Edward the Confessor, Wonder and Awe

Anonimo inglese o francese, dittico wilton, 1395-99 ca. 03 edoardo il confessore
Edward the Confessor from the Wilton Diptych:
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

In the last few days our liturgical calendar has commemorated a little group of pre-Conquest saints known mainly to historians and hagiographers: Ethelburga of Barking, Paulinus of York, Laurence, Mellitus, Wilfrid and today Edward the Confessor, the only English king to be formally recognized as a saint, and one whose claim to sanctity is probably open to question. I was brought up on Frank Barlow’s Edward the Confessor, which makes a case for Edward as an effective king, but must admit I was never wholly convinced. Still less am I convinced by the portrayal of Edward in his Vita, which is conventional and idealised:

[Edward] was a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.

We can find similar hagiographical tropes in the portrayal of the others I’ve mentioned, so, why bother with any of them today, especially someone like Edward? I think there are three reasons. The Communion of Saints is a reality transcending our limited notions of time and place. I ask the prayers of the saints in heaven as I ask the prayers of my fellow Christians on earth. I do not need to rank them according to some scale of holiness of my own: an alpha saint, a beta saint, and so on. The fact that someone lived long ago or far away is irrelevant. To the Lord the prayers of the saints, living and dead, are pleasing; and that is good enough for me. I don’t believe in DIY salvation and am happy to ask the help of others in approaching the throne of grace.

I’d also argue that there is something to be gained from studying the lives of those who, at first sight, inhabited a very different world from our own but who, on closer inspection, can be seen to have had to deal with many of the problems confronting us today. The growing hostility towards Christianity shown in the desecration of churches and statues, the increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the obvious the vulnerability of us all in the face of disease mirror many of the experiences of pre-Conquest England. We may not have quite reached the point of plague-stricken Jarrow, with only a Ceolfrith and a Bede to sing the Divine Office, but many religious communities have lost members to COVID-19 while more secular organizations have felt the impact of lockdown restraints and loss of income, leading to closure and social disruption.

But just as we can register points of similarity, I think it is good for us to be challenged by the differences. Too many of us have a somewhat narrow conception of what constitutes orthodox belief and practice and tend to judge others according to our own lights. For instance, I forget how many times I have been told that I must pray the Rosary or I am not a good Catholic. Our pre-Conquest saints did not know the Rosary, but they were good Catholics. Not only the saints but even ordinary layfolk, if they observed even half the regulations that applied to them, put us to shame with the way they kept Lent or the vigils of feasts. They were zealous where we are apt to be lukewarm. Above all, I think they had a simpler and more direct awareness of the transcendence of God. That does not mean that they were unsophisticated or stupid — far from it — but I would argue that it does mean they saw significance and purpose where we tend to see only randomness or chance. They possessed, in a way we sometimes do not, the gifts of wonder and awe in the presence of God.

Wonder and awe are not gifts many of us actively seek, I suspect. They make us acknowledge that we are not the measure of all things; that there exists someone greater than we are before whom, like Job, we can only keep silence. And we do not like keeping silence! We much prefer to express ourselves via social media or blog posts, giving others the benefit of our opinions, but maybe if we were to cultivate greater restraint in speech, there would be more room for wonder and awe in our lives; and wouldn’t that be a good thing? We treasure our awareness of the immanence of God, and rightly so, but perhaps that has led us to downplay or fail to recognize as we should the transcendence of God.

Today I shall ask the prayers of St Edward for the people of England as we face more restrictions in the attempt to ward off COVID-19. I shall also ask his prayers for the Church throughout the world and for all who are in need. As a royal saint, he was expected to be a patron of the Church, the major philanthropic institution of his day, to be generous to the poor and kindly to the sick. Perhaps that is not a bad indicator of sanctity, and one we can emulate in our different ways. But among all my other requests, I shall include one for the gifts of wonder and awe, for becoming more alert to the transcendence of God. Will you join me?

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Learning from the Dog and St Benedict

A sleeping Fauve
A sleeping Fauve

Early this morning I went into the room where our Basset Fauve de Bretagne (Bro Dyfrig BFdeB on Twitter) sleeps. He may have registered my presence vaguely, but there was no wag of the tail to indicate that he had done so. He just went on sleeping, trusting that my purposes were honourable and food not involved. Wise dog!

Trust often seems in short supply these days. We have all been let down by others at times, sometimes hugely. Even more painful, I’d say, is the knowledge that we ourselves have let others down. With so many challenges on the political landscape — a pandemic, Brexit, a presidential election in the U.S.A., growing concerns about human rights and personal freedoms in many countries of the world — it can be tempting to become cynical, to adopt disbelief as our customary attitude, to trust no-one. The trouble is, cynicism rarely achieves anything positive.

The best antidote to cynicism I know is to be found in the twelfth step of humility, which we read in the Rule of St Benedict today (RB 7. 62–70). It isn’t just for monastics. It reminds us that hope is real, transformation possible, and ultimately God is in charge. Our sleeping dog is a good Benedictine — his trust is perfect. How about yours and mine?

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St Bruno and Solitude

I will never forget the first time I met the Carthusian who was to be my confessor for many years. He asked simply, ‘Do you have peace?’ That question goes to the heart of any vocation. Everything else is transitory, but peace, abiding in God whatever the exterior circumstances of our life, whatever inner turmoil we may be experiencing, is permanent. It isn’t (usually) achieved once for all but is, like so much else, a process, something we grow into over time so that it becomes a constant in our lives, an habitual state of being.

The experience of solitude and silence seem to me an essential part of this process. They strip us of many elements of the ‘false self’ we use to hide from God, making us realise our dependence on him and on others. Our need for approbation, to draw attention to ourselves, to assert ourselves, all come down to this: an obscure sense that we are somehow not quite ‘enough’, not good enough, not attractive enough, not anything enough. That, of course, is to put the spotlight on self when the secret of true holiness is to put the spotlight on God and forget self. It isn’t easy to do, and most of us are reluctant to surrender what we think of as good or necessary in order to become something, or rather, someone, more closely fashioned on Christ.

St Bruno had no such hesitations. He seems to have spent much of his life avoiding a bishopric. He was a famous teacher, well-connected socially, someone who might have commanded the highest rewards of a clerical career. But he didn’t. He was drawn to the solitary life, and when he and two companions placed themselves under the direction of Hugh of Grenoble, the Carthusians were born. They have remained ever since one of the glories of the Church whose hidden lives have shown that what we tend to think of as success is, well, probably not such a success after all. St Bruno’s life as a Carthusian is often difficult to trace precisely because he avoided the limelight and concentrated on God alone. He was still the same man, still in demand for counsel, but now he met those demands in a different way. He became more, not less, loving because he lived a silent and largely solitary life. None of his gifts was wasted but they were all transformed.

A long time ago, I tried to express what St Bruno and the Carthusians meant to me and how I think we can emulate their prayerfulness, even if we cannot live as they live. Carthusian life is not romantic: it is tough, hard, wearing, which is why so few can live it, but we can all learn from it:

St Bruno makes me think of silence and solitude and snow. Cardinal Hume once remarked that every Benedictine should feel a certain sadness, a certain regret, that the great vocation of the Carthusian is not for him/her. But, of course, every vocation contains within it the need for silence and moral solitude, even if physical solitude is not a possibility. When Jesus told his disciples to go to their inner room and shut the door and pray to their Father in secret, he can hardly have meant to be taken literally since most people in first century Palestine had no private room to retreat to. We must make a Charterhouse of the heart, and allow our prayer to embrace every need.

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How To Read An Encyclical

Benedictines are notorious for thinking that slow and prayerful reading of a text is second nature to them. I am no exception. Yesterday lots of people had rushed onto social media to give their opinion of Fratelli Tutti before I had digested the first few paragraphs, and I see that this morning there are already some instant analyses and tit-for-tat arguments doing the round of cyberspace. At the risk of being presumptuous, may I share with you a way of reading an encyclical you may find helpful, and a blessing or prayer you may like to use before doing so?

First of all, pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before beginning to read. I know it sounds obvious, but it is often forgotten. Without asking God to be in charge of our reading, how can we expect to understand what the writer intends — or be free enough to test the truth of what is written if we are too full of our own ideas and prejudices?

Secondly, we need to give the process of reading time. For example, the English translation of Fratelli Tutti strikes me as being awkward and I am having to look at other versions to try to work out whether it is the author or the translator that has puzzled me. Not everyone will be able to do that, but all of us can pause in our reading to reflect and follow up the references provided.

Thirdly, we need to ask ourselves how the encyclical addresses us personally — not X or Y or anyone else, but ourselves. What does it ask of us, and how shall we respond? We aren’t meant to go away thinking, ‘Well, that was interesting/beautiful/predictable/annoying/whatever.’ We are meant to take from the text something that will make us grow spiritually, and that won’t necessarily be a wholly positive experience. We can be challenged, upset, irritated, even angered. God can use those very human emotions to get through to us, if we let him.

Fourthly, I think we should end with thanksgiving. That is easy if we have found the text helpful and inspiring, not so easy if we haven’t; but no matter how barren our reading may seem to have been, no matter how difficult we may have found the text, grace can only grow in a spirit of gratitude. That doesn’t mean we abandon our critical faculties or meekly agree that everything in the encyclical is wonderful. It may be; it may not. But we can, and should, give thanks that the encyclical exists, that God speaks to us through the text, and that we are ready to listen and respond.

Finally, I promised you a prayer. Every new book that comes into the library here at the monastery has a blessing said over it. The text comes from a medieval Subiaco manuscript, i.e. it has impeccably Benedictine origins. Here is a rough and ready translation:

Almighty, everliving God, we ask that the power of the Holy Spirit may come down upon this book. May it be cleansed and purified through the invocation of your name and its meaning opened to our understanding. May your holy right hand bless and sanctify it, enlighten the hearts of those who read it and grant them true comprehension. Grant that they may keep safe the teaching revealed and put it into practice in accordance with your will, through the performance of good deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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A Lack of Leadership?

Like everyone else, we are praying that President Trump and his wife make a rapid recovery from COVID-19. The way in which some are expressing death-wishes for them is completely unacceptable for any person of goodwill, whatever their religious or political beliefs. That said, the bemusement of many commentators is readily understandable. There seem to be such a lot of contradictions and uncertainties bubbling to the surface. We have never been here before, and no one is really in a position to predict the outcome. There is a great deal of anxiety, both inside and outside the U.S.A. , but I wonder whether the President’s illness and the questions surrounding a possible transfer of power don’t confirm what many have been maintaining for some time: that America’s claim to be ‘leader of the free world’ no longer holds good because there has been a retreat from leadership in many areas. What is true of the U.S.A. is true of other countries and institutions, including the Church. There is a discernible lack of leadership that is very concerning.

I haven’t any magic remedies to propose, but this morning I found myself thinking about Bl. Columba Marmion who, as abbot of Maredsous, exercised a special kind of Benedictine leadership and, incidentally, wrote very powerfully about the monastic vocation. Benedictine leadership isn’t democratic, but it isn’t dictatorial, either. It is concerned for the good of all, prepared to take unpopular decisions, but always ready to listen, take counsel, reflect. It is, or should be, selfless. Today’s secular leaders tend to cultivate their image assiduously and appear to be always ready with a sound-byte. Perhaps that is why we seem to have a leadership vacuum in many areas or, at any rate, leadership which is often hesitant or confused. Perhaps if we could reassure our leaders that they do not have to have an opinion on everything, they might be able to give more time to thinking matters through.

You notice I have moved from the role of leaders to our own role. We can easily forget that leaders are drawn from our ranks and that we have a duty to enable them to be leaders. That means giving encouragement, scrutinizing, calling to account if need be, allowing them to lead but not allowing them to mislead. In many ways, being led is just as difficult as leading. Something to ponder and pray about, I suggest, as we face the future together.

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Two Hairy Brothers 6: Guardian Angels

Letter from Bro Dyfrig BFdeB to Bro Duncan PBGV

Howton Grove Priory,
Herefordshire

1 October, 2020

Dear Cousin Dunc,

I trust you are very cheery up there in Beyond. It’s a long time since we heard from you, and I must admit I miss you, especially now I’m becoming a bit old and creaky. Twelve last birthday, so no longer a young sprog!

Anyway, I have a theological question for you. What is an angel, and what are these Guardian Angels They are celebrating on 2 October? They seem to think these angel-types stick to Them through thick and thin, but I thought that was our job. Can you enlighten me, please?

Love and licks,

Bro Dyfrig xx

Letter from Bro Duncan PBGV to Bro Dyfrig BFdeB

The Heavenly Houndland
Beyond

2 October 2020

My dear Bro Dyfrig,

You’ll always be a young sprog in my eyes, no matter that your ginger is now streaked with grey, but I see you have learned some gravitas since we last corresponded. A theological question! That’s one for the books, I must say. I’ll do my best to reply.

There are quite a lot of angels in Beyond so I went and had a chat with my chum Raphael. (He’s the one who accompanied Tobias and his dog to Media, so he’s more dog-aware than most and always saves me some special tit-bit from the heavenly banquet to snack on between meals.) He said that the big yellow catechism book They keep in the library is a good place to start.

I had to overcome my natural reluctance to have anything to do with felines, but, apparently, ‘catechism’ is a Greek word that has nothing to do with cats so can be safely read by the likes of you and me.

I began at paragraph 325, which says God created everything, seen and unseen, and says quite a lot about angels, but stopped at paragraph 343 which says that man is the summit of God’s creation. Not entirely sure about that, but I let it pass.

Get this, though:

329 St Augustine says: “‘Angel’ is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is ‘spirit’; if you seek the name of their office, it is ‘angel’: from what they are, ‘spirit’, from what they do, ‘angel.'” With their whole beings the angels are servants and messengers of God. Because they “always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” they are the “mighty ones who do his word, hearkening to the voice of his word”.

330 As purely spiritual creatures angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendour of their glory bears witness.

Of course, some of them are too good-looking for their own good and think far too much of themselves. Look at the One Down Below and what happened to him! A warning to us all about vanity, even if we are the handsomest dudes on the block.

Anyway, there’s much more of the same, about how the angels are mighty spirits, messengers of God, singing God’s praises and intimately involved in the life of the Church. St Basil is quoted, ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life’. That’s the role of the Guardian Angel, but I noticed the Church has never defined that as an article of faith. We just accept it as the ‘mind of the Church’. St Jerome, who was regrettably more of a Big Cat man than a Dog man put it this way: ‘How great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it. (Comm. in Matt., xviii, lib. II).

You and I probably agree that we share that guardianship role with angels but we have to accept that not everyone recognizes the canine contribution to the economy of salvation, not even some Human Beans. A pity, rather. It would transform their view of the world and make them much nicer.

I was looking down at the world from Beyond and thought to myself how busy all the angels must be, especially the Guardian Angels. There is such a lot of wrongness going on, and Human Beans being thoroughly nasty to one another. St Thomas, who should have been more of a Dog man, given that he was a Domini canis, said that only the lowest orders of angels were sent to guard Human Beans (Summa Theologica I:113:4). That’s one for their pride, isn’t it?

Mind you, if what St Thomas says is true, it means what we dogs do is very important.  We have to teach Human Beans so many things — how to be loving, uncomplaining, endlessly forgiving. We can teach them how to adore Him by gazing and gazing with eyes like melting chocolate buttons, and we can use our pester-power for the good of others. Human Beans aren’t blessed with four paws and a big nose, but they can still learn how to be more dog. I did my best with Them, and I’m pleased to see that you continue my work.

Look after Them until we’re all together in Beyond. They’ll thank you one day and recognize your true stature as a servant of the Most High. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if we and our kind aren’t angels in disguise, don’t you?

Best woofs,

Bro Duncan xx

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What is Expected of a Monastery in Time of Pandemic?

It has been heartening to see that many communities which once looked a little askance at our attempts to harness the possibilities of the internet and the web to create and sustain online community are now doing everything we once did, only better. It is particularly encouraging that many women’s communities have embraced video and live-streaming and are using social media to reach people who might otherwise not know of their existence. A recent telephone call, however, has made me think more deeply about what we are not doing, and the reasons for that. What is expected of a monastery in time of pandemic? Comfort? Challenge? Community? Yes, all these things, but something more, surely. Oughtn’t a monastery to be a place of encounter with God, whether that encounter be in a physical space or online? And isn’t that especially true in time of pandemic, when many certainties and expectations no longer hold good?

For us, the web is an extension of our monastery, more specifically our parlour: the place where we interact with visitors. For a long time we thought of it as an extension of our cloister, our online scriptorium, the way in which we could share some of the riches of the monastic tradition. But that put the emphasis on what we were giving rather than what we were receiving, and it didn’t do much to communicate what is, after all, the essential feature of monastic life, the seeking of God. For some time I have been wondering how a monastery conveys the sense of being on holy ground, of being in the presence of God. That question seems to me to have become even more urgent as we experience the restrictions of lockdown and quarantine and are finding more and more people are distanced from the sacramental life of the Church. 

For some, I know, the answer is to be found in live-streamed worship or imaginative attempts to create an online church or sacred space. For monasteries of monks and for larger communities of nuns, for anyone, in fact, with the human, technical and financial resources, that seems to me a more than adequate answer. But for small communities like ours, it is really a non-starter. We don’t have Mass here, and live-streaming our choir would be an exercise in bathos! That doesn’t mean we should do nothing, however. The question is, what? Is there anything we can do, consistent with our monastic vocation, that would be of help to others, that would allow that sense of God to permeate more fully the little bit of the web that we occupy?

I know better than to ask the question generally because I know we would be inundated with well-meant suggestions, often wholly impossible to achieve or reflecting an idea of monasticism we do not share. I do, however, ask your prayers that we be open to the Holy Spirit and make wise decisions. Ultimately, our goal is that of RB 72. 12, that Christ may bring us all alike to life everlasting. Amen.

Audio version

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Silence in Heaven

The Book of Revelation is not one I profess to understand. It is shot through with strange and terrible prophecies, illumined by an unsettling end-of-the-world glare. Chapter 12, the origin of the story of the Archangel Michael’s battle with Satan, has so many levels of meaning and reference that its complexities leave me confused. That said, the triumph of good over evil, however portrayed, is always an encouraging one, though we know full well that the battle is not over for us yet. There is, however, an earlier chapter in Revelation that caught my eye this morning: chapter 8, where there is silence in heaven for half an hour after the seventh seal is broken.

Silence in scripture is a sign of the coming of God, a mark of anticipation and reverence. Only the Lamb can break the seal, for only the Lamb can control what is to happen next. Traditional interpretations of Revelation 8 speak of the prayers of the saints and the work of the angels in holding back the woes that afflict humankind, but only for ‘half an hour’, a short period of time. I sometimes think that this brief half-hour of strenuous silence is an image of the prayer offered by the monastic order. We do not pray in order to change God’s mind about anything; we pray simply because he is God. But our prayer does effect change — because he wills that it should. Just as he loves us, so our love for him expressed in prayer and adoration creates the kind of intimacy and trust we see portrayed in the Trinity of the Rublev icon. There is, humanly speaking, neither beginning nor end, for all comes from him. We are inserted into the dynamic of God’s love, and who would wish to be anywhere else?

When we ask the prayers of St Michael to defend us in the day of battle, we are not merely asking help when we confront our inner demons, the evil we see around us or the hidden dangers that assault us, we are asking to be open to this love of God that is our rock, our surest defence against everything that is negative and destructive. It is God’s love that leads us, protects us, and ultimately saves us. Let us rejoice that we have in Michael so mighty a guide, so doughty a champion — and perhaps remember that it is our privilege as human beings to know those things into which even angels long to look (cf 1 Peter. 12). What gratitude should be ours!

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Unknown Saints: the Example of Cosmas and Damian

The basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian with its wonderful (though much restored) mosaics is one of my favourite Roman churches, not least because whenever I have visited it, I seem to have been the only person there — a rare experience in Rome. We know quite a lot about its history but about the saints to whom it is dedicated nothing at all for certain, only that they existed. Pious tradition maintains that they were Arab physicians, reputedly twin brothers, who were martyred in Syria in the third century after a lifetime spent in the service of the poor. They are said to have treated people without payment and are honoured today as patrons of doctors, surgeons, and dentists and protectors of children. 

Tourists probably barely register any of this in their hurry to look at the mosaics and take one more photograph before moving on to the next site, but for those of us hundreds of miles away, there is time for reflection. The basilica and the saints who give it its name are a reminder of the hollowness of our contemporary celebrity culture. It is not necessary to be a ‘name’ to be great. It is necessary to ‘do’. For me, Cosmas and Damian epitomise ‘anonymous sanctity’. That is to say, they represent the thousands upon thousands of people who, through the ages and in our own day, speak powerfully of God through their holiness of life. Most of them are unknown to us or commemorated by an accident of history, as here, in a building in the Forum of Vespasian. But they are the Church, the Body of Christ, preachers of the gospel, doers of his word, not hearers only. As such, they are an inspiration and perhaps, sometimes, a check on our vanity and complacency. I suspect most of us can think of someone we’ve met who has radiated this quality of holiness, bundled us up in the love of God and tossed us back into the world a humbler and more hopeful person. I am glad to say that I have met many such, both in the monastery and outside.

It would be tempting to leave matters there, content with a beautiful thought about the holiness of others, but it won’t do. We must apply it personally, and that is much harder. To be an unknown saint is not only a huge honour, it is a vocation — yours and mine. How will we try to live it today?

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Autumnal Planting | Lenten Lilies

Wild daffodils
Wild Daffodils at Newent, Gloucestershire
© Copyright Pauline E and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Today is the Autumnal Equinox and gardeners all over England are busy planting bulbs for next spring. Yesterday I sat in a low chair and planted dozens of wild daffodil bulbs in our former vegetable patch — not the lovely little bright yellow Tenby type but the, to my eyes, even lovelier, narcissus pseudonarcissus, which is seen at its most glorious in the so-called Golden Triangle between Newent and Dymock in Gloucestershire.

I love the alternative names for these daffodils: they read like a litany of spring — Verill, Bell Rose, Bulrose, Chalice Flower, Daffy-down-dilly, Eggs and Bacon, Lent Cock, Lent Rose, Trumpet Narcissus, Yellow Crowbell. Best of all, I love the name Lenten Lily. They do not last long. They are said to bloom first on Ash Wednesday and die on Easter Day. Housman wrote one of his typically melancholy poems about them, and I found myself repeating lines from it as I planted the bulbs:

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

It reminded me of something I think we are apt to forget, so busy are we with the daily round and the demands made on us by the present. We work for the future, knowing full well that the future is not ours to command. I myself may not live to see my Lenten lilies bloom, but someone will. Planting them is not only an act of faith in a future hidden from view but the expression of a desire to make that future a little brighter, a little lovelier for others. There are many people whose lives are bleak and unhappy; many children who don’t have enough to eat or the chance of going to school. What we can do to help may be little enough, but we have to start somewhere. We may be able to give time or money or expertise; if we can, we should. We may perhaps be able to plant a few flowers for others to enjoy. All of us can give prayer.

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