 days before Easter instead of 46. This year, from 17 January until Easter Sunday, the men taking part forsake (among other things) hot showers, TV, snacks, alcohol and secular music. The aims are manifold: to foster detachment from worldly pleasures, to develop self-mastery and prayerful dedication to God, and to build fellowship with other Catholics attempting the same feat.
Exodus 90 is a fairly new practice, devised in the middle of the 2010s. It was the brainchild of James Baxter, a young Catholic man who had heard from a priest friend that seminarians were struggling to commit themselves fully to a life of prayer, self-denial and holiness. It has since spread from seminaries to lay Catholics.
Designed with men in mind – on the grounds that they face particular challenges in the modern world and that there is a problem with the disengagement of men from active parish life – it can be followed by anyone who is in reasonable health.
Its rigour and focus have definite (and indeed deliberate) echoes of the austere life of the Desert Fathers, those early Christians who retreated to the harsh wildernesses of the Middle East to escape the temptations and disorder of the cities. St Anthony the Great is generally regarded as the pioneer of Christian monasticism. Like other later notable monastics, such as St Benedict, he was the scion of a rich family, who gave up a life of wealth and privilege to retreat to the desert
His biography was written by the great Alexandrian bishop St Athanasius, and there are countless stories about his life. The accounts of his being tormented by demons disguised as beautiful women have been a popular subject with painters, giving the opportunity to combine risqué material with a stern moralising message.
The “Exodus” comes from the Old Testament book which details the ways God builds up the Israelites in strength and fortitude. (I should add that I am not observing Exodus 90, and indeed have not yet attempted it.)
All the same, I admire those who are doing it. To spend a quarter of the year forsaking many of the comforts and luxuries that make life in the modern West so pleasant and easy – and during one of the gloomier and colder seasons, to boot – shows a commendable determination to engage with the Christian life; to go to war against material and sensual temptations.
It’s worth noting too that the founders of Exodus 90 insist on participants observing the fast in collaboration with other Catholic men, in small groups. Those who attempt it on their own are less likely to succeed, because they lack encouragement and accountability. For men of my generation, the opportunities for fellowship with other Catholic men can be few and far between. We need the impetus of some shared endeavour or communal challenge so that we can forge important links of friendship and fellowship.
Long and demanding fasts are not an innovation in the life of the Church, of course. In many ways, Exodus 90 is a return to older Christian practices. The Lenten fast used to be much more demanding, with the Church requiring Catholics to give up meat and dairy products. In the world of Orthodoxy, the tradition of a severe fast in Lent persists, with Orthodox Christians still expected to eat a vegetarian or at least pescatarian diet.
The fading of such ascetical practices in the western Church has many causes, not least the Reformation, which looked with suspicion and hostility on what Protestants regarded as legalistic and excessive fasting in the medieval Church. And it is perhaps necessary to be cautious about viewing feats of physical endurance as goals in themselves, performed for self-aggrandising reasons. But the fact remains that a Church with a renewed commitment to detachment from the things of the world would increase the power of its witness in a world exhausted by plenty.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to Unherd.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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