Archive for May, 2013

photoStaying Cool Under Fire

Only once in my life have I ever wanted to be a flight attendant.  The date escapes me, but the event is seared firmly in my memory.

It was an early morning flight from Minneapolis to New York, and the plane was packed to the gills.  With the last bag stowed and all of us wedged tightly into our seats, the only thing left was the hopelessly cheery invitation to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”  Who can remember when the last of those flights left the terminal?

Then it happened.  Just as the door was set to close, one last desperate passenger rushed on and bulldozed his way down the narrow aisle to 14D.  Then he became another person.  There, in 14D, sat someone else; and our new friend just lost it.  He proceeded to explode in rage at the poor soul who had the misfortune to be sitting in his seat.  Only it wasn’t his seat, because a quick check of tickets revealed that it was their seat.  But as everyone who flies knows, no airline would assign two people to the same seat, unless they could figure out a way to do it legally.

photoWhat followed was a river of blue language.  You could scarcely hear a peep from the rest of us, and all eyes were fixed on the volcano of rage standing in the aisle.  He was no happy camper, and this was not a good day to be working for Northwest Airlines.  Frankly, we all wished we were somewhere else.  Watching people go berserk on a plane is nobody’s idea of entertainment.

This is the sort of situation that every flight attendant must dread.  Had I been on duty that morning, I know I would have taken immediate sick leave and slipped out the back.  But to her credit, our flight attendant was no shirker.  She marched deliberately down the aisle, and as she approached, she became the target of a barrage of invective.  It was all her fault, of course, along with the incompetence of the airline, shouted our friend.  Those weren’t his exact words, of course.  But they were calculated to get everyone’s attention as he bared his righteous indignation for all to see.  As for the rest of us, we were a captive audience, and this was not going to be pretty.

photoOur angry friend shoved his boarding pass into the face of the attendant, almost daring her to buckle under and grovel for mercy.  He was in no mood to compromise; but she brought her own share of determination.  In fact, she was as cool as a cucumber, and in the finest “Minnesota nice” she asked “What seems to be the problem here?”  The tension was thick as she eyed his boarding pass, and we all dreaded the next move.  Then came her soothing words. “Yes, Mr. Smith.  14D is definitely your seat.  And I have some good news.  It says here that your flight is tomorrow.  So if you stick around the boarding area, you’ll have plenty of time to make your flight, and then some.”

photoLaughter filled the plane.  Then came the applause.  Our friend disappeared down the aisle, and our heroine returned to the galley.  That was the moment when I would have enjoyed trading places.

All of us learned an important lesson about anger that day.  Anger is not pretty.  Anger does not make us look more attractive, nor does it make us a lot of friends.  Anger won’t win an argument for us.  More often than not, anger brings no advantage,  because it is irrational.  Anger is the train of our emotions steaming out of the station, leaving behind our common sense, standing on the platform.

There are anger management courses, but I’ve never heard of an anger eradication course.  Anger then is a part of our lives,  and we can let it overwhelm us or we can learn to deal with it.  Saint John Cassian described it as a frequent intruder into our thoughts, and it strikes me as a good thing to ask a few questions whenever it shows up.  Why has it come calling on me?  And what does it intend to do with me?  In the end, it may even  be a good idea to ask anger politely to leave.  After all, do I want to turn myself over to anger, look stupid, and alienate the people around me?  On most days, that’s not a good plan.

photoSeldom does anger accomplish much of anything, but that morning it seemed to get a lot done for a change.  For one thing, the irate passenger got everything he demanded, and more.  He got the flight attendant to cave in and admit that 14D was his seat, and his alone.  And, he got a free day he had not counted on.  He had to be absolutely delighted with that outcome.

But it was the flight attendant who won my real admiration.  She had kept her cool under fire.  She had maintained decorum as she defused a nasty situation.  And to her credit, she did it all without gloating.  But I swear I saw a trace of a smile on her otherwise stoic face as she walked back to the galley.

photoI also learned something about myself.  I do not have the stuff of which good flight attendants are made.  Had it been me in her place, it would have ended quite differently.  I too would have demolished that passenger.  I too would have restored order in the cabin.  But then I would have stared out at one and all, and asked rhetorically: “All right, who’s next?”  Then I would have issued my own version of the usual invitation.  “And now it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.  And I don’t want to hear another peep out of anybody.”

On second thought, I probably would leave off that last part.  Why go looking for trouble?


+On May 20-21 I took part in the annual retreat and meeting of the Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On May 22nd I gave a talk on The Saint John’s Bible to the Friends of Saint Agnes Hospital, in Fresno, CA.

+On May 23rd I presided at the Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey.

+On May 24th we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for our confrere, Fr. George Wolf.  At 97 years of age, Fr. George was the oldest monk in our community, and for 62 years he served faithfully and energetically at our Priory in Nassau in the Bahama Islands.  Not so many weeks before his passing, he was still taking his daily walk, and in so many ways he was an inspiration to us all.  Unfortunately, he did not get the benefit of Yogi Berra’s famous dictum that “if you don’t go to their funeral, then they won’t go to yours.”  In his day he went to a lot of funerals, but few of his friends attended his.  Happily, most of his friends were already waiting for  him when he passed into the next life.

photo+Spring has finally come to Collegeville, and not a moment too soon.  While the leaves have not fully budded, many of the flowering trees have blossomed and a few flowers have bloomed.  It is also the time for monks to get back into the garden, as the picture at right illustrates.  Years ago individual monks were allowed to tend individual plots, and in the process we discovered why communism does not seem to work well when it comes to farming.  These smaller plots seem to produce so much more.

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Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

Co-cathedral of Saint John, Malta

The Tyranny of Things

In 1961 Dom Jean Leclercq penned what has since become a foundational text on monastic culture.  A monk of the Benedictine abbey of Clervaux in Luxembourg, his Love of Learning and the Desire for God delivered exactly what the title promised, and it did so in beautiful prose.  So loving was his study, that it crossed the threshold from scholarship, to become spiritual reading.  It has since become far more than just another book about the learned monk and nun of history.

photoBooks have been essential to monastic life, and there’s no denying that monks and nuns have had a great fondness for them through the centuries.  In the popular imagination they sat at their desks, first copying and then reading the books they’d crafted.  In the course of centuries they amassed the greatest libraries of their time, and small wonder that we gaze in awe at their work.  Manuscripts like the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels still stir the imagination.  Likely, they always will.

The stereotype of the scholar-monk is useful, as far as it goes.  However, not everybody in a monastery was a scholar, and not a few of the non-scholars resented those who carved out time for books.  But before we canonize the academics as martyrs, it’s good to remind ourselves of the special challenges that they faced.  Chief among them, perhaps, was the temptation to private ownership.

photoSaint John Cassian wrote about “thoughts of things” — or better still, the “thoughts about the acquisition of things” — as one of the great distractions for everyone.  After food and sex, it ranked third on his ascending scale of “most frequent of daydreams.”  It should surprise no one that people in monasteries share the same sorts of thoughts as everyone else.  After all, despite what some may think, monks and nuns are people too.

And that brings me to the issue of books.  Given Saint Benedict’s caution about private ownership, you’d naturally assume that the library would eliminate the need for private books.  You’d be wrong.  For all sorts of very good reasons, monks have owned books, and they still do.  And I’m one of them.  But like anything else, too much of a good thing can come back to haunt you.  Just ask the monks who have lived in cells where the books became the monsters that took over their lives.

photoI speak from personal experience when it comes to owning too many books.  Through years of schooling and teaching, I amassed a respectable collection;  but the books finally began to assert themselves as master.  Then one day I awoke to the need to fight back.  I had lugged some of those books around for years, from one office and room to the next.  A few I had not touched since college.  Some were still boxed up from graduate school.  And each and every one of them had a countrpart in the library, three hundred yards away.  In a moment of insight, I realized I had no choice but to choose.  It was them or me, and one of us would have to cave in.  It was no longer a case of “love of learning.”  It had become a tyranny of things over my life.

I was reminded that others might share similar issues when I visited Malta recently, with a group of members of the Order of Malta.  The harbor at Valletta is a crossroads of the Mediterranean, and parked in one bay was the largest and grandest yacht any of us had ever seen.  Our guide pointed to it, and noted that the owner had two more, exact copies, parked elsewhere in the world.  Personally I would have opted for some variety if I had three yachts.  I would have made one a foot shorter, or color-coded them so I’d know where in the world I might be.   But maybe this guy had a thing about uniformity.  Regardless, I wondered whether it was the guy who owned the yachts, or whether the yachts had begun to own him.

photoMost of us won’t ever have the problem that comes from owning too many yachts, all of which are identical.  But we all have “thoughts of things” that run through our minds.  Some things are fun and frivilous; some are concessions to our place in a consumer society; and some are anxieties about our material future.  All are worth thinking about, but none are so important that we should allow them to take over our lives.

The tyranny of “things over people” has always been with us, but the struggle is especially intense for members of a consumer society.  When we define ourselves as economic units of consumption, then the amount we own is the measure of our greatness.  I gladly join with those who note we must consume things in order to live and thrive.  But when we value human beings in terms of what they own, or how much they buy, then we have gone into alien territory.  I would argue that you and I are far more important than the stuff we have stashed away in cupboards and garages and banks.  All those things have some value, but if they are what make us important, then life is not worth living.

photoFrom a Christian point of view, God did not give us life for the sole purpose of piling up more stuff.  Nor did God create us to think about acquisitions all day long.  Nor did God create us to be the servant of things.  Nor did God intend that we be consumed by anxieties about our material future.  All of that is easier said than done.  But God does not abandon us to wage our battle of interior wits alone.

As for me and my books, my battle is likely never to be finished.  It continues to be a work in progress, but in the last two years I’ve given an awful lot of them away.  And I’ve reclaimed for myself a major portion of my room.  But there have been surprises.  For one, I get to the library far more often than I used to.  I’ve since discovered that it has all sorts of wonderful books I’ve not met before.  And in a great irony, I’ve actually found more time for reading.  That suggests that I am actually using books as they should be, rather than they using me.

As for The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, that’s one book I intend to keep.  It’s a reminder of what life in the monastery can be like.  I need to let that thought run through my mind a little more often than it has in the past.


+On May 18th I gave a retreat day to members of the Order of Malta, who gathered in Pasadena, CA, for the occasion.

+Following our pilgrimage to Lourdes, I and nine other members of the Order of Malta spent five days on the Island of Malta.  Located fifty miles south of Sicily and a hundred miles from Libya, it served as the home of the Order of Malta from 1530 to 1798, when Napoleon conquered the island.

It was the Emperor Charles V who gave Malta to the Knights, in return for an annual rent of one Maltese falcon.  In the course of time the Knights developed Malta into a giant fortress that protected its magnificant harbor.  So important was the British naval base there, that the Germans made it the target of their most intensive bombing campaign of World War II.

photoThe first thing to catch the eye are the massive fortifications and walls.  You’re tempted to think that there must be more stone blocks in Malta than any place on earth.  One of our party marvelled that there was any island left after they quarried all that stone.  The second thing one notes are the magnificent buildings that the knights left behind.  Included among them are what was the largest hospital in Europe in its day, the Grand Master’s Palace, and a great many buildings that serve as offices for the government of Malta today.

The pictures in today’s post come from the co-cathedral of Saint John, which was the main church of the knights.  It is now  a World Heritage site, and a glance at the floor tells why. Nearly every square inch is covered with the inlaid marble tombs of members of the Order of Malta.  It’s just breathtaking.

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74.Town and ChurchOn a Second Thought

American culture fancies itself to be the most liberated in all of human history when it comes to sex.  With shows like “Sex and the City” and a myriad of parallel productions, we’ve constructed a self-image that puts us opposite the stuffy Victorians on the social spectrum.  When it comes to sex, we believe we are without doubt the most enlightened people in human history.  And therefore we must also be the happiest people ever.

This is cultural narcissism, and I would maintain that it is a fantasy of the first order.  First off, we may be very aggressive in flooding our culture with thoughts of sex, but we are not the first to notice its paramount place in human life.  John Cassian, the 5th-century spiritual writer, posited that after the quest for food, thoughts of sex are the next most potent force running through our mental universe.  With a nod to those who cannot believe that someone from the early 400’s could know much of anything, you still must give Cassian his due.  He definitely was on to something — despite being a stuffy monk.

The fact of the matter is, in our society sex sells big, and it plays on our mental preoccupations as few other forces do.  Take cars for instance.  While we may resort to the little old lady from Pasadena to sell “pre-owned” cars, we recruit only the most attractive people on earth to sell new cars.  You see it in the marketing of cigarettes as well.  Seldom in the media will you see the elderly smoking.  Rather, it’s always the young and the sleek who smoke in the ads.  The message is clear: the true benefit from smoking is linked to sexual attractiveness.

46. Church at Saint SavinWhen it comes to sex and the prescription medication industry, I’ve always been slightly amused by advertising’s resort to yet another human anxiety: the fear of missing out on something.  Ads for some prescriptions hint that you may be the only 16 or 95-year-old on the planet who’s celibate.  Horrors!  Who could possible want to be in that desperate situation?  How terrible it would be to defy the herd instinct and refrain from sexual activity, even at the most advanced of ages.  Or at the earliest of ages.  “Everyone does it,” and there ought not be a single exception.

The fact of the matter is, our society is virtually evangelical when it comes to sex, and we are deeply suspicious of people who are celibate.  I would submit that those same anxieties apply to those  who are monogamous — for they too are celibate when it comes to anyone other than their spouse.  In the popular imagination, both celibacy and even monogamy can be seen as basic denials of human freedom.  In this case, it’s the freedom to do any and everything you might want, whenever you want.

When marketers and others parade sexual fantasies before our eyes, they are of course reaching deep into our own minds to manipulate thoughts that are among the strongest and most vibrant.  Long before there was television or the print media, and even before the internet, there were such thoughts.  Perhaps because of that vast experience, some have dared to suggest that the most creative and happy people in human history have learned to master those thoughts.  To their way of thinking it may just be better to master them than be driven by them  into a crazed frenzy.

48.Chapter House DoorThere are any number of directions one could take this, but at the risk of seeming to be a Victorian, I’d like to make two points.

First of all, the need for social and spiritual intimacy is undeniable and good; but indiscriminate sexual activity is never a cure for lonelilness.  In fact, over time it may even create a pervasive loneliness.  Such activity becomes destructive, since it serves the self first and last, with little respect for others.  Ironically, then, there is no life-giving human connection in such indiscriminate relationships.  Genuine intimacy centers on the respect and love of the other, and that is true whether that other person is human or divine.

The second point has to do with commitment.  There’s no denying that we have a very difficult time making life choices and settling down.  We like to keep our options open, and God forbid that we make anything that smacks of a permanent commitment.  Such an act would violate our intrinsic freedom and independence.

37.Organ at Saint SavinBut as in so many cases, not to decide is to decide.  When we opt for “freedom forever,” we eventually lose it, simply because we’ve never invested ourselves in a life-giving relationship with any one person, or with God.  In that sense chastity is less a deprivation than it is a gamble.  It’s a gamble that God and someone else may be worth our love, and it may justify the sacrifice of our unlimited freedom.  They are worth the risk of organizing our thoughts and words and deeds so that we direct ourselves to another.  Could that be better than being constantly distracted and ultimately left adrift in a sea of confusion and loneliness?

That may very well be what Jesus had in the back of his mind when he offered up his great conundrum.  “Those who lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

29.Townscape at Saint SavinNotes

+Post-script to Lourdes:  Still fresh in my mind is the pilgrimage to Lourdes which members of the Order of Malta completed a few days ago.  As I wrote in the post for May 7th, it’s an extraordinary experience, and if you’d like to read fuller descriptions that I wrote some months ago, please go to my posts of 31 October 2011, and 7 May 2012.

56.Windows at Saint SavinOn the lighter side, Lourdes has all the challenges that any complicated gathering of people has.  Typical of this is the Sunday Eucharist, in the Basilica of Saint Pius X, which holds 25,000+.  With more than twenty-five nationalities present, language is always an issue.  At past gatherings of the Order of Malta the Mass prayers have been in French, English, Arabic and Italian.  The music comes from all language groups, while the readings have been in a variety of tongues.  The prayers of the faithful this year were in Dutch and German, but they’ve been in a dozen other languages through the  years.  This year the celebrant was Cardinal Sardi, patron of the Order of Malta.  He presided in Italian, while translations projected onto the big screens were in French and German.  (I read the French, hoping it would be nicer.)  Cardinal Dolan of New York welcomed poeple in English.  The multiciplicity of languages, and the sound of 25,000 singing in unison, impressed on me once again the vast stretch of the Church. It really is the gathering of peoples from the ends of the earth.

Four Benedictine chaplains of the Order of Malta were at Lourdes this year.  In addition to me, in attendance were Abbot Placid of Belmont Abbey in North Carolina; Abbot Matthias of Sao Bento in São Paulo in Brazil; and Fr. Henry from Glenstal in Ireland.

68.Arcade at Saint SavinThe unofficial motto of Lourdes ought to be Festina Lente.  While literally translated as “Make Haste Slowly”, in the case of Lourdes it is better rendered as “Hurry up and wait.”  Were there a Lourdes Olympics, the main events would include “The Stand”; the “Marathon Stand”; “The Walk Very Slowly” (done in teams of 5,000); the “Stand and Walk”; and my personal favorite, “The 100-Yard Sprint for the Exits after a two-hour Mass.”  (Best done with 25,000 people.)  Of coure there are always special awards and honorable mentions.  This year’s award for the strongest cart-puller went to my teammate Tom, who pulled his cart for thirty-five minutes with the brakes on.  “Most-determined cart-puller” also went to Tom, for pulling his cart for thirty-five minutes with the brakes on.

65.Carolingian Chapel.Saint SavinFor the second half of the pilgrimage the sun came out and it was glorious.  It made our outing to Saint Savin especially refreshing.  In today’s post are pictures from that visit.  This was a Benedictine abbey dating back to Carolingian times (ca. 800).  It sits at the entrance to the Pyranees, overlooking one of the passes into Spain.  Spain sits just on the other side of the snow-capped peaks.

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6.LourdesFood: The Great Temptation

It all started with Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Theirs was a perfect life, but they were not alone with their thoughts.  It was in Eden that they encountered what likely was the first major distraction on record:  the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Accustomed to a daily round of walks with God, plenty to eat, and camaradarie with the animals, everything seemed to be as good as it gets.  Who would want to upset that apple-cart?

35.Mosaic of JesusIt should come as no surprise that the first temptation recorded in the Bible centers on food.  It’s a basic need, after all.  You can’t go for very long without it; and if you do so, body and mind will insist on doing someting about it.  Not surprisingly, the early ascetics experienced this, and John Cassian writes of it as the entry-level preoccupation of the human mind.

Still, the Book of Genesis reports that Eve’s focus on that tree was less about food and more about the desire to go beyond her current state.  The story implies that she couldn’t have been all that hungry, despite the absence of soft drinks and fast food.  Nor was she aware of impending famine and the need to store up for the future.  No, by the time she plucked the first piece of fruit from that tree, something else was going through her mind.  This was not about fruit.  This was about power and self-esteem.  That’s what pressed her buttons that day.

13.Candles at LourdesIn her book “Thoughts Matter”, Sr. Meg Funk reflects on John Cassian’s teaching about the  thoughts that run through the minds of us all.  Constantly, throughout our waking hours, a steady stream of thoughts prance through our imagination.  Who knows where they all originate, but thankfully our mental spam filter deletes a lot of it before it gets onto our agenda.  Yet, some still make it through into our consciousness.  There they disturb us and inspire us and incite us into further thought, word and deed.  In short, they press our buttons hard enough to take over our waking hours for just a bit, or for a long time.

Food certainly is the most basic of human needs, but it’s never as simple as it seems.  Sure, we all like to eat, and some of us love to eat.  Some of us even live to eat.  But when we think of that big bag of chips, or whatever it is that gets us going, it can become really complicated. Thoughts of hunger and the allure of food remind us of the need to eat to survive.  They remind us that food could run out some day, and it might be prudent to lay in a big supply to allay our fears about the future.  Those thoughts might remind us that eating some foods brings prestige to the diner, as do the select places where we might choose to dine. Thoughts of food also bring out the latent competitiveness in all of us.  In order for me to get more, someone else must get less.  Isn’t it better to get yours before all the greedy people get it first?  And on a more positive note, if I eat the right kinds of food, in proper balance, I just might live a longer and healthier life.

19.GrottoPretty soon the mere thought of food can trigger all sorts of responses in us.  We can stop in our tracks to get some; we can eat beyond what is reasonable; we can eat beyond our means; and we can do the completely irrational.  That’s one reason I avoid the snack food aisle like the plague.  I know that one small bag of Cheetos is a nice treat.  But  I also know that if they manufactured twenty-pound bags of Cheetos, I’d get several.  I’d lay in a big supply, because you never know.  All the Cheetos factories could burn down.  Or someone might corner the market on Cheetos and drive up the price.  Anyway, that’s how Cheetos have the power to press one of my buttons and send me off into a chain of  uncontrolled actions.  That’s why I’ve always had a special sympathy for Eve.  She may have started with an apple, but in her mind it was about far more than that.

If our thoughts are complicated and savvy enough to catch our attention, they are also persistent.  The first Christian ascetics learned this early on, and we need to own up to that as well.  If early monks and nuns thought they’d leave their troubles at the cloister door, they always got a big surprise when they walked into their cell for the first time.  No sooner had they settled in, then the old familiar friends popped up in their imagination.  What they wanted before, they still wanted — but now with a vengeance.  Their experience explains why so many of us go to church and immediately start thinking of everything but church.  Know it or not, we all bring an awful lot of baggage with us, and the quieter the place, the sooner those bags get unpacked.

36.Mosaic at LourdesWhen I was a young priest I was always a little put off when people confessed to distractions during prayer.  In those heady years when I knew nearly everything, I tended to dismiss such comments as scrupulosity or fluff.  Now I’m not so sure, because my own mind wanders when I’m in church.  What kind of medicine should I be taking?

Through the years I’ve learned from many who are far more experienced in using strategies to deal with distraction.  The first point I’ve drawn from them is not to treat distraction as if it were sin.  Think of a distraction as a button that is being pushed, and then step back to analyze it.  What’s the point of this thought?  Where does it lead me if I follow through on it?  How best should I deal with this distraction?

31.Church FrontOne should also keep in mind that not all “distractions” lead us down the wayward path.  Some thoughts point straight to God.  Some thoughts lead us into doing the right thing.  Some thoughts tug at our imagination and help us prioritize our lives.  All this happens when we don’t let our thoughts run away with us.  Rather, we are better off placing our thoughts and preoccupations at the foot of the Lord, and he will help us sort them out.

So one day I prayed to the Lord about the Cheetos.  “What about the Cheeetos?”  I asked.  “Well, what do you think you should do about the Cheetos?” was the response I got.  “Well, they’re nice enough, but I don’t live for them.”  And God said: “That’s what I was thinking too.”

Then I knew I was ready for the next big thought.

53.The streets of LourdesNotes

+This week I am in Lourdes with the annual Order of Malta pilgrimage.  It’s an extraordinary experience, and everyone should  consider it someday, whether they are a believer or not.  People come to Lourdes for all sorts of reasons, but spiritual healing ranks far above physical healing in the benefits that we all take with us when we leave.  Lourdes also reminds us of the contrasts between the sacred and the secular worlds.  At Lourdes one sees the sublime and the banal, and the edge of the shrine is the physical boundary.  On the other hand, one of the great lessons of Lourdes is that in all of our lives the sacred and the profane are not totally separate worlds.  They blend together in our own little world.  We also learn that one cannot live in a shrine forever.  You have to go home eventually, and you take a glimpse of the divine back with you to serve you at home.

Lourdes, like other pilgrimage destinations, is not all peaches and cream.  It rained for the first forty-eight hours after our arrival.  That was not fun.  But by far the biggest challenge to our psyche was our willingness to enter into sacred time and sacred space.  Upon arrival, quite a few people rushed down to the gates of the shrine to take it all in.  Meanwhile, a very unhealthy percentage of us (myself included) rushed to our rooms to turn on the wifi to connect with the world we had left behind.  The hotel wifi system promptly jammed for several hours.  I had to get up at 4 am to get access to the internet and get this posting out. Thank goodness all the greedy people were still asleep.

22.Bridge at Lourdes

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