February 11, 2005

Carrying Crosses

Yesterday was an agony of cross-bearing in the lightest possible sense. Things that should not mean so much, meant far, far too much. Trifles weighed on me heavily. oppressing me all day. A slight shift in viewpoint, a change in policy.

The long and the short of it was that I was big-time looking for a way not to carry these daily crosses. That is, until I read the reflection in In Conversation with God. While I find myself hesitant about the emphasis on making mortifications for yourself, the guide was very helpful in helping me to identify the phenomenon of the day. Suffice to say that i still didn't manage very gracefully, I fear. Nevertheless, I was more aware of what I was facing, and more willing to do so.

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A Meditation on the Scriptures for Today's Mass

Here

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February 10, 2005

A Joyous Feastday Celebration

to all of my Bendictine Brothers and Sisters--and most particularly to one little sister in Christ. May you give good cause for St. Scholastica to rejoice before the Lord on your account. May the day bring blessing and through her intercession, greater peace and love of God.

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Knowing God

from Ascent to Love
Sr. Ruth Burrows

The real point John is making is that at a certain point of growth a new form of knowledge is introduced that does not come through the normal channels of cognition. This is real knowledge of him who 'is night to the soul in this life', incomprehensible mystery. Thus in a practical existential way we are being asked to accept that 'nothing whatever that our imagination can conceive or our minds grasp in this life, can be God himself'; they are merely ideas about him no matter how spiritual they seem to be. Anything that we can actually regard and give an account of simply cannot be a direct experience of God.

Beginners for John are 'those who meditate on the spiritual road', which means they are those who are totally dependent on thoughts and ideas about God. Now for all of us, whatever state we are in, this is the only distinct knowledge we have; it is all we can know in the common acceptance of the term. When we write or talk it is always this kind of knowledge that is involved. But for beginners it is literally the sum total of their knowledge. It is not, as with advanced persons, merely that this is their conscious knowledge of God--it is, in objective reality, the sum of their knowledge. They are completely dependent on what their intelligence discovers of him and, as knowledge and love are closely intertwined, their love too is limited in this way.

This is so heartening--the thought that with enough progress I do not have to depend upon the nonsense that circulates in my head and calls itself "knowledge of God." My head so bulges and throbs with ideas about God that if my eventual success depended upon them, I would know for certain that there is no hope.

But my journey does begin with my thoughts and my ideas about God. In the light of transforming grace God gently moves me closer to Him by "perfecting" that knowledge in so far as I am capable of grasping it. The truth is that I am extraordinarily limited in this way. If two theologians were debating, I might be able to ask a couple of questions to fuel the fire, but I know so little that I would be persuaded first this way and then that way. The sum of my certain knowledge of theology is found in the revelation of the Scriptures, the defined doctrines and dogmas of the Church (in so far as I know and understand them), and most especially in the Creed. I understand at least the superficial meaning of every statement in the Creed, and I accept them unequivocally. This, at least is an organizing chain for thoughts.

But if we are living the life God has set out for us, thought will inevitably lead to deeper, inexpressible knowledge. This seems to be the message of all the great spiritual writers of the Church. At some point in prayer we move beyond meditation and thought about God into a deeper knowledge of Him that He Himself grants us. This is commonly called infused contemplation. However, that are a great many steps between these two ends, and I think all of us have experiences of the reality and the truth of God that extend beyond mere ideas. That transcendent and overwhelming feeling that has no reliable description in English when one first encounters a stunning landscape or work of art--that it seems to me is a small sense of what Sister Burrows means when she talks about "secret knowledge of God." It isn't a knowledge that sits outside of revelation, but rather a direct encounter.

I suppose one way of thinking about it is the translation from Divine Acquaintance (How do you do? So pleased to see you again.) to Divine Friendship (How can I help you deal with this difficult mater?) to Divine Intimacy (Oh let us be married, too long we have tarried, but what shall we do for a ring?). We all start at Divine Acquaintance. We seem to know something of God but are largely indifferent or only slightly warm to the matter we know. Most of us have probably moved beyond acquaintance to friendship, where we desire to spend more time and really get to know the Other. We go beyond the minimum requirements, but we still withdraw at times and move to be on our own. God stays in His place (figuratively speaking) and we go elsewhere. Finally, we know so much and understand enough, that we wish not to be merely friends that come and go, but we desire to become One Flesh, intimate family--we don't ever want to be parted from the presence or the security of our union. Most of us are like the proverbial bachelor--we want to keep our freedom, Divine Intimacy would really wreck our game plan for life. We need to be free to sample the pleasures of the world.

The reality is that it is only in the bonds of union that we become free enough to know what the pleasures of the world really are. And to get to union we must eventually go beyond our ideas and constructs and begin to trust God for who He is. We must experience the great I AM in the smallness of being "she who is not" (a quote from St. Catherine of Siena). This is the end goal--this is the Easter of our lives. Living the lives of good Christians and striving always to stay in a state of grace, we will find our way to this end eventually. But consider for a moment the profound triumph, beauty, passion, and ecstasy of finding ourselves there while still in the land of the living. Moving beyond merely knowing about into knowing while we still live. St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, St. Alphonsus Liguori, in fact every Saint who writes about the deep mystical life tells us that not only is it possible, it is what we are intended for. This is the "Mary" (as opposed to Martha) moment. This is the "one thing necessary." It is the end either here and now or in the life to come.

The good news is that this end is open to every one of us through the Grace of God. It is inconceivable that the God who said, "knock and it shall be opened, seek and ye shall find" would fail to live up to His word. Once again, it is merely a matter of making up our minds to do this. Choose Life. Choose intimacy. Love God now in the ideas and meditations, live the life partaking of sacramental grace, and pray that His will be done, and each one of us who does so can join those saints who achieved Divine Intimacy. It is not beyond us, it is within us, in the form of the Holy Spirit who constantly calls and urges us to move beyond our hesitant and sometimes cool friendship. The Holy Spirit calls us to ardor.

"Now is the acceptable time."

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February 09, 2005

Lenten Thoughts

Two thoughts occur to me provoked by things I've read elsewhere.

Some refer to Lent as a journey. If so, it is a microcosm of all of life. The Lenten journey has as its goal Easter, so the fasting and penitence come to an end with the celebration of the resurrection. All of life has as its goal Union with God and so at long last when we have shed this mortal coil and endured whatever purgation remains to us, we arrive at the Easter resurrection. The two journeys mirror one another.

It also occurred to me that lent is not so much about changing daily routine as about making daily routine respond to God. We can do most of what we normally do, but somehow we do it more mindfully, more aware of its cosmic importance, more sensitive to its eternal repercussions.

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Providential Synchonicity

Two readings this morning:

from Morning Prayer, the Intercession

May we abstain from what we do not really need,
and help our brothers and sisters in distress.

And this from my present bookgroup:

from Freedom of Simplicity
Richard J Foster

The life pleasing to God is not found in a series of religious duties but in obedience. The fast that God desired was for the people to "loose the bonds of wickedness" and to "let the oppressed go free." God's word to them were these: "Share your bread with the hungry" and bring the "homeless poor into your house." (Is 58: 5-7)

Fast from what you do not really need anyway. This doesn't seem like such a difficult thing, but many of us, perhaps most of us, are daily indulged in our own wants. We have more than we need and we crave more yet.

God did not set up a given economic system--He is not a capitalist or a communist or a distributist or an economist of any sort. He is God. He points out simple truths. You don't need that. And what we don't need generally weighs us down. Sometimes it does so in real physical reality--we eat more than we need and we increase our girth. But more often it is in psychological and spiritual terms. We have more than we really need and we cease to use or own things and we become the servant of things.

I think back to the time when I rented an apartment or a townhouse from someone else. When something went wrong, I simply called the landlord and it was dealt with, most often quite quickly. Yes, there were some restrictive rules, perhaps some problems with the system, but I had a place to live and it did not loom large in my mind.

Now I "own" a house. This last season I sat through four hurricanes wondering how I was to take care of this house, reroof it, de-mold it, repair it. Early this year I think how I must buy hurricane shutters, or get this thing or that thing removed or adjusted. The house owns me. It demands things of me never demanded by a rented townhouse. It requires of me things that I gave no thought to when I simply rented. And it offers no better surety or security. And thanks to owner's associations, I am even more restricted than when I lived in a townhouse. Some feel the warm glow of ownership--I feel, more often, the shackles of being owned.

The fast that we do today reminds us not only of God, but it should also remind us of those less fortunate than ourselves, those who do not have even a single full meal to eat in a day. The fast that the Church requires today is a fast that, should be choose to do so, we could easily live on the rest of our lives without being deprived. The fast we observe under Church regulation wisely focuses our attention on what we need not on what we want.

Try this experiment (if in ill health, obviously consult your physician first). Take this day of fast and extend it. See what happens to you , to your waistline (if that is a concern) to your health and to your awareness. And see what you save. Then take that and give it to the poor. What you do not eat, what you fast from--that can feed others. As you train yourself to focus on what you need, you can at the same time help others, with no other sacrifice whatsoever. Let this day be a dawning of new awareness. Let your little physical hunger drive the hunger for righteousness and for justice. Open your heart to give God a home. Offer Him your excesses and you will find yourself freed from them. More, you will find in His heart of generosity the spirit of generosity itself and become unburdened in matters that are only of the moment.

God will rescue us from the greatest foe of all--our own desires.

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Two Notes from Today's Reading

Reading In Conversation with God a little series that MamaT recommended last year (and, if I'm not mistaken, again this year). There were two things that struck me. One was the suggestion that we keep in mind over this day the following prayer from Psalm 51:

"A pure heart create for me O Lord, put a steadfast spirit within me."

An excellent choice for bringing ourselves once again into the presence of God int he penitential spirit. It takes but a moment, but it begins the process of "living in the presence of God." More, it prepares our hearts to receive the grace of true repentence which will be spelled out in our confession.

The other point really struck home--it was an incidental, nearly a codicil to a sentence. "He wants us to abandon sin, which makes us grow old and die. . . " This is a powerful insight. The youngest people I know are those who are the most innocent, the most free from sin. This includes people who are truly young in chronological age, but it also includes the "ageless," who are relatively unworn by sin, unlined by age upon age of defying God and having their own way. Sin makes us grow old and it steals our joy. We may not know it at the time because of the momentary pleasure we may have in the commission of many sins. But defying God ages one and jades one, almost to the point of not being able to hear Him any more. Our hearts long for Him and our minds and bodies turn away from Him. Sin destroys youth, it destroys awareness, it destroys the core of who we are--it mottles and scars us and takes away from us the precious life of God.

But we can do something about it. We can confess the sin. We can repudiate it. We may not be suddenly made young again, but we can stop the process of interior death, of growing unawareness, of loss of focus. This is the time and now is the season. Rejoice in this wonderful season the Church has given us and tradition has honored. God speaks to us today as He does every day. Would that we could carry the awareness we cultivate in this Lent into our daily lives outside Lent!

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February 08, 2005

"And Now for Something Completely Different. . ."

For those feeling a bit peckish but nevertheless not wishing to curtail their walpoling activities, Hugh Walpole's The Cathedral. May be the wrong Walpole, but read it with a nice bit of stilton or some brie (even very runny brie) and you won't notice the difference.

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Lent Posting

At this point there is such a wealth of posting on the beginning of Lent that my head threatens to explode, and I shouldn't be adding to the problem. Nevertheless, it is my intent to do so over the next few hours. I've given long, hard thought as to how to balance the normal requirements of the day with the requirements I shall add for Lent, without overbalancing and coming completely undone.

Lent is a constant temptation to me for Instant Sanctity in forty days. Every year I shall achieve union with God, have perfect prayer, and renew all those around me, and basically initiate a fundamental revolution in the Church that will have me a Saint five years after my death. And every year, somehow, I don't know how, I seem to fall short of those exalted goals. This year I either

(1) intend to make it; or, more realistically,

(2) will revise my goals in such a way that what I decide is indeed possible.

That will probably entail less time at the computer (bad news). The good news is that the time will probably be more productive because of the things I am determined to cut out.

For me Lent is a welcome, joyous season of repentence. I love it. It is like taking a really difficult, incredibly rewarding course in college, but this if off-the-scale better. I am called upon to exercise my entire will and desire in the pursuit of the "one thing necessary" and I undertake the commission with both a sense of my own adequacy and the assurance of help through Grace. So the object is to not pile on things until everything becomes unstable and implodes, but also not to let myself off with the light skimming of the surface. This year, as in other years, I want to grow closer to the God who calls to me through this Holy season. Blessings to all, may grace fill you and God guide you to the end He intends.

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On Simplicity

Richard J. Foster is a Quaker who has quite the ecumenical outlook. He's written dozens of books on faith and spirituality, several of them dedicated to the study of devotional literature. In simplicity he talks at length about one of the most important and most difficult of spiritual disciplines.

from The Freedom of Simplicity
Richard J. Foster

If the first insight into simplicity that we receive from the Old Testament is radical dependence, the second is radical obedience. Perhaps nowhere is this more graphically seen than when Abraham was called upon to surrender his most priceless treasure--his son Isaac. God spoke, Abraham obeyed. No contingency plans, no skirting around the issue, no ifs ands or buts. Through a long painful process Abraham's life had been honed down to one truth--obedience to the voice of Yahweh. This "holy obedience" forms the grid through which the life of simplicity flows.

Radical obedience is possible only when God has our supreme allegiance. . . .

Today we need to hear again that God alone is worthy of our worship and obedience. The idolatry of affluence is rampant. Our greed for more dictates so many of our decisions. Notice how the fourth commandment of the Sabbath rest strikes at the heart of this everlasting itch to get ahead. We find it so very hard to rest when, by working, we can get the jump on everyone else. There is no greater need today than the freedom to lay down the heavy burden of getting ahead.

(from chapter 2)

Following on the theme of several days now--we must make a choice, life or death, heaven or hell, self or Other. "You cannot serve two masters for you will love one and hate the other. . ." The choice is all-or-nothing and that is why it is so difficult. Either we embrace God and His way entirely and experience a radical transformation in our lives, or we reject Him in one way or another. Embracing God is scary because we have been given so many distorted pictures of what that looks like. Strange cultists burn their possessions and go in live in cinder-block communes all for love of Him. Some look for His return in a spaceship. There are any number of distortion to the one truth. And these distortions exist because the worst thing that can happen to the prince of this world is that we should turn our eyes from him toward the One who saves.

But the reality of the matter is that this interior transformation may be propagated to outward things, but the matter of change is our bondage to those things that keep us from being who we are. We do not know our identities until we are identified in Christ. Sin and self-possession keep us away from that possibility.

We cannot begin a life of obedience unless and until we have made that commitment to God, from whom the strength and the grace of obedience flows. That only makes sense--how can we hope to be obedient if we repudiate the source of obedience?

And that ultimate obedience of Abraham is instructive--God does not wish us obedience to destroy us, but rather to strengthen us. He will not take from us all that He has given us, but he will invest it with new meaning. Life will not stop, but the kind of life-in-death we live in bondage to ourselves. The obedience of Abraham teaches us that God does not ask from us the impossible. He may test us, but He will always be with us so long as we trust in Him and rely upon Him.

Simplicity, obedience, charity, meekness, humility, the storehouse of all virtues becomes opened to us by a simple choice. We either choose to unify ourselves to Jesus Christ in as much as we can, relying entirely on grace and His help, or we choose to remain as we are. God will save in due time either way--but it is the difference of a life of Joy in Him or a life of bondage to self with some recourse to Him. It really isn't much of a choice, and yet it is so difficult to make!

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February 07, 2005

St Blogs Awards

You all are undoubtedly aware of the Awards vote in progress. I would like to thank CyberCatholics for the wonderful community service they perform in organizing this. I'm not one for competitions, but as a result of this I have discovered several new and delightful blogs. Go and vote (or not, as you feel led), but whatever you do check out some of the things that you may not even have been aware exist at St. Blogs. What a wonderful treat. (It's how I found the Nuns sledding). Many, many thanks to the people who have gone through all the effort to organize this.

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"Nervous" Melancholic

Fascinating Medieval Personality quiz found via Trousered Ape

Here's a summary of my results:

Melancholic

You are a "nervous" Melancholic, with an abundance of black bile. Melancholics are characterized by the element of Earth, the season of Autumn, middle-aged adulthood, the color blue, and the characteristics of "Cold" and "Dry." Famous Melancholics include St. John of the Cross, St. John the Divine, St. Francis, and St. Catherine of Siena.

If you were living in the Age of Faith, perfect career choices for you would be contemplative religious, theologian, artist, or writer.

And, having a score of 85%, I suppose I must be one in spades.

More extensively here.

Take the quiz here

What is truly remarkable here is how much more reasonable many of these descriptions sound. Naturally, they are tending to cluster people so individual differences tend to get lost. I mean any group that contains both St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Siena, great contemplatives that I would consider at opposite ends of the scale, must perforce be somewhat vague. But I am considerably better inclined to these analyses than I am to most contemporary ones.

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Nuns on Sleds

Utterly wonderful. Check out Moniales et seq. for wonderful photographs. Now this is relishing God's creation.

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Prayerful Lent

Steve Bogner has opened a new blog for the Lenten Season based upon the "little black books" many parishes (including my own) distribute for Lenten Devotions. (In my parish they come in English and Spanish and there is a little purple book for children). Go see.

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"Transgressing the Boundaries"

At once the wittiest, most interesting, and most devastating attack on the excesses of post-modernism. Originally published in a peer-reviewed journal and later revealed as a hoax--I had forgotten how much I enjoyed "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" by Alan Sokal. An excerpt follows.

from "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity"
Alan Sokal


There are many natural scientists, and especially physicists, who continue to reject the notion that the disciplines concerned with social and cultural criticism can have anything to contribute, except perhaps peripherally, to their research. Still less are they receptive to the idea that the very foundations of their worldview must be revised or rebuilt in the light of such criticism. Rather, they cling to the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook, which can be summarized briefly as follows: that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in ``eternal'' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the ``objective'' procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics1; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility2; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the fašade of ``objectivity''.3 It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ``reality'', no less than social ``reality'', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ``knowledge", far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz's analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics4; in Ross' discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science5; in Irigaray's and Hayles' exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics6; and in Harding's comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.7


Even more amusing was its considerable aftermath, chronicled in part here. Enjoy.

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Devotional Reading of H. P. Lovecraft

You may think the title above a joke, but it is not. And I right this in thanks for the kindness of the St. Blog's Community in nominating Flos Carmeli for best devotional blog. Heaven knows, I don't really deserve it--Quenta Nârwenion, Laudem Gloriae, Ever New, and a host of other deserve the recognition far more than I do. But I am very grateful, thank you. And now--on with the post.

While wasting some time indulging a vice acquired at a very young age--the reading of H. P. Lovecraft and materials inspired by him--something odd occurred to me. In the course of reading The Children of Cthulhu, an updating of the old Mythos, I recognized what I saw in these works.

H.P. Lovecraft is great Christian devotional reading because he gives the other side of the coin--what is the Universe without God? In many ways the arguments of H.P. Lovecraft and others in this realm were really the first fruits of modernism and atheism. These fruits were to develop into the nihilists, the absurdists, and ultimately the Post-Modernists. This is not to say that Lovecraft in any way influenced Beckett, Ionesco, or de Man (though some of his attitudes would have found good company in the latter). Rather, they were part of the zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times" that gave rise to these other things.

Why do I say this? Well, Lovecraft himself was a dedicated atheist. Some of his letters suggest some contempt for theism as a whole and for individuals in particular. His vision is of a world in which at any moment there can intrude utter chaos, randomness, and complete disorder. These are figured in the Great Old Ones and in the Elder Gods he conjures up in his prose. The effects of these entities are chaos, madness, and destruction for those who experience them. And yet, while the threat of universal destruction is always suggested or implied, the reality never occurs. Small townships are affected by interbreeding with the spawn of Dagon--a scientific investigation in Antarctica is disrupted by the Great Old Ones. One or two people experience the rising of R'lyeh. But in fact, Lovecraft's visitations of the Great Old Ones affect remarkably few people considering the hideous power and the great might and the eldritch evil that drips off of every page. If we bother to examine Lovecraft closely it appears that the doom visits only some.

I would suggest that these some represent those "brave" enough to cast off the bonds of traditional religion and thought and to walk without God. Lovecraft's visitations are, in fact, the vision of life without God. They spell out Yeats's famous dictum, "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." When God slides out of the picture, we slide into the madness of fallen nature. Everything is hostile and potentially deadly--the world is filled with fear and with the things that cause fear. Moreover, life does not make sense. Things intrude that make life a horror, a nightmare, lunacy. There is simply no explanation and so we run from one opiate to another seeking to dull the pain that is living in stark reality.

Now there are those who would contend that theism is a flight from that reality. But I think that theism imposes upon that reality the truth of the matter and begins to sort out that most things do make sense. There is still the intrusion of the uncertain and the insane, but not nearly to the degree that there is without God.

The horrors of Lovecraft are an acute example of writing what you know. Metaphorically, Lovecraft spelled out his horror of the world--a horror, I believe formed from his inability to believe in any connecting order, any system, any Creator.

The perils of atheism are given ample play in the works of Lovecraft and his successors, and they provide a good ground even for the Catholic artist to indulge his or her imagination. What is the world like without an underlying order--when even the law of gravity is view as a hegemonic oppressive construct? (As in the famous pastiche of Post Modernist thought-- Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity)

There is much to be gained by looking into the mirror Lovecraft holds up--do we see our own reflections, or do we see the truth and thus see the the mythos for the mask of anxiety, pain, and unease that it is? God is where you look for Him, even in those places that the authors and artists struggled most assiduously to keep Him out. After all, Art is at last, only an action of co-creation. We cannot do anything that is not already possible--we cannot create ex nihilo and so every inventive work is the artist in collaboration with his God-given talent whether or not the artist wishes to believe it.

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