Standing On Ceremony

 

shutterstock_168595868As a happy break from writing about crime (gloomy) and marriage (even more gloomy) I’ve lately been writing a paper on liturgical theology, which is intended as a chapter for a forthcoming book designed to foster ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Latter-Day-Saints. It’s proving to be an enjoyable project, which has turned my thoughts to the role of formal ceremony in American life more generally.

Many of you know that I was raised Mormon and am now Catholic, and as a Catholic I developed a deep love of traditional liturgy. Since I developed that taste primarily in my Catholic life, my initial impulse was to think that Mormons are fairly lacking in any kind of formal liturgy. On further reflection though, that’s not as true as it might seem. Of course, the obvious place to find formal Mormon liturgy is in their temple ceremonies. But even in more ordinary settings, Mormons do have a high appreciation of formality and ceremony, along with a very definite sense of decorum. We both (that is, Catholics and Mormons) run against the grain of so much of our mainstream culture, where people are largely ashamed of anything that seems too formal, too ceremonial, or too “scripted”.

To my mind, the loss of ceremony is something of a tragedy. Ceremony and custom are critical to helping us make sense of moments and experiences in life that are naturally difficult for us to process. Weddings and funerals are two events that should absolutely be steeped in ceremony, because these are the moments in life when we struggle to connect our private experiences to something greater than our subjective emotions. Ceremony helps teach us what these occasions really mean and how we can get perspective on them. Sadly, many or most modern weddings have degenerated into glorified beauty pageants, while funerals often don’t happen at all.

Of course it’s hard to generate meaningful ceremony among people who don’t really believe in anything. The struggle for transcendence is part of what distinguishes silly and clownish attempts at ceremony from customs that are genuinely beautiful and rich. Tradition is also a vital component of liturgy (and its cultural counterpart, ceremony), and once traditions have broken down, it’s hard to recover them in an authentic way. Sadly, this breakdown probably contributes further to the contempt that progressives have for the earnestly religious, because liturgical action always looks bizarre and contrived to those who have no entry-point for understanding it.

Are there places in mainstream American life where we could help people to recover that sense of decorum? How do we persuade people that this kind of tradition is worth taking seriously?

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  1. user_348375 Inactive
    user_348375
    @TrinityWaters

    Might be too late, in general, Rachel.  In order to recover something, one has to have first possessed it.  We are now at least two whole generations into the indoctrination of our youth into secularism, where the only rituals are government-centered and approved by the so-called elites.  But, I’m in a pessimistic mood right now after reflections on the absurdity that Memorial (Decoration) Day has become.

    • #1
  2. Pseudodionysius Coolidge
    Pseudodionysius
    @Pseudodionysius

    The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp — and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity’. To recover it, you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must get rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespead inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess being led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age [“do this”] which presides over every solemnity.

    • #2
  3. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Rachel Lu:Sadly, this breakdown probably contributes further to the contempt that progressives have for the earnestly religious, because liturgical action always looks bizarre and contrived to those who have no entry-point for understanding it.

    And to be fair, many Protestants used to contemporary styles of worship – who comprise a significant bulk of the “earnestly religious” in America today – also find liturgical worship bizarre and contrived.

    Indeed, where people associate liturgical worship with “spiritually dead” “mainline churches” (such as the Episcopal or Anglican church, the ELCA, and many forms of Methodism and Presbyterianism), and contrast it to the “true, Spirit filled” contemporary worship found in many Evangelical megachurches, liturgy itself is often a tempting scapegoat for spiritual death.

    That’s not how I see it. But as someone married according to the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer in a mainline Presbyterian church, what would I know? :-)

    • #3
  4. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    This past Friday, a brother in our chapter of Knights of Columbus passed away.  He was active with us at our monthly meeting just 2 weeks earlier.

    He was a Sir Knight having achieved the Fourth Degree of Knighthood.  The Fourth Degree is the highest degree.  Those are the guys you see wearing the plumed hats, capes, and swords.  We will be having a Fourth Degree Requiem Mass for him this week.

    Ceremony, like the special Mass, is not just “because”.  It is an outward sign of the honor and respect we have for someone or something.  No ceremony means no respect, no honor, no values.

    • #4
  5. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Rachel Lu:

    Of course it’s hard to generate meaningful ceremony among people who don’t really believe in anything. The struggle for transcendence is part of what distinguishes silly and clownish attempts at ceremony from customs that are genuinely beautiful and rich. Tradition is also a vital component of liturgy (and its cultural counterpart, ceremony), and once traditions have broken down, it’s hard to recover them in an authentic way. Sadly, this breakdown probably contributes further to the contempt that progressives have for the earnestly religious, because liturgical action always looks bizarre and contrived to those who have no entry-point for understanding it.

    I am no progressive, but I, and the secular people I know are not possessed of the sort of nihilism that you are accusing the secular of, here.  The issue is that this accusation assumes that “if only they understood what was being done it wouldn’t look ridiculous.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I think most people looking in from the outside understand all too well what the assumptions undergirding a particular ceremony entail – it’s just that you can’t get around the fact that men wearing dresses and genuflecting to altars or icons (graven images) may just be as ridiculous as it looks.  As the ranks of the secular continue to grow, expect pushback to grow, not diminish.

    There’s no rational explanation to make less ridiculous the wearing of Sacred Undergarments or the mysteries of Intergalactic Warlord Xenu.

    • #5
  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Practice makes perfect. An unfamiliar ritual is a chore. Concentration on its form distracts from its meaning. As a person becomes accustomed to the flow of events, the mind is freed to wonder and to penetrate the ritual’s depth.

    And there is always a danger of legalism. Even the most beautiful ritual can become lifeless if effort is not made to enrich it with enthusiasm.

    In that way, it’s like a dance. If you enter a dance only grudgingly, you will not enjoy it. You have to open your heart to it. But that doesn’t mean the only value of a dance is what you put into it. The dance itself might be beautiful, but recognition of beauty can’t be forced.

    • #6
  7. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Pseudodionysius:

    The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp — and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity’. To recover it, you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must get rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespead inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess being led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast — all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age [“do this”] which presides over every solemnity.

    Pseudodionysius,  Very good to see you commenting.  I have missed reading your thoughts here.

    • #7
  8. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Majestyk:

    Rachel Lu:

    Of course it’s hard to generate meaningful ceremony among people who don’t really believe in anything. The struggle for transcendence is part of what distinguishes silly and clownish attempts at ceremony from customs that are genuinely beautiful and rich. Tradition is also a vital component of liturgy (and its cultural counterpart, ceremony), and once traditions have broken down, it’s hard to recover them in an authentic way. Sadly, this breakdown probably contributes further to the contempt that progressives have for the earnestly religious, because liturgical action always looks bizarre and contrived to those who have no entry-point for understanding it.

    I am no progressive, but I, and the secular people I know are not possessed of the sort of nihilism that you are accusing the secular of, here. The issue is that this accusation assumes that “if only they understood what was being done it wouldn’t look ridiculous.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I think most people looking in from the outside understand all too well what the assumptions undergirding a particular ceremony entail – it’s just that you can’t get around the fact that men wearing dresses and genuflecting to altars or icons (graven images) may just be as ridiculous as it looks. As the ranks of the secular continue to grow, expect pushback to grow, not diminish.

    There’s no rational explanation to make less ridiculous the wearing of Sacred Undergarments or the mysteries of Intergalactic Warlord Xenu.

    I’ll confess to being mildly curious now what you take to be the “assumptions undergirding” Catholic liturgy.

    • #8
  9. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    Majestyk:

    Rachel Lu:

    Of course it’s hard to generate meaningful ceremony among people who don’t really believe in anything.

    I am no progressive, but I, and the secular people I know are not possessed of the sort of nihilism that you are accusing the secular of, here. The issue is that this accusation assumes that “if only they understood what was being done it wouldn’t look ridiculous.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I think most people looking in from the outside understand all too well what the assumptions undergirding a particular ceremony entail – it’s just that you can’t get around the fact that men wearing dresses and genuflecting to altars or icons (graven images) may just be as ridiculous as it looks. As the ranks of the secular continue to grow, expect pushback to grow, not diminish.

    There’s no rational explanation to make less ridiculous the wearing of Sacred Undergarments or the mysteries of Intergalactic Warlord Xenu.

    Your last paragraph may have required a trigger warning.

    • #9
  10. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    In the Jesuits, I was one of the few who actually studied liturgy. It was a great love of mine, and I still study what I can, to this day.

    Perhaps these rites and ceremonies look ridiculous if you start from the assumption that they were made up yesterday. But in Catholic liturgy, it is precisely because they are the same ceremonies as were practiced centuries ago that gives them their connection to the past. The vestments that the priest wears, for example, are not “dresses,” the alb was a common garment, and the chasuble was basically a simple overcoat.

    Yes, it’s out of fashion. That’s usually the point.

    • #10
  11. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Judaism is ritual-thick. We do not eat, sleep, drink, or even answer “how are you?” without a prayer or ritualistic statement. We pray 3X a day, and prayers are long.

    It works for many of us. But it does not work for all, in part because while the ritual is supposed to be a gateway for the spiritual, the mechanics can sometimes seem to get in the way. The means are confused for the end.

    Nevertheless: without the ritual, Judaism would no longer be here. The festival of Shavuos (Pentecost) just ended. The only Shavuos commandment we can do today (without the temple) is to be happy. There is basically no ritual at all. And so it is a holiday that only observant Jews even know exist.

    Passover, on the other hand, requires weeks or months of hard, backbreaking preparation. The rituals are all-consuming. I read that 97%+ of all Israeli Jews (which obviously are mostly not observant) have Passover Seders.

    The ritual preserves the faith.

    • #11
  12. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    A couple of points that occur to me when it comes to explaining ceremony and liturgy to the less-familiar. One is that humans today are (in general) not sufficiently attentive to the connections between the corporeal and the psychological/spiritual. (A wonderful piece for getting you thinking about this is Erwin Straus’ “The Upright Posture”, which expounds on the many ways in which uprightness and rationality go together in humans.) Liturgy addresses this pre-reflectively, shaping our sensibilities well before we can understand on a self-consciously rational level what we’re learning.

    Another point worth mentioning is that tradition, just in general, encapsulates all sorts of wisdom that can’t be easily replicated or transmitted without the help of liturgy. So, as an example: Mormons generally prefer unset prayers to recited ones. Occasionally this leads to some very moving, heartfelt sentiment that you wouldn’t get from a recited “Bless us oh Lord” etc. On the other hand… people generally aren’t that good at making up beautiful prayers on the spot, so they mostly fall into the same prayer patterns anyway (“Dear Heavenly Father, Thank you for the food”), only the prayers are more plain and less theologically rich than they might be. I wouldn’t forcibly drum spontaneous prayer out of ever possible setting, but learning a variety of pre-written prayer (which are often masterful on both a literary and a theological level) can often help us to express ourselves more beautifully and fitfully than we would be able to do in our own words. Who says you can’t sincerely mean it, just because the phrasing came from someone else?

    • #12
  13. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Rachel Lu:

    I’ll confess to being mildly curious now what you take to be the “assumptions undergirding” Catholic liturgy.

    That there is a personal God who listens to your prayers and more importantly: that he cares about or wants people to act in this fashion.  That’s a good place to start.

    If that hurdle represents no problem for a person, you could then advance to the notion which many Christians have that salvation itself requires nothing more than a personal relationship between a person and God (Jesus) and that none of these trappings are necessary in order to achieve the desired end (Salvation.)

    • #13
  14. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Pilli:

    There’s no rational explanation to make less ridiculous the wearing of Sacred Undergarments or the mysteries of Intergalactic Warlord Xenu.

    Your last paragraph may have required a trigger warning.

    Ha!  I guess I should have thought about that.

    • #14
  15. user_2079 Inactive
    user_2079
    @MontMcNeil

    Majestyk:

    Rachel Lu:

    Of course it’s hard to generate meaningful ceremony among people who don’t really believe in anything. The struggle for transcendence is part of what distinguishes silly and clownish attempts at ceremony from customs that are genuinely beautiful and rich. Tradition is also a vital component of liturgy (and its cultural counterpart, ceremony), and once traditions have broken down, it’s hard to recover them in an authentic way. Sadly, this breakdown probably contributes further to the contempt that progressives have for the earnestly religious, because liturgical action always looks bizarre and contrived to those who have no entry-point for understanding it.

    * * *

    There’s no rational explanation to make less ridiculous the wearing of Sacred Undergarments or the mysteries of Intergalactic Warlord Xenu.

    There is a rational and simple one.  They’re comparable to a wedding ring, a yarmulke or a crucifix.  They remind me daily of promises I have made to God and to my wife.

    I can’t speak to Xenu.

    • #15
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    If you exclude the Orthodox services I have attended, by far and away the most liturgically traditional have been the Anglican churches.

    Many Anglican congregations make a priority of preserving not only the form of the liturgy, but also its old splendor (not substituting weenie contemporary settings when there’s beautiful historic music to be had, as Catholics – and alas, often Lutherans – seem prone to do increasingly often). I find that the most liturgically-traditional Western Christian services I have attended belong to a denomination that many (including Mark Steyn) consider post-Christian to be grimly amusing.

    Because I find beautiful liturgy so important to faith, I find myself willing to put up with a lot more post-Christian nonsense in other aspects than is regarded as seemly for a good conservative.

    • #16
  17. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Majestyk:

    Rachel Lu:

    I’ll confess to being mildly curious now what you take to be the “assumptions undergirding” Catholic liturgy.

    That there is a personal God who listens to your prayers and more importantly: that he cares about or wants people to act in this fashion. That’s a good place to start.

    If that hurdle represents no problem for a person, you could then advance to the notion which many Christians have that salvation itself requires nothing more than a personal relationship between a person and God (Jesus) and that none of these trappings are necessary in order to achieve the desired end (Salvation.)

    If life is meaningless then so, of course, is liturgy. But you don’t need to share those specifically Christian assumptions in order to appreciate (in broad outline) the point of liturgy and ceremony. You do however need to be circumspect enough to look past the juvenile, knee-jerk, “men wearing dresses! Special underwear!” reaction.

    • #17
  18. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Rachel Lu:  can often help us to express ourselves more beautifully and fitfully than we would be able to do in our own words. Who says you can’t sincerely mean it, just because the phrasing came from someone else?

    Hallmark agree.

    • #18
  19. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk:That there is a personal God who listens to your prayers

    The amazing thing, Majestyk, is that faith changes people in profound ways – regardless of whether their beliefs are true.

    Religious people take risks that no sane atheist will try. Those risks could be advancing a radical thesis in physics or economics, or they could be blowing oneself up. Religion is powerful IF you choose to believe that it is.

    Religious people give more charity, because they believe, regardless of all evidence to the contrary, that the money is not really theirs, and so giving it away to a good cause is a worthy thing to do.

    One way to look at it: we know the Placebo Effect actually works, sometimes powerfully so. Religion may be just a placebo – but if it works, then is there not a case to be made for belief if only on utilitarian grounds?

    If, for example, religious people are shown to be happier and/or longer-lived than cynical old atheists, then does that not militate for taking on those same “silly” assumptions?

    • #19
  20. user_86050 Inactive
    user_86050
    @KCMulville

    Majestyk:  If that hurdle represents no problem for a person, you could then advance to the notion which many Christians have that salvation itself requires nothing more than a personal relationship between a person and God (Jesus) and that none of these trappings are necessary in order to achieve the desired end (Salvation.)

    As a Catholic, I find it impossible to think of the faith in any terms other than the two “greatest commandments:” Love God and Love your neighbor. The idea of an individual relationship with God, isolated from my neighbor, contradicts that. In fact, I take heed of Matthew 25, where God basically says that our love for him will be measured by how we cared for our neighbor, and our “least” and poorest ones at that.

    It further strikes me that my neighbor and I are not just mutual basket-cases, exchanging need-fulfillment as mere artificial tasks to occupy us. Instead, it seems more logical that our lives are supposed to be lived together, in some unison and harmony.

    A ritual is just a pattern, and we rely on patterns to facilitate that unison and harmony. When one partner knows what the other is doing, they can respond appropriately. Or in my world, a ritual is like a football play, where the pattern tells each player what they can expect and what is expected of them. By combining their efforts, they achieve something together that’s greater than any could achieve individually. They … transcend.

    • #20
  21. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    KC Mulville:A ritual is just a pattern, and we rely on patterns to facilitate that unison and harmony.

    Like yoga! Or pilates! Or aromatherapy!

    • #21
  22. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Rachel Lu:

    If life is meaningless then so, of course, is liturgy. But you don’t need to share those specifically Christian assumptions in order to appreciate (in broad outline) the point of liturgy and ceremony. You do however need to be circumspect enough to look past the juvenile, knee-jerk, “men wearing dresses! Special underwear!” reaction.

    Then I would equally suggest that you need to look past the knee-jerk idea that people who don’t believe in religious assumptions think that “life is meaningless,” as if the only thing that could conceivably animate you would be the assumption that there is a spirit of the type assumed by these ceremonies.

    So, for instance, I appreciate the Midnight Mass from the Vatican on Christmas Eve.  I think it’s pretty, but I don’t think it has any cosmic significance.

    • #22
  23. Pseudodionysius Coolidge
    Pseudodionysius
    @Pseudodionysius

    How important is liturgy in the larger scheme of things? One way of telling how important something is to God is seeing how many people He has struck dead over it. We don’t mean to be facetious; consider the following facts: God did not strike Adam dead when he committed the first sin, nor did He smite Cain for murder. He did not smite Noah for drunkenness, nor did He kill Joseph’s brothers for selling him into slavery. Aaron was not even smitten for making the golden calf and David was not struck down for his adulterous and murderous affair with Bathsheba. Even wicked Manasseh of Judah was not killed by God when he sacrificed babies to Moloch in the Valley of Hinnom.

    Yet, Scripture is replete with examples of persons who were struck dead in wrath for violating the dignity surrounding the Hebrew liturgy and the ceremonial worship of God. The Bible furnishes us with the following examples of people who were smitten by God in divine anger:

    • #23
  24. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    iWe: Those risks could be advancing a radical thesis in physics or economics, or they could be blowing oneself up. Religion is powerful IF you choose to believe that it is.

    One way to look at it: we know the Placebo Effect actually works, sometimes powerfully so. Religion may be just a placebo – but if it works, then is there not a case to be made for belief if only on utilitarian grounds?

    If, for example, religious people are shown to be happier and/or longer-lived than cynical old atheists, then does that not militate for taking on those same “silly” assumptions?

    Well, if given the choice between sugar pills and actual medicine I know I’m going to take the medicine.  It would be unethical to give people the placebo if you KNEW that the actual medicine would help them more than the placebo effect, wouldn’t it?

    Even if there were a provable causal relationship between religiosity and longevity a person would still have to ask themselves: Is it ethical for ME to say that I believe something (take the placebo) even if I know that I actually don’t?

    EDIT: I should also point out that the Muslim world stands as a sharp rejoinder to this.  The last thing we want in my opinion is a situation where people embrace religion MORE, especially if it turns out to be only a placebo.

    • #24
  25. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu
    @RachelLu

    Oh! I don’t say that life is meaningless for the atheist. I’m just saying, it is only the person who really sees no meaning in life for whom liturgy is totally incomprehensible. Because symbolism is empty if there’s nothing worth representing.

    • #25
  26. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Rachel Lu:Oh! I don’t say that life is meaningless for the atheist. I’m just saying, it is only the person who really sees no meaning in life for whom liturgy is totally incomprehensible. Because symbolism is empty if there’s nothing worth representing.

    Well fortunately, there seem to be few such nihilists who count themselves as unbelievers.  There may be a small, vocal minority, but they certainly don’t speak for me.

    Those who devoutly believe in the power of such symbolism but are secret nihilists are truly dangerous.

    • #26
  27. Belt Inactive
    Belt
    @Belt

    Interesting project.  I myself come from and remain in a Dutch Calvinist religious environment.  We have ceremonies and liturgy, though it’s not as formalized as, say, Anglican or RCC or Orthodox.  Two comments:

    First, structure and repetition is a training tool.  How you do what you do shapes what gets done.  It reinforces the experience.  You train yourself to approach God.

    Second, the believer’s acceptance of the structure is both a way to join in the community, and can also be an expression of faith.  An individual worship experience may or may not be fulfilling and meaningful, but faith leads you back and perseverance builds up faith.

    And this is why I’m really dismissive of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd.

    • #27
  28. Kim K. Inactive
    Kim K.
    @KimK

    Liturgy and formalization of certain ceremonies can also keep people on script. My own pastor usually speaks and prays “off the cuff,” sometimes with disastrous, sometimes with hilarious, results. But it’s as if writing anything down ahead of time or reading something would be inauthentic or not “being led by the Spirit.” I have seriously considered writing a script for him to follow for my own funeral because I have experienced too many cringe-worthy moments at services he’s officiated.

    • #28
  29. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    funerals often don’t happen at all

    Is this true? Are there statistics on this?

    • #29
  30. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Majestyk:
    Even if there were a provable causal relationship between religiosity and longevity a person would still have to ask themselves: Is it ethical for ME to say that I believe something (take the placebo) even if I know that I actually don’t?

    We do this all the time when we pretend to be nice to people, pretend to be interested in others, or when we show basic manners.

    It turns out that “pretending” very often leads to results. Greeting people warmly, even if only done pro forma at first, usually becomes a sincere act.

    Religion can be a form of stipulation – an assumption that the placebo is real. How many individual prayers start with: “G-d, if you are out there and listening…” ?

    People want to believe that their life matters, that there is meaning and purpose.  Religion is a very constructive way to do that, and rituals provide the roadmap.

    • #30

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