Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Debriefing Letters to Malcolm

Below is my address to the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society,  28 April, 2015.

I want to thank the officers of our Society for allowing me to speak tonight on the last book that Lewis wrote: Letters to Malcolm, first published in 1964.

Let us remind ourselves that Lewis had originally started a book on prayer in 1952.  There is a 45 page manuscript of this early attempt preserved, which I, sadly, have not yet had the time to peruse.  Walter Hooper thinks that Lewis dropped this early attempt because he believed it was coming across in too doctrinaire a fashion, and he thought it poor form to be addressing the public as if he somehow believed himself an expert on the subject.  Lewis writes in Letter XII, parag. 4:
"But however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it.  Two people on the foothills comparing notes in private are all very well.  But in a book one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction.  And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence."  (p. 66  my edit.)

However, as he says here, two people carrying on a discussion in a series of letters would be "very well."  So apparently, in 1963, it dawned on Lewis - still wanting to write a book on prayer - that if he wrote in the style of a fictional correspondence between two people, he could address the topic in an indirect manner and not be impudent.  And, what is also inspiring for Lewis, I think, is that such a format would provide him with space to be imaginative.  He could make all the speculations he wanted to make or to express without having to commit himself to a certain position.  He could make as many "guesses" about prayer as he wished.  Here was a plan with real scope.

Now, even though we and Lewis himself call this book a book on prayer (Hooper, p. 380, letter to Shelburne), if it is indeed a book on prayer, it is an odd one.  Usually a book on Christian prayer informs the reader of the nature of prayer, surveys different kinds of prayer, and provides aides to prayer.  They are normally devotional literature.  Yet, Walter Hooper, says that the book is "now regarded as one of his most outstanding works on Christian apologetics;" a surprising thing to say about a book that is supposed to be about prayer (C&G, p. 380).  At our retreat this past weekend at the Kilns, one of those attending said that this was the worst book on prayer she had ever read.  There was nothing inspiring or helpful in it as one normally finds in a book on prayer.

The book does have a two-fold major outline pertaining to prayer.  Letters 1-16 comprise a section that is supposed to be about petitionary prayer.  Letters 17-22 are supposed to be more about the form of prayer called adoration.  But in the process of writing about these two kinds of prayer, Lewis writes about mysticism, Liberals, metaphysics, Divine Impassibility, Holy Communion, introspective Puritanism - a lot of different things that don't seem to fit in a discussion of petition and adoration.  But after all, even though Lewis says this is a book on prayer, he did give it the title, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer!  We may speak of the book with the shorthand of "a book on prayer," but we need to recognize that should expect Lewis to be addressing other matters as well.

When it comes to being a book on prayer, instead of the usual devotional assistance, Lewis spends the bulk of his time dealing with intellectual problems raised by petitionary prayer.  This is where apologetical elements come in, but not just apologetic elements.  He raises questions that many thoughtful Christians may have about prayer.  But Lewis recognizes that this intellectual approach to prayer is not going to be enjoyed or appreciated by some of his readers.  They are certainly not appreciated by Malcolm's wife, Betty.  Betty is talking to Malcolm about this correspondence her husband Malcolm is having with Lewis and she is, we could say, "rolling her eyes" about it.  She's obviously wondering why the devil her husband and Lewis are making such a complicated matter out of prayer.  And Lewis acknowledges that he is indeed complicating things.  Writing about Betty, in Letter XV, he says,

"On the present point she is right.  I am making very heavy weather of what most believers find a very simple matter.  What is more natural, and easier, if you believe in God, than to address Him?  How could one not?

"Yes.  But it depends on who one is.  For those in my position - adult converts from the intelligentsia - that simplicity and spontaneity can't always be the starting point....  We have to work back to the simplicity a long way round" (paragraphs 1 & 2).

As is often the case in Lewis' writings, he writes to process, or to work out the kinks, if you will, of an issue or topic that interests him or burdens him.  Being a thoughtful man, with a philosophical bent, he is quick to pick up on intellectual problems about Christian prayer and he has to work them out, if for no other reason than that he  may himself get on with his praying, though he is, of course, thinking of other people as well.

As an example, in Letter IV, he raises the issue of what sense it makes to be telling God about things that he already knows.  Think of it: what is going on when Jesus tells us that our heavenly Father already knows the things we need before we ask, and then He instructs us to pray to our Father in heaven and ask him for things?  As Lewis says, "What, then, are we really doing?" because it seems an absurd way to relate to an omniscient God (parag. 5).  This is an important issue for both those who are looking at Christian behaviour from outside the church and scratching their heads about it, and those inside the church whose prayers are troubled because of this logical difficulty.  It needs addressing.

I plan to come back to Lewis' answer to this problem later, but I want us to also recognize that Lewis, in Letters to Malcolm, is also dealing with books he has read.  He wants to answer issues raised in other peoples' books.  He refers to authors all the time, but there are several letters in which particular books are the main topic of discussion.

The first letter itself is about a book.  It's about The Book of Common Prayer.  He was living in a time when many clergy were, as he describes it, fidgeting with the liturgy.  And though he says he has little to say about liturgiology, he gives his own advice about what's wrong with novelties in worship and sudden changes in it, but also when it would be right to make some changes and under what circumstances.

Letters 2 and 3 are a response to Rose MaCaulay's book Letters, published in the early 1950's.  He depicts Malcolm staggered by Ms. McCaulay's practice of collecting all the prayers she can, written by other people, to use them for her own prayers.  Lewis himself is not as moved as Malcolm by this practice, though he certainly would not do the same thing as Ms. MaCaulay.  This is because he can see some value in what he calls "ready-made" prayers and he goes on to explain this value.

Then we run into Lewis' response to an essay that appeared in a book called Soundings by Alec Vidler.  Vidler was only a year younger than Lewis, but lived until 1991.  He was a well-known theologian and historian, who, in the 1930's took on the editorship of the journal Theology, to which Lewis made several contributions.  Some of Lewis' correspondence with Vidler is in his Collected Letters.  Lewis was not always happy with Vidler's handling of the journal, and he was not altogether pleased with his essay.  In the essay, Vidler is dealing with that issue we sometimes encounter, when people want to express their dislike for "religion."  It was common in my early years, to hear evangelicals say, "Christianity is not a religion; it's a relationship."  Well, we know what people who say that kind of thing are trying to get at, but it does depend on your concept of religion and the meaning of the word.  Vidler had written that he thought the Church should have "less religion."  Lewis wants to critique Vidler on that account.  Just what did he mean by that?

For Presbyterians, especially of the Scotch variety, they will find it interesting to read Lewis interacting with the Expositions of Holy Scripture by Alexander Whyte.  Not only may they be surprised to learn that Lewis had read Whyte, but as Lewis talks about it, it almost seems as if he was surprised that he was reading Whyte as well!

On another amusing front, Lewis comments on someone's poem in letter 13, but if you are familiar with Lewis' poems you recognize it as his own!

But surely, when we look back on Letters to Malcolm, the most important book to which Lewis refers is  by Owen Barfield.  Lewis refers by name to the book in letters 13 and 14, and continues to talk in the same categories that Lewis and Owen shared regarding the nature of reality in letter 15.  I want to contend that we also find Barfield's influence in the final letter, number 22, where Lewis talks about the Resurrection.

Saving the Appearances was first published in 1957, many years after the end of the famous "Great War" between Barfield and Lewis.  If you have a copy of the newly published Inklings Studies Supplement on the Great War, the excellent introduction provides a good review of the basic theme of Barfield's book and how Lewis agreed with parts of it and disagreed with a bit as well (see pages 17-19).  Barfield passed the manuscript along to Lewis for editing and incorporated Lewis' recommendations.  You can find the notes of Lewis' editing in Hooper's Collected Letters, vol. III, after the letter on page 724.  Lewis called the book "a stunner."

As I said, Lewis agreed with much of Barfield's ideas and uses them in his book - but what were these ideas?  Before I go on, let me preface my remarks with a parody of Lewis: I am a novice when it comes to Barfield's writings; I really am no authority on these matters, but I'm going to go ahead and talk about them anyway, and whatever I say you can take or leave.

The issue in Barfield's book is the nature of reality and the part that our souls, or our perceptions, play in both the understanding and nature of reality.  Barfield and Lewis both understood that what we think is real about something can be different from what it actually is.  But as we perceive the world around us, and as we live in community with other people, both past and present, we do come to certain conclusions about what is real and is not real and live accordingly.

Barfield has a really good illustration to help us to understand what he his talking about: the rainbow.  We talk about the rainbow as a thing in our world that we can see.  We give it a name.  We treat it like any other observable object in our experience.  But just what is a rainbow really?, Barfield asks.  Well, we know, don't we.  When we see what we name "the rainbow" in the sky, we know that what is really there is not some colourful bow but raindrops with sunlight shining through them.  The light hits the drops and is dispersed into its various colours.  These different wavelengths of light come to our eyes, and what we see looks like a colourful bow in the sky.  It reminds us of other bows in our experience, and so we liken it to these other bows and name it, "the rainbow."  We also share this perception of light through raindrops with our community and we grow up with a common idea of this object we call the rainbow.  We treat it as if it is a real thing.

Now what has happened in our conclusion about the reality of the rainbow?  Our own sense perception brings the event of the rainbow (because it is really an event, not a thing) into our soul's consciousness.  We are aware of this phenomenon.  And we begin to think about the phenomenon and evaluate it.  Our souls thus participate in the event of the rainbow.  And as they so participate, they create in our understanding the idea of this object and we name it the rainbow.  The rainbow to us is a real thing, but we have made it a real thing in our own souls.  We have created a reality for ourselves.

Having established that this participative power of our souls creates what we perceive as reality, Barfield evaluates how this participative activity has functioned in human society through the ages.  Before the scientific revolution, this activity of the soul was seamless and unconscious to people.  However, as we began to objectify the world around us as something consciously outside of ourselves, viz. objective phenomena existing parallel to ourselves and outside of ourselves, this original participative activity began to break down.  He does believe that in time, this participative activity, however, will revive as human society continues to evolve.

Now this is a rough outline of what Barfield posits in his book and proceeds to deal with, but I think the essential elements are there.  From what I've been able to tell so far - and I'm open to being corrected here - Lewis did go along with Barfield concerning the imaginative and creative participation of the soul in its defining what is real in the world, but he would not go so far as Barfield would go in the effect that this participation may have on the phenomena we observe themselves.  Nor did he go along with Barfield's ideas of society evolving in its renewal of participation.

But be that as it may, what we are concerned with here is how Lewis uses these ideas of perception in his discussions about prayer.  In letter 13 of Letters to Malcolm, Lewis is addressing the issue of the various parties involved in Christian prayer.  Who is doing what?  He does not refer to it, but we remember that St. Paul, Romans 8:26 & 27, speaks of the Holy Spirit, who knows God's mind, prays in us and even for us when prayer for us is difficult.  But Lewis then wonders what this process means for the person praying?  Does the human petitioner merely become a channel for God speaking to God?  Is his own experience of praying mere illusion?  To answer the question, Lewis must go behind this activity of pryaer and ask what is the nature of the creature-Creator relationship to begin with.  God is all in all, but then what are we in relationship to him?

To answer this second question, Lewis refers to the twenty-third chapter of Barfield's Saving the Appearances.  In this chapter, Barfield deals with the question of how we perceive God.  Lewis writes,
"You remember the two maxims Owen [Barfield] lays down in Saving the Appearances?  On the one hand, the man who does not regard God as other than himself cannot be said to have a religion at all.  On the other hand, if I think God other than myself in the same way in which my fellow-men, and objects in general, are other than myself, I am beginning to make Him an idol.  I am daring to treat His existence as somehow parallel to my own.  But He is the ground of our being." (parag. 3)
So Lewis gives us to understand that God is indeed distinct from us, but we must not categorize him as just another phenomenon outside of us parallel with trees, tables, birds, etc.  As Lewis says in letter 14, [God] is "the ground and root and continual supply" of the reality of all his creation (parag. 5)  He is not only outside us, but in us as well, giving us existence.  We are reminded of St. Paul's description of Christ in Colossians 1: "All things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist (verses 16, 17).  Or his words on the Aereopagus in Acts 17, interestingly enough quoting a pagan philosopher: "For in him we live, and move and have our being" (verse 28).

And the burden of both Lewis and Barfield about this understanding of God and ourselves, is that, if we are not careful to maintain these distinctions, we fall into idolatry.  We will worship a god that is of our own making - not with our hands, but with our souls - like the rainbow; something that doesn't really exist outside us.  And if we are basing our prayers on a wrong concept of God we are going to have problems, obviously.  When we kneel to pray, it will not the be the real us confronting the real God, but a creation of our imagination instead.

This all reminds me of another place where Lewis addresses the importance of watching over our concept of God in relation to prayer.  It is in another letter, written decades earlier - which just goes to show that this part of Letters to Malcolm is about something he had been concerned about for a long time.  But in this earlier case, the letter happens to be imaginatively written by a devil!  I speak, of course of letter 4 in The Screwtape Letters.  Let me read the last paragraph and as I do so, listen for echoes of what he and Barfield have been saying:

"But of course the Enemy will not meantime be idle. Wherever there is prayer, there is danger of His own immediate action. He is cynically indifferent to the dignity of His position, and ours, as pure spirits, and to human animals on their knees He pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion. But even if He defeats your first attempt at misdirection, we have a subtler weapon. The humans do not start from that direct perception of Him which we, unhappily, cannot avoid. They have never known that ghastly luminosity, that stabbing and searing glare which makes the background of permanent pain to our lives. If you look into your patient's mind when he is praying, you will not find that. If you examine the object to which he is attending, you will find that it is a composite object containing many quite ridiculous ingredients. There will be images derived from pictures of the Enemy as He appeared during the discreditable episode known as the Incarnation: there will be vaguer - perhaps quite savage and puerile - images associated with the other two Persons. There will even be some of his own reverence (and of bodily sensations accompanying it) objectified and attributed to the object revered [his own soul is adding information to what he thinks is out there]. I have known cases where what the patient called his "God" was actually located - up and to the left at the corner of the bedroom ceiling, or inside his own head, or in a crucifix on the wall. But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it - to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers "Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be", our situation is, for the moment, desperate. Once all his thoughts and images have been flung aside or, if retained, retained with a full recognition of their merely subjective nature, and the man trusts himself to the completely real, external, invisible Presence, there with him in the room and never knowable by him as he is known by it - why, then it is that the incalculable may occur. In avoiding this situation - this real nakedness of the soul in prayer - you will be helped by the fact that the humans themselves do not desire it as much as they suppose. There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!"

Well, so much for epistemology, metaphysics, ontology and theology as it relates to prayer!  But before we leave Lewis' use of Barfield's analysis and thought, we need to refer to the latter part of the last letter in Letters to Malcolm.  It is about the resurrection.  Why does Lewis bring this up?  I think it's because, in his discussion of adoration, he makes much of our sensual perceptions of the good in the world and the pleasures we experience from them.  Such a topic could easily move into consideration of what all of this is going to look like in the world to come.

Now what will probably strike the reader of Lewis' other works is how different  the afterlife is depicted in this letter from the way Lewis depicts the afterlife in his other works.

In The Last Battle, Lewis' depiction of the true Aslan's Country touches the heart with its imaginative beauty.  But it is not strange to us.  It is consistent with what one normally finds in discussion of the after-life.  The characters are recognizable bodies and souls, only better and more wonderful.  As Jesus' body could do unusual things, so their bodies interact with time and space differently; recall their running further up and in and the speed they achieve.  The biology, if you will, of their new lives does not jar us.  We are more conscious of the beauty of the characters' new sphere and experience of life.

In The Great Divorce, we have a description of the after life of the saints as recognizable body-and-soul humans.  We also have a country that already exists for them to inhabit.  It is, in these respects, much like what we have in The Last Battle.  But where Lewis in The Last Battle is interested in expounding the, shall we say Platonic, idea of the "real" Narnia and the further-up-and-further-in discovery to be had there, in The Great Divorce, Lewis wants to focus especially on the truth of God's being the foundation of all reality, described figuratively by the metaphor of solidity.  The saints there are human, but more solid than they had been because more closely united, we can say, with the fountain of their being.  They can increase in their becoming solid, but they are already fundamentally what they are going to be.  Again, this does not jar us.  It is much like what we would expect as readers of the Bible and of works of our Christian past.  What is intriguing to us is the solidity issue.

However, in Letter 22 of Letters to Malcolm we have something very different and likely quite confusing.  Lewis here "guesses" something different.  He starts with the assumption that we need not consider our material bodies or any matter at all.  That is not the main issue. So we are left to consider our souls.  We will have a continuation of our souls, but what will be their experience?  Isn't the main thing we long for in resurrection the return of our souls sensations which we have enjoyed?  Don't we want to enjoy the life  experiences we have had here?

Well then, where is the new world we are going to inhabit and experience going to come from?  His answer is that, just as our memories can resurrect our past experiences and even give them a more glorious edge than they actually had originally, our souls are going to resurrect the New World.  We will start out as naked souls and only gradually bring our new bodies and the new world to pass.  We will be able to do this because the past material world has entered our souls and become our souls.  Thus they find their new origin in our souls and can reemerge from them.

He writes, "I don't say the resurrection of this body will happen at once.  It may well be that this part of us sleeps in death and the intellectual soul is sent to Lenten lands where she fasts in naked spirituality - a ghostlike and imperfectly human condition.  ...Yet ... we shall return and re-assume the wealth we have laid down.  Then the new earth and sky, the same yet not the same as these, will rise in us as we have risen in Christ.  And once again, after who knows what aeons of the silence and the dark, the birds will sing out and the waters flow, and lights and shadows move across the hills and the faces of our friends laugh upon us with amazed recognition" (paragraphs 19 and 20).

So why does Lewis do this?  Why does he portray an after-life that is so jarring to our traditional understanding, even to his own past depictions.  Why something so obscure and even confusing?

Well, one does indeed wonder until we remember Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield.  Barfield sees the soul through its participative and figuring power as capable of creating reality.  In a sense, the soul is the source of being of the world we perceive and categorize.  The soul has a creational power.  Now when you remember this, the lights come on, don't they.  Lewis is saying the human soul - augmented, as it were, by its union with the creative power of the life of Christ Himself - is going to be the source of the New World and the new life to come.  Yes, Christ is going to prepare a place for us, but he is going to do so through his enabling union with our souls.  And as Barfield anticipated centuries of human life as necessary for the recreation of the human idea of reality in this world, so Lewis says it is going to take aeons for our souls to recreate the new world.  It's a Barfieldian resurrection; a Barfieldian after-life.

Why does Lewis do this?  Does he really believe that this is the nature of the resurrection?  He says he's only guessing.  He certainly has not depicted the after-life in this fashion before.  You will recall that, though Lewis went along with a lot of what Barfield said about the powers of the soul, he stopped short at their ability to actually affect objective reality.  Is it possible - and frankly, it strikes me as just the kind of thing Lewis might do - that he is here at the end of his book winking at Barfield and saying, "OK, Owen.  All these years I've denied this much power to the soul, but I tell you what.  I'll grant it to you in the after-life!  There all things are possible - even your idea of the soul."

Well, all this philosophy and intellectual endeavour to find answers to problems that arise about Christian prayer is meant to ultimately help us to pray, not just understand things about prayer.  In the end, its only real use is to bring us into the presence of God.  And there is one part of Letters to Malcolm that I think is especially helpful in this respect and I wish to close with it.

As I promised, let us go back to letter 4, the one in which Lewis asks the question "What, then, are we doing?"  This question pertained to the issue of why we should make our requests known to an omniscient God.  How does Lewis answer this puzzle?

Lewis writes:  "We are always completely, and therefore equally, known to God.  ...Ordinarily, to be known by God is to be, for this purpose, in the category of things.  We are, like earthworms, cabbages, and nebulae, objects of Divine knowledge."  That is, he knows we are there, praying, and he knows our requests.  "But," says Lewis, "when we (a) become aware of the fact - the present fact, not the generalization - and (b) assent with all our will to be so known, then we treat ourselves, in relation to God, not as things but as persons.  We have unveiled.  Not that any veil could have baffled His sight." [We remember the irony of Adam hiding from God in the garden.]  "The change is in us."  We have put ourselves on a personal footing with God.  Or rather, we have recognized the calling to a personal footing with Him that He makes in the gospel and we have opened ourselves to it.  Engagement with God in prayer is engagement in personal relationship.  I Cor. 1:9: "God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord," and that's why we pray, even to an omniscient God.

We see this very kind of activity in prayer that Lewis is talking about in Psalm 139.  David has come to God in prayer and he spends most of his time in this psalm recognizing that God knows him.
139:1 "O lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. 2 Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. 3 Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. 4 For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. 7 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? 8 If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. 9 If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; 10 Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me."

No matter where David is or what he is doing, he knows that he is known by God.  And then - following Lewis' pattern we just read- at the end of the psalm, he unveils, as Lewis describes it: he invites himself personally to be known by God:

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: 24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Why would anyone want to unveil themselves to God?  What is the driving force behind this willingness to be so known by God - to open ourselves up to the searching eye of a holy God?  To take that risk!  Remember Screwtape's words,  "There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!"

We could say it is because we know, if we do not, our prayers will not be answered.  There is a sense in which our petitionary prayers have a precondition that, as we make known to God things that are "on our hearts," as we say, we have to also be ready for the Lord to take up other matters that are in our hearts as well.  If we are reserving ourselves consciously from God - again, like Adam - we are shutting down the personal interaction of fellowship which prayer is really supposed to be about.  David says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." He will of course still know me and hear my words out of his omniscience, but that knowing that is hearing has broken down.

But Lewis takes us beyond this motivation to a higher one.  He writes, "By unveiling, by confessing our sins and 'making known' our requests, we assume the high rank of persons before Him.  And He, descending, becomes a Person to us."  A personal relationship is a two-way street, isn't it.  If I allow someone else to know the secrets of my heart but they do not open their selves up to me, there can be no friendship, can there?  But if they mutally open their hearts to us, then the relationship grows.
Lewis had said that God "becomes a person" to us when we unveil ourselves.  He goes on to explain:
"But I should not have said 'becomes'.  In Him there is no becoming.  He reveals Himself as Person: or reveals that in Him which is Person.  For .. God is in some measure to a man as that man is to God.  The door in God that opens is the door he (that is, the supplicant) knocks at.  The Person in Him ... meets those who can welcome or at least face it.  He speaks as 'I' when we truly call Him 'Thou'."  As much as I am willing to open my heart to Him, He will open His heart to me; and a personal relationship ensues, and then who knows where that will lead!  Jesus said, "He that loves me shall be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him." (John 14:21).

The chief motivation for unveiling ourselves is the soul's hunger to know God, for to know Him - we find - is life.  As we open ourselves up to Him, He opens Himself up to us.  And when He does, our hearts start as we recognize Him as our very life - we realize in our experience what Augustine meant when he said "quia fecisti nos ad te, et inquietum est cor nostrum, donec requiescat in te" - "for you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

Our petitions to God are only a part of what we call our life of prayer - at least they should be.  They are a portion of our whole experience of being a child of God - someone on whom God has set his love through Christ and called into a fellowship, a sharing of life and service, leading to a deepening knowledge of the love of God for us, that will never end.  Lewis knew that fellowship, and when he talks about this mutual unveiling of ourselves and God, he is calling us to follow him to everlasting life.  May we do so.

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