Benedict Sheehan: Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom

Six long-gone years of piano lessons hardly qualify me to write about music of this caliber. You can learn far more about its technical excellence and its place in the traditions of great music from the notes provided here.

I am able to write about it as a human being.

I converted to Orthodox Christianity as an adult. My decision rested, among other thing, on the numerous moments in which some expression of the faith, whether in liturgy or theology or age-old tradition, aligned perfectly with what my own life has taught me about being human. There is something intrinsically, almost primordially real about this Christianity. It is worship for the intellect certainly, but for the heart also, and all five senses. I treasured these moments, and still do. To me, they constitute glimpses into the essence of things. The veil is thin, praise God, and permeable.

Listening to Sheehan’s liturgy, even in snatches, is an encounter with this wholeness, this PERSONHOOD. Almost unbearably beautiful. Nothing left empty, no fragment of attention or feeling withdrawn. Dear God, let us never forget how to make such music. Layers of meaning, of spirit, grief, revelation, transcendence, and peace enfold me. Even if my lips are still, I am singing.

It fascinates me to experience this liturgy as a physical phenomenon. My brain loves this music. My body is wired to respond with euphoria. Why is that? There is science for this, I know, but I also know that the natural posture of a human being is eucharistic. Everything that has breath is created to praise the Lord. This music, made solely with human voices trained by years of patient effort, is a breath offering. Air, lungs, sinew, intelligence, all the facets of the human instrument produce the sound, and the human instrument and its soul respond because this is a manifestation of our nature. It is our selves rendering up our truest identity to the God who gifted us with this magnificence.

You should buy a copy, of course, either directly from Cappella Romana or on Amazon, both because it’s beautiful and because it’s important. Inches from your face at this moment, via the same device you’re using to read this post, you can find horrifying evidence of disaster in the world. Corruption, oppression, greed, unreasoning rage, and perversion of every kind. It’s not even worth arguing that people are sometimes the worst problem this world has to offer. That’s why you need this music, and that’s why it’s important to support this music. We need to hold on to the better things, to the glory for which we were intended. We need to remember that this music exists, and we need to remember how to make it, and we need to keep on making it. We must grasp it with both hands, and never let go.

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

For what are men better than sheep or goats

That nourish a blind life within the brain,

If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer

Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

For so the whole round earth is every way

Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Writing in Faith, not about Faith

I think I just found THE words for an idea I’ve been striving to express for decades. The idea sprouted before I was Orthodox, but here it is in my present context.

Good Orthodox fiction is written IN Orthodoxy, not ABOUT Orthodoxy.

Fiction written ABOUT Orthodoxy (or Christianity in general) will crumple under the weight. Fiction does not do the work of nonfiction; it does a wholly different work, though it can bear similar fruit.

Fiction written IN Orthodoxy is fiction. Fiction may be full of light or full of darkness. The light’s the thing.

Narrative can only act for apologetics, in my view, the way a tune can remind you of a lyric. Faith-informed fiction is the melody only. If it’s rendered accurately, you will know the words.

It’s the difference between an oil painting of a flower and the shredded description of the flower pasted to the canvas in a floral shape. Let the explanation be the explanation. Let the portrait be the portrait.

Vase of Flowers. Creator: Jan Davidsz de Heem. Date: 1670. Institution: Mauritshuis. Provider: Digitale Collectie. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain Mark

Snowflakes and Blackberries

It’s snowing this morning, and coincidentally, I ran across a few words I jotted down about snow, several years ago. It was one of those moments that stretches your mind and reminds you of divinity and cosmos.

This reminded me of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her words on blackberries.

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

From Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Searching for this quote, I rediscovered the longer poem of which it is a part, and found that it articulates my own belief about the spiritual nature of art. I kept reading, and Elizabeth kept building out the thesis in keeping with my own sense of things.

Human beings are inescapably spiritual. We are inescapably natural. We are created in the image of God, incarnated as He was, fully human and whole-souled just as He was fully human and fully divine. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe all creation is lifted up in Christ. ALL CREATION. This means I see God as much in a tiny snowflake as in a book of theology. I love that.

As a writer, I know I can’t let go of spirit to write about natural life. They are not separate. Not in the smallest detail. Some writing is more obviously “spiritual” or “religious” than others, but I believe all good art, perhaps I would say all “genuine” art, has as much spiritual as natural content. The measure of its greatness is the extent to which the fire of heaven shines through it.

Elizabeth says this more beautifully than I could, so here are her words to feed your thoughts on this snowy morning.

From ‘Aurora Leigh’
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

TRUTH, so far, in my book;—the truth which draws
Through all things upwards,—that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual,—who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift 5
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips,
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we ate
Both halves. Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible,—no form,
No motion: without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable,—no beauty or power:
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(For still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it,—fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antetype
Some call the ideal,—better call the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough
On any peasant’s face here, coarse and lined,
You’ll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension’s competent,
You’ll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Aye, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed: an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous to his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf, or stone?
The bird’s not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot;
Nor yet the horse, before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. ‘There’s nothing great
Nor small’, has said a poet of our day,
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin’s bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing’s small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And (glancing on my own thin, veinèd wrist),
In such a little tremor of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more from the first similitude.

#BlogtownTuesday: Interview with On Faith and Life

Today’s interview with Charla at On Faith and Life is extra fun for me because Charla started blogging BECAUSE of #bloginstead! We met in a book review group I administer for work, and now she’s got a great place to publish those reviews. As I do every week, I’m asking 5 questions. Here’s how Charla responds.

How did your Blog Get Its Name?

I started this blog on a whim, and I didn’t want to pigeonhole myself into writing on one specific subject—so I named it in the most general way possible. I’ll be writing a lot about my conversion to Orthodoxy, but I hope to do so in a way that connects with people of all faiths; and I’ll also be writing about life—being a mom, daughter, wife, and beyond.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of your blog?

I’m just starting out as a blogger so I’m not really sure yet where this is going. It’s pretty exciting to have such an uninhibited space in which to write. Basically, I can write about anything I want, any time I want, and I think that’s pretty amazing!

I really like the idea of having a conversational-style blog where I can write and share things that are relevant to my Orthodox Christian faith. I want to be able to connect with others without limiting it too narrowly—for example, I’m a mom and a homemaker, but I don’t want to connect only with other moms and homemakers. I want the conversation to be Deep and Wide {old Southern Baptist hymn reference there!}.

You’re not likely to find deep theological discussion here—I will not be hosting a book club discussion on the Philokalia—but you are likely to find everyday theology, and things such as book reviews, as well as links to articles and resources that have resounded with me. And maybe a recipe here and there. And perhaps some discussion on liturgical living. Stay tuned.

What’s your favorite thing about blogging? Least favorite?

So far I love the actual writing and I love connecting with other bloggers, but I’m already starting to feel the pressure to post on a regular schedule, develop a format, etc. (To be fair, this is internal pressure.) I feel like there is a huge push to market in the blogging world, and that’s just not on my list of priorities right now.

You’re a member of #Blogtown, a social blogging collaborative. How is blogging social for you?

I simply love being able to connect with other bloggers. I’ll be honest—it’s especially wonderful for me to connect with other Orthodox Christians, because sometimes our “world” can seem pretty small. Coming from the Protestant world, where everything these days is very connected and virtual—and there are just so.many.options—it’s nice to be able to build a network of like-minded thinkers, writers, dreamers. But like I mentioned above, I want to be able to connect widely, also—as a convert I think it’s a wonderful challenge to present the Orthodox faith and life in a way that’s accessible to others.

Tell us 3 things we’d know if we’d grown up with you

  1. The first thing I ever drove was a tractor.
  2. When I was 10 years old, I won the blue ribbon at the state fair in the cake decorating category.
  3. I grew up in a 100+ year old Southern Baptist church where my grandparents and great-grandparents were members. Many of my family still attend that church.

Thank you, Charla!

You can connect with Charla at On Faith and Life. See you in #Blogtown!

#BlogtownTuesday: Interview with Orthodox Trucker

Today I’m starting a #Blogtown tradition! Every Tuesday (God willing!), I’ll share a 5-question interview with a member of #Blogtown. My first guest is Ian at Orthodox Trucker.

How did your blog gets its name?

I first started Orthodox Trucker in the fall of 2013. It was just after I graduated from Commercial Driving School and had earned my CDL. I then created a (now deleted) YouTube channel where I talked about Trucking, life on the road, and the Orthodox Christian faith. I was an Orthodox Christian and a trucker, so calling myself Orthodox Trucker seemed like a no-brainer. This initial version of Orthodox Trucker lasted for about a year before it was discontinued.

See, after a year of trucking, I actually quit and got out of the industry. I actually hated it. Since I was no longer a trucker, I saw no need to continue the Orthodox Trucker persona. It was more than a year later when I finally got back into a truck in order to support my then-pregnant wife. It would be another four years before I finally decided to resurrect Orthodox Trucker. Around this time last year, I started having observations about the faith in everyday aspects of my life and in my job and started writing about them. I had no blog at the time, so I just shared them to Facebook and the Orthodox Hipster group. With encouragement from my wife and my new internet friends, I finally decided to resurrect Orthodox Trucker. This time in blog form.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of your blog?

Raw honesty. Everything that happens in my life, and all the lessons I learned, plus everything that I struggle with is fair game. I don’t hold anything back.

Sometimes that gets me in trouble as there are some things that most people wouldn’t share, but if I’m going to have a blog that is based upon my life and my experiences, then I’m going to do my best to be as real and honest as possible.

What’s your favorite thing about blogging? Least favorite?

My favorite thing about blogging is the excitement I feel when I have finished a particularly difficult post, or when I know I have a really good idea, a lot of times it feels like the blog post just writes itself. My least favorite thing is writer’s block and the struggle to come up with new content 3 days a week, or when my work life gets too busy and I can’t work on my blog.


You’re a member of Blogtown, a social blogging collaborative. How is blogging social for you?

It’s definitely allowed me to make new friends, and I feel like those friends are more important than just your typical Facebook friend. Here there is engagement driven by human connection. Since joining blogtown, I have felt such love and encouragement from my fellow bloggers, and it’s a really nice feeling.

Tell us 3 things we’d know about you if we’d grown up with you.

Three things… I was a band nerd in high school playing Alto and tenor sax in concert band and Jazz Band. I got to travel to Hawaii once for an international High School band competition and had the opportunity as a junior to play with a couple Emmy Award winning Jazz musicians. That was pretty cool.

My nickname in elementary school was Speedy, not because I was fast but because the shoes I wore had these large metal buckles on the sides and every time I tried to run, the buckles caught, tripping me and making me fall to the ground. I actually took this nickname to heart though and became one of the fastest kids at PE whenever we did track and field exercises. Sadly I injured my knees and never got to explore that sport in junior high.

I convinced several of my friends to join the Boy Scouts with me and surprisingly nearly all of them including myself made it all the way to Eagle Scout. I like to think that I made it all possible by encouraging them to join hahaha.

Thank you, Ian!

You can connect with Ian at Orthodox Trucker! See you in #Blogtown!

#bloginstead: Day 2 morning news

Good morning! Welcome to Day 2 of #bloginstead, a group of friends who had abandoned social media in favor of blogging for 3 days. You are SO welcome to join us! Jump in by following the participating blogs and tell us who you are so we can follow you too.

New Members

I’m happy to say that our group grew during Day 1. Each new member was added to the list upon arrival, but I’m going to add them here to, as an extra way to rejoice. They are:

Susan at https://kindlerofjoy.com/

Amanda at https://emberings.com/

Martha at http://thescrumptiouslife.blogspot.com/

Heather at https://sleightholmfolk.com/

Emmie at https://justonerobin.com/

Kristi at https://raisingorthodoxchristians.com/

Angelina at https://angelinasgarden.wordpress.com/

Sarah at https://skbrangwynne.weebly.com/blog

You, Writing about #bloginstead

Skating around from one blog to the next, I read your reflections on why you’re here and what you’re hoping will come of this experiment. In the spirit of #bloginstead, I hope you’re all reading each other’s posts as they come, but for anyone who missed them, here’s some good reading to bring you up to speed.

Elizabeth, jumping in and offering you fair warning: https://elzabeta.blogspot.com/2020/01/day-first-of-bloginstead.html

Anna, beginning a true-life love-story miniseries and leaving us hanging on the cliff: https://browndressproject.com/2020/01/08/happily-ever-after-takes-work/

Matushka Anna, who is including amazing photos with each post: https://prayingwithmyfeet.blog/2020/01/07/back-in-the-saddle-bloginstead/

Sarah wrote us a poem. She seriously did. https://thelivescript.com/2020/01/08/bloginstead-the-hermits-lament/

Cris , fearlessly writing about being fearful: http://criscramer.com/blog/2020/1/8/standing-up-again

Stasia, amazingly honest and poignant, and smelling of roses: https://stasiastruggles.wordpress.com/2020/01/08/bloginstead/

Andrea, storytelling, story-keeping, in the forest and looking back at her family: http://storiedpathways.com/2020/01/07/sharing-a-story/

Nic asking the fascinating question, “But what if there wasn’t?”: https://metanoiabum.wordpress.com/2020/01/07/bloginstead-1-dig-deeper/

Catherine, on embroidery, translation, and doing fine things well: https://eventhinealtars.home.blog/2020/01/07/on-doing-fine-things-well/

Michelle, responding to struggle with new dedication: https://hopefulpatience.blogspot.com/2020/01/update-on-what-i-will-post-going-forward.html

Summer, offering what may well have been the quote of the day (it’s about helpful failure) and a pirate dog song: https://summerkinard.com/2020/01/08/bloginstead-challenge-day-one-episode-two/

Susan, remembering why she started blogging in the first place: https://kindlerofjoy.com/2020/01/08/2020-and-new-beginnings/

Amanda, because she can’t do anything else: https://emberings.com/2020/01/08/id-like-to-bloginstead/

Martha, bringing us a cozy Christmas post that even includes paper crowns on grownups: http://thescrumptiouslife.blogspot.com/2020/01/thoughts-on-nativity.html

Emmie, asking hard questions and finding beauty in a pomegranate: https://justonerobin.com/2020/01/09/whole-and-part/

Have you read these? Hop along over. Browse and comment. It’s peaceful, and these bloggers will answer your comments. The conversation is just waiting to happen.

Putting Joy Into Practice: Why you need this book!

Putting Joy Into Practice

Putting Joy into PracticeHave you read Putting Joy into Practice: Seven Ways to Lift Your Spirit from the Early Church, by Phoebe Farag Mikhail?

This is an amazing book.

It reads like a conversation, the kind you might have on a tough day, sitting in a squeaky kitchen chair and cuddling the cup of hot coffee that’s going to keep you alive until bedtime. Christmas is coming, the world is sparkling around you, and you are exhausted by your attempts to be as happy as you expected to be. That’s why you need this book.

Reading it, I decided that most of us (including me) have no idea what joy really IS, let alone how to BE joyful. The book has many strengths, but one of the best is the way it uses clear, practical language to convey deep theological wisdom. You’ll read a sentence and think it’s simple, and then the floor will drop out of it and you’ll realize it has enough depth to keep you reflecting on it for the rest of your life.

Phoebe Farag MikhailPhoebe does a wonderful job of including the voices and experiences of the church fathers – AND those of human beings she has seen or known in modern life. She includes stories of both defeat and victory on the path to joyful living. The book is honest and hopeful. It holds you to a high standard, but gives you the tools and inspiration to meet that high standard.

I also appreciated the many ways in which the book was not “obvious.” You might think, even after a glimpse at the table of contents, that some of the 7 practices are things you’ve already heard or already tried, but as you work through the chapters, you discover their enormity. These practices are things a normal person can do in normal life. They are simple, but not easy. But even thinking about them, beginning to plan how you might attempt one or two, will stretch your mind and heart.


This book is available from Paraclete Press, Amazon, and the Ancient Faith Store. Go get it! Make it part of your devotional time in the new year, or get it for a friend who’s sitting in her squeaky kitchen chair, praying to God for a lifeline on the journey through this difficult world.


Thank you, Phoebe Farag Mikhail for putting this book on my path!

Close to God in Nature

Lights on the Mountain: A Novel by Cheryl Anne TuggleThis week, I ran a giveaway on my Facebook page, featuring a novel called Lights on the Mountain (Paraclete Press 2019). My friend Cheryl Anne Tuggle wrote it, and it’s beautiful. To enter the giveaway, I asked people to comment with a time they’d felt close to God in nature. It’s a theme in the novel, beginning with an experience the main character has in the first chapter that changes his life. (Find out what and why! Get a copy here.)

The comments were beautiful! I don’t want them to scroll away into the land of yesterday’s news feed. So I’m gathering them up and sharing them here.

“Comment with a Time You Felt Close to God in Nature”

Sarah Frye Gingrich: It was one our last nights in Chile as missionaries, and we were camping on a local island with youth for a retreat. As night fell the bay began to glow where the lapping waves hit the shore. Bioluminescent plankton. We donned our suits and ran into the water, wherever we moved there was green light. I lay back and kicked through the light, staring up at bright stars against the endless black. I felt that God is both beyond and nearer than my breath.

Rebecca Stasia Braswell: Rain. Stick with me, a moment. I grew up in the San Joaquin valley in California, which produces about 80% of the country’s produce and goods on approx 12 inches of rain a year. I love, love, love rain. It still has that childlike marvel attached to it, even as an adult who sees a lot more rain. When thunder rolls and crashes, I’m reminded of a powerful, sovereign God that sends good to the just, and thankfully for me, to the unjust alike.

Nancy Athanasia Parcels: I was 15 years old and experiencing some pretty serious health issues, my family and I were in Greece. I was hiking in Crete on a mountain and came across this amazing view of the ocean. I sat down with the sun on my skin, wind in my hair and smelling the ocean. I was praying to God to heal me. I then sat there with my eyes closed just listening to nature. I felt a hand on my shoulder I turned and no one was there. I closed my eyes again and I am pretty sure I heard God tell me that everything was going to be alright. A few months later I was back in the States and with a clean bill of health.

I felt so close to God at that moment. I felt uplifted, loved and beyond grateful for this life.

Christine Rogers: The Northern Lights!

Elina Pelikan: My youth living by the sea.. sweatshirt and jeans and a journal on a cliff alone with the enormity of the ocean… sometimes I would bring my guitar and belt the church songs into the wind and waves…. sometimes I would just sit and scribble nonsense and breathe in the salty air and seaspray.

I love to soak in His presence in a beautiful church, but sitting with Him in a forest or by the water brings another experience that is rich and nourishing.

Christina Bournelis Blankenstein: Anytime that I’m at the Oregon coast- especially if I wake up early enough in the morning and I’m at scout camp. So, surrounded by trees,looking out at the ocean. I feel as if I have entered a small piece of the heavenly kingdom!

Sian Williams: I live close enough to the sea to be able to hear the crash of waves at high tide on a quiet still night if I go outside. Always moves me to tears and to prayer.

Sarah Brangwynne: Gardening and Spring. I am always amazed at the beauty of trees and plants coming to life after a period of dormancy and looking pretty dead all winter.

Rachel Stevens: My grandparents own 20 acres in VA. On that 20 acres they have a pond. As a teenager I sit on a concrete bench next to the pond with a journal in hand. I also loved riding their horse around alone too. So peaceful and easy to pray 🙂

Abby Kreckel: As a teenager, I would sneak into my empty but unlocked childhood parish and sit on the floor in the dark, singing hymns and hearing them echo around the dark space.

Katherine Bolger Hyde: At the first Orthodox Writers Week at the Beach, I walked on the beach each morning and was filled with a holy joy. This is only one of many times I have felt close to God in nature. “The world is shot through with the grandeur of God” (G. M. Hopkins).

Kristina Michelle: Nature has been a huge part of my life. I was fortunate that my parents made sure we were out and about in the forest every week. One summer I drove an hour each way on the prairie every day for work. That consistent, great amount of time watching the prairie and listening to Christian music (I’d never even heard of Orthodoxy at that point!) created a deep peace throughout the entire summer.

Vassi M Haros: I still remember it like it was yesterday. I was just a kid… staring at the clouds as they floated by. It was so peaceful to not be aware or influenced by the people or things around me. It was just me and God.

Sandra Glisic: The time that I felt most close to God in nature was one spring day where I picked up a book and sat on the grass by the lake on monastery grounds to read. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to my book because the picture in front of me was truly a book on its own. The birds were chirping, the water peacefully moving, the trees rustled from the wind, flowers were slowly growing and the wind brought freshness into everything including me. I realized at that moment what it means for life to renew and resurrect and I realized at that moment how wonderful God truly is and how amazing are all the things He created. And most of all, how amazing was it that He blesses us all with that and me in that moment.

Anastasia Dimassis-Benbow: Not one specific time… But every time I’m going through something, and I realize I haven’t touched God’s “home plate“ in a while, I sit by the water. I close my eyes and feel the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, and the sound of the shore. I can literally feel God wrap his arms around me, and I leave with a renewed sense of strength, love, and pure hope. ❤️

 

Photo by Greg Nunes on Unsplash

Guesting on Paraclete Press – His Eye is On the Sparrow

Today I’m thrilled to be a guest on the Paraclete Press site blog, as we prepare for the release of my new board book, Piggy in Heaven.


“When Jesus is my portion, a constant friend is He. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” – Civilla Durfee Martin, His Eye is On the Sparrow, 1905

We don’t take small animals seriously. If you’re an adult who owns a hamster, you’re probably the only one you know. At the movies or in the library, it’s easy to find a horse or a dog saving the hero’s life or demonstrating wisdom and loyalty. Epic tales about small herbivores are hard to come by. We expect to find these little creatures in cartoons and picture books or serving nobly as the comic relief. In a serious story, you might find a canary or a perky rat accessorizing a character the author hopes will be eccentric.

I have been the fortunate human guardian of, at various times, two bunnies, seven hamsters, a rotating selection of fish, and one guinea pig. All of these animals are considered children’s pets – small, adorable, and inconsequential. Yet I learned important things from each of them, and these epiphanies built on each other into a staunch belief that the tiniest members of creation are as precious and intelligent as the largest and most obviously heroic. Caring for these little pets through their lifetime and at the moment of their death has taught me beautiful lessons. I will share three with you here.

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