Catholic Exchange: Find Sainthood in a Life of Hidden Sacrifice

Many of us live hidden lives of sacrifice to God and in service to others. We go about our days completing the tasks that are required of us. Those tasks may be at work, school, church, or within our families. Our accomplishments are only known by God and the few people who are truly close to us. In a world that prides itself on notoriety and recognition, these sacrifices are seen as minor or, to some, as meaningless.

All members of the Mystical Body share in the royal priesthood of Christ by virtue of our Baptism. This means that we are called to offer our lives in sacrifice to Him and for our neighbor. AsLumen Gentium states:

Christ the Lord, High Priest taken from among men, made the new people “a kingdom and priests to God the Father”. The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood, in order that through all those works which are those of the Christian man they may offer spiritual sacrifices and proclaim the power of Him who has called them out of darkness into His marvelous light. Therefore all the disciples of Christ, persevering in prayer and praising God, should present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Everywhere on earth they must bear witness to Christ and give an answer to those who seek an account of that hope of eternal life which is in them.

To live a holy life is to offer everything to God, consecrating each moment of each day to Him. The menial and mundane tasks of our daily lives—from writing emails to sitting in meetings to washing dishes to folding laundry—are aspects of how we offer ourselves to God. 

When these tasks are done with Christ in mind, as an offering of love to Him and as a sacrifice for others, we enter more fully into our participation in the common priesthood we are called to. We are conformed more closely to Christ the High Priest who offers himself fully to the Father.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Our Ego Keeps Us from the Greatness We Were Made For

Our souls are expansive. They are able to reach depths that we cannot fully fathom. When we begin to see this part of ourselves we often experience fear and awe. We do not know what to do with this part of ourselves because we are often blind to it in our daily lives. We are blind to it  because — more often than any of us would like to admit  — we allow our ego to rule us.

The ego keeps us from seeing the great love God has for us and the gift of giving ourselves over to others in love. The ego keeps us from the greatness we are made for. It keeps us blind to the true depths within each one of us.

The ego is where all of our fear, pride, vanity, grasping, envy, and selfishness dwell. It is the part of us that tells us to cling to what we want no matter what, even to the point of discarding and hurting other people. Our egos keep us from loving the people around us as we should because we’d rather hold onto some small modicum of control than give freely to the people God puts in our path.

Center of the Universe

It is within our vocations whether lay, religious, or priestly that we learn to confront this part of ourselves.

The ego causes us to place ourselves at the center of the universe. It leads us to grasp at the smallest and pettiest of things, because when we allow our ego to be at the center of our being unchecked, we live in a place of fear and distrust; we see God and others as a threat. Bishop Robert Barron in his book And Now I See explains:

“But what exactly is the problem with the way we think and see?…perhaps a simple answer can be given in these terms: we see and know and perceive with a mind of fear rather than with a mind of trust. When we fear, we cling to who we are and what we have; when we are afraid, we see ourselves as the threatened center of a hostile universe, and thus we violently defend ourselves and lash out at potential adversaries. And fear — according to so many of the biblical authors and so many of the mystics and theologians of our tradition — is a function of living our lives at the surface level, a result of forgetting our deepest identity.”

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Way of Love

In the Mass readings right now we are working our way through my favorite epistle, the First Letter of St. John. It will play a key role in aspects of the book I’m working on. If there is one word that describes this letter it is love. The Beloved Disciple whose deep spiritual friendship with Our Lord is clearly seen in his writings and the one who took Our Lady into his home is clearly well versed in the school of love. He is the one Apostle who understands the full requirements of charity, which is why he stood fast at the foot of the Cross when everyone else fled.

We live in a culture that lives an understanding of love that is largely opposed to the example we find in St. John as he calls us to follow Christ. Love has been reduced to an emotion or a utilitarian pursuit of happiness. This means that once people have expended their use in our lives or those good feelings pass, we can promptly discard them. Our culture tells us love is about me and my desires. How does the person make me feel? Love is when we feel good about someone. Love necessarily dissipates through hardships or struggles in the relationship. If I’m not being completely fulfilled by you, then I will get rid of you.

This is not only true of romantic relationships, but all relationships in our culture. It is true of our friendships and our family bonds. We maintain what in reality are superficial connections to the people around us. They serve their use or give us some pleasure, but there is not depth or true sacrifice on our part. If the relationship becomes burdensome or difficult then we simply cast that person off and move on. The sad reality is that we all do it. The true understanding of love in all of its forms has been lost to us because of the philosophies of utility and will to power that undergird our society, as well as the innate existential fear we experience because of the Fall.

The message of Jesus Christ as explained to us through St. John’s First Letter is an antidote to this understanding of relationships. First, he explains the nature of God as the one who is love itself. God does not simply love and give love, His very existence is love. This is most exemplified through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross in order to bring about our redemption. Love is by its nature sacrificial. Deeds are required of us to love. It requires everything from us, which is precisely why we tend to flee from the demands of charity. We realize that love will hurt at some point. We will in fact have to watch our spouse, parents, friends, and people we love die one day.

We also come to understand through St. John that we are called to love one another fully. Christ Himself tells us this in the Great Commandments that we are to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves. St. John’s First Letter is a deep meditation on these words. Christ does not tell us that we are to only love our spouses, families, and chosen friends. No, He goes so far as to tell us that we are to even love our enemies.

Now, to our culture, this is sheer madness. We are supposed to love people as long as it feels good and then move on. How are we supposed to love everyone including our enemies? We are supposed to hate and despise our enemies. In our Fallen state this feels much easier. Anger allows us to remain distant from the people who hurt us or who question our worldview. While righteous anger can be a great unifier, most of us battle to keep this unruly passion in check. If we examine our anger towards someone we often will see that it is predicated on vengeance more than justice. It’s a struggle because we are made for love and we want to be loved by the people we love, but often we aren’t, so we respond in anger through our hurt.

The radicality of Christ’s call to love our neighbor means that we will have to suffer in love. While loving the people who hurt, reject, betray, or persecute us does not make sense from our human perspective, there are often deeper spiritual realities at work. It is often the very people who reject us or who seek to hurt us who need our love the most. It may be that our love is given to them through prayer as is the case in those Christian witnesses who have prayed for their concentration camp guards who torture them the most or the saints who were persecuted by their own brothers and sisters, but pray ardently for them. The example par excellence of this is when Christ utters his cry of “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” There is so much we fail to see when we choose to hurt others.

A failure to love one another as we ought to is tied to a wide variety of factors in our lives, some outside of our control, and others a part of our Fallen nature. Many of us struggle to accept the love that is extended to us. We think we are unworthy of it or we do not know how to step out into vulnerability because of the inevitable pain that love will bring. Sin can hinder or make us incapable of authentic love, especially if we objectify people through that sin. And far too many people have fallen for the lie that love is simply about my happiness, feelings, desires, and wants. They have never been shown or taught what love truly means. It is to focus on the happiness of another, to will their good, and it is in emptying ourselves where we find our own ultimate joy.

The counterfeit versions of love that we see in our culture are an understandable diversion from the fear we all must confront in order to love fully. Fortitude is a requirement of love. For the Christian, we know that love is the Cross. This means God will require us to lay down our own lives for others each day as we learn to die to self. This is a painful process and one we flee from repeatedly. The constant mortification of our own ego is difficult. The Fall has made us believe that we are the center of the universe, but through grace we are made into a new creation and that requires purification and suffering. It is through this process that love is perfected and all fear is cast out. We come to find ourselves rightly ordered to God and others, which brings about our freedom. The perfecting love of God turns us into the fully alive human being we are made to be.

The ultimate irony for our culture–and for ourselves–is that as we flee from authentic love and accept empty shells of love, we find ourselves unhappy and lonely. Our culture is extremely lonely. For all of the instant communication at our fingertips, people are more lonely than ever. That is because love requires us to set our own wants and desires aside in order to give. We must become self-gift. A danger of social media is that it breeds narcissism. While it is good to keep up with people, it does not fully create the deep connections and friendship God is calling us to in our lives. We see teenagers sitting at tables with flesh and blood people while all staring at their phones. It’s much easier to placate the ego through attention and likes than it is to seek relationships with the people in front of us who will inevitably hurt us.

Everyone we love is going to hurt us. They are Fallen human beings just like we are, which means that their failings will cause us pain. We can’t avoid pain forever and it is in pain that we learn to love more deeply through the power of forgiveness. Like love, forgiveness is a choice we may repeatedly when others have hurt us. We often want things to be quick and easy and one-time choices. Both love and forgiveness require a repeated act of the will to continue to do what is good for someone and to forgive them when the pain they’ve caused us comes to mind. This includes those people who are no longer in our lives for whatever reason. Or even harder, those people who are still in our lives, but serious damage has been done. Forgiveness is a part of dying to self in love.

Our example, as St. John reminds us, is Christ Himself who shows us the way of suffering in love and the power of forgiveness. His sacrifice for us is truly radical. It is through sacrifice that we are transformed and conformed to Him. Growth in love requires suffering from us. In fact, even though we fear suffering, it is our experiences of pain in our relationships with people that lead love to deepen. Forgiveness deepens our love for others and it mortifies the ego. It is why Christ gave up His life for us and came back to offer forgiveness. He’s showing us the way of love.

Featured image taken from Wiki Commons.

Leading People to Christ Rarely Begins with Teaching Sexual Ethics

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Image taken from Wiki Commons.

As I scroll through my social media feed looking at the day’s news, I am struck by the sheer commonality of the sin of presumption on display. It appears that far too many of us–myself included at times–do not understand Our Lord’s admonition that we are not to judge other people. I don’t mean this as a form of secular tolerance, which is a form of relativism. I mean that we make actual assumptions and judgments about whole people–not behavior–constantly. This is one of the main reasons that dialogue and discourse devolves so quickly into ad hominem attacks online.

First, we cannot presume that we know someone or what they are going to do who we have only “met” online. Online communication only provides a glimpse into the complex lives of human beings. As I have written recently, authentic friendship requires something that social media cannot provide: presence. There is no way to fully come to know a person without spending time together in person at some point. The Internet provides the illusion of full connectivity, but really is only a shadow of communion.

In reality, we seldom know the deepest and most complex aspects of the people who are in our lives. Spouses, no matter how close, still largely remain a mystery to one another since they are still unique individuals–body and soul–who are united in the one-flesh union. God still works differently in each soul and that means by default that we are shrouded in mystery and depth, even though we assume that we know or understand another person completely. Even in the deepest of relationships both familial and fraternal, there are aspects of each human being that are only known by God.

This is something that should humble us when we encounter each person throughout our day. We are meeting another person made in the image and likeness of God who is capable of the greatest love and the most extreme wickedness. We all come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Our bodies with all of their marvels are also fraught with imbalance, weakness, and decay. Our souls must learn to strive to bring our bodies into right order and to put the spiritual goods above the bodily. We are both body and soul after all. We forget all of the factors at play in each individual’s life and in our own folly, we think we can fully know and understand another person.

This is the type of pride that leads to presumption. I’m not speaking of presumption of heaven here. I’m talking about presuming, or assuming, that we know what another person will do, think, say, or who they are as a person. I have been a part of so many online discussions and situations in person where I have assumed I knew what someone was going to do or that this person or that will always choose this way or that way. This type of thinking is extremely destructive in relationships.

More-often-than-not, our assumptions about other people are our own projections, prejudices, weaknesses, or judgments because we don’t agree with the other person. Disagreement is fine and good, judging a whole person and discarding them based on pre-conceived notions is wrong. Even if someone commits grave evil, we still have an obligation to learn to forgive and love them as ourselves. This doesn’t mean they will necessarily be a close friend or family member, but it does mean that we discard any judgment we harbor that belongs to God. We can say objectively that a behavior is sinful, but we don’t discard people simply because of sinful behavior. By God’s grace, anyone can undergo conversion of heart. We also don’t assume that people will always choose evil, or will always make the same mistakes, or that they are a lost cause. This is to give up hope, which is the sin of despair.

I was reading a thread this morning talking about the friendship between Robert George and Fr. James Martin, which got me thinking about both presumption and how much preaching sexual ethics primarily is a misguided form of evangelization. I largely disagree with the ambiguity in Fr. Martin’s teaching. I think lack of clarity is dangerous and that charity demands that we clearly and proudly proclaim the truth Christ has revealed to us. Even so, my disagreement with Fr. Martin is about his ideas and his teaching. I do not discard him as a person and pass judgment upon him. I have no idea what he will do or say in the future.

As I read this thread, people were complaining that Dr. George’s befriending Fr. Martin was a waste of time. ‘He clearly ignores Church teaching and George will be made to look a fool when Martin comes out openly supporting “same sex marriage.” To be fair to Fr. Martin, his ambiguity has kept him from outright heterodoxy. He makes the typical mistake in a misguided approach to accompaniment in thinking that compassion equates to confirming identity politics and that telling people outright the truth is hurtful. Christ wouldn’t agree with him. Any cursory reading of the Gospels makes this clear.

It is fine to disagree with Fr. Martin–I do–it is another to presume that he will become an outride heretic in the future, which is what I read this morning. He is already being judged by the court of social media. Our Faith should teach us something very important about this life. Our conversion and the conversion of everyone else on this planet is always a work in progress. Saul persecuted Christians and then had a radical encounter with Christ and became St. Paul. St. Augustine lived the live of debauchery and sexual immorality and became a Doctor of the Church. Sexual immorality doesn’t preclude conversion. Just because our sins are not the same as our neighbor’s does not mean that conversion is impossible for them.

I suspect Fr. Martin is making the same evangelical mistake that those who oppose him on the right make in trying to convert the culture. That is, assuming that talking about sex is going to lead to conversion. Nobody reads the Bible and thinks “I get it. I need to temper my sex life!” to borrow from the thinking of Bishop Robert Barron, whose understanding of evangelization is similar to my own. You don’t lead with sexual ethics. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work and there’s a reason why it doesn’t work.

Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics. It is about an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ who has given the world a Church, the Catholic Church. This encounter with Christ draws people into the life of the Church, which requires each person to completely upend their lives. Becoming a Christian is deeply demanding and enters into every single aspect of our lives. Conversion starts with an encounter with Jesus Christ. Then, once we are in love with Him and desire to give our lives to Him, we can begin to see where we need to change our lives to be conformed and in communion with Him.

Without this encounter and deep friendship with God, our faith becomes stale, oppressive, and heavy. Our love of God will show us how to live sexual morality and to do it in self-emptying love, even though it can be difficult. Without this encounter Christianity becomes a list of rules to check off, which often is an empty shell. Faith is dynamic. It dramatically changes our lives for the better, but we can’t convince people of this truth unless they come to know Christ first and sexual ethics in light of the love they have for Christ.

Everyone who obsesses about Fr. Martin and who presumes to be able to read his soul–which is a rather large sin–gets pulled into this same mistake. Reaching people who are struggling with all forms of sexual sin–homosexuality is not somehow worse morally than other sexual sins such as adultery or heterosexual fornication–is never going to happen if we aren’t leading with Christ. He is the only one who can help us conquer the darkness and weakness within each one of us. Falling in love with Him is what gives us the strength and grace we need to move past our sins. It’s a life-long process, but if we never introduce people to the saving message of the Gospel, then they can’t see a way out and it seems impossible to overcome something that appears at first glance to be so tied to our identity.

Christ is risen! We have been saved by the power of the Paschal Mystery and we are spiritually fed in the Holy Eucharist, which is Our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. When we fall–which we will do repeatedly–we can go to the Sacrament of Confession to be forgiven, to learn more about ourselves, and to be made new. Everyone can in fact be a saint by God’s grace. That is the universal call for each and every single person and that desires is enkindled by coming to love God and to accept the infinite love that He pours out on each one of us day-in-and-day-out.

Sometimes our sins seem impossible and the battles we wage spiritually and bodily are so intense that we think we cannot get back up ever again, or we have convinced ourselves that we are incapable of change or progress, and that God made us a certain way and that’s the way it is. These are the lies of the Enemy and the lies we tell ourselves. He is the radiant Truth in the face of these lies. Christ is the answer. He is the answer to the deepest longings of our hearts. He is the One who leads us through the storms of life and who strengthens us in the battles we must wage.

This life is the Cross, but it is lived in the hope and joy found in Him. In the immense joy and peace He offers. That doesn’t mean we won’t suffer, hurt, have dry spells or dark nights, be greatly tempted, sin and fall, but it does mean we will persevere and that one day we will enter into the communion of the Most Holy Trinity. It means that we will become who He made us to be. Our weaknesses, sins, temptations, proclivities, etc. have been washed in His blood and in the end we will be as pure as snow if we follow Him. That’s the hope we offer to a dying world. Teaching sexual morality is essential for helping people to learn how to live as a Catholic, but we need to lead people to Christ first. Nobody died a martyr purely for sexual ethics. They died for love of Jesus Christ, so why aren’t we lifting Him up and drawing people to Him?

People Do Change, We Must

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Image: Wiki Commons

There is an adage in our culture that is prevalent in movies, books, even daily conversations. It is: “People never change.” It is even quite common for Catholics to make this statement. If this is true, then we are all in trouble. Scripture and our Faith tell us otherwise. People deeply attached to sin and disorder are made new in Christ. Individuals who have been discarded, abused, hurt, sick, lost, and committed great evils do indeed change. We underestimate how much seasons of illness impact a person. We also forget that people carry very deep wounds that only the Divine Physician can heal. It is much easier to live in our assumptions and presumptions about people and constantly compare them to their failures or weaknesses, but this is wholly unjust and is a sin against charity. Authentic love is constant regardless of these failings. It does not accept them, but love is not revoked in the face of failures either.

Anyone who makes frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession/Reconciliation) comes to realize how weak they truly are and how much they need Christ. It is true that we tend to fail in the same ways over and over again until God provides the grace and we need to develop the habit of the virtue necessary to overcome a certain vice or character flaw. This means that change is slow and on-going. Very few of us have radical conversion stories. Even St. Augustine’s Confessions demonstrates the struggle each person has with particular sins. It is easy to forget that our progression in holiness is dependent on God’s working within us on His timeline, not our own.

There are indeed times when changes must happen rapidly. This takes place when tragedy strikes or an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis occurs. In those moments we are faced with monumental decisions about ourselves, our loved ones, the people around us, and the future. These times tend to reveal the best and the worst in us and we have to fight for the best to win. Our self-centered Fallen nature will rear its ugly head when what we wanted is either impossible or irrelevant. We must pray for the strength to persevere when we would like to give up and to embrace God’s will over our own. Very few people go through their entire lives without wanting to give up in the face of tremendous adversity at least once or twice or a hundred times.

Change is actually inevitable. I am not the same person I was even three years ago. There are aspects of my personality that do not change, but a fog I walked in for 3 years lifted and I could finally see myself again. I came out of that fog higher up on the path and stronger for it despite the misery I endured. We walk in valleys and up to, and on, mountain tops in this life. We become different depending on what we face, but the deepest reality of who we are as created imago Dei does not change. Our unique incommunicable and unique personhood is not lost in the face of tragedy, illness, mental illness, abandonment, and suffering; rather, we are refined and the unique person we are is made more beautiful in God’s furnace of love.

This refinement only works if we desire joy and if we learn to embrace the hardships and sufferings that will come our way. It is a process and we will fail to accomplish at times and struggle with self-pity, anger, and frustration. We must fix our eyes on Heaven and remember that this is temporary. Each moment of every single day we are moving towards Heaven or hell. We know intuitively when we have made the wrong choice, unless we have completely deadened our conscience. Every step in either direction changes us into the person we will be in the next life. If we choose not to change in either direction that is also a choice and the wrong one.

Our purpose in this life is to be a saint. We are made for goodness, truth, beauty, and happiness, but we can only attain those gifts from God if we relinquish ourselves and allow Him to dwell within us. We must choose each day to change for the better. When we fail–which is inevitable–then we ask God to pick us back up and march ourselves back to the Confessional. Change only occurs if we never give up. The Enemy wants us to stay face down in the mud sobbing about our failures or our lost dreams. We have to say “no” and get back up. Thankfully, God gave me a rather stubborn personality. This is good and bad, but I am thankful that it makes me less likely to stay down for long.

I love to hike and I love mountains. I grew up in Montana so the Rockies are deeply embedded in my psyche. I love living in the Appalachians, but there is a rugged, strange, dangerous, awe-inspiring, and compelling quality to the Rockies. The idea of the holy mountain we are climbing in this life is an old image. It’s found in the Old Testament since God was understood in relation to specific mountains i.e. Moses. Purgatory has also been called a holy mountain. Anyone who has hiked on granite peaks like the Rockies knows that there are long ascents, slippery shale crossings, snow, run off, mud, sudden afternoon thunderstorms, not-so-friendly wildlife, random summer snow storms, and winds. The views are phenomenal and they provide strength to continue onward when the climb becomes steep. Those who climb mountains like Mount Everest know that as you go higher the more treacherous the trip becomes.

The spiritual life seems to be similar to these treacherous climbs. The attacks, temptations, and reality of our weaknesses come to the forefront the more we climb. The Enemy changes tactics on us and at times we can mistake light that is really darkness (St. Ignatius of Loyola). The hidden places of darkness within us that we didn’t know about or never wanted to confront come out into the light. They have to so that God may shed His healing light and wipe away every darkness within us. Many of the saints experienced greater attacks from the Devil and struggled mightily with interior darkness as they continued the ascent. They relied solely on God amidst profound desolation.

The higher we climb, the more God reveals to us that we must give our entire selves to Him alone. The path becomes more difficult as we are asked to detach from more and more in this life, so that it is Christ who dwells fully within us. This takes a lifetime to accomplish since we are attached to much, some of which we don’t realize until we are faced with it at certain points on the journey. In our sinfulness, we do not realize that this detachment is the path to joy.

To be Catholic is to change. To be human is to change. There are relationships that may never fully heal and some people may choose the wrong path, but they are changing as they age. It is impossible not to. The deep changes, the necessary changes require God’s grace in our lives. The pruning away at the dead branches weighing us down becomes greater and greater as time goes on. In the end we may feel like a rose bush cut to the root, but any gardener knows the rose will come back in greater glory after an intense pruning. The same is true of us. With each new pruning, we change for either good or bad. It is up to us to rely on God in leading us to the good as we battle our selfishness and our own plans that are not united to His will for our lives.

We must also remember that people are not required to change in the manner we desire. We cannot force our will upon other people and make them into something in our own image. We must pray for others who have hurt us or who we may not agree with at times, but we cannot turn them into something they are not. God has plans for each individual based on the gifts and personality that He has bestowed upon us. Not everyone in the world is meant to be like us. Thank God for that! The last thing we need are carbon copies of me all over the world. In humility, we should recognize why people are meant to be different from one another. Oftentimes people will be upset when we make changes for the better, when we progress in holiness. Christ promised this too! Not everyone will understand, but we must continue on the path that He has laid out for us.

A very blessed last week of Advent to you as we wait in hope for the celebration of the coming of Our Savior at Christmas and while we wait ever watchful for the day He returns at the end of time.

Catholic Exchange: What Does It Mean to Want to Be a Saint

I wish that I could say that I have submitted and relinquished my will entirely to God. I can’t say that, yet. I’ve spent more days sitting beside my husband in hospital rooms than I care to count. Hospital visits are a monthly, weekly, or bi-weekly occurrence for us. I have had to stand by in horror and fear watching my husband nearly lose consciousness and cough blood into bowls. I have had to quietly finger my Rosary through Divine Mercy Chaplets with tears streaming down my face while my husband lies in the hospital bed next to me completely disoriented. My husband is 40 years old. He’s not 70 or 80. He’s 40. Each new episode reminds me that I may become a widow at any point: next week, next year, in ten years, twenty years. We don’t know, but we know this disease could become unmanageable at any point.

In truth, the possibility of my becoming a widow or him a widower has always been the case because we don’t know what will happen from day-to-day. Death comes at God’s appointed time and often without warning, but there is something different about finding out that my husband has a rare and dangerous auto-immune disease. It makes that reality tangible. It is front and center in our lives. He has good days and days he suffers greatly. Each new day brings more uncertainty. In that uncertainty, God is calling me to trust Him and love Him fully. He offers His Sacred Heart to me each day and I only need to fully accept that love in all of its awe, wonder, joy, terrible suffering, and sorrow.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.