Sunday, January 29, 2012

Comment Worth Foregrounding

Daniel Hoffman writes:

'Thank you for this statement. I have this question: Is it possible, in your view, for a parish through care in liturgy and teaching and embrace of silence to portray itself as a "contemplative congregation"? A priest has asked a friend for some comments on the marks of a contemplative congregation.'


Thank you for your very interesting and very tricky question which, to do it justice, would require a whole book for reflection.

From where I sit, your question begins with two contradictory (not paradoxical) parts, and then has a third part, about the marks of such a congregation..

1) 'is it possible...for a parish through care in liturgy and embrace of silence [to focus on beholding]' and

2) 'to portray itself as a "contemplative congregation".'

Let me respond to the second part first. As long as a congregation is worrying about its self-image or how it 'portrays' itself, it's going in the wrong direction. Contemplation, and the spiritual maturity it fosters, are about self-forgetfulness. Contemplation is coterminous with humility: if you think you've got it, you haven't even begun. So one sign of a congregation embarked on seeking to behold is that it will be modest and effacing about any claims it makes for itself; and what it says about its practice and the effects of that practice will always be provisional—precisely because spiritual pride is ever with us.

Now for the first part of the question: the short answer is emphatically yes; the focus of every congregation should be beholding—I'm not using the word 'contemplative' because it's surrounded these days by so much kitsch and hype, and is misunderstood.

The first requirement is purity of heart, single-heartedness. The goal is to behold for beholding's sake (I won't use the word 'God' because beholding is without object), to help one another find and live from that interior wellspring.

Of course, everyone is in a different 'place'. To move in this direction will be easiest for those who have never tried it (or thought they have never tried it). In addition, there always will be people who want the bells and whistles, signs and wonders, which are most emphatically not contemplation. Congregations are always a very mixed bag. However, the congregation can be brought to focus from wherever they are simply by the presence of people who are already trying to root their lives in silence. It's a process of presence far more than a 'programme', although there are many practical ways in which a congregation's engagement with silence can be enhanced.

Let me give you an example. At the grammar school I attended, all that the assistant headmistress had to do to start morning assembly was to stand up. She was not religious, as far as I know, but she had great interior silence. She was a small woman, not a flashy dresser (or flashy in any sense), but simply the act of standing silently in front of the noisy, heaving mass of several hundred writhing, chatting, laughing children had an almost instantaneous effect: everyone would fall silent and hush any others who were still twitching. This was not a 'technique'; it was simply who she was. No one ever gave us rules for this procedure, or told us what was going on, or announced before hand: it simply happened. It was, as you can imagine, hugely impressive, and I have never forgotten it.

Ideally, this shift should take place organically, a few people being, by their presence, the leaven in the lump. However, for a shift that is so drastic and against the cultural norms, a parish meeting where this re-focussing towards silence could be discussed is probably a must, if it is minimised. There are a lot of simple things that can be done: arranging service times so there is no rush to finish the liturgy; encouraging people to be silent when entering the church; cutting down the quantity of words in the liturgy; editing out conflicting theologies, especially the breast-beating, miserable sinner stuff, which is not part of Eucharistic origins, and especially not after an absolution has already taken place!

At the beginning of this blog there is a full-blown catechetical rite and some suggestions as to how it might be adapted for weekly use. Simplicity, beauty, effacement, silence: these are the key words for good liturgy. The Word should be allowed to fall on the ear without announcement or explanation. You can have as much silence as you like—the catechetical rite takes 4 or 5 hours. The key is that people will be as comfortable with silence as the person leading the rite is comfortable with silence. This pretty much eliminates control freaks, for one of the keys to comfort with silence is a willingness to be open to whatever will happen after the basic (minimal) framework has been established. Find a rite that works and stick with it for a space of time so that it becomes second nature. If necessary, have a different service for people who aren't yet ready for so much silence—but such a service should prepare the less mature congregation for the more silent one.

Ideally, there should be a group of people who will undertake the arduous work of restoring the readings to something like what the originals say. As I have pointed out elsewhere in this blog, ALL the modern translations of the bible are wanting, not only because they are done with no ear to poetry and rhythm and in consequence are almost impossible to read aloud; but far more importantly, because all the contemplative threads have been edited out, as evidenced in the missing word 'behold' in modern translations such as the NRSV. This committee could meet and go over the readings (probably a month ahead, as this sort of process needs two or three revisions with reflection in between so the words can sound in the heart) using interlinear bibles, and tools such as Great Treasures, all of which are online, restoring the word 'behold' as well as the read-aloud rhythms necessary to get the text across. And being alert to institutional fudges, such as the word 'world' for 'system' in John 14:17. This sounds ambitious, but it can be done.

In addition, the readings can be shortened and there should be plenty of time between them: better to have only part of a reading and to have it read well and have time for silence afterwards than to do the full reading. (Morning and Evening prayer (especially the latter) can usefully be cut in half to allow for more silence: the psalms, one reading, one canticle, with prayers—but five-minute intervals of silence between each element.) People need to be taught how to read aloud: to read slowly, very slowly, but not artificially slowly (although it may feel so at first), allowing each word or phrase enough time to sound in the silence. They should come through the reader, not have the reader putting his or her own emphasis on: reading in church is the opposite of dramatic reading. If you are reading correctly in church you will feel the words taking on their own power and speaking through you in the context of an enormous silence; the reader's only job is to get out of the way.

People will ask about children: children will behave as their parents and those around them behave: if they sense silence, they will be silent. Go to any Orthodox church on Sunday and see how many children and babies are present for the 2-3 hour liturgy. And most of them are silent. When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, the children either had their own liturgy—and it was a regular liturgy, complete with small altar, candlesticks, psalms, hymns, not some trendy, chirpy kindergarten thing, but simplified and instructional—or else they were with the rest of the congregation. They were ALWAYS with the congregation at the monthly Eucharist (in those days—the 40s and 50s— the parish Eucharist had not yet been established). Just to be present at the Eucharist and hear the King James bible and the beautiful words of the 1928 (modified 1662) Prayer Book was formative for me.

I would ponder words I didn't understand, or words that were used in a way I didn't understand. It didn't matter that my family was such that I could never discuss religion with them (they went to church for political reasons) or that there was no one else I could talk to—in that respect I was very, very lucky, because there was no one to put restrictions on what I thought. I longed to take Communion. It was very important to me when I was confirmed (how important I never let my parents know), even though the instruction was enough to put anyone off.

Also in those days people had a lot more respect for everything—an age of innocence, perhaps, that is gone forever: one simply didn't talk in church. Nor did one applaud. There was also a lot more unspoken pressure about dress: hats and gloves were mandatory, homburgs for men and understated hats (often with nose veils) for women! Of course the dress concern can be carried to an extreme, and the hats and gloves requirement would be silly today in a lot of places in the USA, but the point is that going to church was not just another social occasion in a lifetime of social occasions (this was Washington, DC): one's dress was a sign of respect for what we were about to do together—a paradox, perhaps, that we took trouble over how we looked in order to learn to forget ourselves, even if no one in those days would have ever expressed it that way. This was a kind of Episcopal church that no longer exists. I often wish there were modern signs of respect that flowed naturally for us; I look at the courtesies of the Jane Austen era with envy, the tiny curtsey, the slight formal bow—wrong for us, sadly; we have lost so much.

Yes, of course, people should be encouraged to have silence integrated into their ordinary lives, and even to get together during the week for silent prayer, but it should be exactly that: a space prepared, people come in silence, settle themselves, the door is closed; the time is begun and ended with a sweet gong, and people leave in silence—no reading, no discussion, nothing but the silence. But again, this is a re-orienting of ordinariness, not taking on something exotic.

There should be bible study that reads the bible for its silences. What I mean by that is looking for the ways in which a particular passage points to silence, or talks about silence, however parabolically—God's silence, our silence, practical silence, environmental silence, the silence of the holy of holies—or points beyond itself. For example, 'who loses their life shall gain it' is short-hand for stilling the self-conscious mind to be open to what may arise from the deep mind.

It is imperative to avoid the demon of so-called 'spiritual direction'; this movement in my view is the most destructive movement in Christianity since fundamentalism. It is divisive; it sets up new hierarchies and cliques; it is counter-productive as it only makes the congregation more self-conscious and narcissistic. There are plenty of resources around in terms of books, and there will be people in the congregation to whom others will naturally go for a word, but it should be very informal, very low key, best done over a cup of coffee as part of an ordinary friendship. The minute it is made special in any way, it's self defeating. Spiritual growth is something that can't be manipulated, or taught; it takes place mostly in solitude, and is encouraged by friendship, not dominance: we're all in this together. People who think they are going nowhere are often, if not usually, in a very good place! And the whole point is to learn to listen, deeply, to whatever is going on: there is always a Word to be had in any given moment, if you know how to listen, and it does not always or even often come from a person.

These are only a few suggestions.

Congregations are only as mature as the solitudes that make them up.

Of course there are times in parish life for noisy celebration, for pulling out all the stops, and so forth, but if the congregation has a basic orientation towards silence, not only will such celebrations be more fun; after some time the character of these festivities will change indefinably. They'll be even better, more meaningful.

Signs that a congregation is going in the right direction:

first of all, you will feel it as soon as you walk into the church building, even if it is empty.

Next, everything the congregation does will be low-key, outwardly oriented. People will have more respect for each other. Each person in the congregation is a God-bearer. People respond in kind to the way they're treated: if they're regarded as stupid and infantile, if they are patronised and talked down to, they will tend to behave in an infantile way: their minds will shut down and they will be unconfident of doing anything on their own.

Another sign is an atmosphere of gentle and easy self-restraint—Joseph Conrad said that civilisation is characterised by restraint. This is not repression, but a reserve that says there's something precious here, not to be lightly used or spoken of, a silent ground note or organ point to the activities of everyday life. People will become increasingly reluctant to 'let it all hang out' while at the same time becoming more human and more humane. People will become less concerned about their self-image and more compassionate and concerned for the welfare of others. The congregation will come to realise that the people they ordinarily think of as marginal, either among themselves or newcomers, often have great spiritual depth and creativity that should be listened to. The congregation will be low-key about the practical charity it offers, undertaking it as a given, and not blowing their own horn.

The worship, if it truly communicates silence, will catch up in wonder any stranger who comes in, no matter how simple it is.

Problems will be handled with discretion. Congregations interested in this path might want to look into the Quaker way of having meetings and making decisions.

And yes, everything I have said here goes against the way that clergy are trained, so it's going to be a very hard job, if not impossible, to find an ordained person who not only would go along with such a project but would be able to facilitate it.

Clergy training and the people who do the training need to be re-tooled from the ground up. The seminaries for decades have been sowing the seeds of the demise of what they think of (but isn't) Christianity in the West.

Thanks very much, Dan, for opening up this discussion.

Gentle Readers, your comments and suggestions, as always, are most welcome.


Blogger Stella said...

Dear Maggie
As ever, thank you for giving so much of your time to come up with such a thought provoking post. I've just read it through once, but there is so much to think about here. I look forward to futher discussion and comments.

12:46 pm, January 29, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Fred Morris writes:

'My dear mentor Maggie Ross,

'Let's see if I have this right:

'Work of silence = contemplation = kenosis of self-consciousness = attentive receptivity = beholding...all of which is love and beauty.'

2:27 pm, January 29, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Fred,

If you're thinking of this holistically—that all these processes are coinhered—you're correct. But they are not = , not cause-and-effect.

To clarify:

Work of silence, kenosis of self-consciousness, attentive receptivity are all part of the same aspect of the process: you can choose to engage them with intent to receive ...

...contemplation and beholding, which are GIFTS: you can't make them happen.

Love, beauty, silence can be context and stimulus that help us choose the first part; they are amplified and given back to us in an unimaginable way through beholding/contemplation and overflow into our ordinary lives

2:35 pm, January 29, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

Do you think that encouraging lectio divina and so-called ignatian contemplation with scripture would be a step or two in the right direction? I know that most clergy (I'm RC) are nowhere near ready for what you propose since they don't have what I would call a prayer life (you can tell by the content fo their preaching alone) and most 'mass-goers', even those who try to take faith and religion seriously in some ways at least, are still praying like they did in primary school. I think many RCs are suspicious of scripture and so are lomited in where they can encounter the Word.

And given my last lines there, I know you detest spiritual direction as you see it but is there not some place for decent intsruction and encouragement to deeper prayer? Some place for identified people who can help people get started, help people along the way (two beggars sharing info about where to get food as a 'model'?)? I'm thinking of the l=kind of relationship in which people can explore how they relate to God, learn to listen to themselves and to scripture, and get enouragement to keep going when things go dry or life just gets painful.

Can I also ask you to say a few words about what you think of that phrase from Christ to St Silouan: : "keep your mind in hell but despair not".

All Good Wishes


1:58 pm, February 03, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Theo,

Good questions. Unfortunately, the commercial gurus have made what is exceedingly simple exceedingly exotic and apparently difficult (it isn't). They have just confused the issue (so they can make more money).

Lectio divina, yes, as long as it is unstructured and is simply being quiet with the text, allowing oneself to be read by the text; there is no 'right' way to do this. But so-called Ignatian 'contemplation' most definitely not.

EVERYONE is ready for beholding. Nothing is simpler. You just have to clean out your mind.

That, of course, is what is difficult for people who have been indoctrinated that they cannot dare to approach God without a huge top-heavy hierarchy and anyway they have been told they are too stupid. And you are correct that RCs are suspicious of scripture. Rightly so; if they understood what it said, the whole system would fall apart.

Sadly I know of a woman who was going to be received into the RC church. She said she wanted to be in silence for the day before the ceremony. Then she overheard two clergy talking, "Whatever you do, don't let her be silent, it's too dangerous." She cancelled the whole thing.

Yes, there is a role for decent instruction and encouragement—but there is no place I can recommend to go to.

All that is needful, ALL, is to sit in the cell (silence of the heart) and seek to the beholding.

Meditation is fine, but even that has been corrupted so that it seems like a hugely complicated esoteric practice. Again, nothing is simpler. Count your exhalations; repeat a word. But remember meditation is just a first beginning step, it's not an end in itself.

The problem is that people in a celebrity culture think there have to be signs and wonders. They don't want to sit still; they want to be entertained. If they would just be simply silent and stick with it, then they would realise more than they could ask or imagine.

Yes, beggars can share info as to where to get food; that's a great image. We are all beggars (which is why the whole celebrity guru thing is so obscene), and we need each other. But the minute you start formalizing something as simple as giving each other a word, or even realising you have one to give, you kill it. The Word is always there, inadvertent.

As to the saying of Silouan, the best thing on this is Olivier Clément, 'Purification by Atheism', Orthodoxy and the Death of God, ed. A.M. Allchin (Supplements to Sobornost 1 (1971), p. 243. It simply means that when you have exhausted all your practices and are in despair, that is when God is able to begin to work.

Our perception of God's 'presence' must be absent if God's presence is truly to be with us—as opposed to our projection, fantasy, wishful thinking, warm fuzzy feelings.

Thanks, Theo

2:42 pm, February 03, 2012  
Blogger Stella said...

You really made me smile, Theo. My husband was brougt up RC and knows nothing about Scripture. All he was taught were rules and then more rules. That's a very enlightening tale, Maggie, about the would be RC lady and the reaction of the priests to her request for silence.
How is this role of silent beholding to be presented to the wider world?
I have been to town this morning and walked past the local ecumenical group who stand in a prominent postion each Saturday morning waiting to engage passers by. A group of 4 or 5, complete with high viz jackets with "Prayer station" emblazoned on the back. My feeling to all this, I'm ashamed to say, is one of complete embarassment and distaste. But what alternative can I offer? I almost feel like a secret agent!

1:22 pm, February 04, 2012  
Blogger Dan Hoffman said...

Finally, I had time to slowly read and ponder your answer to my question about contemplation. So much there to consider! It seems a hopeful response, though very realistic, in the sense that much of what you have suggested, with some leadership (as you say, maybe only a few persons)can happen. In my cathedral parish, the choirs rehearse up to five minutes before the beginning of the service as people (well, at least, me) are trying to be silent There is a general chattiness, often even in the preaching, that feels contrived. It is hard to identify a pew that is not in front of or behind chronic talkers, even during the Eucharist. I yearn for a parish with the marks you described. Thank you for honoring my question with such a profound response. I need to give it much attention. And I will send it to my friend in Wisconsin. Daniel

1:09 am, February 06, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Dan. There has been quite a response to the post in response to your question. One parish with like-minded people had dinner with their rector and gently confronted him with their dissatisfaction and an outline of problems and solutions.

Note: solutions. I think rectors/vicars get very little in the way of positive feedback, and really, they don't know what to do because they haven't been trained properly. So if those who want change towards more silence can get together with their leadership in a non-threatening way and not only present the problems but also offer solutions and then give him/her space to think about it, there is a possibility for change, perhaps.

Thanks again for your good question.

7:16 am, February 06, 2012  
Blogger Matt Lamont said...

Dear Maggie,
I've really enjoyed your writings lately and appreciate your contribution re contemplative congregations. I was however a little taken aback at your impressions of spiritual direction...You seem to have offered a relevant comment on what might be called the 'shadow' side of spiritual direction...I though think this needs some balancing...

Spiritual direction may be at risk of becoming over-professionalised and complex with journals and conferences etc but at it's best the whole point is to facilitate or better provide space for 'Other awareness' ie provide an antidote to narcissism through the mediumship of a trusting relationship. Paradoxically I feel that spiritual direction is one way to enable people to discover that the 'spiritual' is not a special exercise at all but 'all in all' and indeed that there is direction in non-direction and circularity...that progress and forging ahead is not relevant or helpful to the spiritual life. Spiritual direction has all the potential for counter-cultural awareness that solitude offers in my view and experience. While I can see the potential for division it could provide congregations with a way of building relationships with others from other congregations or within congregations. Surely we cannot get too prescriptive in this day and age...'demons' are possible in any activity perhaps especially those we call spiritual. Books and informal chats and friendships similarly are not immune from power imbalances, ego and whatever else.

Anyway a big topic and only part of a larger item you were commenting on but just wanted to offer my two bobs.

Peace Matt

10:07 am, February 06, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Matt,

I'm afraid we will have to agree to disagree.

I have NEVER encountered—after living on three continents—anything remotely resembling a healthy 'spiritual direction'. I was in on the beginning of the movement in the US, and it was built on what the Buddhists would call a 'dirty base', that is, intending one thing represented at something else. My impressions in the UK are similar.

Common sense says that if you meet regularly with someone you regard as 'my spiritual director' you are going to spend MORE time thinking about yourself and furthermore just the phrase 'my spiritual director' implies an unhealthy dependency.

Furthermore, it creates an elitist para-clergy, who take away the confidence of the directee so that they are unable to progress in self-forgetfulness and spiritual maturity. It divides the congregation into those who have directors and those who don't; those who are directors and those who aren't.

Most obscene of all is people charging for this very questionable 'service': the Gospel says, 'freely has it been given to you, freely shall you give it.' In my view, charging for S.D. and claiming the role of so-called spiritual director is blasphemous.

The process today is not remotely connected to the wisdom of the desert but has everything to do with the mind-control of the Counter-Reformation, and it is significant that on both sides of the Atlantic it has been primarily Ignatian based.

Perhaps you have too great a stake as a directee or a director in the process to be able to see it clearly.

10:22 am, February 06, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This has been a very thought-provoking little thread of comments.

I'm not surprised about Maggie's acquaintance's experience re my church. She might have been the type of person we need! I plug away, very quietly, for some deeper, quieter prayer ... I want to help other people 'to fly on their own' to God .... We're too obsessed with orthodoxy of belief and our prists are often children doing an adult's job!

I've had some helpful experiences over the years with SD. A lot depends on where the other person is. It can be more of an encounter between two friends.

Also, Maggie, I think you mention people in your books who were 'spiritual fathers' to you in some form. How did you boundary that relationship? Much of what you say, though, rings true and I have heard of some nonsense being spoken about as if it were truth. And some ignatian contemplation did show me what I was really thinking/feeling about God when my words would have said otherwise. And one or two were unexpected encounters with Love - it is unmistakable when it happens ... the tears are different ...

Too many other thoughts to put down here for now (I'd finish up with an essay!).


4:44 pm, February 08, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Theo, the spiritual father (in the original desert sense, NOT in the Basil Pennington sense! or in the contemporary Orthodox sense) is utterly opposite to that of so-called spiritual direction. See the post about spiritual direction in the July 11, 2011 post.

The spiritual parent is more of an invisible presence, teaching-by-example for the most part. Often the desert elders refused to speak. 'Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything'. Nothing could be more true if you stick to it. Half in the cell and half with the elders (note the plural, and NOTHING about spiritual fatherhood or motherhood or 'spiritual direction').

Yes, they were called Amma and Abba, but as conveyors of the mercy of God, not in the modern sense. In the end, only the silence will teach you and then only if you are willing to trust it and work with it.

The spiritual parent does not know he or she is a spiritual parent, for the most part (perhaps rarely in retrospect), and would think such a claim to be utterly presumptuous. It is a relationship bestowed by the Holy Spirit, NOT conveyed through monthly appointments or paid for. Nothing could be more repellent to the desert (or New Testament) tradition.There is no-one today that I know of who is capable of fulfilling the spiritual parent role, in part because people are so eager to be so-called spiritual directors.

In the past I have used the term 'spiritual father' rather loosely. I'm sorry if that was misleading!

5:21 pm, February 08, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your voice is very clear.

Are the elders the author of the cloud, Isaac of Nineveh and Juian?


7:50 pm, February 08, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Those are three of the main ones; most are hidden. Have you read 'The Sayings of the Desert Fathers?'

9:02 pm, February 08, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie,

I read the sayings many years ago but I know I need to return to it. I have Alfayev's book on Isaac.

Why are the others 'hidden'?

Barker's work sounds fascinating. It is many years since I have opened a theological book - ie academic theology. The OT was very interesting.

Too tired to think straight, Maggie, so I'll bid you good night!


9:29 pm, February 09, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Theo,

The others are hidden because they are humble and ordinary and don't think of themselves as anything special.

These days most people only pay attention to those who make a lot of noise and charge a lot of money! Or are celebrities. Or have a gimmick or a wow factor. \

Sleep well!

9:52 pm, February 09, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Maggie,

More 'food for thought', as we say ......

Can I ask a question which has just jumped into mind as I was doing the dishes? Does it make any sense to talk/think of myself having a relationship to God/Christ as a person? The relationship I have with silence now does not seem to fit well with those 'categories' of 'relationship'. (And I know how hard [but paradoxically necessary!] it is to use language precisely since if God is not an object then how do I relate to something like BEING? (I'm struggling here with language ....)

Thank you for being so willing to engage at this sort of level with people you have never met and have such a long way to go ... I know of nowhere else to go for experience like you have - and I don't think of you as a guru just someone who is wise ...

All Good Wishes


7:23 pm, February 10, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

O man, Theo, you ask the most amazing questions.

I can only tell you the way I think of this. In working with silence I have come to realise that all my categories and ideas about 'person', 'relationship', 'being' (God is beyond being) are pretty feeble and that if I want to learn about these things, the silence alone can teach me.

I know that may sound as if I'm begging the question, but as someone once put it, it's as if we are two-dimensional beings trying to understand and relate to a three-dimensional universe.

I suppose you could say this is an aspect of 'unknowing'—which is not a stopping place except for our own ideas and our self-consciousness. Once we have let go of them we begin to realise that 'unknowing' has opened up an entirely new sphere of mental activity and knowing which is beyond any control or conceptuality, but which is no less real. It's also indirect; and its teachings come so silently that, again, we become aware of them only in retrospect.

Don't worry about how 'I' relates: rather, let the silence relate to you. 'Attentive receptivity'.

7:34 pm, February 10, 2012  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Maggie,

Thank you for such a prompt and apt reply. I am beginning to feel like I am at the edge of all my categories of thought; like some 'sea-change' is starting ... and I got the dishes done, dried and put away tidily!

I want the silence to teach me.

All Good Wishes and thank you again for being 'available' ... for making your 'experience' in these matters available for us to take up.


7:50 pm, February 10, 2012  

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