Epigone: Origins – A Quest for Orthodoxy
Hi guys, Mike here, and this is the story of how I decided to be Catholic, and how it affected my life.
To begin I’ll explain a little bit how I think of myself now, as a Catholic. My screen name, Another Epigone, has a deep spiritual significance for me. In a way, it is my new identity, assumed when I made the decision to invest my life in the Catholic faith once again. Epigone is a word that means either a lesser descendent of greater ancestors, or a student who doesn’t live up to the greatness of his master. In terms of our relationship with Christ, every Christian can be described as an epigone, since we aspire to the perfect holiness of our Lord, but we continually fail to reach it.
This is the essential attitude I try to maintain toward my Catholic faith: constant striving for perfection, yet also continual awareness of my grievous failings. It’s also the complete opposite of the attitude I grew up with, despite being a baptised Catholic. Instead the attitude I had was more along the lines of: try to justify remaining as I am, and ignore or make excuses for any failings. Sadly I think this attitude is very common, and it is difficult to break away from. It is still a constant struggle for me.
The primary focus of my testimony is on this transition, which is still in progress and probably will be for my entire life; the transition from stagnancy to movement in my faith, the transition from a dormant faith to one that is alive and becomes the dominant force in my life. In other words, the quest for orthodoxy.
First lets examine the word ‘orthodoxy’. Orthodoxy is defined as the quality of conforming to generally accepted theories, practices or doctrines. In the Catholic context, of course, it means simply faithfulness to the teachings of the Church. We can all probably agree that many Catholics cannot be described as orthodox. That is, they dissent from Church teaching on one or more topics. I certainly fell into this category for most of my life. What I’ll be discussing is why and how I made this transition, and why I believe it is crucial for Catholics to be orthodox.
If someone were to ask me to answer, in one sentence, why people should believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church my answer would be simple: “They are the truth!” For some reason in the world today, people don’t seem to see this answer as intuitive. Ask the average Christian why they believe and they’ll give you reasons like, “it gives me hope that I’ll see my loved ones again,” “it makes me happy,” “it’s how my parents raised me.” While these things might be nice, they are not logical reasons to believe something.
Two things confuse people greatly here: the prevalent modern belief in relativism, and the abuse of the word ‘faith’. The bastardization of the word ‘faith’ is especially prominent in protestant circles, for various reasons, but it has spread everywhere. There is a tendency to define faith as believing without a need for reason or evidence. This is the definition that sends logical thinkers fleeing to atheism! I have to admit it makes my brain hurt as well. Catholics should not believe this. Catholics believe that God has given sufficient evidence for anyone to find Him. It is how He created us: free, and with sufficient will and intellect to choose to love him or not. Choosing to believe in God’s love is just like choosing to believe in the love of your spouse or your family. You can’t scientifically prove that, but neither is it illogical, or without evidence.
Relativism: Cognitive Cocaine
Relativism was perhaps the first challenge to my faith as a young child, since in our culture it is now so pervasive. The attitudes of relativism are prevalent not just in religious discussion, but it many other areas as well. It seems like it’s our new defence against ever being wrong. Whenever we’re proven wrong we just say, “Hey, you have your opinion, I have mine.” This has developed to the point that people seem to regard themselves as having a right not to be told they are wrong.
It’s hard to describe the actual struggle with relativism, since in a way it pervades all the other struggles. It is this attitude that fuels our desire to come up with ‘our own truth’, rather than submit to what is the truth. The seeds of resistance against relativism were always there in my mind though, and I can only assume they are there for most people.
My Life of Fake Catholicism
I grew up in a fairly normal Catholic family – sadly, today that largely means a family that is faithful but rather lukewarm in their faith. I went to Mass every Sunday, I learned the popular bible stories and I went to Catholic school, but on the other hand I never prayed except before meals, and got most of my religious instruction at school. My parents, like most of their generation, were simply not up to the task of teaching the faith themselves, and the school system made God into a chore. Looking back, it’s a miracle I even believed in anything.
As time went on, I found out there are few places more hostile to a child’s Catholic faith than a Catholic high school. There were more practising Muslims than Catholics in the school. There were probably more open Satanists than faithful Catholics in all honesty. The vast majority, however were simply busy pretending to be adults, and plotting how to get away with having sex with as many other students as possible. With this pressure on one side, and the Church on the other, I folded. I essentially fell into a relativistic compromise. I would still be Catholic, I would just try to date girls and not ‘go all the way’. I would try never to talk about my faith, but also avoid conversations where it was disparaged – basically just avoid confrontation at all costs. I was most afraid that if confronted, I wouldn’t be able to hold onto my faith at all.
I can tell you, this is a miserable way to live. It is living a lie, and it led to the saddest years of my life. It was impossible for me to maintain healthy self-esteem, or form close friendships, when I couldn’t even be honest about who I was. And while I believed in God, there was a lot of resentment in me as well, since He was at this point practically just a set of rules to me.
The burden of sin became intense here, as I tried my best to toe the line between societal norms and Catholic teachings. With my weak convictions, I quickly rationalized many things to myself. I fell deeply into sexual sin, despite (just barely) holding to my conviction not to have sex before marriage.
This was the sorry state that for me was rock bottom. I was miserable, and when a chance came I jumped at the chance to change my life.
Beginning the Quest
The chance God gave me was the start of a new youth group at my church. It was started by a team from NET Ministries, a Catholic group focused on ministry to young people. This charismatic group of 8 young people lived in our community for a year, working full time on ministry. When I first met them I felt such a rush of hope come over me, I practically vowed to change my life there and then. I vowed to myself that I would go to every meeting, learn everything I could, and basically, give God a chance to prove himself. I’m sure if God hadn’t come through in this I probably would have lost what remained of my faith, but our God is not a God who fails. He dropped the hammer on me from day one, and I started slowly started to change.
The biggest change caused by the NET team was simply the direction that allowed me to personally come to know God. They taught and encouraged me to pray, and encouraged me to enter into the sacraments. When I allowed myself to pray honestly and openly I saw results. I gained the courage to begin to stand up for myself, and continue to ask God for more help. When I experienced eucharistic adoration, I felt the presence of God so strongly, and saw the efficacy of my prayer increase even more.
When I was ready the team taught me about the importance of the sacrament of confession, and I went for the first time in many years. It was here that I broke the hold of pornography and the other habitual sins which had been a crushing burden on my heart. I left the confessional feeling like a new man, and I knew that I was.
This year revolutionized my life, and though there have been many ups and downs since then, I have continued to draw closer to God.
The Heat of Battle
In my titles so far, I have characterised my spiritual life as a quest, and here is where the metaphor becomes truly appropriate. When I think of a quest I think of the lone knight, heroically devoting his life to the pursuit of a noble cause. Whether it be to find a holy relic, slay a monster or rescue the innocent, the knight carries on to the end. This is often presented in stories as a kind of glossy heroism. We see the knight in shining armour, we see his glorious victories, his honour and his triumph, but the truth is never that clean. The life of this kind of pilgrim knight would truly be one of intense adversity, or poverty, suffering, loneliness, hopelessness, and a hundred other torments that threatened to make him turn back. That is truly why we regard such a man as a hero, since he has the courage to accept all this suffering, and instead of being broken, becomes stronger.
Being a follower of Jesus Christ is often exactly like this. We hear a lot about the joys of loving God, the inner peace, the fulfilment, and the eventual glory of eternity. And this is all true, just as is the honour and triumph of the questing knight. But it also doesn’t exist without suffering, and sometimes that suffering can be intense. In fact, if we look at the greatest saints, we often see terrible sufferings, but we also see that the more they suffered, the more they drew closer to Christ, the more they learned how to love. That love did even more than just sustain them in suffering. As strange as it sounds, many saints longed to suffer more, to give up every comfort they had in order to experience God’s love that much more. Just like the knight, their suffering made them stronger, one would not be wrong to say their sufferings made them saints.
The point of this explanation is to illustrate the ongoing struggle that has taken place since the early days of my conversion. It has been almost eight years since then, and I’ve grown older, moved away from home, and gone through five years of university (so far). One thing that has been constant in that time is that each new situation brings a new challenge to my faith. Each one seems to offer a new trap which could weaken my faith, and a new opportunity to grow in holiness. I can say it has been a war in which I have won many and lost many battles.
There have been times when, by all rights I should have been completely defeated, and simply lost my faith to join the secular world in its landslide into debauchery. The only thing that has kept me going, and indeed which assures my victory, is the power of the sacraments, in particular the Eucharist and Confession. As Catholics we have such incredible help available to us to help us grow in holiness. The opportunity to pray before our blessed Lord physically present in Eucharistic Adoration is a gift that we can’t even begin to measure, and I can’t emphasize enough that Catholics need to take advantage of it! I know without adoration I would be a completely different (and much worse) person. This may be the most important point I make: one single hour of Eucharistic adoration can change someone’s life. If you’ve never experienced this, then I beg you to try it (and I know Jesus dearly wishes for you to try it as well).
Confession is the other sacrament that is so sadly overlooked by Catholics. Make no mistake, we need confession in order to love God. We need confession in order to grow in holiness. We don’t stand a chance without it. I personally can attest that it is extremely difficult at times, and I encounter all manner of excuses to avoid the confessional. Satanic influence is always strong when I try to approach confession, simply because he desperately does not want me to go. Confession is the ultimate destroyer of vices in our lives, especially of pride, which is the root of all our sins. Just like adoration, confession changes lives.
Love begets Love
I mentioned earlier how in high school, I tried to fit in with the prevailing trends of dating in the secular world, while maintaining a thin veneer of faithfulness to God. The selfish, loveless nature of this kind of relationship really added to the depression and frustration of that point in my life. This is one of the things that I think destroys all the lofty claims of our modern society. Despite all its self-proclaimed desire for justice, for tolerance, for peace, the secular world has absolutely no concept of what love is. As St. Paul famously said, even if we are perfect in every other way, and have every single thing that should supposedly make us happy, if we lack love we have nothing, and this is what our society refuses to accept.
After I finished high school, I came to a conclusion that I had to avoid the secular dating scene. It was not ordered towards love, or towards sacramental marriage, as it rightly should be. I promised myself that if ever I dated anyone, it would be for the sole purpose of determining if they were to be my future wife. I didn’t make this promise lightly, and I knew I would have to suffer for it, but I also knew that without this promise, I would likely never find love on this earth, and if I did it would be tainted by the selfish attitudes of dating.
I was right about the suffering. I was very lonely, and struggled a lot with temptations especially given my past. I was officially single for over three years before someone entered my life who I knew had the potential to be the one. This relationship was different in virtually ever way from those previous. We were in agreement from the very beginning, we would focus on drawing each other closer to God, and only in doing that would we draw closer to each other. With God as the center of the relationship, we had a new attitude which allowed for the development of true love, which is self-giving, sacrificial love.
The foundation for my new attitude was the Theology of the Body, Blessed John Paul II’s brilliant writings on true Christian love, as it exists between a husband and wife. It taught me so much about how to love as God does, not desiring to receive, but to give. It’s hard to do, but rather than leading to depression and self-loathing as the world’s version of ‘love’ does, this leads to true happiness and increased holiness, not only for us but for the object of our love.
Well, if you’re still reading at this point, I salute you! You’ll go far with that spirit of patience, I’m sure. To close, I just want to encourage everyone reading this in a few things. Be honest with yourself and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and what you believe. Give God a chance to guide you in your life. Give him a chance to move, and put your trust in him. Go and find him where he has made himself visible: in the Catholic Church. Catholics, make use of the sacraments! Go to confession and adoration every single week as well as the mass, and I guarantee your life will change.
God love you all, thanks for reading!