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IMG_1160Monks and Civilization

I don’t think that monks originally set out to save civilization.  I realize they get credit for this in some circles, and a few still think that’s part of our mission statement as monks.  All the same, if monks did make some contribution to the preservation of culture through the centuries, it was not a self-conscious decision.  If anything, it was just the byproduct of showing up for work every day to do what had to be done.

Saint Anthony, who wandered off into the Egyptian desert in the 4th century to pursue life as a hermit, had no idea he was saving civilization.  As much as anything he fled the complications of civilization and a church hierarchy that had begun to blend all too seamlessly into the ranks of the famous and powerful.  Anthony would have none of that, and when he did finally abandon his hermitage, he returned to Alexandria to serve the poor and imprisoned.  Who knows what belongings he toted back with him to the city; but there likely were few if any books.

Saint Benedict had an equally inauspicious start when it came to preserving civilization.  As a student in Rome he found the cultural environment terribly unpleasant, and he fled to the wilderness outside of Rome.  In his cave at Subiaco there was no need for a library, because like Anthony learning was not high on his list of daily activities, at least according to his biography.

IMG_1226Somewhere along the line Benedict had a change of attitude, and with one simple prescription in his Rule for Monks he set a course for his own community that has impacted monks in the west ever since.  His was a literate community, as evidenced by the recitation of the Psalms and readings from the Bible.  But he took it one step further with the command that during Lent each monk should read at least one book.  That meant that every monk had to be literate, and it meant there had to be enough books and a variety of books to go around.  Thus was born the library that every monastery worth its salt had to have.

Despite the Hollywood portrait of the vast library at the abbey of Melk in The Name of the Rose, monastic libraries tended to be quite small through much of the middle ages.  In the year 1,000 scarcely any monastery had a collection approaching even a thousand manuscripts.  Common to them as well was the location of these collections.  For the most part they tended to be housed in the sacristy, where they sat alongside the tomes necessary for Mass and the liturgy of the hours.

IMG_1245For much of the middle ages manuscripts were rare and the monks venerated the most ornate of them as both sacred and material treasures.  We get to enjoy them today on visits to the abbeys of Saint Gall in Switzerland and Melk in Austria, though most monastic treasures now reside in the national libraries of Europe.  There these manuscripts still intrigue the imagination and sometimes even dazzle the eye.

This is the tradition from which American Benedictines descend.  To no one’s surprise, when the first five monks steamed up the Mississippi to Minnesota in 1856, they brought with them five trunks filled with books from Germany.  It wasn’t much of a collection, but in the minds of those five monks those books were as necessary as habits, a roof over their head and a wood fire in winter.  Books were an essential part of life, even if they were not scholars.

That initial collection acted as a seed, and in the mid-1960s Saint John’s commissioned architect Marcel Breuer to design Alcuin Library, which now houses the descendants of the original five trunks.  Today the collection has grown to the point at which the University library, in tandem with Clemens Library at the College of Saint Benedict, comprises the 11th largest liberal arts college library in the country.  That’s a  huge accomplishment, considering that those first monks and nuns came to Minnesota with so little.

IMG_1197Last week we broke ground on an addition to Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  Given the advent of the electronic book, a renovated and expanded library may seem counterintuitive and even wasteful.  But of course it’s not if you’re interested in the future of civilization.  God forbid that an electronic burst would obliterate all the e-books, but you never know.  And you can never be too careful.

Beyond that, I was cheered by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.  It noted both a slight decline in the sale of e-books and a revival of independent booksellers in the US.  That just confirmed my own conclusion of several years ago.  I remain convinced that paper books will never go the way of the dinosaur as long as people continue to read in the bath tub.  They’d never dare take an electronic book into the water.

In the interests of full discloser, I am currently reading two e-books and two “real” books. My arms like the e-books when I travel, and my eyes like the paper when I read in the evening.

IMG_0041Notes

+On April 18th I said Mass and gave a presentation at the monthly gathering of the Order of Malta members in San Francisco.

+On April 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.

+Also on April 22nd I took part in the activities of Saint John’s Day, when we welcomed supporters of the University and Abbey to campus.  That afternoon we broke ground for the expansion of Alcuin Library and the addition of a new wing, to be named the Brother Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons.  As president of the University, Brother Dietrich appointed the first of many committees that planned this project — and that was nearly 25 years ago.  No one can say that monks rush into things.  The latter three photos include one that depicts the addition, while the others give a sense of the location next to Alcuin Library.

IMG_1165+The weather has reached the point of no return in regard to spring, as the enclosed pictures illustrate.  This also has meant the end of the maple syrup season, and Brother Walter reported that they were able to make 382 gallons this spring.

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imageBe Watchful.  Be Alert.

You have to wonder what in the world the disciples were doing when Jesus pushed them to “be watchful.  Be alert.”  (Mark 13: 33).  Had they dozed off during one of his parables?  Had their minds wandered?  Did they assume that, as the ultimate insiders, there was nothing more to learn?  We’ll never know.  But I’m guessing they’d grown a little smug and thought they had nothing to worry about.  Life with Jesus was good.

Whether these words rattled them or not, we’ll also never know.  But one thing seems clear.  This was not an invitation to sit back, relax, and coast through life.  Jesus expected a little more out of them than waiting around for their turn to sit at his right in the kingdom.

What Jesus wanted from his apostles matters to us as well, since this gospel passage inaugurates the season of Advent.  And therein is a dilemma.  Is Jesus trying to scare us to death with talk about burglars breaking in when we least expect them?  Is he trying to make us paranoid with the thought that the loss of everything dear to us is just around the next corner?  Or does he recommend that his disciples and we dial down on the alarmism, but open our minds just a tad to what is going on around us?  It strikes me that we have two options here.  We can hit the panic button, or we can buckle down and tend to the quest of becoming Christian.

imageA popular stereotype of monks is that we are a dour and depressing lot.  People assume that we must worry constantly about our salvation, and that best explains why we spend all that time in church.  And Saint Benedict doesn’t help our public image when he tells  his monks to “keep death daily before our eyes.”  Who wouldn’t panic at the thought that today may see the end of everything.  I know I’d be anxious as heck at the thought that by nightfall I would pack it all in and face the grim reaper.

Most monks I know simply can’t and won’t live that way.  None of us can sustain that sort of emotional intensity for very long, because we’d either despair or go crazy.  On top of that, confreres who are like that are tough to live with.  That’s why we usually encourage them to search for God someplace else.  Life has enough difficulty without somebody constantly telling us that it’s going to hell in a hand-basket.

With all due respect, neither Jesus nor Saint Benedict were trying to have a little fun at our expense.  They did not intend to cry wolf and scare the daylights out of us, hoping to induce radical change in our behavior.  Instead, they both hoped we’d keep on searching for God, day in and day out.  No matter how boring it might seem.

imageThis point may be tough to tease out, but I think it goes something like this.  For those who expect salvation to be a personal big-bang moment, when God hits us on the head, they’re generally disappointed with the results.  Even Saint Paul, and even Martin Luther, had to deal with the realities of a long life after they fell from their horses.  Life proved too long to put all their eggs in the basket of a split-second conversion experience.  Life went on, and on.  And unlike so many other things for which life is too short, when it comes to the search for God, one life is more than long enough.  It’s a relationship that waxes and wanes through the years.  And like a marriage or a friendship, it’s something that requires regular investment.

So if Advent is an invitation to buckle down and be about our Father’s business, what exactly should we do?  Well, like New Year’s or Lent, one or two resolutions can be enough to nourish our relationship, at least for this interlude in our lives.  And as this passage from the Gospel of Mark suggests, our focus should be on the Lord in our midst.

imageOn the assumption that we should keep our eyes peeled to see Christ where we least expect him, I’ve decided to address one of my many pet peeves where my vision could use some improvement.  I know this sounds a little jaded, but one peeve results from years of experience with taxi drivers in New York.  If ever again a driver asks how to get where I hope to go (as two of them did recently), I’ve decided to take the question philosophically rather than literally.  “Let’s pray about this together, and I’m sure we’ll find the way.”  That’s definitely better than what I said two weeks ago, and on a few other occasions as well.  And the benefits of this approach?  I lower my blood pressure, and the driver is transformed before my very eyes.  He’s no longer the thief in the night, trying to lead me on a long and expensive diversion.  Instead, I realize that maybe he’s only trying to do the best he can.  In such a person it may be tough to see Christ at first.  But if you squint, it’s a real revelation when you finally spy Christ at the wheel of your taxi.

That, I submit, is the invitation Jesus puts to us in Advent.  This is no time to panic because we’ve not seen his face for ages.  Rather, it’s a few weeks when we buckle down and focus on someone who’s been there all along.  And so, if there are people on your list in whom you least expect to find the Lord, be watchful, and be alert.  The Lord may have been in them all along.  What a surprise to realize that — all this time — we’ve be gazing on the image of God.

imageNotes

+The monks of Saint John’s celebrated Thanksgiving with the customary festive meal.  Unlike in past years, however, the monks did everything, including the preparation of the refectory, the cooking, and the clean-up.  This gave the regular kitchen staff the day off, though from them it required an act of faith that we would not destroy the kitchen in their absence.  Actually, we are blessed to have several monks who have accomplished skills in the kitchen, and the meal was a great success.  At the end of the day the kitchen was in mint condition, much to everyone’s relief.

+On November 29th the University football team played its second game in the Division III national play-offs.  Sadly, they lost to Wartburg College, thus ending the season.  It was a great season though, and the final loss did come with a silver lining:  no more games in the cold of winter.  The winner gets to go on and freeze another day.

image+Over Thanksgiving I finished reading a book that I’d worked on for a while: The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders, by Peter Heather (Oxford University Press, 2013.)  As a medieval historian I found the narrative immensely interesting, as Heather traces the evolution of a new empire in the West and the development of the papacy from the 5th to the 12th centuries.  I had read a favorable review of it in The Wall Street Journal, which suggested its accessibility to the general reader.  It is accessible, but the novice historian will find the array of names of barbarian chiefs and kings bewildering.  The popes under discussion are slightly more familiar.  This is a terrific book for its narrative of how the Church and empire in western Europe became what it became.

+The prophet Isaiah shows up early in the readings for Advent, and the first photo in today’s post is of “Saint Isaiah”, from Oliva Cathedral in Gdansk, Poland.  The other photos are from the cathedral in Metz, France, which was near the epicenter of the Holy Roman Empire.

+In the post of 24 November I included a gallery of images of the Abbey church.  This week I’ve included selected photos of the Abbey church in use.

image

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imageIn Search of the Authentic

My heart gave out a quiet cheer for the Benedictine monks of Montmajour last week.  They hadn’t caught any breaks in ages, so they were long overdue when a bit of recognition finally came their way.

Founded in the 10th century near the southern French town of Arles, the monks occupied a prominent site, and on it they built an impressive complex that dominated the landscape.  The centuries were not kind, however, and in later years a succession of non-residential abbots exploited the monks and their property.  But in 1639 the last of the worst of these abbots, Charles Bichi, lost his iron grip on the revenues and the monastery came under the control of a group of reforming Benedictines from Paris.

With a surname like Bichi, and a demeanor that may have matched, you have to wonder why some of the old monks hated to see him go.  Maybe they didn’t want to be reformed.  Maybe they thought that an abbot a hundred miles away was better than one just down the hall.  Anyway, M. Bichi got his walking papers, and the monks got a relatively tranquil life until the place was secularized in 1786.  Then the place went to rack and ruin, literally.  And that’s when Vincent Van Gogh enters the story.

imageVan Gogh loved the place, and in one particular painting the abbey of Montmajour figures in the background.  Unfortunately, for nearly a century the experts considered this piece to be a fake, and through much of that time it led a rather obscure life in somebody’s attic.  It continued to do just that until last week.  That’s when a few art historians announced that Van Gogh had indeed painted this canvas after all.  It was authentic, and it dated from his years as a mature artist.  It was, they concluded, the first such Van Gogh to surface since the 1930’s.

Eighty years is no big deal to a medieval historian like me, but it’s an eon in the world of art historians.  Not surprisingly, many of them could scarcely contain their excitement, and rivers of hype and superlatives have followed.  Naturally, I’m happy for them.  And I’m happy for the owner of this painting, who stands to reap a wheel-barrow load of Euros at the cash window.   But I’m happiest for the monks.  On September 10th the entire community, long-deceased and for the most part resident in heaven, got to see their monastery cited on page one of the Arts Section of The New York Times.  They also got an honorable mention in The Wall Street Journal.  Their work has not been in vain, and it had to be gratifying to them.

imageDespite the Cinderella slant to this story, there’s something that unsettles me just a bit.  For fans of The Antiques Road Show, this is the mega-jackpot, of course.  We’ve all dreamed of dragging our aunt’s old teapot out of the attic, only to have it appraised at $10,000.  And who hasn’t fantasized about the true value of those old, in-mint-condition magazines stacked in the basement?  But a forgotten painting in the attic that could fetch $50 million at auction?  I don’t know about you, but that sounds like no attic I’ve ever been in.  This is not your average attic, and you have to wonder what other auction-monsters the owner will drag out in the years to come.

Still more troubling is the sudden reversal of fortune for this painting.  One day it is a useless piece of junk, good for nothing save collecting dust.  The next day it is worth untold millions.  What changed here?  Certainly it was not the painting itself.  Either it was as lovely on Tuesday as it was on Wednesday, or it wasn’t.  This was definitely not a case of an ugly duckling evolving into a graceful swan in the course of a few hours.

imageThere’s only one thing on which I can pin any change in character, and it’s this.  It was the same painting before and after; but on one day it was a worthless forgery, and the next it was a $50 million Van Gogh.  It’s as simple as a change of label.  The subject may be anything from a landfill to a stray dog or a pick-up truck at a stop sign.  But if it is a $50 million Van Gogh painting of a truck at a stop sign, it is breathtakingly beautiful.

I don’t mean to sound cynical here, but how else do you explain this?  People could care less about a nondescript painting stored in the attic.  But we will line up for twenty minutes and more to see a painting with a famous name on it.  The fact is, we adore celebrities, and we love items with big price tags on them.  And I suppose it’s also safe to conclude that anything expensive must also be beautiful.

Deep down I’m glad that the experts declared this to be an authentic Van Gogh.  I’m delighted too for the owners and their lawyers, who no doubt watched from the sidelines with detached curiosity.  I’m sure all were driven by their altruistic love of art in their quest to solve the mystery of this painting.

imageConversely, I’m not at all surprised by the alacrity of the media in picking up on this story.  It’s a good tale, and one that piques the imagination.  But while it answers the question of authenticity on one level, it raises it on another.

For better and for worse, trend-setters do exactly that: they help us decide what we like, even before we know what it is we would like to like.  It’s peer pressure and social convention that encourage us to ignore the beautiful fake in the attic, while we flock to see the famous mediocrity in the gallery.  Too often we let others decide for us, when we should be making those judgments for ourselves.

That strikes me as the moral to take from all this.  As people who aspire to be mature human beings, we must be the ones who decide what we like and dislike, and we ought not cede that to some expert.  If something or someone is beautiful, they will be beautiful no matter what price tag the appraiser sticks on it.  And if something means a lot to us, we need to cherish it now, rather than wait for an expert to tell us when it’s cool to do so.  This too is a form of authenticity, and we are being authentic when we make decisions for ourselves.

imageAt the end of the episode the owners of the new Van Gogh come out way ahead.  Their lawyers come out way ahead.  And perhaps a few art historians get a big boost to their careers.  As for Van Gogh, he doesn’t get a penny from the upgraded sale price. With a well-established reputation, he scarcely needs the additional fame.  But perhaps he gets some amusement from all this, because the whole thing has confirmed his appreciation of human nature once again.

But it’s the monks of Montmajour who must be pleased as punch.  They went to Montmajour to seek God and not celebrity.  But even a small appearance in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal has to be savored.  And they can take solace in knowing  that a few people have enjoyed a peek into the ruins of their monastery.  But most of all, I hope they take pleasure in knowing that they’ve struck the spiritual imagination of at least somebody out there.  If even one person joins them in the spiritual quest for authenticity, then those monks continue to fulfill their mission.

imageNotes

+Recently I took the opportunity to visit our confrere, Fr. Edward Vebelun, OSB, who in July became pastor at Saints Peter and Paul Church in Richmond, MN.  The parish is just a few miles from Saint John’s, and monks have served as pastors there since 1856.  It’s a lovely church, and the statue of Saint Benedict on the main altar shows the Benedictine connection clearly.  It is noted for its huge German-style stations of the cross, as well as for the paintings that grace the ceiling of the church.  The cycle of paintings include both men and women, saints and biblical figures.  But it is the stained glass which I find stunning.  The pictures in today’s post all come from Saints Peter and Paul Church.

image+On September 9th I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of the Malta Study Center at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  We were joined by three new members, including Fra Emmanuel Rousseau, KJ, of Paris; Fra Thomas Mulligan, KJ, of Chicago, and Mr. Michael Grace, a member of the Order of Malta from Pasadena, CA.  Currently the Center assists in archival preservation projects in Malta as well as at the archives of the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome.

+On September 14-15th I made a brief trip to Seattle, where I gave talks on The Saint John’s Bible at Epiphany Episcopal Church.

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Weingarten Abbey

Weingarten Abbey

A Megastore for Monks

You’re forgiven if you missed the page-one headline in The Wall Street Journal on July 23rd.  “Megastore for Thai Monks Brings One-Stop Retail to Buddhism.”  That’s not the sort of thing that rivets the attention of your average K-Mart shopper, nor your Bloomingdale’s aficionado, for that matter.  In fact, most people couldn’t care less.  But for monks it was big news.

I was more than a little amazed by the description of this thing.  Sitting on a plot of nearly a quarter million square feet,  you can find in this emporium any and everything you could possibly need to be a Buddhist monk.  From candles to begging bowls to statues of the Buddha (sitting or standing) to a huge assortment of saffron robes, it’s all there.  Not only can you be assured of one-stop shopping, but you can do it in air-conditioned comfort as well.  I’ve never been to Thailand, but I gather that air-conditioning draws shoppers by the trainload.

The scale of this store is breathtaking, and I can assert without fear of contradiction that there’s nothing like it for American monks.  I’m not even going to waste my time by rushing to Walmart to ask about their monk department.  The knowledgeable clerks will apologize that they don’t have one.  Those less attuned will answer simply: “I’m sorry sir, but we don’t carry monks during the summer months.”  But if Walmart and the other big-box stores don’t carry monk stuff, then who does?  Well, I can tell you who does: no one does.

imageI’m not going to fault American retailers for missing out on a lucrative market, because it’s important to understand one thing about Buddhist monasticism in Thailand.  It’s big.  Really big.  There are some 300,000 monks in Thailand, and last  year there were 60,000 novice monks.  That dwarfs any membership figures we’ve seen in the Catholic Church since the middle ages.  But the key difference is the commitment that novices make in Thailand.  Most stay only a short time, and then it’s back to jeans and t-shirts.  But they return home spiritually refreshed.

Those newcomers arrive at the gates en masse.  The guy who opened the megastore did so after going out to buy robes for the ninety-nine poor novices he was sponsoring.  He discovered that the neighborhood monk stores were not at all prepared to deal with such volume.  And so he adapted the concept of mass-merchandising to create a store that catered to the needs of the mobs of people who need monk stuff, and need it in a hurry.  Thailand clearly is one of the few places on the planet where this business plan was ripe for success.

imageNone of this would work in America, simply because there is no market.  It’s not that there are no monks.  It’s just that we don’t get 60,000 novices a year.  And it’s not that God doesn’t call people to the monastic life in the United States.  It’s just that God doesn’t seem to call them in herds.  We get called by name, one at a time.  And we enter in the hope that this will lead to a lifetime commitment.  No wonder people are a little shy about coming in droves.  But translated into economic terms, this is a market for a handful of mom-and-pop shops around the country, but certainly not for Macy’s.

That said, there likely are many values that Buddhist and Christian monks share, despite the obvious differences.  As The Wall Street Journal noted about Thai monks, “all of them need stuff.”  The same is true for American monks.  And it was true as well for sixth-century monks, as Saint Benedict was careful to point out.  In fact, compared to some of his more abstemious contemporaries, Benedict was pretty open-minded.  Monks need a habit and footwear, and in winter they need warmer clothes, at least in places like Minnesota.  Monks need slightly better clothing when they go out on a journey, wrote Benedict.  Apparently he too worried about what the neighbors might say if monks went out poorly clad.  And monks need pens and parchment and books and all the other stuff that people need to get by on.

imageInterestingly, Benedict allows more to those who need more, but he doesn’t scold them for it.  Conversely, if a monk can get by on less, great.  But don’t for a minute think you’re a better monk because you can make do with less than what your brother needs.

Therein lurks one of the many challenges in monastic life.  I’ve seen monks’ rooms where the spare interior left me wondering if anyone lived there.  I’ve also passed rooms where stuff was starting to block the door.  All I can say for myself is that these are the extremes that I try to avoid.  Saint Benedict advises that monks should do all things in moderation; and “too much” and “too little” strike me as wildly immoderate.  I prefer to stick to living in a rigidly flexible moderation.

All of this brings us around to the importance of good judgment when it comes to the monastic life.  It would be so convenient if the abbot told us exactly how much was too much or too little; but every monk I know would rebel the minute the abbot tried to do so.  Aware of that tendency, Saint Benedict places the burden of good judgment squarely on the shoulders of the individual monk.  He cannot cede to someone else the responsibility for his own life, because it was God who called him in the first place.  And the monk must make his own response.

imageI would submit that lifestyle is one area in which monks, whether Buddhist or Christian, have the chance to live a prophetic life in the 21st century.  In Benedict’s day, monks may have had one habit, or two at most.  But most other people also had one or at most two sets of clothes.  Today, when freighters can’t deliver clothes and consumer goods fast enough, monks have a chance to stand back and say to themselves: “Enough already.”  Besides, the abbot’s not going to give us a second room to hold it all anyway.

But the issue of “too much stuff” is one that confronts us all, whatever our state in life.  I’ll admit to the value of the big-box stores, not only for good prices but for their infinite variety.  But as symbols of the ultimate value of material goods, such stores can easily morph into temples to a false god.

You and I are far more important than any of the stuff we own.  And if that stuff has begun to take over our lives, then it may be time to reconsider Saint Benedict’s teaching on moderation.  As for our Thai monk-brethren, I’m happy they have a megastore to suit their needs.  Good for them.  As for us American monks, we’ll get over it.

imageNotes

+On August 23rd I preached at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s.  The first reading came from the Book of Ruth, and in The Story of Ruth I offer a few comments on this exceptional person.

+On Sunday, August 25th, I again presided at the Abbey Mass.  Our returning students augmented our late summer numbers, and it was nice to hear many more voices join in the singing.  The text of the sermon, Are We Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?, can be found in Presentations.

+On August 22nd 515 freshmen began their college experience at Saint John’s University, and on the 23rd they joined the monastic community at evening prayer.  Abbot John spoke to the students and welcomed them on behalf of the monks, and following vespers the students joined individual monks in small-group sessions.  There they “met a monk” and learned a bit about the monastery and the Benedictine tradition at Saint John’s.

image+On Sunday August 11th, I and a group of fellow travelers visited the abbey of Weingarten, in southern Germany.  I was privileged to concelebrate at the Mass, and afterwards the pastor gave us a tour of the church, as well as a visit to the organ loft.

Weingarten was founded as a Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, and in 1802, during the Napoleonic wars, it was closed and the buildings left to decay.  In 1922 a small community of monks refounded it, but their efforts came to naught and three years ago it closed once again.

imageWeingarten is an extraordinary place, with wonderful frescoes and a feeling of ample space.  But from my point of view the star of this rococo bonanza is the organ, built by Joseph Gabler in the years 1737-1750.  His challenge was to build an instrument that did not block the light streaming in from the windows behind the pipes.  He succeeded magnificently, and his design included the novel placement of the console.  From the bench at the keys, the organist looks out over the loft and directly at the altar.  The pictures in today’s post all come from Weingarten, and for a selection of music from the organ, you can visit this link.

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