A Defining Moment

What defines you?

The answer to that question, to a large extent, is a commentary on who owns you. Frequently, discussions about major aspects of our humanity are little more than a rehearsal of scripts prepared by our owners. This makes it extremely difficult to have a fruitful conversation on many topics, and almost impossible to explore possibilities that have been marginalized by the owning forces of our culture.

What do the cultural forces think of our humanity?

Arguably, our culture views us as producers and consumers: we are individuals within an economy whose purpose and meaning is largely defined economically. This elevates autonomy, adaptability and manageability to the place of primary, defining values. We have been taught, increasingly, to think of ourselves in terms of job, vocation, and career, while other matters, such as marriage, family, religious belief, etc., are merely lifestyle choices (making them similar to other consumer decisions). And here I want to emphasize the fact that these ideas have been deeply internalized: we believe them to be true and they govern how we think and argue our way within the world.

Among the most significant set of ideas is the question of what it means to be male and female. The arguments of equality, vocation, meaning, purpose, etc., have largely been driven by economic factors. Our roles within the market place tend to take a primary role in our thoughts. The ideal of the market place is genderless. It redefines human beings in terms that minimize gender and biology. Money passes through one set of hands as easily as another.

Classical Christianity does not have a model for how men and women fit within a workforce, for the simple reason that our place in the workforce is not fundamental to what it means to be human. However, male and female are primary theological categories that are fundamental to our understanding of salvation. In almost any other age, such a statement would seem uninteresting, or at least, without controversy. The fact that the reality of our binary existence is becoming marginalized suggests primarily the triumph of consumerist economics over more traditional understandings.

Consumption prefers that we understand ourselves as “those who choose.” Any definition of our humanity that impairs or impedes that concept has been targeted by the internal logic of the culture.

Classical Christianity understands that a very large part of who we are is, in fact, traditioned to us. We are not the products of our own invention nor utterly free to be “anything we want.” In theological terms, this suggests that what is true is handed down and received rather than invented, developed or envisioned. The madness of the consumer-based view of humanity can be found in its ultimate emptiness. Finding a niche in the vast machine of the global economy offers no transcendent purpose and precious little meaning to human existence. Its value is primarily derived from the cult of self-congratulations that we describe as “fulfillment.”

It is probably this very point that rightly serves as a focus for the great spiritual struggle of our time. The risk of consumerism lies in its lack of a soul. Production and consumption in the ever-changing disguise of fashion begin to generate a substitute for meaning. We become nostalgic for a decade (its movies, its fashions, its toys) as though the sentiments associated with one set of ephemera have any value greater than other sentiments. But sentiments do not constitute a soul. They are nothing more than a set of feelings that have come to be associated with various things. They are relatively sophisticated pleasure-centers manipulated by canny marketers.

As an aside, Christians easily become prey to their own sentimentalization of various periods or aspects of the Church. We like market versions of a Byzantine or Russian mood, devoid of any true content. Sentiment is not a sacrament.

But what do I mean by “soul?” It is a reality of life that has transcendent value. It is the ability to withstand and endure suffering. It embodies beauty and raises the level of dignity in everything it touches. In human beings, it is that which is worthy.

It is simply the case that we cannot create our own transcendence. To do so would be to be a god, in which case transcendence would be unnecessary. To transcend the self requires that we be greater than ourselves. That requires that there be something (Someone) greater than ourselves. The fundamental position of classical Christianity is one of thanksgiving, the grateful reception of that which has been given to us. Thanksgiving is the primary response to the gift of transcendence.

Consumerist Christianity is an increasingly small religion – not in terms of numbers, but in terms of content. “My spirituality,” “my prosperity,” the “god that I believe in that you don’t need to believe in,” are all expressions of the self, not of the transcendence of the self. When the self involved dies, so will everything else in its life, its god included.

The consumer world does not suffer well. It has substituted an ethic of false compassion, defined as the relief of pain (not the “sharing of suffering,” its original meaning). Consumerist compassion is stymied when confronted with suffering. That which cannot be relieved must be eliminated. We anesthesize, abort, and euthanize, all in the name of compassion. We do not withstand and endure. Consumption is turned towards the self. Within the self alone, suffering can have no meaning. In the name of compassion, we kill, thinking that death ends suffering. It is an act of despair.

The narrative of Westward Expansion and Progress, married to Protestant theology, are the great soul-less engines of consumerism. But our culture is not without spiritual resources or a narrative of suffering. Both slavery and the extermination of native Americans have within them powerful stories of endurance and greatness of soul. Both, however, are largely marginalized, serving as little more than tropes for liberal guilt.

The struggles of immigrant America (another possible source for the American soul) have long been purchased by the consumerist narrative. They are not seen as the stories of a people whose suffering produced greatness of soul, but of ethnic groups who gradually achieved prosperity in the pursuit of the national dream. For immigrants from Orthodox lands, the narrative easily becomes the loss of a soul.

The consumerist narrative of modern culture, however, is not the full story, nor even the true story of the world. It is powerful and difficult to resist, but it need not be believed. The West is not without a soul, nor without its stories of saints. The difficulty, of course, is that those stories are rooted in a distant past, that, as often as not, is a past obscured by the modern narrative.

St. John Maximovich is said to have prophesied that the West would not come to its salvation until it began to venerate its saints. He had in mind the vast army of early saints who established the Christian faith in Western Europe and the British Isles (to which we can now add the growing number of American saints). Their stories easily compare with those of the Desert Fathers, or the great saints of the East. Their memory often remains in place-names, and in traditional names found within their cultures. I take those artifacts to be a living presence, rather than a remote history.

There is a patient, slow work set before us. It is the recovery of our soul while teaching a culture about its true roots. That we live in difficult times merely offers the opportunity for a new greatness of soul, established in patient endurance and the bearing of contemporary suffering. From that rich resource, beauty and virtue can begin to flower as God renews the face of the earth.



  1. Father, thank you. Your post highlights a very great short fall in human thinking that is totally exacerbated in modernity. We have no real concept of what such ideas as “person”and “soul” are in reality. The first real attempt to wrestle with these ideas in Christian terms were the early councils in which the Nicene Fathers spoke of hypostasis, physis, prosepone and psche but not everybody bought into a common, usable definition of any of these Greek words from which we get person, nature, presence/face and soul. After the Nicene Faith expressed in the Creed became the central tenant of our Faith we do not seem to have spent any time developing these ideas beyond their use in the Creed and in some Ante Nicene writings focused around the controversies in the next few centuries.
    I often like to ask people WHO they are and quite often they respond with their occupation as an answer. That is a what answer to a who question. I find few people who are really equipped to answer this very fundamental question of being. It is a trick question though because there seems to be no solid answer because there is no solid definition. I have never spoken to anyone who can truly give a solid and defensible answer to this question.
    I believe that Modernity has exploited this gap to do as you have said in this post and elsewhere Father. It is very difficult to stand firm against Modernity without the answer of WHO we really are.

  2. I appreciate the clarity of thought here. There are too many resonances to be able to write in this context. For example, thanksgiving being a foundation—what does that look like in a life, how is it practiced, etc. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this elaboration of the meaning of soul, especially for us in the US. I greatly appreciate your perspective that this country has a soul in the making. And deeply grateful of your mention of the Native American and African American histories. You are so right, these histories are often presented within a context of liberal guilt.

    I wish to speak very briefly of the Native American history and soul. I have defined myself as Native American and as part Native American in various contexts depending on who asks me a question of my background. When I first met my spiritual father and mentioned my background, he quickly presented that my identity will shift to Christ. I admit in my heart there was resistance– I couldn’t help it because there has been such resistance in my family for generations against how ‘white’ european settlers would define ‘us’.

    There are holy places in America, that have the aura that I hear described of Mount Athos. I haven’t been to Greece or to the holy places of Russia but I know some of the holy places in America–not just from hearsay but from ‘being there’. If I go to these places now that I’m an infant in Christ, they will likely still hold their holiness as before but will likely shine all that more brightly for the greater sight I might now have. Among the elders of the culture of my mother’s people were ‘readers’ –people who in other cultures might be described as prophets. These too were holy people, of great endurance and love of people and place.

    I’m not so ready to believe that there can be no more saints of the caliber or the works of the Apostles or the Fathers of the Desert. These perspectives seem cultural specific rather than having hope and a belief in the continued works of Christ in this culture. I will not succumb to this thought.

    Not long ago I had a pleasant conversation with a young woman whose family came from the Pribilof Islands, where Orthodoxy has been its cultural foundation for several generations. We had a laugh because when she was first introduced to schools outside of her Alaska Native culture, she was shocked to discover that there were people who were not born Orthodox. The Orthodox Church is a primary source of their culture and outlook. Miracles are not spectacles but part of daily life.

  4. We should not be at all ready to believe there can be no saints of the caliber of the past. There will be greater, even though they may appear as less in the eyes of the world. But there will be greater.

  5. Father Stephen, Thank you. I have learned so much from this blog. I don’t often comment but I do just want you to know what a light this space is in a world gone mad.

  6. Nicholas,
    You write that most can’t respond to your question of who they are…answering instead about what they do. So much easier to be consumers if we seem like cookie cutter look a likes. And never still enough to even think about life having any kind of possible transcendent meaning. However, we are occupied thinking about what others might think of us. I recently read this quote by Schopenhauer that rings true…”We forfeit 3/4 of ourselves in order to be like other people.”
    Thank you Father for this article which I’ll turn to read again, as I often do. Usually can’t take it all in in one reading.

  7. Dean
    It is sadly true that we are creatures of our culture. We are never taught WHO we are beyond being that consuming point. I did not even begin to get a clue as to who I am until I went to Seminary at age 58 and was required to read Met. John (Zizioulos) “Being is Communion.” It took me three readings and two Semesters of Greek to begin to comprehend his point. I walked away from this and after much time in prayer an I finally began to see a little light. I am WHO I am in the web of relationships/communion that define me. I am the Child of God first and foremost. I am my parents son and the descendant of my generations. I am the biological father of my children and of their children unto the ages. I am unique, unrepeatable and fashioned in the Image and Likeness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who are primarily defined as unique persons based on their eternal relationships to one another. The Son is Only Begotten… this establishes Him as the only Son and establishes His Father as Father. The Spirit comes out of the Father as His mode of His being in also unique for He is of the Father but not the brother of the Son. The Greek verbs used not only establish them both Ontologically but also set the internal and Eternal relationships within the Trinity.

  8. Well, that is a bit like a tie iron up ‘gainst the side of my head. Much with which it is easy to agree but difficult to take on and live.

    To what (ot to whom) do we say yes!

    St. Raphael of Brooklyn stands, in his icon on the left of the wall that demacates the narthex from the nave of my home parish. I greet him every Sunday as I enter. But to really venerate him I think I would have to live with the same level of selflessness he demonstrated in reaching “the lost sheep of America”.

    May our Lord strengthen us all..

  9. How can we achieve greatness of soul? What is this “contemporary suffering” you speak of now, save for the usual—death, disease, and decay, and how do we suffer it well?

  10. I hear here is what’s often called “the Benedict option” here, i.e. the notion that the way to take our selves back is do it the way that St Benedict and so many other spreaders of monastic civilization into Europe did starting in the 5th century. Build more monasteries, and teach people to slow down, drop out of the rat race society, and expand the heart. This is the root of out entire Christian civilization.

  11. Fr Stephen, your comment reminded me of a quote I read in the Desert Fathers: one of them said that in the end times, the surrounding culture would be so dark that an average man who simply believed in God would be greater than the greatest Saint of the ancient times.

  12. Your blessing Father, that was very profound and it managed to touch and answer multiple issues.

    Is there such a thing as a “the soul on a nation”? Do Americans, Russians, the English suffer from common passions because they are brought up in a certain environment, culture and education system?

    I often wonder if confession is viewed in the context of an identity that is not just of the person, but also that of the person’s identity. That whatever we might choose, we carry our parents, our media, our classmates’ and colleagues’ baggage. If I find myself hard to distinguish from the influences of the modernists around me and before me – whose sins am I confessing?

    Thank you.

  13. Nes,
    An aspect of “contemporary suffering” is simply living surrounded by a consumer culture – being in the world but not of the world. It’s hard.

    We don’t have to invent suffering – but suffering well is, I think, the art of living well. Giving thanks always and for all things is foundational. Living with trust in God and our focus on the Kingdom as well. Being kind and generous to all, despite our suffering, is another. We live by dying – dying to self, living for the other.

    Consumerism seeks pleasure. A great soul lives for God and His Kingdom. No one escapes suffering, but lesser souls will diminish their lives by scurrying about trying not to suffer. Sometimes its just learning to bear the moment, to endure being present with God and others and not distracting ourselves with constant entertainment.

    The greatness of soul is a gift. We don’t make it happen, though we can prevent it.

    I would suggest Fr. Tom Hopko’s 55 maxims as a wonderful description of the path to greatness of soul.

  14. Thomas,
    I have long noticed differences in hearing confessions of different nationalities – very distinct differences. Americans, I have said playfully, sound like Woody Allen in confession…we’re very neurotic and extremely psychological and self-analytical. Russian souls amaze me sometimes.

    I once heard the confession of an elderly Russian woman who could speak no English. I told her, through her daughter, to confess in Russian and I’d listen to her heart. I was staggered. I thought afterwards, “I’ve never spoken with such depth of repentance in my life.”

    These characterizations are somewhat generalized and have plenty of exceptions. But, we are never immune to our culture.

  15. mary benton, we are nothing only in our sin. Even there we only tend to nothingness. God makes us in His image and likeness. He loves us. He has entered into union with us. That would be impossible if we were really nothing.

    I think there is a certain part of the modern mind that wishes us to think so little of our selves that we think God and union with Him are impossible.

    We are dirt, but dirt that is conformable to Him by grace.

  16. It was once said of Prussia that it was not a country with an army but an army with a country. The aphorism can be adapted with considerable accuracy to most Western lands; they are not countries with economies any more, but economies with countries at their disposals. The cult of perpetual GDP expansion is the totem of this world and, in hoc to the fevered dream of endless of growth, the priests of this cult will cheerfully hammer the nations into the shape of an ouroboros that devours itself continually . Productive industries must be gutted and the workers can go swing; the natural wealth of the earth must be devoured as soon as conceivable without the slightest thought to what comes afterwards and the immediate blight on the land; immigration must be used as a tool to drive down labour costs because people are just commodities, no more and no less; universities must be turned into overpriced finishing schools for the corporate world. The central bankers must play the craziest of games with unlimited amounts of imaginary money to keep the whole demented show on the road. And so and so forth.

    There is an awful lot that could be said about the character of homo economicus, but it seems to me his lack of resilience is particularly troubling in light of the turmoil coming down the pike. Basic societal order in the West is now sustained by the ongoing supply of cheap resources and technological sensation. What will happen when these are interrupted? This must be set starkly against the willingness of our ancestors to endure far shorter and harsher lives. Will people today calmly accommodate themselves to seriously reduced circumstances? Somehow I doubt it. Yet, that is precisely what they will have to do, because the bandwagon can’t be kept in a straight line much more.

  17. Fr Stephen, I love your words and the reality they point to regarding the confession of the Russian elder. Thank you for sharing this experience.

  18. And one other thing that is pertinent. The vast psychosis that is the global world financial system, with all its unicorns-over-the-rainbow delusions, would not have crawled into life if the West had observed the prohibition on interest in Leviticus. For so long, the ban made on interest in the Pentateuch has been patronisingly dismissed as high minded but unworldly. I am not so sure. An economy without interest would not grow as quickly of course, but it would be grounded far more surely in reality, namely in the trading of actual goods and services people need. It would not be so susceptible to the abstractions and consequently the final insanity that comes of making money out of money. The business cycle would not have been abolished, but I doubt our economies would now exhibit the symptoms of someone with bi-polar disorder, namely frenzied peaks and catastrophic slumps.

  19. Fr Stephen,

    Has it ever been pointed out to you that your thought has some things in common with the Frankfurt School? I know that there are many things dreadfully wrong with Cultural Marxism, but I wonder if this belies your education at Duke. I am certainly not playing “gotcha” here, but Frederick Jameson and other cultural Marxists had a big impact at Duke.

    Your critique of the consumerist mindset in your writing is major point of entree into the way much of our liberal elite in the education edifice already thinks, which is a good thing. Somebody posted a link to a documentary about Freud above, an excellent documentary which I had seen some years ago and would to see again. As you may know, the Frankfurt School was very influenced by Freud and seeing to forge a synthesis between Marxism and Freudianism. You may have run across the work of Jay Dyer on the web, an Orthodox writer who does a lot to critique religious symbolism in Hollywood and Hollywood’s shaping of the American mind.

    I am very interest in notions of “agency” in contemporary thought. I don’t know if you have ever run across Pierre Bourdieu. But he has a lot to say about the modern agent as an entity shaped by various kinds of capital acquisition. I find myself thinking often about how to critique him from a Christian perspective, and your writing is helping me in that regard. I think though, that Bourdieu (who is working out of Marxian and Weberian models of the self) is right in some respects. Modern people are fundamentally shaped as players within a landscape in which we have to pursue certain kinds of capital. We do not live in agrarian societies anymore. We succeed based on the kinds of social capital (credential, network position, speech and dress etc) we adopt, as well as our acquisition of hard capital and how well we’ve learned to play the games our society sets up for us around these types of capital. We can certainly learn to have our vision of ourselves shaped in a way that we do not conform to these shallow notions of the self. But we cannot change the fact that this is the system which is set up for us. Our sense of “agency” can come to be derived by our adoption into the life of the Son, the Body of Christ and the theosis that comes from pulling oneself out of the rat race and by conforming the life in Chris the church shows us. But we cannot ultimately extricate ourselves from this landscape of Capitalist and consumerist choices.

    Your thoughts?

  20. Thank you Father. Just read the 55 maxims, very good. The one that threw me though was, “flee imagination” — this seems so contrary to the Christian spirit.. but perhaps I’ve read too much George MacDonald.

  21. Nes, “fleeing the imagination” is a hard saying for we moderns because through our imagining that we create our identity and change things. It can easily become a source of idolatry.

    We must not stop being creative. Being creative really has little to do with the imagination though.

    Being creative for we humans has much more to do with seeing things and people as they really are and bringing that out.

    The artists who seek to express their own imagination or vision more often than not produce pretty awful stuff.

    Real creativity is noetic in nature. It is something we do by God’s grace.

  22. Michael Bauman,

    Thank you for your thoughtful words but I believe you misunderstood me. (Not hard to do, given how little I said.)

    My words were very likely influenced by reading “Come be my light”, the book written about Mother Teresa’s extended spiritual darkness. It quotes extensively from previously unpublished letters and notes of hers. An excellent book, in my view.

    Knowing my nothingness before God is an emptying that allows God to fill me. If I am full of myself, there is no room for God. If I allow myself to be emptied by Him, His goodness and love can fill me and shine forth.

    I am indeed made in His image and likeness – and He is a God Who empties Himself, humbling Himself, allowing Himself to be made nothing out of love for us.

    Because of Him, I will not remain nothing. But that is what defines me now if I surrender myself to Him completely.*

    (*Not claiming to be there yet…God is still working on me.)

  23. Nes,
    I think Hopko has in mind a very different use of imagination. Creativity necessarily involves a use of imagining. There is a kind of imagining that is not at all creative, but simply the anteroom of anxiety and such.

  24. Isaac,
    Sadly, I’m not well-enough educated in the various economic/social schools to be aware of the influences in my life. My work with Hauerwas was certainly important, and I was aware of various strands of post-modern, even Marxist technique in his use of rhetoric. Frankly, you have to be aware of Marxist rhetoric these days – it is pretty ubiquitous.

    But, I plead a bit of independence, or, simply a dependence on tradition. My critique of consumerism, though perhaps shared by some, is rooted in the classical tradition of Orthodox thought – simply applied to modern problems.

    I think it’s quite possible to live a life largely free of consumerism. My citing of Hopko’s 55 maxims would do the trick. There are many out there who do not live primarily as consumers – not a majority or even a large number, but significant. I’ve got an article that I’m posting tomorrow or Thursday about virtue, and an example of a virtuous man whom I know (un-named in order to protect him).

    Living as free of debt as possible is important. Practicing generosity as a matter of principle (starting with the tithe) is important. Choosing to live a simplified life. Try never to buy the latest, on that which is good and reliable. Dress modestly and don’t try to be too stylish. Buy used cars (new cars are an enormous waste of money) and drive a car as far beyond 250,000 miles as possible. Almost all the value of a car is found after it has 100,000 miles on it. If it’s in good shape at 50, and is a known, reliable model, it’ll be good to 250 in all likelihood. Don’t live in the best neighborhood…the best people probably aren’t there.

    Eat out as little as possible. Cook good food, as much locally grown as possible. Meet and get to know farmers and workers. Go pretty much to the same stores and take time to meet and get to know the people who work there so that shopping is more about social interaction than about acquisition. It’s much more satisfying.

    I could keep going…

  25. Also Fr Stephen, Perhaps in your next writings, would you help us by elaborating more on the entire line #37 of Fr Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims:

    Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out

    As mentioned above it almost seems Fr Thomas is placing a kind of negative slant on what we think we use mentally in creative activity. Similarly, in my (old) work, I would have said that I applied ‘analysis’ regularly to understand data or to interpret graphs, and I would have said I was ‘figuring things out’ if I was solving a problem. I don’t think Fr Thomas meant these interpretations. But his statement is short enough it might be read that way.

    To help in my own interpretation, I have looked at the statements around this one to grasp his intent. There is an old saying of “stirring the pot” in relation to our social interactions with others and our community. A Christian approach to community would be to help its stability, and there are mental habits we do within ourselves that might lend themselves to instability. Somehow I think this might be what he might be getting at–how (or what behaviors/mental actions we use when) we might participate in “stirring the pot”.

    These are just my reflections, more or less on the fly. But I hope that I might be on the right track, and if not, or if this interpretation is too shallow, I hope for more edifying words!! : )

  26. I found a short explanation that Fr Thomas gives himself:

    Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out. Once and for all, we have to stop trying to figure things out. God can illumine our mind and give us insight into the nature of things, but we can’t figure it out. We don’t have the equipment to do it, and we should stop trying.

    It seems now that this statement has to do with fretting about why things are they way they are, or fretting about how we might change the way things are, or strategizing how to change the world or people around us perhaps.

    And in response the idea reminds me of Saint Philaret’s prayer as a possible antidote: “O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace….”

  27. It seems now that this statement has to do with fretting about why things are they way they are, or fretting about how we might change the way things are, or strategizing how to change the world or people around us perhaps.

    Agreed, Dee. As Father has stated, Christianity is not about figuring things out and/or changing the world through social interaction/programs. I think Fr. Hopko’s statement emphasizes instead that we should be about humility and theosis.

  28. Isaac, keep in mind that Marxism is a heresy. It takes some truth about who human beings are then twists and destorts it. It is like the difference between Oxygen and carbon monoxide.

    Unfortunately, our minds will pick up on the grain of truth and swallow the untruth along with it.

    The modern mind looks at traditional Christian understanding with our belief in our communal nature and sees “collectivism”. Our eschatology and sees the Hegelian spine of the historical determinism of Marxism.

    Christianity and Marxism have nothing in common. It is only the modern mind intent on making humans autonomous capable of understanding and controlling history, perfecting it and ourselves as we go, that makes it seem they are compatible.

    So, no matter how similar what Fr. Stephen seems to the Franfurt school, it is like comparing a wonderful steak to a really bad sausage.

  29. Father bless,

    I’ve been following your comments that here and there suggest another way of living through solid steps. Above you said that you could “keep going” in a reply to Isaac. I know that you suggest Fr. Hopko’s 55 maxims, which I use, but Fr. Hopko’s maxims are general and meditative requiring one to sit with them for a time. I believe that you have done just this. I am hoping that you will “keep going” with what I believe amounts to your expounding on Fr. Hopko’s maxims. Your insights are simple, timely applications for us beginners being crushed by the onslaught of modern thought and the rapid pace at which it demands we live, and move, and have our disrupted beings. If these thoughts could make their way into a more unified post, instead of comments, that would be wonderful. Thank you on behalf of those of us who struggle against the stream.

  30. Fr. Stephen,

    Your mention of African Americans and Native Americans reminded me of when I watched Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next”. He was admiring the way the Germans teach their children about the horrors they committed during WWII. He wondered aloud what that attitude would look like in the United States: “I am an American. I live in a great country, which was born in genocide and built on the backs of slaves.”

    I find it wonderfully ironic that the sources of our shame are also the possible sources of our spiritual growth and resource. It is the last place we would look but apparently the first place to turn – whether it be the sins of a particular nation or the most shameful things in our own lives.

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