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Books That Make Us Human by Carl Olson

Books That Make Us Human: Carl Olson

Carl Olson

by Carl Olson

1. The Bible, It is one of the first books I read (not cover-to-cover, at first, of course), and the first book I memorized passages from as a child. I cannot imagine trying to think about or comprehend the human condition without it. A few specific books within The Good Book that merit note: Genesis and Exodus, the Psalms and The Book of Wisdom, the Gospel of John, and Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.

2. Confessions, by St. Augustine of Hippo. I’ve read it several times now, and I am always amazed by the depth of Augustine’s thinking and emotions, as well as by the clarity and profundity of his expression.

3. Summa Theologica, by St. Thomas Aquinas. It would be a mistake to assume this seminal work of theology/philosophy is dry or merely didactic, because a careful and reflective reading reveals an understanding of man’s origin, nature, and end that has rarely been rivaled.

4. The Sonnets, by William Shakespeare. I’ve enjoyed and profited from many of Shakespeare’s plays, but am drawn again and again back to the sonnets, which express not only the depths of human love, but what it means to be human in the simple and small ways.

5. David Copperfield or Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens. I first read them as a young boy and they brought to life a range of characters and aspects of humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly—I had never seen or experienced before.

6. Four Quartets, by T. S. Eliot. The Wasteland got (and gets?) more attention, but this mature, post-conversion poem is, I think, the greatest poem of the twentieth-century, and one of the most moving descriptions of life, death, and spiritual awakening ever written.

7. My Name Is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok. Certainly my most personal pick, a book I first read as a ten-year-old boy, and then several more times thereafter. An aching portrayal of a Jewish boy and his struggles with faith, family, and personal aspirations.

8. The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis. My favorite book by Lewis, a short but penetrating work about the nature of man. If you want to read it in fictional form, check out Lewis’ “Space Trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.

9. Lost in the Cosmos, by Walker Percy. A bit quirky, but more than a bit brilliant, full of wit, wisdom, caustic charm, and some very challenging questions about what it means to be human in a post-Christian, post-modern culture.

10. Redemptor Hominis, by Blessed John Paul II. The late Holy Father’s first encyclical (March 1979) is essential for anyone who wishes to understand his thought and his Christ-centric understanding of humanity: “The Redeemer of Man, Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history.” Amen.

Carl Olson is an incredibly cool human.  He’s also editor of Ignatius Insight, a husband, a father, an author, an artist, and a collector of good music.  His website is: http://www.carl-olson.com/Site/Welcome.html

Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture: Younger than Sin by Catherine Sims

Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture: Younger than Sin

by Catherine Sims

 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Crouched on the side of Notre Dame Avenue, visually eclipsed by the splendor of the Golden Dome, McKenna Hall is about as unprepossessing a building as you could imagine. Yet this past weekend, hundreds of scholars, professors, and students shook down the thunder from the sky within the drab enclosure of its walls.

From November 18 though the 20th, the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture held its 11th annual Fall Conference in McKenna. Entitled “Younger than Sin” the conference explored the recovery of simplicity through childlike joy, wonder, and humility. Such a topic naturally generated papers and presentations of the fine academic quality one would expect from one of the Center’s conferences. But the awestruck looks on the faces of the audience members listening to Fr. John Saward on St Thomas Aquinas’ childlike wonder bespoke another quality that suffused the conference: beauty.

When an elderly British priest delivering a talk on Thomistic theology moves his listeners to tears in an opening keynote address, the peculiar nature of the event should leave a deep impression. Fr. Saward’s description of St. Thomas’ joyful pursuit of God emphasized the Dumb Ox’s deep and abiding humility, and set the tone for the entire conference. There were other highlights: Anthony Esolen on the innocence in Dante and Shakespeare and Ralph Wood on Chesterton’s love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the truly amazing aspect of this conference was the omnipresent beauty and wonder characterized by the childlike approach to God.

The Center’s latest conference was its largest in both participants and attendees, and the effect this bastion of Catholic intellectual thought has on the academic world is quite simply inspiring.  The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and Baylor University in Texas both sent large delegations of students and professors; as Director David Solomon noted, there were more college students at this conference than at any previous Fall Conference to date.

I cannot help but see the Center for Ethics and Culture as the last great stand for Truth in Catholic intellectual thought at Notre Dame. David Solomon and the staff, fellows, and trustees of the Center are the fearless warriors in the clash of orthodoxies, as uncompromising in their stand for truth as they are in their insistence on the beauty of that truth. They perpetually labor to bring the glory of Catholicism to the student body of Notre Dame through the encyclicals and work of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They never cease to go further up and further in, their joy and wonder unsullied despite the petty politics and power grabs that are apparently inescapable in University administration. Theirs is a grander cause, that rises above the ebb and flow of popularity.

Because of this, Solomon’s everlasting optimism still compels even in the face of administrative hostility. There is a sense in which the Center is too big to kill; not in terms of financing, but in terms of what will live on in the imagination of all the people from around the country they were able to touch in their conferences, especially this latest one.

The Golden Dome will not grow too dull to reflect the sunlight so long as the Center remains on Notre Dame’s campus. The Virgin Mary atop the Dome may be a Mater Dolorosa in these dark times. But as long as the Center continues to contend for the permanent things at a University suffering the temptation to compromise for prestige, old Notre Dame may win over all.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Catherine Sims, a native of Washington State, is a junior majoring in American Studies at Hillsdale College, Michigan.  She is also an ISI Honors Fellow.

The Decline of Virtue by David Bozeman

The Decline of Virtue

by David Bozeman

Bottom line: American politics is a rotten popularity contest.  Every four years freedom hinges on one man’s ability to navigate a minefield of slander and spin and to assuage one more group than the other guy.  Conventional wisdom says that voters prefer clean campaigns based on issues as opposed to mudslinging, outright pandering and blatant calculation.

If only. The current immigration reform bill being debated represents just the latest cynical, numbers-based, group-focused political calculation.  Both parties are hedging their bets on winning the votes of a large group, in this case, Hispanics, roughly 20 million of whom could ultimately gain citizenship under the proposed legislation.

Its bi-partisan support is baffling, given that its passage might be an electoral disaster, if not a death knell, for the Republican Party.  Hispanics have supported President Obama and his re-distributionist, transformative policies by overwhelming margins.  GOP support of a single issue — amnesty, for instance — may yield only marginal support.

But our public servants crunch numbers and flush founding principles and the values of their law-abiding, traditional-minded constituents down the toilet.  With not nearly enough jobs to go around and state and local budgets buckling under massive debt (and let’s not forget ever-increasing health care costs), self-serving politicians are placing party before country, with Democrats, at least, sharp enough not to destroy themselves by empowering the other side. Continue reading

Ronald Knox on “The Modern Distaste for Religion”

Ronald Knox on “The Modern Distaste for Religion” Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin

In the moments of Pope Benedict’s announcement that he was abdicating the Chair of St. Peter, secularists began demanding that the College of Cardinals choose a less rigid, more progressive pontiff; in other words, a pope who would repudiate Church teachings on chastity, same-sex “marriage,” divorce, contraception, abortion, and priestly celibacy.

Leading the charge was The New York Times, which devoted plenty of front page, above-the-fold space to castigating the Church and Benedict. The op-ed editor published, ad nauseam, the usual tired-old Catholic critics, including Garry Wills and Hans Küng.

And the moment secularists realized that Pope Francis is not a South American liberation theologian, but a bona fide Roman Catholic, a smear campaign against him commenced. He was falsely accused of being sympathetic to authoritarian Argentine governments and responsible for the deaths of two outspoken anti-government Jesuits (who were liberation theologians).

We should not be discouraged by this viciousness: attacks on the Church and demands that it abandon dogmas are hardly new. Secularist objections to many Church teachings go back generations and in some cases centuries.

To get a sense of these age-old battles, I recommend readers turn to the writings of the British convert Monsignor Ronald Knox.

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1885-1957) was the son and grandson of Anglican bishops, attended Eton and Oxford, became a fellow at Trinity College, and then an Anglican cleric in 1912. While serving as a chaplain at Oxford, he embraced Catholicism in 1917, and two years later was ordained a priest. A noted preacher, essayist, and literary stylist, he published numerous collections of sermons, retreat talks, and radio broadcasts.

Like his contemporaries, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Martin D’Arcy, Knox was a champion of what T.S. Eliot called the “permanent things.”  He believed that to effectively combat modernists one must merely “trust orthodox tradition to determine what he is to believe, and common sense to determine what is orthodox tradition.”

The forebears of contemporary Modernism, who today promote pantheism in cosmology and voluntarism in ethics, were peddling a similar agenda in Knox’s time. He wrote that there existed:

philosophers who question the adequacy of thought itself as a method of arriving at speculative truth; there are psychologists who deny the reality of human free will; there are anthropologists who would explain away religion as an illusion of the nursery; and meanwhile, aiming their shafts more directly at the Church to which I belong, historians are for ever turning up flaws in our title-deeds, and prophets of the age arraign our narrow outlook before the tribunal of human progress.

To counter these and other assaults on faith, Knox penned a work of classic apologetics entitled The Belief of Catholics (1927).

Msgr. Ronald Knox


In the first chapter, “The Modern Distaste For Religion,” he concedes that “agitators, publicists and quack physicians” have had a negative impact, with the result that religion “as a factor in English public life has steadily and visibly declined.”

For instance, the early twentieth-century Church of England experienced declining clerical vocations, falling charitable donations, weakening “Churchmanship” in the public square, and declining numbers of laity in the pews. In reaction, High Anglican churches panicked and abandoned many doctrines inherited from Catholic antiquity. They not only tolerated “the expression of views which their fathers would have branded as unorthodox” but became “infected by the contagion of their surroundings, and los[t] the substance of theology while they embrace[d] its shadow.”

To accommodate the latest secular trends, fundamental Christian dogmas were “subjected more and more to criticism and restatement.” Broadminded Anglican ministers preached that hell no longer existed and said very nearly the same about sin. Their churches became places one visited, not to hear a Gospel message, but to listen to good music and be served tea and cookies afterwards.

Knox concluded that the decline in church membership goes hand in hand with the decline in dogma: “The average citizen expects any religion which makes claims upon him to be a revealed religion; and if the doctrine of Christianity is a revealed doctrine, why all the perennial need of discussion and restatement? Is the stock [he put the question in a commercial context] really a sound investment, when those who hold it are so anxious to unload it on any terms?”

This is precisely what has happened to U.S. mainline Protestant denominations. The reducing of their doctrines to fashionable platitudes has not attracted people back to the pews, but instead has driven people out of institutions that seem now to stand for nothing much at all.

American Catholicism suffered similar losses after Vatican II for some of the same reasons. Vacillating bishops, rebellious priests and nuns, and revisionist theologians caused confusion in parishes, Church schools, and Catholic colleges. As a result, weekly Church attendance, 75 percent in 1960, dropped to 25 percent by 1980.

During the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church once again promoted and defended its core teachings, and the results are promising: the Church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia; a generation of “John Paul II priests” has been ordained; orders of nuns loyal to the Magisterium, have waiting lists; and trendy bishops of the Seventies have mostly been replaced with orthodox ones.

But the effort to re-instill the doctrine that God, not man, is the measure of all things is far from complete. It will take years of patience and hard work to undo two generations of damage.

No doubt Pope Francis will carry on the work of his two predecessors and would agree with Monsignor Knox’s observation that as Catholics, “we shall have to face, more and more, the glare of the world’s hostility. For that reason, we must rally closer than ever round our bishops, our clergy, our churches, our schools; we must be active Catholics, instructed Catholics, if need be combative Catholics, to meet the demands of the new age.”

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic VoterHis most recent book isNarcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative.

© 2013 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info@frinstitute.org
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be Christian by Joseph Pearce

Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: The Courage to be Christian

March 21, 2013
In these dark days in which the power of secular fundamentalism appears to be on the rise and in which religious freedom seems to be imperiled, it is easy for Christians to become despondent. The clouds of radical relativism seem to obscure the light of objective truth and it can be difficult to discern any silver lining to help us illumine the future with hope.

In such gloomy times the example of the martyrs can be encouraging. Those who laid down their lives for Christ and His Church in worse times than ours are beacons of light, dispelling the darkness with their baptism of blood. “Upon such sacrifices,” King Lear tells his soon to be martyred daughter Cordelia, “The gods themselves throw incense.”

It is said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church and, if this is so, more bloody seed has been sown in the past century than in any of the bloody centuries that preceded it. Tens of millions have been slaughtered on the blood-soaked altars of national and international socialism in Europe, China, Cambodia and elsewhere. Today, in many parts of the world, millions upon millions are being slaughtered in the womb in the name of “reproductive rights.”

In such a meretricious age the giant figure of Alexander Solzhenitsyn emerges as a colossus of courage. Born in Russia in 1918, only months after the secular fundamentalists had swept to power in the Bolshevik Revolution, Solzhenitsyn was brainwashed by a state education system which taught him that socialism was just and that religion was the enemy of the people. Like most of his school friends, he enslaved himself to the zeitgeist, became an atheist and joined the communist party.

Serving in the Soviet army on the Eastern Front during the Second World War he witnessed cold blooded murder and the raping of women and children as the Red Army took its “revenge” on the Germans. Disillusioned, he committed the indiscretion of criticizing the Soviet leader Josef Stalin and was imprisoned for eight years as a political dissident.

While in prison, he resolved to expose the horrors of the Soviet system. Shortly after his release, during a period of compulsory exile in Kazakhstan, he was diagnosed with a malignant cancer in its advanced stages and was not expected to live. In the face of what appeared to be impending death, he converted to Christianity and was astonished by what he considered to be a miraculous recovery. Continue reading

Stoicism & Incarnationalism by Bradley J. Birzer

stoicismStoicism & Incarnationalism

by Bradley J. Birzer
March 13, 2013

From the Christian perspective, the Logos is the beginning, the middle, and the end of time and history, and history itself is a reflection of the Logos. Each person—from Adam to the last person—is a finite reflection of the Infinite, a bearer of the Image of God, an incarnate soul. In the stunningly poetic prologue to his gospel, St. John assures us the Logos is that which enlightens every man. The logos is, then, divine reason. It is not, however, a synonym of rationality. Instead, its closest synonym would be “imagination,” stemming from the image implanted in our soul by the divine. As imagination, the soul balances rationality (or the monarchical part of the human person) of the brain and the passions (or the democratic part of the human) of the stomach. To rely only on rationality is to become an automaton; to rely only on passion is to become an animal. The aristocratic soul balances these things—through the image of the Word—in the republic of our person. Paradoxically, that which makes us most human is that which is the least human part about us.

When enlightened by the Word, the soul allows us to see and think beyond our five senses and our subjective logic, no matter how rigorous our intellectual faculties might be. It allows us to see the world as it is and as it was meant to be; it allows us to live as a member of the City of God as we sojourn through the City of Man; it allows us to create and, to use Tolkien’s term, sub-create art and not propaganda; and it allows us, very importantly, to speak with another person not through the lens of this or that prejudice (i.e. that is, shaped by biology, politics, or ideology) but as a soul to a soul—each a reflection of all that is true, good, and beautiful) but as one bearer of the Imago Dei to another bearer of the Imago Dei.

The concept of the Logos is much older than St. John’s sanctification of the term in his Gospel. One can jump back at least 100 years before Socrates to one of the first philosophers, Heraclitus of Ephesus. Looking for the “Urstoff”–the substance that holds all things together, the first principle, the unifying principle—Heraclitus claimed it to be fire, identifying it as LOGOS: reason, a word, a speech, an ejaculation. “For the waking there is one common world,” Heraclitus wrote. “But when asleep each person turns away to a private one.”

When cognizant and reasonable, the philosopher continued, a man finds himself a citizen of a lawful city, itself upheld by the one law of the one divine law.

Throughout a man’s life, his search for the extent of the Logos cannot be ended. “You would not discover the limits of the soul although you traveled every road: so deep a logos does it have.”

Continue reading

A Few Modest Observations for One Against the Great Books by Robert Woods

Great Books

A Few Modest Observations for One Against the Great Books

by Robert Woods

A colleague in our Great Books program shared an article with me over the Christmas break, and as I was buried in reading some of the Great Books and a few seasonal works, I was hard pressed to read this article. The article, by Patrick Deneen, was published in First Things and entitled, Against Great Books Questioning Our Approach to the Western Canon. When I finally did get a chance to read it, I found several points of merit, a few points that I simply disagreed with and one common error with such arguments, but it is a major and recurring error when some address the Great Books.

The Great Books may be a source of their own undoing (inherent contradictions across the canon). On the first point of agreement (which is also ultimately the main problem in the argument), I do agree that when read together there becomes a babel-like clamoring calling for assent to a particular truth and sometimes simultaneously calling for a denial of another claiming to offer truth. This has led James Schall (of whom I have the deepest admiration) and others to warn of the danger of relativism, which is a warning that needs to be sounded especially in this foundationaless age. However, the problem of contradictions and opposing worldviews ought not to trouble us for at least three reasons. Next to my bed I usually have five to seven books I’m reading at any given time. This does not count the other three to five on my desk, and the others scattered throughout my house, university office and home office. A setting any Hobbit would relish. If I paused and attempted to bring together, in some harmonious manner, the diverse genres, ideas, worldviews, and images the sheer mental cacophony would induce an aneurysm.

Continue reading

Faith and Freedom by Joseph Pearce

Faith and Freedom

February 26, 2013
by Joseph Pearce
Liberty itself must be limited in order to be possessed.– Edmund Burke
Anarchy, Freedom’s own Judas, the vile prodigal License who steals the gold of liberty– Oscar Wilde

In an age that seems to believe that Christianity is an obstacle to liberty, it will prove provocative to insist, contrary to such belief, that Christian faith is essential to liberty’s very existence. Yet, as counter-intuitive as it may seem to disciples of the progressivist zeitgeist, it must be insisted that faith enshrines freedom. Without the shrine that faith erects to freedom the liberties that we take for granted will be eroded and ultimately destroyed. Faith preserves freedom. It protects it. It insists upon it. Where there is faith there is freedom. Where faith falters, so does freedom. This truth, so uncomfortably perplexing for so many of our contemporaries, was encapsulated by G. K. Chesterton when he asserted that “the modern world, with its modern movements, is living on its Catholic capital.  It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom.”[1]

One of the truths of Christendom which lays the very foundations of freedom is the Christian insistence on the mystical equality of all people in the eyes of God and the insistence on the dignity of the human person that follows logically, inexorably and inescapably from such an insistence. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God, it doesn’t matter if people are black or white, healthy or sick, able-bodied or handicapped, or whether babies are inside the womb or out of it. It doesn’t matter that people are different, in terms of race, age or innate abilities; they are all equal in the eyes of God and, therefore, of necessity, in the eyes of Man also. This is the priceless inheritance of Christendom with which our freedoms are established and maintained. If everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Man, everyone must also be equal in the eyes of the law.

If, however, the equality of man is denied, freedom is imperiled. The belief of Nietzsche, adopted by the Nazis, that humanity consists of übermenschen and untermenschen, the “over-men” and the “under-men”, led to people being treated as subhuman, worthy of extermination and victims of genocide. The progressivist belief of Hegel, adopted by Marx and his legion of disciples, that a rationalist dialectic, mechanistically determined, governs the progress of humanity, led to the deterministic inhumanity of communism and the slaughter of those deemed to be enemies of “progress”. The French Revolution, an earlier incarnation of atheistic progressivism and the progenitor of communism, had led to the invention of the guillotine as the efficient and effective instrument of the Great Terror and its rivers of blood. The gas chamber, the Gulag and the guillotine are the direct consequence of the failure to uphold the Christian concept of human equality and the freedom it enshrines. In our own time, the same failure to accept and uphold human equality has led to babies in the womb being declared subhuman, or untermenschen, without any protection in law from their being killed at the whim of their mothers.

Apart from the connection between freedom and equality, the other aspect of freedom enshrined by Christianity is the freedom of the will and the consequences attached to it. If we are free to act and are not merely slaves to instinct as the materialists claim, we have to accept that we are responsible for our choices and for their consequences.Before proceeding to the paradoxical relationship between freedom and responsibility, let’s return to the philosophical ramifications of materialism, which is to say the removal of God from the picture of reality. Materialists are forced, if they are honest enough to follow the logic of their own first principles, to believe that none of us are free but that we are all slaves to our biologically determined instincts. Continue reading

What is the Object of Human Life? by Winston Elliott III

What is the Object of Human Life?

by Winston Elliott III
Russell Kirk

In the paragraphs below, from A Program for Conservatives, Dr. Russell Kirk addresses conservatives with words which remind us of our pilgrim status in this world of tears. We are not called to material success. We are called to obedience. We are called to love. The True, the Good, and the Beautiful will find their true place in our culture only when many more of us are obedient to Love.

“What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.
He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that “they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.”
Winston Elliott III is Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative.

Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture by Philip Nielsen

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Depicting the Whole Christ: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sacred Architecture

by Philip NielsenThe theological work of twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar has only recently begun to take its proper place in Catholic theology. In his lifetime he certainly took a back seat to contemporaries such as Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, and those men who were known as the theological architects of Vatican II. Balthasar never attended Vatican II, unlike so many of his fellow theologians and friends. This absence, combined with the difficulty inherent in classifying such a diverse corpus as his, has slowed his acceptance as a theological authority in the Church. But for the past thirty years—since the election of John Paul II to the Holy See—Balthasar’s star has risen as one of the great theologians after Trent, a status that the election of Balthasar’s close personal friend and theological sympathizer Joseph Ratzinger to the Chair of Saint Peter seemingly stamped with an imprimatur of the highest rank. At Balthasar’s funeral, Henri Cardinal de Lubac described him as “probably the most cultured man in the Western world.” Indeed, when one looks at the cultural topics that Balthasar treated, Cardinal de Lubac’s statement becomes hard to refute: Balthasar wrote his doctoral dissertation on German literature; his first major work was on music; he was one of the foremost patristic scholars of his time; and, thanks to his father’s practice of church architecture in Switzerland, he loved the visual arts and architecture. Continue reading
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