"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ines Angeli Murzaku on Grottaferrata and East-West Monasticism

Quite unexpectedly within about a week of each other, two books, both devoted to the monastic community of Grottaferrata, showed up on my desk. The first was  The Greek Abbey at Grottaferrata, published a number of years ago now (and seemingly out of print). It is a short book with plenty of pictures, giving a general overview of the community. Then a new scholarly collection showed up, and I was able to interview its editor, Ines Angeli Murzaku, about her recent collection,  Monastic Tradition in Eastern Christianity and the Outside World: A Call for Dialogue (Peeters, 2013), 302pp. Here are her thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background: 
IAM: I am a professor of Ecclesiastical History and Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies, Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. My research focuses on Ecclesiastical History, and particular, Byzantine and Catholic Church History. I have been awarded several grants for my work, including the Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers - Germany, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Grant – Harvard University, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant (SSHRC) - Canada, and have been awarded three times Fulbright Research Scholar Grants. 

My other publications include Returning to Rome: The Basilian Monks of Grottaferrata in Albania, Quo Vadis Eastern Europe? Religion, State and Society after Communism (2009), and Catholicism, Culture and Conversion: The History of the Jesuits in Albania (1841-1946), published by Orientalia Christiana Analecta Series (2006). Currently, I am co-authoring a translation and critical edition of the Life of St. Neilos of Rossano (1004) for Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard University (2014). Also, I am working on two projects: Monasticism in Eastern Europe, Russia and the Former Soviet Republics for Routledge (2015) and Italo-Greek Monasticism, from St. Neilos to Bessarion for Ashgate (2015). I was the vice-president of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) (2007-2013) and a United Nations (NGO) Christians Associated for Relationships with Eastern Europe accredited representative.

AD: What led to putting this collection together?
Fascination with and love of monasticism Eastern and Western; the history of monasticism; exchanges and interactions between Eastern and Western monks their dialogue and ecumenism. I am most interested in Italo-Greek or Italiot monasticism, which is probably the least known form of monasticism, a monasticism with which I am very well acquainted. Southern Italy/Magna Graecia of the Occident is a real treasure in providing a home and “accommodations” to Italo-Greek hermits, the cenobites, those living in-between the cenobitic and hermetic.

AD: Give us a sense of the significance of Grottaferrata in both monastic and ecumenical terms.

Grottaferrata is a “survivor” (p. 118); as my colleague, Enrico Morini pointed out in his contribution, Italy had a tremendous number of Italo-Greek monasteries and Italo-Greek saints whose lives have come down to us through the ages.  Grottaferrata is one of the last of these monasteries, and has such a distinctive relationship with the papacy in Rome and has borne witness to these Western Christians of the importance and vibrancy of the Eastern Monastic life.  Much of this tradition has been lost over the centuries in the rest of Italy, or at least severely diminished, but at Grottaferrata, there is both the old tradition of Italo-Greek practice and the new tradition of being on the forefront of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue. 

One particularly important element that is distinctive to Grottaferrata, which I tried to give a sense of in my chapter, is its willingness to help both the Italo-Greek monks and the Western monks feel comfortable at the monastery, feel a sense of belonging and Grottaferrata’s incredible hospitality, a kind of hospitability that only monks can provide.  From the time of its founder, Neilos of Rossano from Calabria, until the present day there has been a comfort with communicating with both traditions, particularly in using rituals that incorporate Greek, Latin, Italian and on special occasions Arbëresh – the language and ritual of the Italo-Greeks or Italo-Albanians who since the fifteenth century have been living in Southern Italy: Calabria and Sicily. A good number of the monks of Grottaferrata have come from these Byzantine communities.

AD: Your introduction mentions Hubert van Zellers idea that both the monk and the man in the world are on the same path, seeking grace and a rule of life. This strikes me as similar to Paul Evdokimovs idea of “interiorized monasticism.” What can those living “in the world” learn today from some of the monastic communities surveyed in the book?  

Here, I think that Gregory Glazov’s very personal and intimate account is really helpful.  His family, living in such close proximity with the monks and sharing in their communal life, is an example of Evdkimov’s interiorized monasticism. Here is a family that is really living with monks and whose family life is a kind of monasticism — which seems to be what Evdokimov is advocating in Struggling With God.

AD: Your introduction mentions the importance of hospitality in monastic life. Tell us more about that.
In terms of how the monks themselves understand hospitality and generosity, it is nothing less than a Biblical virtue that figures prominently throughout Scripture — in the story of Lot and the angels that became central to the famous Holy Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev, Christ first appearing as a stranger who dined with the apostles at Emmaus, and in many other important moments in Acts, Genesis, and elsewhere. That is why it figures so heavily in the monastic rules — both East and West.  In terms of historical practice, hospitality functioned as a way of maintaining strong networks among monastic communities and cultivating bonds with the broader society. It also functioned as a major way of doing outreach and charity — something which we see today.  All of these characteristics of monastic hospitality have continued to the present day, though now the community is much broader and more global, and the communities face many new challenges. 

Presently, monastic hospitality — particularly at Grottaferrata, but also in other monastic communities I have visited — is functioning in a missionary and ecumenical way. It is still a way of building networks and forging relationships, but it is also an invitation to gather together and share; this invitation goes out to other Catholics from the Western rite, Protestants, and especially the Greek-Orthodox, with whom Grottaferrata has an inherent connection.  As you can see in John Radano’s contribution to this volume, monastic communities have done tremendous work in terms of opening up dialogue with other Christian groups.  The publications that they have put out, like Irenikon and Eastern Churches Quarterly, are the fruits of monastic hospitality — the monks, freely and hospitably giving their time and sponsorship to these publications, are in a sense inviting their readership communities into their monastic life and sharing their patrimony with them.  It is even more explicit in the case of liturgical movements like the Taize communities in the Western Christian tradition.

At Grottaferrata in particular, hospitality also takes on a more directly educational function; when I have taken my Seton Hall students there, they have not only had the opportunity to experience the historical practice of Eastern monasticism, but they also have come to meet the Abbot Emiliano Fabbricatore and monks-members of the community and see them as people whose lives and concerns are not that different from their own, even though they had a different vocation. My students had the opportunity to sense the warmth of monastic practice and the monastic lifestyle, even if they did not always understand everything that was going on! The service was in Italiote-Greek!!!

AD: You note (p.11) that a “monastic community is an eschatological community.” What do you mean by that, and what is the significance of its eschatological focus?

Frequently, the monks saw their lifestyle as the fulfillment of Matthew 19’s commandments to give up all that they had in order to fulfill Christ’s will, and as a foretaste of what Christ told his followers in Mathew 22:30 about the way that they will live in heaven at the end of time — as people who neither marry nor are given in marriage.  We are also told that in the life of Christ — that is to say the resurrected life — the things that divide us, the barriers and walls, like nationality, language, and even confessional differences, cease to exist.

More theologically, Eastern monastics saw their practice as part of how they became people who could participate in theosis.  As Athanasius of Alexandria explained the Incarnation, “God was Incarnate so that we might be made god.” That process, theosis or divinization, required that the monks become as Christlike as possible in order to participate in this understanding of the bodily resurrection. Monasticism for these Eastern monks emphasizes this paradigm of becoming like Christ and also welcoming Christ in the form of the visitor, the outsider, and the stranger.  The practice also emphasizes being like Christ in perfection and representing with fidelity the doctrine that they have received, and communicating that doctrine to others.

When Evdokimov was writing his essay "Eschatology: On Death, the Afterlife, and the Kingdom: 'The Last Things'” (found in the collection Michael Plekon edited, In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader) one of the themes that he addresses is the idea of healing as salvation— not as a bodily healing or a full restoration, but rather as a deliverance from disturbance into a feeling of ease or peace.  The monks embody this in some important ways: the rules laid out in the Typikon of the monastery reduce strife and conflict, the management of a wise elder or abbot helps individual monks to deal with temptations and support the group to adjust to new situations, and the prayer practices foster metanoia or repentance which helps heal the wounds from sin.  Essentially, the monks are working to put themselves into a state of equilibrium, like Evdokimov describes, so that they can provide an example of that equilibrium to the world.  Are these communities perfect? Of course not. But they are doing their best to serve as an example of what the afterlife is going to look like, or as my good friend and colleague Dr. James McGlone would say, “a little piece of heaven on earth.”

AD: Your chapter as well as a couple others focus on “holy silence” and its importance in monastic life. But arguably silence is important for everyone, yes? It seems to me a particularly acute struggle today for many of us, tethered as we are to devices (phones, tablets, etc.) that never leave us alone, never give us opportunities for silence. Why does the monastic tradition so emphasize the importance of silence, and what can we learn from that today?

For monks, silence was about apathy, being without passions that could distract you from God.  It was a state of prayer and a state of perfect practice.  It also was hard to achieve, which is why there was so much literature.  However, it is important to note that there were two kinds of silence that fell under the title of hesychia — the first was the freedom to be able to withdraw from worldly affairs for reflection and the second was the state of reaching passionlessness through prayer and reflection (which is what we conventionally associate with the word).  Not all of us can withdraw to the extent that a monk can — as laypersons we are often called to have jobs in the secular realm and to raise families, but all of us can find ways of withdrawing from technology at certain points during our day and using that withdrawal as a time to be in relation with God and each other and as a time to reflect.  One thing that we can learn from the lives of the saints is that you do not wait to be given an opportunity to withdraw from the world — you create that opportunity, or better, seize that opportunity. This peaceful space can be created.

AD: Many of the chapters in the book focus on the role of monastic communities as places of encounter and dialogue—between Eastern and Western Christians, and between Christians and monks. Is Grottaferrata still playing that role today? What other communities do you see as especially adept at such dialogue?

Yes, I think so. Grottaferrata and its monks are at the vanguard of dialogue. The newly appointed Abbot Michel van Parys is a scholar and man of prayer and dialogue. Besides Grottaferrata is the Monastère de Chevetogne, Niederaltaich Benedictine Abbey, Abbey of Gethsemani in the USA  and several others.

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book and who should read it.

This book is part of a much broader project, which is to make Eastern monasticism a much bigger part of our scholarly conversation in the West — where it is often overlooked.  For instance, the book I am currently editing and contributing to addresses the history of Eastern monasticism in Eastern bloc countries and the former Soviet Union. The suppression of religion in these countries has created a gap in scholarship, and all of these countries had a rich history and very much to offer in monastic practice before the state shut down religious institutions and ended religious practice. It is my hope that this particular book inspires students, fellow researchers, and interested laypersons and clergy members to explore a heritage that has been highly influential in our civilization, or better, has laid the foundations of our civilization.  These articles are great starting points for further investigations, in addition to being unique contributions to this broader conversation.

AD: Having finished this collection, what projects are you at work on now?

Currently, I am working on a translation and critical edition of the Life of St. Neilos, and I will be pursuing another contract for a translation of the Life of St. Elias the Younger otherwise known as St. Elias of Enna.  These two Italo-Greek saints’ lives are interesting because they describe real people and important historical situations at a time when Sicily and Calabria were being transformed by their interactions with the Arabs, the Byzantines, and the West.  By putting these important primary sources into English and into the hands of new scholars who have been impeded by a lack of English-language resources, I am hoping to inspire future generations of scholars in the field.  There is also the collection I mentioned earlier, Monasticism in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Republics, which will be published by Routledge in 2015. Additionally, I am working on an edited volume entitled Italo-Greek Monasticism, from St. Neilos to Bessarion for Ashgate which is scheduled to appear in December 2015. My projects on Italo-Greek monasticism are long overdue projects and will do much justice to a forgotten page of Byzantine history: Suum Cuique Tribuere, Ea Demum Summa Justitia Est.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Christians and the Great War

I have finished one of the most interesting and satisfying studies of the Great War, viz., Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (Harper Collins, 2014).

Jenkins is one of the leading historical scholars of our time, author of such earlier works as:
Jenkins writes with great care and insight, sympathetic to those he is describing without ever crossing over into outright advocacy or an unduly politicized reading of events.

I hope to post a longer review of this excellent book in the coming days, but for now, let me warmly recommend it to those interested not just in the Great War, but also in the dramatic changes in Christianity in the West from 1914 to the present. Reading the reactions of many pastors and hierarchs, as well as the behavior of soldiers in the trenches, it seems the war took place not just a century ago, but a millennium, and on a different planet, too. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Copts and the West

In 2006 when the hardback version of this book came out, we had a Coptic specialist review it for Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies. The reviewer praised the book as a significant and insightful contribution not only to Eastern Christian, and specifically Coptic, history, but also to East-West relations and the historical construction of the same. At the end of this year a very affordable paperback version will be forthcoming of Alastair Hamilton, The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European Discovery of the Egyptian Church (Oxford UP, 2014), 354pp.

About this book we are told:
In seventeenth-century Europe the Copts, or the Egyptian members of the Church of Alexandria, were widely believed to hold the key to an ancient wisdom and an ancient theology. Their language was thought to lead to the deciphering of the hieroglyphs and their Church to retain traces of early Christian practices as well as early Egyptian customs. Now available in paperback for the first time, this first, full-length study of the subject, discusses the attempts of Catholic missionaries to force the Church of Alexandria into union with the Church of Rome and the slow accumulation of knowledge of Coptic beliefs, undertaken by Catholics and Protestants. It ends with a survey of the study of the Coptic language in the West and of the uses to which it was put by Biblical scholars, antiquarians, theologians, and Egyptologists.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jews and Greeks in the Byzantine Empire

Just in time for Christmas for the Byzantium nuts among your friends and family: a new book, from the endless parade of studies devoted to all things Byzantine: James K. Aitken and James Carleton Paget, eds.,The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge UP, 2014), 392pp.

The publisher tells us this about the book:
The Jewish-Greek tradition represents an arguably distinctive strand of Judaism characterized by use of the Greek language and interest in Hellenism. This volume traces the Jewish encounter with Greek culture from the earliest points of contact in antiquity to the end of the Byzantine Empire. It honors Nicholas de Lange, whose distinguished work brought recognition to an undeservedly neglected field, in part by dispelling the common belief that Jewish-Greek culture largely disappeared after 100 CE. The authors examine literature, archaeology, and biblical translations, such as the Septuagint, in order to illustrate the substantial exchange of language and ideas. The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire demonstrates the enduring significance of the tradition and will be an essential handbook for anyone interested in Jewish studies, biblical studies, ancient and Byzantine history, or the Greek language.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Ottoman History and Our World Today

On the Remembrance Day, in this centenary year of the Great War, I am giving a lecture this afternoon on the three main Eastern Christian massacres that occurred during the war, especially at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915: the Armenian, of course, which is relatively well known; but also the mass slaughter of the Assyrians and of the Pontic Greeks (and later deportation of Anatolian and Aegean Greeks, including the wholesale destruction of Smyrna during the so-called Turkish War of Independence), these latter of which are not well known at all but were arguably even more devastating, especially to the Assyrians.

Even a century later, I do not think we are much better at appreciating the politics of the region in all their intractable complexity. It is one of the paradoxes and problems of Middle Eastern politics that attempts to make things better often make them far worse. I still struggle to get my students to see that American foreign policy in the last four years especially, encouraging the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and Assad in Syria, not only has not made things better for religious minorities, Eastern Christians in particular, but has in fact made them worse. And yet we persist in this foolish optimism that all we need is to let everyone have a "free and fair election" and manna will rain down from heaven as the lion and lamb lie down together.

That kind of fantasy backfired spectacularly as the Ottoman Empire attempted, again under Western pressure, various attempts at modernization and liberalization in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those who bore the brunt of the inevitable backlash were of course the Christians, especially the Armenians, as several studies have made clear, and as a newly released book also argues: Bedross Der Matossian, Shattered Dreams of Revolution: From Liberty to Violence in the Late Ottoman Empire (Stamford University Press, 2014), 264pp.

About this book we are told:
The Ottoman revolution of 1908 is a study in contradictions—a positive manifestation of modernity intended to reinstate constitutional rule, yet ultimately a negative event that shook the fundamental structures of the empire, opening up ethnic, religious, and political conflicts. Shattered Dreams of Revolution considers this revolutionary event to tell the stories of three important groups: Arabs, Armenians, and Jews. The revolution raised these groups' expectations for new opportunities of inclusion and citizenship. But as post-revolutionary festivities ended, these euphoric feelings soon turned to pessimism and a dramatic rise in ethnic tensions.

The undoing of the revolutionary dreams could be found in the very foundations of the revolution itself. Inherent ambiguities and contradictions in the revolution's goals and the reluctance of both the authors of the revolution and the empire's ethnic groups to come to a compromise regarding the new political framework of the empire ultimately proved untenable. The revolutionaries had never been wholeheartedly committed to constitutionalism, thus constitutionalism failed to create a new understanding of Ottoman citizenship, grant equal rights to all citizens, and bring them under one roof in a legislative assembly. Today as the Middle East experiences another set of revolutions, these early lessons of the Ottoman Empire, of unfulfilled expectations and ensuing discontent, still provide important insights into the contradictions of hope and disillusion seemingly inherent in revolution.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Russian Tales of Demonic Possession

It was, if I recall, Gabriele Amorth who noted the two most common tricks of the evil one are to convince us he does not exist, or else to over-sensationalize his existence to the part of paranoia. I think of both traps, but especially our propensity for the latter, whenever titles about the demonic come along. I think, thanks to Hollywood, we have become accustomed to writing off such talk as at one with spinning heads, nuclear-green vomit, and little girls in raspy voices saying vulgar things. Nonetheless, Christianity has always taken the reality of evil seriously, and I have yet to find any way of accounting for much of human history if you foolishly disallow such an explanation. A new book offers us translations of old Russian tales of demonic possession: Marcia A. Morris,  Russian Tales of Demonic Possession: Translations of Savva Grudtsyn and Solomonia (Lexington Books, 2014), 154pp.

About this book we are told:
Russian Tales of Demonic Possession: Translations of Savva Grudtsyn and Solomonia is a translation from the Russian of two stories of demonic possession, of innocence lost and regained. The original versions of both tales date back to the seventeenth century, but the feats of suffering and triumph described in them are timeless. Aleksei Remizov, one of Russia’s premiere modernists, recognized the relevance of the late-medieval material for his own mid-twentieth-century readers and rewrote both tales, publishing them in 1951 under the title The Demoniacs. The volume offers a new translation of the original Tale of Savva Grudtsyn as well as first-ever translations of The Tale of The Demoniac Solomonia and Remizov’s Demoniacs.Russian Tales of Demonic Possession opens with an introduction that interprets and contextualizes both the late-medieval and the twentieth-century tales. By providing new critical interpretations of all four tales as well as a short discussion of the history of demons in Russia, this introduction makes an eerily exotic world accessible to today’s English-speaking audiences.
Savva Grudtsyn and Solomonia, the protagonists of the two tales, are young people poised on the threshold of adulthood. When demons suddenly appear to confront and overmaster them, each of them teeters on the brink of despair in a world filled with chaos and temptation. The Tale of Savva Grudtsyn and The Tale of the Demoniac Solomonia propel us forcibly into the realm of good and evil and pose hard questions: Why does evil afflict us? How does it manifest itself? How can it be overcome? Aleksey Remizov’s modernist re-castings of the two stories offer compelling evidence that these same questions are very much with us today and are still in need of answers.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Lemkin on Genocide

Next year is the centenary of the Armenian genocide, the very concept of which was owed to later reflection and conceptualization by Raphael Lemkin. That is to say, the term "genocide" was only coined by Lemkin in the 1940s, and when it was it quickly became apparent that it applied not only to the Holocaust but also back to the events of 1915. A recently published book was just issued this year in paperback form and gives us an introduction to the concept and its creator: Steven Leonard Jacobs, Lemkin on Genocide (Lexington Books, 2014),430pp.

About this book we are told:
Providing an annotated commentary on two unpublished manuscripts written by international law and genocide scholar Raphael Lemkin, Steven L. Jacobs offers a critical introduction to the father of genocide studies. Lemkin coined the term "genocide" and was the motivating force behind the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. The materials collected here give readers further insight into this singularly courageous man and the issue which consumed him in the aftermath of the Second World War. It is a welcome addition to the library of genocide and Holocaust Studies scholars and students alike.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Theodore the Studite on Iconoclasm

I've received a good half-dozen or more catalogues in the mail this month, advertising books to be released by Christmas or into the new year. Included is a new translation of one of the two best-known patristic writers refuting the case against icons. Paulist Press tells me this title is available in November, but Amazon has a February 2015 date. In either case, continuing in the valuable Ancient Christian Writer series, is Theodore the Studite: Writings on Iconoclasm (Ancient Christian Writers No.69), trans. Thomas Cattoi (Paulist, 2014), 320pp.

About this book we are told:
Famous for his writings exploring the nature and purpose of the monastic life, Theodore the Studite (759 826) was also the author of numerous apologetic works on the theology of the icon, where prose and poetry brought together theological depth and mystical inspiration. In the context of the iconoclast revival that swept through Byzantium in the early years of the ninth century, Theodore was the chief advocate of the legitimacy of icon veneration, and argued for the fundamental congruence between this practice and the Christological vision of the early councils. As John Damascene had done during the eighth century, Theodore envisages the icon as the synthesis of the Christian faith in the incarnation; its veneration is not only the litmus test of doctrinal orthodoxy, but it is also an integral part of the spiritual practice of the Christian, for whom Christ s resurrection points towards the eschatological redemption of the cosmos.

This volume makes available in English for the first time all the writings by Theodore on the subject of iconoclasm. It will be of great interests to scholars and students of early Christian theology and spirituality, as well as to anyone eager to explore the relationship between spiritual practice and the visual arts.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Heirs to Hated and Deliberately Overlooked Kingdoms

I don't know how anyone can look at the situation of Middle Eastern Christians today and not ricochet between rage and despair--rage at the ignorance of their plight, not least on the part of their co-religionists in the West, and despair over the inability and unwillingness of anyone to do anything of substance to help them. I have been talking about Christians in Syria and Egypt in my classes these past two weeks, and it is difficult not to weep and rail about what they have been undergoing for centuries, but especially what they have suffered in the last three years in particular.

A new book released in late October takes us inside these neglected and overlooked religious communities: Gerard Russell, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East (Basic Books, 2014), 352pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Despite its reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive and strange faiths: one regards the Greek prophets as incarnations of God, another reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock, and yet another believes that their followers are reincarnated beings who have existed in various forms for thousands of years. These religions represent the last vestiges of the magnificent civilizations in ancient history: Persia, Babylon, Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs. Their followers have learned how to survive foreign attacks and the perils of assimilation. But today, with the Middle East in turmoil, they face greater challenges than ever before. 
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, former diplomat Gerard Russell ventures to the distant, nearly impassable regions where these mysterious religions still cling to survival. He lives alongside the Mandaeans and Ezidis of Iraq, the Zoroastrians of Iran, the Copts of Egypt, and others. He learns their histories, participates in their rituals, and comes to understand the threats to their communities. Historically a tolerant faith, Islam has, since the early 20th century, witnessed the rise of militant, extremist sects. This development, along with the rippling effects of Western invasion, now pose existential threats to these minority faiths. And as more and more of their youth flee to the West in search of greater freedoms and job prospects, these religions face the dire possibility of extinction. Drawing on his extensive travels and archival research, Russell provides an essential record of the past, present, and perilous future of these remarkable religions.
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