By Matt McDonald/National Catholic Register
Tommy was 30 weeks in utero when he died in the womb of Rob Dauses’ wife, Shannon.
The loss hit hard and lasted. For several years, Rob used what he calls “numbing agents” — including alcohol and his cellphone.
Though he and Shannon were churchgoing Catholics, God wasn’t his first stop in the grieving process.
“I never really engaged with my faith in any meaningful ways. I was kind of going through the motions,” Douses said.
About five years ago, a fellow who sat two pews in front suggested Exodus 90, a Catholic-oriented spiritual program for men. For 90 days, participants agree to give up hot showers, alcohol, soda, snacks, sweets, television, video games, unnecessary purchases and unnecessary use of cellphones and the internet.
They also agree each day to read and reflect on selected passages from Scripture, make a morning offering, make a Holy Hour, and make a nightly examination of conscience. Adherents eat no meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on those days they eat only one full meal, with two smaller ones.
The idea is a spiritual — and to some extent physical — purification.
With Shannon’s encouragement, Rob gave it a try.
It has become a habit. This past Jan. 1, Rob began the program for the sixth time.
The experience has taught him humility and persistence, he told the Register, and has also made him more attentive to his wife and their 13-year-old daughter, Grace.
“I’m a better husband, for sure. And I think I’m a better father,” said Douses, 38, of Jarrettsville, Maryland, who works in technical sales for a printing and graphics communications company. “I feel less distracted, more ready for adventure as a dad — like, ‘Let’s go out and play’ instead of ‘Let’s watch something.’”
Where Did It Come From?
Exodus 90 grew out of ascetical practices that Father Brian Doerr, a priest of the Diocese of Lafeyette in Indiana, encouraged seminarians at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland to follow, starting in 2011.
The “90” in Exodus 90 is for 90 days, the length of the program. The “Exodus” part is taken from the Book of Exodus, which describes the captivity of the ancient Israelites in Egypt and their being led to freedom by God through Moses.
(“Break free from your Pharaohs,” the home page of the Exodus website says.)
In September 2015, a friend of Father Doerr’s, Jamie Baxter, then 24, left St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana after discerning he was not called to the priesthood. Father Doerr had shared the ascetical practices with Baxter, and with the priest’s encouragement he decided to share them with laymen.
Baxter told the Register that upon leaving preparing for the priesthood he experienced “a total void of the fraternity that I had taken for granted during my six years in the seminary,” and that he wanted to offer something of that experience to men who don’t go through seminary life.
With no money and little know-how, Baxter set to work. With his brother’s help, he raised $8,000 online to build a website.
Eight years later, about 100,000 men in 86 countries have gone through the program, according to Exodus, the 14-employee organization that sponsors it. About 33,000 men are going through it right now, Baxter told the Register.
How did it grow that fast?
Exodus has a marketing plan, Baxter said during an appearance in October 2023 on a podcast called The Catholic Man Show, but it’s hard to tell how well it works.
“The truth of Exodus is it’s actually just these guys inviting their friends. That’s all it is. It’s just organic — ‘It’s helped me; I think there’s something for you in this, in your own way. Let me tell you about it. Let me invite you,’” Baxter said.
How Hard Is It?
“That sounds like a lot of things. That sounds intense,” is how many people react when they first hear about Exodus 90, said Nick Meyer, the head of growth and success for Exodus, the organization that runs what organizers call “the 90” and other spiritual programs throughout the year.
They’re not wrong, he said, but it’s doable — through what organizers describe as the “pillars” of the program: “Prayer,” “Asceticism,” “Fraternity.”
The “fraternity” consists of small groups of men who get together frequently during the 90 days to offer accountability and encouragement.
For many men, Exodus 90 is a way to try to kick bad habits, such as pornography.
But it also curbs pursuits that aren’t immoral but can function as distractions.
“I have so much time because I cut out all of these things. They’re not bad things necessarily — but for greater things,” said Meyer.
For Will McNamara, 30, originally from Chicago, such things included staying out late the night before work or spending an entire Sunday watching National Football League games on television.
“I was able to see ways in which I wasn’t available for others who needed me,” said McNamara, who recently moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, is currently single but in a relationship, and works for a financial technology company selling embedded payments systems to software companies.
He has completed three Exodus sessions and is embarking on his fourth this month.
In late December 2023, a few days before he started the current 90-day program, the Register asked McNamara if he was looking forward to it with joy or dread.
He said most men who start Exodus 90 are enthusiastic about it for the first 15 days or so, which is around the time cold showers and twice-a-week fasting days become a little depressing.
Even so, he said, he looks forward to each session because of the spiritual growth he expects to experience because of it. It never gets old, he said, because each time he has new things to work on, reflecting what’s going on in his life at the time.
“And so each time there’s joy — in, ‘Who am I going to become at the end of 90 days?’” McNamara said.
What Do You Do?
The current Exodus 90 session began Jan. 1 and lasts until Easter, which is March 31. (While the current program is underway, Exodus welcomes latecomers. The organization offers men a chance to join for Lent, which this year begins Feb. 14.)
Exodus 90 participants download an app that provides a structure for the experience, including access to daily reflections on scriptural readings.
After a 14-day free trial, access to the app costs $10 a month or $90 for a year — though it’s possible to keep a membership just for the three months of Exodus 90 and then cancel after paying $30. Exodus uses the money to pay for staff, writers, contractors, marketing, servers and computers and maintaining the app.
The app, organizers say, is designed to be helpful without being time-consuming or addictive. Participants have access to just the information they need for a particular day, and no more than that.
During the first 45 days, they read excerpts from the Book of Exodus, which recounts the enslavement of the ancient Israelites in Egypt, their deliverance, their receiving the Ten Commandments, and their wanderings in the desert.
It’s common for people who read or hear the biblical account to lose patience with the Israelites, who frequently backslide into complaining and idolatry, despite getting clear instructions from God about what they are supposed to do and what they are supposed to avoid.
Yet their experiences seem familiar, Douses said.
“Now I see we are exactly like them,” he said. “We do all the same things. And we need the same kind of freedom that God wants to give, that the Israelites got from their trust in God.”
Healing Through Suffering
Douses credits Exodus 90 with helping him deal with the loss of his son.
Neither Tommy’s death nor his parents’ grief seem pointless anymore.
“I think a lot of that has been the shift in my framework for why we suffer and what it’s for,” Douses said. “It certainly taught me a lot about the nature of suffering, that the Lord has used that to bring both my wife and me closer to his side.”
An Exodus 90 speaker who came to his parish several years ago recommended that every time a man participating in the program steps into a cold shower, he say out loud the name of a particular person.
That sums up the point of ascetical practices for Douses: “That the suffering is not done for nothing. Those sacrifices are meant for others. That is the nature of love.”