Into the Desert: A Conversation About the Exodus 90 Men's Program

Freedom resides in a particular realization about sacrifice: it’s the recognition that when dying to self is painful, it doesn’t mean our sacrifice isn’t working. It means that it is.

Inspired by God’s people being led to freedom in Scripture, Exodus 90 is a 90-day program created to call Catholic men out of slavery and into freedom; out of themselves and into the heart of God. Founded on principles of fraternity, prayer, and asceticism, the program intends to cultivate habits that sanctify men, equipping them to better serve the Lord as they live out their vocations.

We recently chatted with James Baxter, Executive Director of Exodus 90 and Those Catholic Men. The program is particularly recommended for men preparing to enter into their vocations, and we hope you’ll share it with your fiancé; additionally, many men find it meaningful to begin or end the program on a liturgically significant day. Those who embark on Exodus 90 beginning next week, on February 19, will conclude the program on Pentecost and, God willing, witness the fruits of the Holy Spirit in abundance. Read on for James’ thoughts on spiritual exercises, chastity, and freedom, along with his advice for the brides supporting their men in the pursuit of heroic virtue.

The Exodus 90 program includes, among other resources, daily Scripture verses from the Book of Exodus. Can you tell us more about the significance of this book to the intentions of the program?

The singular goal of Exodus 90 is freedom. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, but we drift away from it over time, often quite unknowingly. I know that freedom is a cultural buzzword, and thrown around to justify everything from sexual exploits to abortion.

But the hard fact is that we need to reclaim our definition of freedom. That's because the Church places a heavy emphasis upon it, especially in our sacramental rites--including marriage. Freedom is the condition, the foundation, the soil out of which love grows. When we're not free, we cannot bear the fruit of love. And in a particular way, when men are not free, it's wives and children that suffer the most. That's why we're entirely committed to freeing Catholic men with Exodus 90.

The Church tells us the gift of our sexuality is meant to be lived in freedom. In turn, Exodus 90 emphasizes the virtue of chastity. What practical tips can you offer engaged and married couples for developing and living out this virtue?

I'm engaged to an exceptionally good woman, whom I also find the most beautiful woman in the cosmos. Her name is Colleen, and we'll be married on June 16, 2018. Chastity in marriage preparation is a reality that's close to my experience right now. Here are my recommendations regarding chastity:

First, start today. All virtues are dispositions, or habits, toward the good. It takes time and experience, and failing and trying again to possess them. Your behavior yesterday affects who you are today. So, start again now. Identify your triggers, take control of your glances, use your screens only for work or school. This will make the chastity of your future, married selves much easier.

Second, express physical affection within the scope of proper discernment. Being appropriately physical tempers the passions--at least that's been my honest experience over the past few years.

Lastly, tell the truth. Ever since the fall, we have the tendency to avoid God, deceive ourselves, and blame others when it comes to sin. The Catechism teaches us that the relationship of man and woman gets to the heart of the human condition, and in that process, the experience of our fallen nature is painfully acute. You're going to mess up. But when you do, just speak the truth. Make your confessions to your loved one and the Church, and move forward. Don't let the darkness become something that divides you. God has a marvelous way of turning our brokenness into the very source of our attractiveness; he’s been in that business for a very long time. And no one is above or below that mercy.

Purification of the body, mind, and soul can be painful. What advice can you offer those struggling with the pain of purification?

My advice here is somewhat direct, but I hope that the sincerity is clear. What if we just accepted that purification is painful, and it is so because we are fallen and life is complicated? If we do not first accept that profound purification and self-denial are needed in each of us, it’s difficult to understand in the proper context that God wants to fulfill the desires of our hearts. Otherwise, it's hard to differentiate our faith from that of the prosperity Gospel, or the idea that God just gives us whatever we want, when we want it, and how we want it. The purification of the self is painful but it is also deeply meaningful when it bears the fruit of freedom, as we've seen so many times through Exodus 90. Because then we can love. And that’s what life is about.

This journey of purification and growth in holiness can be as hard on loved ones as on the individual undergoing it. Can you share some concrete ways women can support their fiancés or husbands in programs like Exodus, and can hold themselves accountable to growth and self-denial, as well?

The program’s tenets of fraternity, asceticism, and prayer can benefit both individuals in a relationship during this journey. For fraternity, I’d tell women it's essential that your man is accountable to other men. Though that means at times he is away from you and the home, it will be worth it in the long run. So, encourage your man to find a fraternity or to be proactive and form one. I’d encourage you to do likewise with a group of women that raise you up.

For asceticism, a big part of what makes Exodus 90 so hard is the constant self-denial. And we ask that men don’t modify the regimen to them, but bend themselves to it. Self-denial will be easier if a man’s fiancé or wife is also denying herself in her own ways. There is a beautiful camaraderie that can happen when both are engaged in actively saying no to things they would otherwise have. And here’s the secret: this has frequently meant that husbands and wives are communicating way more! What woman doesn’t want that? By the end, wives and kids like the man at the end way better. But a lot of no’s have to happen before this yes emerges.

For prayer, Colleen and I have experienced that praying as a couple is hard, especially amidst the hustle and obligations of young lay life. At our latest marriage prep session, our priest, Fr. Andrew, told us the story of the holiest couple he had ever met. After years of admiring them from a distance, the priest finally asked: "How do you do it? How are you two so holy?" The husband responded, "We pray together every day." Fr. Andrew was delighted by this answer and asked him further, "What's the secret prayer? I'll tell all my couples!" The husband smiled and said, "Right before bed, we grab each other's hands, and say the Our Father. That's it." That's it. Colleen and I are trying to do this more before we go our separate ways each evening.

The program began as a way to help men combat addictions and distractions in a particular way, though any man can participate. In your opinion, how can a couple discern when an addiction is debilitating enough to require more than spiritual help alone, and what resources can they turn to?

If the question is at all there, you would do yourself some good by accepting that it’s there. There’s a reason you’re wondering, and acceptance is the way to freedom in the future. For resources related to pornography addiction, check out Integrity Restored and watch some videos with Matt Fradd and Dr. Peter Kleponis, who are experts in this field. Matt Fradd just released a great book called The Porn Myth: Exposing the Reality behind the Fantasy of Pornography. And Dr. Kleponis frequently writes on the topic at Those Catholic Men.

Exodus 90 is a step toward recovery for those in the throes of an addiction, and if you need help of a psychological nature, it can be a great resource and supplement to therapy. We actually get calls from therapists about using Exodus 90 clinically. I will say, we have had men break decades of addiction through the experience, but again, we are not therapists and this isn't a porn-recovery program as such. All we have done is re-present the spirituality of the Desert Fathers for contemporary men, and that's why this is working and spreading so rapidly. Prayer, asceticism and brotherhood leads to freedom.

In three sentences, what are the top three pieces of advice you'd share with engaged and married Catholic men?

Put your phone in a box under your bed, and spend undistracted time with your fiancé or wife. Read more books this year than you did last year. I’m reading Dr. Jordan Peterson's new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, and it’s been captivating. Whatever work you do, strive to be the best at it without losing your soul; excellence glorifies the Father, inspires evangelization in the workplace, and bestows meaning.

Men interested in pursuing Exodus 90 can learn more and sign up for the program here.

Images by Sarah Ascanio Photography.