Gaudete Sunday 2021: Pure Joy

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Today the whole Church rejoices at the nearness of her salvation. Put like that, the prospect can seem worthy but a little dull — not something to get excited about. Salvation is an important theological concept, but most of us do not go around leaping for joy at what is promised us. Maybe not, but God does. Today’s first Mass reading, Zephaniah 3.14–18, has God exulting for joy over us, dancing his delight in us. That means all of us, even those we privately have a few doubts about as being rather unpleasant or, in our view, ‘not what they ought to be’. It can be difficult to accept that God loves us all, but accept it we must. We need to remember that we cannot earn God’s love; we can never ‘deserve’ it; and we can never see another quite as God sees them. God’s love comes to us as a free gift, ‘an unmerited gift of grace’. Whatever our personal difficulties, whatever the sorrows that beset us, God’s love is a constant in our lives. So, let’s be joyful; and if we cannot dance outwardly, let us dance in our heart which God desires to make his own.

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The Oratory of the Heart

Light in the Darkness

The last few days have not been easy for anyone. Here in the UK we have had storm damage and power-cuts, seen the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID variant, and been battered by seemingly endless revelations of sleaze, corruption and unimaginable brutality, as in the case of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. Add to that the personal tragedies and disappointments that do not usually make the headlines and the world begins to seem an unfriendly place. Advent has already reached the point of being cold, dark and wearing. The silence and mystery that so enthused us at the beginning has become for many more of a torment than an inspiration. We are crushed by the demands made upon us, irritated by the misunderstandings and criticisms that come our way, longing for light, warmth and peace. Then we read today’s section of the Rule, RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, and are shaken out of our negativity.

The Oratory of the Monastery

Most Benedictines care very deeply about their church or chapel and are meticulous in both their preparations for and performance of the liturgy. A crease in the altar linens, an obviously unpractised antiphon, a hurried reading — none of these will ever go unnoticed, by nuns, at any rate. Only the best is good enough for the Lord, and we are in the oratory several times a day, so that seeking to do and be the best we can is a constant in our lives. But there is more to it than that. If you read Benedict’s text carefully, you will see that the essential feature of the oratory is the reverence with which we make use of the space and time given us in which to pray. Reverence does not depend on the beauty of our surroundings, an emotional response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, nor even the amount of time available to us. Reverence comes from the heart, and it is the oratory of the heart that truly matters, for it is there that the Holy Spirit dwells and turns our every prayerful impulse into prayer according to the mind of God.

The Oratory of the Heart and its Transformative Power

All of us need encouragement much more than we need rebukes or criticisms. A heart open to God’s word and filled with his love and compassion cannot be negative or harshly judgemental. May I suggest that today, instead of considering all that is wrong in ourselves or in others, we allow God’s grace to work away quietly within us, making an oratory of our heart where he can delight to be. It is not only we who may be transformed.

. . . the lowly will rejoice in the Lord even more
and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel;
for tyrants shall be no more, and scoffers vanish,
and all be destroyed who are disposed to do evil:
those who gossip to incriminate others,
those who try at the gate to trip the arbitrator
and get the upright man’s case dismissed for groundless reasons. . .

They will hallow the Holy One of Jacob,
stand in awe of the God of Israel.

(from today’s first Mass reading, Isaiah 29.17-24)
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Preparing for Advent

Who does not love Advent? The beauty of the liturgy, the haunting quality of the ancient chants we sing, the darkness, the silence, the mystery, they all combine to produce a sense of anticipation. Something very great and wonderful is about to happen. And then Christmas comes, and the mystery is revealed, and it is ‘only’ the birth of a child in awkward circumstances against a backdrop of political skullduggery and religious squabbling. The feast is barely here before most people seem to be taking down their Christmas decorations and thinking about holidays in the sun. I exaggerate, of course. Some of us do not begin to celebrate Christmas until the afternoon of Christmas Eve and will spend the octave looking at the mystery of the Incarnation and all that follows from it. Epiphany will burst upon us with its tria miracula, and only with the Baptism of the Lord will we formally say farewell to the Christmas season, with a last ‘look back’ at Candlemas. In the meantime, what do we do about Advent? How do we link this holy season with what comes after? How do we genuinely make it a time of preparation?

Advent sometimes gets passed over too lightly. Instead of seeing it as a way of deepening our understanding of the reality of what happened in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, it has often become drenched in sentimentality and superficiality — a kind of ‘Christmas already’ but without Christ. It is too early for mince pies and Christmas carols, but we tend to ignore the riches the Church sets before us and wonder why Christmas, when it does come, is almost an anti-climax. We are bored with the Christmas story before we have even heard it properly. We may need to remind ourselves that Advent is a time for reading and reflecting on the scriptures that provide the context for what happens on Christmas day, for asking ourselves what the coming of the Messiah means to us personally as well as to the world. It is a time for registering that disappointment and failure are part of the Christian story, that ordinariness is shot through with grace.

So, in these last few days before Advent begins, may I suggest spending a little time thinking about how to make the most of the season? It will be a busy time, with many demands made on us. We cannot avoid the commercialism that besets us on every side, but we can turn it to good by ensuring that our own focus is on what truly matters. To read each day the Mass lessons; to ‘waste’ a little time in silence and recollection if we can; to scale down our expectations; these are all tried and trusted means of ensuring Advent does its work in us. For that is the point. It is not what others do but what we do that makes Advent fruitful, that prepares us for the coming of our Saviour.

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Family Rows

Today, 26 July, is the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the names traditionally given to the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary and hence grandparents of our Lord Jesus Christ. Usually I manage to write something appreciative of grandparents and their role in our lives but today my heart is not in it. I am more conscious of the squabbles and rows consuming Church and society (and perhaps our own families and communities, too) to feel I can contribute anything positive. It is more than a mere energy lapse or fleeting feeling of ennui. It is a recognition of our helplessness in the face of much negativity, coupled with a desire not to give in to fashionable points of view simply because they are fashionable but ‘to test the spirits, to see whether they are of God.’

Prince Harry and the Royal Family

Take, for instance, something British readers and viewers will be only too well aware of: the very public row within the Royal Family in which the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are principals. (Did I say that neutrally enough? What follows is not neutral.) I am not a Royal-watcher; I don’t have any ‘side’ to uphold; but the way in which Prince Harry is behaving strikes me as childish and vindictive, likely to wound his grandmother the Queen, and certain to wound his father, Prince Charles.

I do not know what it is like to lose one’s mother at an impressionable age and under very sad circumstances, but I am beginning to think that the duke is actually exploiting the situation. It makes him different, special, confers on him the right to behave in a less than adult manner. And why? Because he has never learned the importance of forgiveness, of letting go, of truly being himself rather than a person for ever defined by a tragic event that occurred in his childhood. We are told he does not want to use his royal advantage, yet at he same time he makes full use of his royal privilege. Has none of the expensive therapists and counsellors to whom he has access suggested to him that the way to be truly free is, as I said, to let go of the injuries, real or imagined, done to himself? Will he end up a lonely old man, like his uncle, the Duke of Windsor, one entry in whose diary reads, ‘Spent all day watching Wallis buy a hat.’?

The Church and Traditionis Custodes

If the situation of the duke is tragic, what can I say of the Church following the issuing of Traditionis Custodes? Part of me wanted to leap into the fray, bristling with historical and liturgical insights born of long and sustained study and practical experience, or so I would argue; but I wisely held off, realising I needed to think and pray more; and now I realise that it would be arrogant and sheer folly to seek to add to the discussion. Arrogant, because there are others more learned and eloquent to analyse the text, the pope’s intentions and the complexity of the historical background of the Mass in the West. Folly, because I know my temper is on a short string — social media and email make it easy for people to engage in ways I find rude or patronising — and I do not want to say something I later regret or cannot put right.

Liturgy matters immensely to me, of course it does, but the way in which, by and large, discussion has been conducted has been deeply troubling. To speak of God and the things of God with hatred and contempt in one’s heart is not right. It is irreverence of the most terrible kind. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity within the Church, and the only way for any of us to approach it, metaphorically speaking, is on our knees. Bad or inadequate history, personal preference, fear of the unknown, they can blind us to the significance of words and actions and we can destroy what we most long to flourish. We forget, a little too readily, that every human being is entitled to respect and to his/her good name. Insults and accusations are not helpful.

This morning, therefore, I am praying for all families, natural and institutional, experiencing discord. Often it is a grandparent who sees most clearly and is best at binding up the wounds that are tearing everyone within apart. Let us ask the prayers of Saints Joachim and Anne to heal the divisions we experience and to give those of us who are older something of their grace and compassion, that we may meet every new challenge with wisdom and kindness.

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Unlikely Friendship? The Case of St Mary Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent by Pedro de Mena
By Nicolás Pérez – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10226663

St Mary Magdalene and Some Women of Our Own Day who Attract a Negative Press

During one of our recent long, hot, sticky nights I found myself thinking about the hostility of the Taliban to the education of women and girls, and what that might mean for the people of Afghanistan and wherever the Taliban hold influence. From there it was a short step to considering the antipathy many in the West have shown towards Malala, Greta Thunberg or, in a completely different sphere, Emma Raducano. It would be wrong to say the aggressive and belittling remarks they have had to endure are the monopoly of a few middle-aged men (I can certainly point to some really nasty comments by women), but middle-aged men do seem to have been peculiarly irritated by them. For me, that helps to explain the Church’s long-standing awkwardness about Mary Magdalene and the ambivalence in some circles about her being officially proclaimed ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ and her liturgical commemoration being raised to the dignity of a feast. As to her friendship with Jesus, I quite see why, for some, that is beyond the pale. She is too clingy, too feminine — despite being as tough as they come.

How We Like Our Saints To Be

Is it as simple as saying most men (and many women) don’t like smart women, and clerical men feel happier if female saints are either on a pedestal of unassailable purity (e.g. Our Lady, St Thérèse of Lisieux) or can be dismissed as ‘no better than they should be’ and classed either as prostitutes (which St Mary Magdalene was not) or penitents, suggesting that there is something murky in the background? For every dozen men who have waxed lyrical about St Thérèse, for example, I doubt I have heard even one express warm, personal admiration for St Mary Magdalene. Is that why the thought of Jesus and Mary being such good friends as the gospels suggest has led some to speculate that there was a sexual relationship between them (for which there is no evidence) while others dismiss her as being somehow a fringe figure in Christian history (which is absurd). Then there are those who think that Mary Magdalene was more significant than Peter, and there is a huge conspiracy behind the hierarchy of the Church today — an attitude I find equally absurd on the same grounds as those who propose it: the evidence. The plain truth is that Jesus Christ saw in Mary something he did not see in Peter, James or John, something loving enough and steely enough to be entrusted with news of the resurrection — and he clearly enjoyed her company, as he enjoyed the company of his other disciples.

St Mary Magdalene as Penitent

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed my choice of Pedro de Mena’s sculpture to illustrate this post rather than the Fra Angelico or D. Werburg you might have been expecting. It shows Mary as penitent, the way she was viewed for so many centuries in the Church. I have always found it an arresting image and on every visit to Valladolid have always tried to make sure I see it. It proclaims a very important theological truth we are sometimes in danger of forgetting. None of us is without sin. We are all redeemed through God’s gracious action in Christ Jesus. We can concentrate on this aspect or that of a saint’s life, we can be inspired or sometimes the reverse, but we cannot escape the fact of sin. Mary of Magdalene is one of those saints who makes us confront this in ourselves and in others. We are seeing this sin, this sinfulness, in the way in which Traditionis Custodes is being discussed right now: sin has coiled itself round the holiest element of Catholic faith and practice, the celebration of the Eucharist.

We all know that the word eucharist means to give thanks. During two of my most recent hospitalisations, I came very close to dying. As I lay there, wondering if this was indeed to be the end of my earthly life, I found myself reflecting on the efforts people go to for the sake of their ‘legacy’. It didn’t take me long to decide that what I would like for my own legacy is fidelity to the Truth, kindness to others, and gratitude— above all, gratitude, because grace can only grow in a spirit of thanksgiving, and neither fidelity nor kindness is possible without grace. In the gospels St Mary Magdalene exemplifies all these qualities, with a richness of humanity I find immensely attractive. I think she makes a good patron for us still in via, don’t you?

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Arbiter of All Things? Me, Of Course!

I am refusing to be drawn on the subject of Traditionis Custodes for reasons I’ve given in the past about needing to read, pray and reflect before responding to documents that stir the emotions (e.g. see this post about how to read an encyclical, though the document published yesterday is not an encyclical). I’ve also switched off comments for the links I’ve posted in Facebook and on this particular blog post — not because I am opposed to people expressing their views, far from it, but because among the instant reactions there is always a lot of tit-for-tat I don’t want to get involved in. Note that phrase: I don’t want to get involved in. It is my choice, my decision. If it sounds arrogant, so be it. I am the arbiter of all things, in this blog anyway.

The Carmelites of Compiégne

The Carmelites of Compiègne whose martyrdom we celebrate today, and the English Benedictine nuns of Cambrai imprisoned alongside them (see, for example, this post) probably did not want to get involved in the French Revolution, either. But they did, and they acquitted themselves more than honourably, though at the time I daresay comparatively few knew very much about them. I have often wondered what they themselves felt and thought. What were their ideas of beauty, for example? How did they like to see the liturgy performed? I am speculating here, but did the Benedictines and the Carmelites have rather different experiences of Mass and the choral office? Their origins, their backgrounds, their spiritualities as we would call them today, even their financial circumstances, were different; and as an erstwhile historian myself, I would expect that to be reflected in their approach to monastic/contemplative life.

The Debate about Traditionis Custodes

I think we will find that much of the debate that follows on the publication of yesterday’s Traditionis Custodes will reflect some, at least, of the following:

• a personal, probably highly subjective, view of what is beautiful. That is often a ‘killer’ factor. Once we assume that our own preferences are universal, it can be difficult to see another’s point of view.

• a partial, possibly not always well-informed, awareness of history and the complexity of liturgical development. That can be difficult to handle. It is not only a question of fact (sometimes extremely difficult, even impossible, to establish) but, more importantly, of interpretation.

• a ‘feeling’ about Vatican II and what it intended. Older readers will probably understand better than younger ones what I mean by this.

• a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The Place of the Personal in this Debate

The first, the argument about beauty, is one I have engaged in many times. My years in the Stanbrook Abbey Press taught me that its austere and restrained ideals did not appeal to everyone. Where I sought simplicity and paring back, others preferred elaboration and detail. Never the twain shall meet, it seems. As for a personal opinion of Pope Francis, the less said the better because so much of it seems to be polarised.

I am sure you will understand why I urge prayer and reflection at this point. Fortunately, as Bro Dyfrig BFdeB will assure you, no one listens to me anyway, so the suggestions I make above are principally for myself to heed. -;) (It is International Emoji Day, so using one is in the spirit of the times, no?) Whatever our own opinion, let us pray for the unity of the Church, and especially for those who are baffled and hurt or using publication of Traditionis Custodes for an agenda of their own.

Links (opening in new tabs)

There is an official English language translation of Traditionis Custodes here: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/20210716-motu-proprio-traditionis-custodes.html

and of the accompanying letter to the bishops here:
https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2021/documents/20210716-lettera-vescovi-liturgia.html

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Friendship with God

Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

It seems no time at all since we were thinking about ourselves as straying sheep (fourth Sunday of Easter), now here we are, on the sixth Sunday of Easter, invited to consider ourselves friends of God — if we obey his commandments (cf John 15. 9-17).

I wonder whether we really take on board what that means. We can probably quote a whole series of edifying lines taken from the saints, such as Aelred’s Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship’, but it is our homely English word ‘friend’, with its connotations of mutual affection, equality, freedom and trust that gets to the heart of the matter. Who would ever dream of any kind of ‘equality’ with God? In one sense, it is absolute nonsense. But when John puts onto the lips of Jesus those astonishing words ‘You are my friends . . . ‘ we must take notice.

In a few days we shall celebrate the Ascension and, a few days after that, Pentecost. Our role and responsibility as disciples is growing. We are not to be merely followers, we must become active collaborators; and we can only do that insofar as we have taken on the lineaments of friendship with God. Becoming friends takes time. Those often apparently wasted hours reading and praying are part of the process; so, too, are what I call the blank times, when we are so bound up in grief or sickness or some other negative experience that we do not see what the Lord is doing, or we try to limit Him because we feel obliged to limit ourselves.

The rather cheeky photo I chose to illustrate this post is a reminder not to take ourselves too seriously, not to insist that we must be x or y before God can love us. He loves us as we are and wants to be friends with us now. That doesn’t mean we can go on being horrible to everyone or leading a sinful life. On the contrary, friendship with God is bound up with conversion and obeying his commandments. We change because we want to be friends with him. But let us not forget that we are meant to find joy in our friendship with God and, even more, his friendship with us.

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Easter Tuesday 2021

Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico
Noli me tangere by Fra Angelico

Every Easter Tuesday I try to say something new about Mary Magdalene’s meeting with the Risen Christ, and every year I fail. The failure is not because there is nothing new to say but because, like Mary, I find myself falling to my knees, ‘lost in wonder, love and praise’. The meeting between Jesus and Mary is one in which we all share — the moment our souls are touched by grace and we recognize him as our Saviour.

It is no accident that Mary sees her Lord through a mist of tears. The human heart must be washed clean if it is to see clearly, and it tends not to be the big, dramatic sins that obscure our vision so much as the little faults and infidelities we allow to become habitual. Mary’s gaze has the simplicity and freshness of the garden in which Jesus stands. For us, that may be more difficult to achieve but the great privilege of monastic life is to do our theology on our knees. It keeps us grounded, and I think it enables us to see what otherwise we might miss. The wounds in Christ’s feet, now channels of grace and healing, hold our gaze as they held Mary’s, and they make sense of what could easily be baffling: we have a God who is near, not one afar off; one who has shared with us the human experience of birth and death and now shares with us the divine gift of resurrection. Mary’s privilege will one day be ours, too. But there is more.

The post-resurrection gospels are full of women whom the Lord comes to meet. They have no need to climb mountains or prepare elaborate sacrifices to find him. He surprises them as they go about their ordinary tasks. This morning Mary is lingering by the tomb when she encounters Christ. There is that momentary lack of recognition characteristic of all the post-resurrection appearances, but then everything changes. Jesus is the same, but different, but how is he different? For Fra Angelico, there is no ‘stained and dirty kirtle’ to suggest a gardener, but Mary does not recognize Jesus until he speaks her name. When he recognizes her, she is able to recognize him. There is something to ponder there. We think we must go in search of God and sometimes become sad and angry when we feel we have failed to find him, not realising that the initiative always remains his. He finds us; he names us; he calls us.

One further point. Look at the garden and what is beyond the garden. The trees outside are fairly uniform but within, what a variety! Where Christ is, there is always abundance. It was to restore the fullness of life to the world that God gave his only Son. This morning Mary experiences what that means, and she is charged with telling the Church in every generation. We have been redeemed by one who knows us by name and lives for evermore.

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Empty: Good Friday 2021

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ carrying the Cross: attributed to Marco d’Oggiono, c. 1467–1524

Today, just before 3.00 p.m., we shall go into the oratory and either prostrate or kneel before the altar for a minute or two before celebrating the Solemn Liturgy. That silence, that abandonment of our usual posture, expresses what could never be put into words: the utter transcendence of God and our complete reliance upon him. Today, of all days, that is brought home to us by our reverting to a primitive form of liturgy made up of long readings from scripture and prayers in which we pray for all the world’s needs. For us, there will be no Communion of the Presanctified. With the death of Christ on the cross we enter a world devoid of sacraments, a time of waiting, of radical emptiness.

And then? More emptiness. There is only the soft soughing of the wind as it passes over Calvary to remind us of the epic duel between good and evil we have witnessed, the unadorned cross in the oratory and a lassitude of spirit that goes beyond the ordinary. We are numb with shock and horror, yet even at this moment, we know that this is not the end of the story. As day passes into night, a great change is being worked but we are as yet unaware of it and its consequences. For us, there is only the waiting, and the emptiness.

Last year, I was drawn to write about the mothers of Jesus and Judas and their experience of the crucifixion. It may be worth re-visiting. If so, please click the link below (opens in new tab). There is an audio version at the end.

Lovely Tear from Lovely Eye: the Mothers of Jesus and Judas

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A Gathering Darkness: Maundy Thursday 2021

The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer
The Angel of the Agony by Nicholas Mynheer. Image copyright. All rights reserved. From the monastery’s collection.

Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.

The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.

Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.

Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.

It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.

*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.

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