Prayer, Fasting, and Mercy
A few weeks into Lent, the patristic reading in the Office of Readings was from St. Peter Chrysologus, who explains the necessity of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (or mercy). St. Peter states:
There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.
Fasting is the soul of prayer, almsgiving is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself. (Emphasis added.)
St. Peter Chrysologus's words about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, especially those about having nothing if you lack all three, have been resounding in my ears these past few weeks. You see, when I first heard them, I was on about day 60 of Exodus 90, which means that I was already well into the daily practice of the three pillars of Exodus 90: prayer, asceticism, and fraternity. And while Exodus 90 uses slightly different wording, in truth, they are no different than the three pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Day 90 of Exodus 90 and Post-Vatican II Confusion
Well, today, Holy Saturday 2019, is Day 90 for me of Exodus 90, so I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my experience here, including my conviction (born out by my Exodus 90 experience) that St. Peter Chrysologus is very right: if you have only one of prayer, fasting, or almsgiving, you have nothing. It is vital that the Church rediscover--and implement--this truth.
I'm now 39 years old. I was raised in the '80s and '90s in a very confused time of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. Of course, we now know that, over the last 50 years, the Church has lost many members (many of my friends and classmates), lost many vocations, lost much influence in the world, lost much beauty (art, architecture, and music, especially within the liturgy), lost many devotions, lost its traditional catechesis, lost almost all of its obligatory practices of fasting and abstinence, and lost the practice of the Commandments and sexual morality (think of those that skip Sunday Mass and contracept, those living lives mired in pornography and embracing the tenets of the Sexual Revolution, and those in the clergy that have betrayed their vows of celibacy and sexually abused both minors and adults).
The Modern Church's Failure to Embrace Prayer, Fasting, and Mercy
Could it be that the Church has so little to show for the last 50 years because of its abandonment of one, or all, of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Of the three, I would suggest that the one mostly likely to still be celebrated is the third--almsgiving, or mercy. Although, a search of the collection baskets shows that most Catholics aren't that generous. But at least the Church still proclaims almsgiving and mercy and encourages helping the poor. But when acts of charity become disconnected from a deep spiritual life rooted in prayer and fasting, they become merely human activities rather than the supernatural work of God whereby we become His instruments and do His will. (See The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Chautard, in which Chautard explains that, for our apostolates to be effective, we must focus on our interior life, which will then overflow into our apostolates and activities.)
But what of prayer and fasting? Praise God, in recent years, I'm beginning to see a renewed emphasis in the Church (at least certain parts of the Church) regarding the necessity of daily prayer, including things such as morning offerings, mental prayer, vocal prayers like the Rosary and Divine Mercy Novena, nightly examinations of conscience, the Liturgy of the Hours, practicing the presence of God, spiritual exercises and retreats, holy hours and adoration and other devotions, and frequent participation at Mass. This is all very good. (And if you follow the links you'll see that I myself have been trying to encourage others in this.) But again, St. Peter says that we have nothing unless we have prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. And unfortunately, the regular practice of fasting has all but disappeared in the life of the Church over the last 50 years.
Catholics used to be obliged to fast all 40 days of Lent, to fast on Ember Days (12 days per year) and vigils of feast days, and to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. In 1966, the U.S. Bishops relaxed these requirements, requiring only that Catholics fast on two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. And Catholics are now only obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays in Lent. And while the Bishops' 1966 document encourages Catholics to embrace voluntarily the former practices, almost none are aware of this more than 50-year-old recommendation that has been seldom repeated to the faithful.
So here we are in the year 2019 and few Catholics now living have developed habits of fasting, mortification, or asceticism into their daily lives. Perhaps a few more still practice daily prayer, but this too is a small minority. Could it be that the lack of fruitfulness in the Church is due to our failure to embrace daily prayer and regular fasting? According to St. Peter Chrysologus, this seems likely: "If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing."
Exodus 90 Disciplines of Prayer, Asceticism, and Fraternity
Happily, this returns me to Exodus 90, which is very good news for the Church. Today is Day 90 (and Day 40 of Lent) for me and about 50 other men from my parish. And I expect that there are hundreds (or even thousands of men) around the country who are likewise hitting Day 90 today. This means that, for the last 90 days, Catholic men have been training themselves in the daily habits of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. A quick review of the Exodus 90 practices, which all men in Exodus 90 are expected to adhere to, follows:
Daily Holy Hour (including reading Exodus 90 reflection)
Prayer for fraternity and all Exodus 90 men
Nightly Examen (according to method of St. Ignatius of Loyola)
Take short, cold showers
Practice regular, intense exercise
Sleep at least 7 hours each night
Abstain from alcohol
Abstain from desserts and sweets
Abstain from eating between meals
Abstain from soda or sweet drinks
Abstain from TV, movies, or televised sports
Abstain from video games
Abstain from nonessential materials purchases
Only listen to music that lifts the soul to God
Only use computer and mobile devices for work, school, or essential tasks (no social media)
Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays
Attend weekly (or twice a week) fraternity meeting
Monthly activities with fraternity
To these practices, I also added one of my own: reading the 90 day Bible timeline from the excellent Great Adventure Catholic Bible newly published by Ascension Press.
After 90 days of these practices, I offer the following personal testimony: I have never been more joyful or faith-filled in my life than in these last 90 days. (I'm partly writing this testimony down to remind myself in case my practice of the faith should ever grow lax in the future.) And I think my Exodus 90 fraternity brothers would say the same for themselves.
True Freedom through Asceticism and the Failure of Modern Comforts to Bring Enduring Happiness
And ironically, at least to modern notions of freedom, it's precisely the ascetical practices--the withdrawing from the world's pleasures and comforts--that have been most liberating. Let's face it: the 21st Century has become a very comfortable place: nearly everywhere is climate-controlled, we all have hot water and indoor plumbing, food is abundant (as is refrigeration), alcohol and drugs are plentiful, modern medicine limits pain and suffering, entertainment is instantaneous through streaming music and video, there's 24/7 news on TV and the internet, telecommunications and social media allow for virtual interactions, we can buy almost anything from Amazon and have it quickly delivered, we ride around in several thousand pound hulks of metal that shield us from the environment and propel us at previously unheard of speeds, and many of us work in offices such that their is no physical labor in our work. Yet with all of this (and more) available to us all the time, we have become miserable: depression, suicide, obesity, divorce, sexual abuse, human trafficking, addictions (both to substances and behaviors), consumerism, and even confusion regarding our very identity as men or women. Could it be that our constant pursuit of comfort is not liberating? That it does not bring about human flourishing? And are we turning to comfort and pleasure rather than God? Have we become dependent on a comfortable, easy life, rather than dependent on God?
Pope Benedict XVI put it well: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness!” On day 90 of Exodus 90, I heartily concur.
Human beings need challenges and sacrifice--not constant pampering. If something is worth doing, it's worth sacrificing for. Of course, Jesus Christ crucified is the exemplar of this. I also suggest that the call to sacrifice rings especially true for men. Think of the discipline of high school boys training for football, basketball, baseball, wrestling, or track. Or think of 18-year-olds heading off to bootcamp with the Marines.
Yet for the last 50 years, the Church has asked almost nothing of men (or anyone else)--and it shows. Men have abandoned the faith for juvenile, destructive, selfish behaviors, and we've failed to lead our families in the faith and protect them from the influence of the world. And even those of us who have stayed and are serious about our faith, too often we have opted for comfort rather than greatness. Men must once again become the spiritual leaders of their families: men who sacrifice for their wives and children, men who lead their families in prayer, men who train their children in the faith, men who model the Father's selfless love.
As Jessus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." Luke 9:23.
Recommendation to Men: Sign Up for Exodus 90
I am most grateful for Exodus 90. This is a liberating experience that I encourage all men to undergo. Sign up here for the next group. And to be clear: Exodus 90 is not an experience that ends with Day 90; it continues with Day 91 and beyond as we continue to embrace the practices of prayer, asceticism (albeit not always with the full rigors of asceticism as those practiced during Exodus 90), and fraternity. The Church needs holy men: as husbands, as fathers, and as priests, bishops, and religious. And the Church needs a return to prayer and fasting. Only then will its works of mercy be fruitful.
"If you have only one of [prayer, fasting, or mercy] or not all together, you have nothing."