Find out what happened when a Protestant embarked on a radical Catholic spiritual exercise which promised him freedom from addictions, individualism and pride
I have just endured 90 days without a hot shower or bath, which means cold showers from 17th January - 17th April - some of the coldest weeks in England.
My first cold shower was just as bad, and worse, than I’d imagined.
I’d asked a question in preparation - “how cold?” - and the answer came back - “so you are gasping”. I did as asked, and to show willing, I stayed in longer than needed to clean and rinse off (which when panicking, is possible in about 68 seconds). That first shower, I made it to four minutes.
Many things happen to you in a cold shower. First of all you gasp and then your whole body tenses - your neck and head go stiff, and you wonder if you’ll have a heart attack. Then you grab the soap, trying to calm down and breathe slowly - but you can’t stop gasping and wondering what the point is. You manage to compose yourself and channel your willpower toward getting soap into your hair and over your body - you try and remember to clean everything, but it is hard because you’re in a rush.
Stepping out, you feel instantly warm and even smile and laugh at yourself before remembering this is the first of 90 days. Drying off takes longer because the cold water seems to stick to skin like oil. Despite all this, you feel more alive, more healthy. And best of all, no steam on the mirror.
You finish drying, and for the first time glance down between your legs and gasp, not from the cold water itself, but from the effects of it. Something very important has retreated from its position and you wonder and hope this is reversible. It does take a while, but I can tell you now, it is.
What is the point in all this?
Turning the corner into 2022, I was exhausted. Facebook adverts about challenges, courses, and all manner of find-your-freedom keys to success were wearing me down. Every single person appeared to have the answer to my problem - my happiness. If I just clicked the link, downloaded the free worksheet, signed up for the webinar, and followed the 12 simple steps, I would forge my way to financial freedom and happiness. Exhausting. And untrue.
Enter Exodus90, a courageously-orange-branded spiritual programme calling modern men to freedom, purity and familial success. It looked different, so I clicked.
“Cold Showers, Holy Hours” - that was some good branding…And they really meant it!
It turned out, Exodus90 was a programme founded by a Catholic priest in the US to help prepare his mentees for the priesthood. It had proved so effective it was made accessible to men, lay or clergy, all over the world, through the innovative app and website.
If I wanted to join, I would have to set aside an hour every day to do their ‘readings’ and then enter into silent prayer, followed by a cold shower. I also must give up any snacking between meals, sweet drinks, desserts and puddings, movies, televised sport, all unnecessary use of devices and computers. I must fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and exercise hard, at least three times a week.
I would also have to meet with five other men for an hour every week. One of these men I must contact every day with a ‘report’ of my day.
There was no promise of financial freedom or business growth, and for all this, I would pay $10/month for the privilege. Yet the promise of freedom from small addictions, comforts, individualism, self-reliance and pride, was irresistible.
I have found more freedom these last three months than I can remember in my whole life.
In our first fraternity meeting (Zoom, of course) we introduced ourselves - some hadn’t met before - talked about our hopes and fears, paired off with our ‘anchor’ person and miraculously found a weekly hour-long slot everyone could commit to for the next twelve weeks.
I came off that first Zoom call wondering whether Exodus90 was some kind of evangelistic cult-sucking scheme and we were already under its spell. It didn’t take me long to realise, if I wanted, I could switch off the app, delete my subscription, back out, go home and no one would care. Top tip - that is a good sign it is not a cult.
Cold showers are the tip of a very deep iceberg, albeit a sharp and unpleasant one
In Exodus90, cold showers are the tip of a very deep iceberg, albeit a sharp and unpleasant one. They are a token, so to speak, of asceticism (a new word for me) meaning ‘acts of self-denial’ - one of the three core concepts behind Exodus90 (the others are: prayer and fraternity). Making a choice to deny ourselves a basic comfort can take us beyond the trap of living from one comfort to the next, and allow us to become a “man for other” (another phrase commonly used in Exodus90).
If you find yourself thinking I don’t need to do this! then you probably do.
This summary from the Exodus90 ‘Field Guide’ stayed in the forefront of my mind throughout the 90 days: “Nearly all Exodus Men have admitted, after reading this list [of disciplines], 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?…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.”
Letting go of control is a deep and soul-searching operation for a man and it requires an enormous amount of self-control.
The body of the iceberg, for me, was facing the daily choice to submit to the disciplines in their entirety. While I was good at controlling my circumstances, my outward appearance, and even those around me, I discovered I couldn’t fully control myself. That’s a freaking big iceberg.
Can I actually abstain from this list of unnecessary things for 90 days? Can I make a premeditated choice to have a cold shower, over and over again? I create hours of time for all sorts of things, can I do the same for prayer?
‘Manhood’ has focussed on rights, privileges and personal identity rather than responsibility, leadership, sacrifice. Unlimited access to - insert your vice - is seen as true freedom.
I create hours of time for all sorts of things, can I do the same for prayer?
There is no question that I have found more freedom these last three months than I can remember in my whole life.
I gave up snacking between meals, began a regular exercise routine, started waking up earlier, and cut down on pointless screen usage. Most significantly, my intimacy with God grew - my mind cleared and I realised how preoccupied with my own comfort and needs I’d become. I was able to breathe again - to see and hear God through the scriptures and speaking into my heart afresh. I also began a war on procrastination, something that has become a real problem for me in these last few years. I’m still in it, but have taken ground, and the best thing is, I now have some keys to help me on the way: prayer, asceticism and fraternity.
While one muscle may shrink in a cold shower, others grow. In fact, a whole group of muscles are waiting to grow big enough to fight against the real threat of a false manhood, one which says earn more, do less, please yourself.
Don’t do Exodus90 to conquer another online challenge. This is a spiritual exercise; a journey toward deeper intimacy with Father God as you bring to him your weaknesses, offer your attempt at change, and look to him for real transformation. The invitation is for men (Catholic or Prostestant alike) who are hungry for change, who feel trapped, and who want to go deeper with God for the sake of others.