Collect

Collect for the Ascension

Grant, we beseech thee, Almight God: that like as we do believe thy Only Begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Ten Years in Rome

‘You know I’m not one for a life of mourning. I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him … the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do: to set up a rival good to God’s. … It may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end.
‘Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand.’
‘I don’t want to make it easier for you,’ I said; ‘I hope your heart may break; but I do understand.’ 
—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited 
Trying to appreciate a thing is a good way to find that thing’s best qualities, and men are things, especially to a hustler. Many men are heroic in their refusal to be pathetic, and hustlers are sometimes the only people to get a glimpse of a man in his loneliness, or in the weakness of his desire. And it is sometimes only by seeing this contrast—of a man on his knees who is normally an image of strength—that we can perceive the heroic aspect. 
—Rick Whitaker, Assuming the Position

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Welp. As of March 23rd (by the civil calendar) or 31st (by the liturgical), I’ve now been a Catholic for ten years. Weird.


I feel like I should have some “What have we learned?” shit to offer; and, I guess, I sort of do. I’ve definitely learnt that Catholicism is much more human than Protestantism. The idealism of my Calvinist upbringing was a severe, bloodless thing, without the tenderness of flesh or the warmth of breath, unable really to imagine a Christian still entangled in disobedience. The bad Catholic, such a staple of life and art, was a hissing and a byword to my Protestant compatriots: proof that Catholicism didn’t “work.” It was not, as Catholics like the late Fr John Neuhaus would put it, evidence of the power of the Catholic Church to retain ‘the affectionate loyalty of the erring.’

I’m often eager to defend Protestantism to my fellow Catholics, and not only because my mother is a convinced Protestant—I have no higher an opinion of Catholic snobbery today than I did ten, or twenty, years ago. Yet I did after all leave Calvinism for Catholicism, and I think that, subconsciously, this was one of my reasons: I could be a bad Catholic and still be a Catholic. I couldn’t be a bad Protestant at all; that notion was excluded by the Protestants’ own definitions. For in most of the versions of Protestant theology I knew, obedience was the fruit of real faith—which meant in turn that a lack of obedience suggested a lack of faith. Addiction, weakness, and backsliding were understood, in an abstract way; but there were no Protestant versions of Francis Tarwater or Fantine or Sebastian Flyte. Little though I liked to admit it, Pharisaic idealist that I was, I could not breathe that air.

And, well, there’s little use denying it: I couldn’t be a good Protestant because I’m gay. Not that no gay people make good Protestants, but I sure couldn’t. I’m a fiercely sensual creature, with intense admiration of and limited capacity for asceticism. As a bad Catholic, I can manage.


Not that any of this was explicit in my mind when I converted. In my conscious mind, everything was about the intellectual dimension. The sole, simple question was whether (as far as I could discern) Catholicism was true; and the answer to that question was Yes. And although I understand myself now far better than I did then, I don’t regret my answer, nor think I arrived at it for inadequate reasons. If I did I’d probably leave the Church. But, as frail and foolish as I was even then, I believe that in becoming a Catholic, I struck rock. And my ten years on that rock, as difficult as they’ve often been, have only reïnforced that conviction.

It is, no doubt, ridiculous to imagine that I know What My Life Is About at the age of 30. One can hardly grasp the question’s meaning until one’s early teens; and then one is rather preöccupied with hormones and the merry hell they play with, just, everything, for the next ten years, so that one’s power of concentration is curtailed. But, if I have learned any of the things that my life is about, a recurring theme is that God loves mangled things.

That matters for me, because I’m a mangled thing. My earliest introductions to sexuality, and specifically to my sexuality, were internet porn and a series of encounters that have to be described with the word ‘statutory.’ And—partly because of that—at 30 years old, I’m still a scared, shy little boy in a lot of ways.

There are those who would object to me describing myself as mangled. I am more than my wounds, more than my sexuality, more than my history, whatever. To them I can only say that it’s no charity to try and take my wounds away from me. There’s a triumphalism and a weird shame about being sad that pervades American culture, including American Christianity, including American Catholicism. As though suffering and pain constituted some kind of moral failure. And yes, self-pity and wallowing are bad for you; so are repression and fake niceness. Telling a mangled person that their wounds aren’t real or aren’t important is demeaning, not encouraging. More deeply, the urgency with which some people object to this sort of language hints at something: a belief, perhaps unconscious, that really God doesn’t love mangled things, that he has the same shallow addiction to the obviously attractive that we do. That his love is as flawed and self-interested as ours.

And anyway, what does that sort of aversion to darkness have to do with the Scriptures—looking not only to Job’s protests or Jeremiah’s laments or Abraham’s horror of great darkness, not only to the Passion itself even, but to the attitude evinced by Christ and his Apostles after the Resurrection? Where are Jesus inviting Thomas to put his hand into the gash in his ribcage, or Paul’s glorying in weakness and knowing nothing but the Crucified? That gash was a different thing on Easter Sunday (and is now) than it had been on Good Friday, but it was still a gash. I don’t know what glory is going to look like, but the mess and the hurt are going to be in it, in a way that makes them beautiful.
Crown him the Lord of love!
Behold his hands and side,—
Rich wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright!

I still don’t know where my life is going, toward a boyfriend or permanent singleness, and I no longer know how much that matters. But I’m a lot more okay with that than I used to be. Like I said, I’m a scared little boy; and even though I don’t exactly trust this purported Father that I’ve barely met, I’m not as set on running away and hiding as I used to be. I’m too shy to say much or ask for anything, but I can watch and listen a little. And that's something.

You must learn to bear for God’s sake the trial of being displeasing to yourself, said St Teresa. I used to hate that quote so, so much; but it’s become a favorite. We are far less patient than he is.

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13 comments:

  1. Thank you for your words and your bravery

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  2. Your piece triggered thist thought for me: as a mom, something I've noticed is that sometimes such a tender love is elicited from me when I see my toddlers (and it's usually them, because they're so confused and yet trying to be big boys and girls) weeping over some trifle that is yet incredibly important to them, covered in tears and snot and dirt. I imagine that God experiences this with us all the time.

    Ad multos annos!

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  3. I've always hated that first quote from Brideshead because of how it reaffirms Catholicism's own hypocritical distinction between "regular old sinners" (who, as you say, we are much more tolerant of than protestants) and then this concept of those "living in sin" (who are often treated just as poorly). The two-tiered system is a false dichotomy anyway, and I'm glad Francis is breaking it down with things like Amoris. There is no such thing as a "sinful lifestyle," there are only discreet individual instances of sin, period. The "living in sin" category just leads to the absurdity of the thinking that somehow it is better to keep visiting prostitutes every Friday, repent and confess on Saturday, and take communion on Sunday...then to have a committed relationship. Or that we'll wink at rich men who have mistresses, actively cheating on and potentially exposing to venereal disease a wife they publicly maintain and continue to make bear their children...but then spit on the divorced and lovingly remarried even when the originally married mutually no longer make any claims on each other.

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    1. I don't have a much higher opinion of the "regular sin versus living in sin" dichotomy than you have, but I'm willing to give it just a little more credit, because I think it represents (clumsily) the real distinction that exists between human frailty and human obstinacy. Now, that distinction doesn't correspond neatly to the quasi-traditional categories of merely sinning versus living in sin; which is why it's as well to dismantle those categories. But the categories were an inadequate attempt to denote something that really does exist.

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  4. Calvinism is an interesting bird. Catholicism's doctrine on predestination (at least, the coherent Thomistic variety; I heard Molinism was only tolerated by the Pope to not embarrass the Jesuits) is actually very very similar.

    Much more similar than people realize (I have had to explain to many people that "Free will does not mean you think it means," because they don't seem to understand how Primary Causality relates to Secondary Causality...though the analogy of the author of a story as cause of everything in it, versus the internal causal logic *within* the world of the story sometimes helps).

    But, of course, with subtle differences that make all the difference in terms of how the idea actually functions in our whole philosophy. (In our philosophy...it basically becomes a wash and besides being something we vaguely have to acknowledge to remain coherent about God's sovereignty...it's consideration doesn't really effect our behavior in the sort of meta-spiral that come to afflict protestants).

    One funny thing about Calvinism is that it can be argued that its monstrosity actually, in the end, leads to universalism. I know a nice progressive lady who is a ministress in the Presbyterian Church (USA)...and when I asked her about Calvinism's absolute double positive unconditional predestination, and how that squared with how "nice" and "liberal" and, well, wishy-washy the modern Presbyterian Church (USA) was...basically the answer came down to, "Well, the historical playing out of the logic was that, in the end, the only way to square God's sovereignty as we knew it with His love as we knew it...was in the end to realize that He must predestine *everyone* to heaven." Probably not what John Calvin imagined, but is sort of the final resolution of the tension and horror in his logic.

    Of course, you say God loves mangled things. And I know what you mean. But let's be careful, metaphysically. Indeed, one of the great things about Catholicism's love of "bad Catholics" is our understanding that God doesn't love us because we are good, rather we are good because God loves us and to the degree that God loves us (and that love, in the mystery of iniquity, is simply inscrutable, His own sovereign choice). Which means, though, that while God loves everyone (inasmuch as He wills them at least the good of existence; and ambivalence over whether existence is itself a good is at the root of all the problems of modernity)...God loves some people more and some people less, inasmuch as love is willing the good of another, and we are not all willed every good. We are not all loved by God into the supreme holiness of the Virgin Mary. That efficacious grace simply isn't granted to all of us, though I suppose we must say the sufficient grace is (though, I've always been much foggier on what we mean when we speak of a sufficient but not efficacious grace given that we teach that efficacious grace is *by nature* efficacious, not merely conditionally on our free will, and that sufficient grace is truly sufficient but by nature, and not merely by foresight, non-efficacious).

    The funny thing is, Protestantism accuses Catholicism of works righteousness, but then they just adopt it under another guise. Sure, they pay lip service to the idea that our salvation is purely God's choice, but then they also assert that God's grace WILL make the saved act good...and so then there is still this neurotic pressure to act good, though officially it isn't framed as "in order to be saved" but rather goes from ontology to epistomology as it were, its motive becomes "in order to be sure you know you are saved," in order to prove it to yourself, not to cause it, in some rather circular self-fulfilling-prophecy type paradox that doesn't plague Catholicism nearly so much.

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    1. Here I differ with you somewhat, at least rhetorically and maybe in substance too. Personally I find Scotism and Molinism more attractive and intuitive than Thomism; when I first encountered a Thomist articulation of predestination, it struck me as a less calcified version of Calvinism, which did not really recommend it to me. (This may be merely an effect of the particular Thomist I was reading, whose book on predestination included a ten-point footnote on the very first page explaining why the Douai-Rheims is the best translation ...) Rhetorically, I've never liked the expression that God loves some people more than others, because -- even with the philosophical explanation that this means he wills greater or more numerous goods to some people than to others -- it is, to say the least, a very chilling expression to the affections. But additionally, I find the artistic analogy one of the most helpful in understanding God, and the idea of an artist loving one work or character more than others is false to the whole artistic process. Every detail in any work of art contributes to the whole: small no less than large, peripheral no less than central, subtle no less than accented. I find it much more illuminating to think of it in terms of God willing different kinds of good to us, as a jeweller in making a necklace out of emeralds and diamonds chooses stones of many different kinds and sizes, each of which makes its own proper contribution to the piece. Maybe this is logically the same as what you're saying; I prefer this mode of expression because I don't find it heartless and alienating, whereas the impression I take away from "God loves some people more than others" is almost inevitably heartless and alienating.

      When we come to the Thomist doctrine of predestination proper, and particularly to the distinction between sufficient and efficacious grace, though, I find the Thomist explanation totally unsatisfying. If it's been correctly explained to me and I've correctly understood it, sufficient grace is enough to prompt conversion in the human heart, but only efficacious grace actually does so. But St Thomas, if I'm rightly informed, also said that the nature of a thing is determined by what it always or usually does. So if sufficient grace never effects conversion then how the hell is it sufficient? And if efficacious grace always does, in what sense is man's will free? I'm prepared to hear answers to these questions, but thus far I haven't heard any I found satisfying. I don't expect that any theory of Providence is going to exhaust the mystery; it is surely one of the subtlest in all theology; but, for me and as far as I've been exposed to it, the Thomist doctrine doesn't even illuminate the mystery.

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  5. Of course, in the end, the important thing to remember is that Catholicism emphasizes holiness, not "virtue." Oh, sure, we talk a lot about the virtues, theological and cardinal. And holiness itself involves, I suppose, faith hope and charity most of all. And we teach those come with the infused cardinal virtues too. But let's not confuse the infused virtues with the acquired virtues, even though they are related as counterpart.

    As Francis says in Amoris Laetitia "Saint Thomas Aquinas himself recognized that someone may possess grace
    and charity, yet not be able to exercise any one
    of the virtues well in other words, although
    someone may possess all the infused moral virtues, he does not clearly manifest the existence of one of them, because the outward practice of that virtue is rendered difficult: “Certain saints are said not to possess certain virtues, in so far as they experience difficulty in the acts of those virtues, even though they have the habits of all the virtues”."

    I think some of our Catholic pharisees would read that and be scandalized and call it heresy, probably quoting the council of Trent, totally out of context, on "God gives all the just sufficient grace to fulfill the commandments" blah blah blah...and yet it is right there in Aquinas!! So maybe they should consider just what is meant by "fulfill the commandments" here! (There is only one great commandment, in the end, and a second one that is like it...)

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  6. Yes “in what sense is sufficient grace sufficient?” is the weakest point of Thomism, or at least the one I’m least clear on, as I said.

    But the rest of the system seems quite correct. Because we have dogmas to deal with. I might be inclined towards Molinism and such too if I were merely trying to come up with a system from scratch or evaluating the systems purely out of context. But we have a series of fixed dogmas on the matter, and though both systems are tolerated as not heretically denying any of them...Thomism seems to “connect those dots” in a much less tortured way that the alternatives. I do take elegance and occam’s razor as criteria, perhaps you do not quite so much.

    Sufficient grace is the hard thing to define. Reconciling efficacious grace and free will is not hard at all, though, for a variety of reasons. “Free does not mean what you think it does.” Free means something like free to realize our nature. Think of a magnet that is free versus on bolted down. The free magnet is free to fly towards objects of attraction. The fact that it inevitably flies towards the strongest object of attraction isn’t coercion though, but rather the fulfillment of its nature AS magnet. The non-free magnet is the one bolted down or being moved against its nature by human hands. Our will is something like a “Good magnet,” ie a magnet whose object is the Good.

    But even if there are flaws with this analogy, there’s also simply the deeper truth that when the Church says our will is free, it means only in terms of secondary causality. Nothing is excluded from primary causality including our freedom. Our wills are not somehow causes independent of God.

    But this is why I come back to the book analogy. There are two levels of cause, one within being that works “horizontally” in chronological order, and one “underneath” being that sustains it at each moment.

    So we may ask “Why did Ms Havisham go crazy” and answer in two perfectly valid ways depending on which “frame” we’re talking about: “because she was jilted at the altar” refers to the internal logical order within the story, but “Because Charles Dickens wrote it so” is, while a bit tautological, also absolutely true. That God works through a coherent internal-to-the-universe secondary causality (just as a good author does), doesn’t mean each step in that, at each moment, including our free will, isn’t also being Primarily caused by His own authorial choice underneath every word written. Yet, we cannot attribute evil to Him just as we cannot say the villainy in a story makes the author evil (yet with a holy author, we might indeed attribute the characters’ *virtues* to those of the author, since good is a presence you need to have in order to give others, but evil is merely an absence and so merely a withholding—that you don’t give in a given case doesn’t mean you didn’t have).

    But sufficient grace is still sticky. It’s connected in some way to the concept of God’s universal salvific will, I know that much; inasmuch as that will in Catholic teaching is expressed through sufficient grace and is rendered something meaningful thereby (even though actual efficacious grace may not be given to all). But what it means to be sufficient but intrinsically non-efficacious...I’m still thinking that one through.

    In the authorial analogy is may be something like...that there were always potential storylines where we choose good, even if those are not the lines that are actually taken. But that there’s never a case where our characterological logic simply would make a final redemption into crappy storytelling (in the way, to go back to brideshead, some critics accuse the patriarch’s deathbed conversion as clumsy on Waugh’s part and too much of a 180 which makes one aware that the whole thing is just a work of fiction and breaks the suspension of disbelief, etc etc; art should never draw attention to its own artifice.)

    But that’s not completely satisfying yet to me, so I’m still working on it.

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    1. I'd consider myself committed to Ockham's Razor; however, I weigh the "fewer entities" criterion a little differently.

      Let's take the example of Richard III and the princes in the Tower. The commonest account since Tudor times has been that Richard III had them killed to secure his throne. This is, in one sense, the most economical explanation, since it neatly accounts for why the princes were not seen or heard from again after Richard was killed and Henry VII took the throne. However, it is so starkly out of character for Richard to have done such a thing that I consider it *less* parsimonious to accept this account than to suppose that the princes' disappearance was in fact the work of Henry VII, and that pinning the blame on Richard was a cover story that muddied the evidence. The former explanation requires us to, in a sense, invent another entity -- i.e., Richard's markedly out-of-character conduct -- while the latter accords more smoothly with the known facts about the principal actors, and is, in that sense, more parsimonious.

      So here; the absolute number of things to be considered vis-a-vis the doctrine of Providence is not (in my opinion, that is) the sole metric of what makes for a parsimonious understanding. For that matter, determinism is as parsimonious as it gets.

      I certainly agree that free will is something more than the power to choose between alternatives, I would insist even so that it is not less, as (to my mind) the magnet analogy would seem to suggest. As I said, I don't expect any system of theology to be able to plumb the depths of free will; but, no matter how harmonious they are with Ockham's Razor, I'm prepared to rule out any that seem to plumb those depths by emptying the term 'free' of meaningful content. I take human freedom to be the necessary condition for us to love God back. And, yes, we were made to love God, so that in that sense refusal of him is a violation of our own natures in one sense, and sets us in that state of war with self which in time is called sin, and in eternity is called hell. But such refusal is also a capacity of our natures insofar as we are free -- otherwise there could be neither sin nor hell -- and it is, precisely, an example of that capacity to choose between alternatives, without which love could not exist (as humans understand it; and while we may be drawn higher, we ought not to sink lower).

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  7. I’ve thought and thought on this, and I have never come up with any account of what “freedom” could possibly mean or how it could exist IF (like many people these days, including possibly you it seems) it involves some notion of not merely freedom from external coercion, but even something like freedom from any internal nature whatsoever. Surely freedom must mean freedom FOR something, and that something is the realization of our own selves. You are free *to be/become your self.” You are not free to not be yourself, that would be meaningless.

    The notion of freedom you describe makes the free will into just a sort of arbitrary random number generator.

    We are actually LESS free vis a vis God’s primary causality in that account of things, because if the will is like a random number generator...God’s primary causality could have us generate any random number He wanted (I believe the non-deterministic nature of the quantum world probably works like that, though, and allows Scientists an opening to still admit of the absolute sovereignty of Providence and the potential for miracles).

    But if the idea of freedom is, instead, that we are all an “idea” conceived in the mind of God that God “lets free” in the unfolding of that idea’s own internal logic and nature within His story, even if that unfolding of ourselves sadly ends in damnation...then this is much more freedom if you ask me, because instead of “random” “choices”, God is in a sense committed to allowing to be realized what was in the seed of the Subject He loved into existence, without altering its trajectory once He so creates it (not altering it internally, I mean; He still guides us in the external circumstances).

    When you let a balloon “go free”...it rises. To me that’s perfectly natural. For me it is incoherent to imagine that letting a balloon go free means that it might go up OR down depending on...random spontaneous whim, or something like that.

    I also think “choice” doesn’t even make sense if it isn’t rooted in a Subject. Rocks and animals and quantum particles don’t “choose” even when their behavior is random. Rather, they just “happen.” A (free) Choice implies that the decision in question is the result of the internal logic of an actual subject/character unfolding.

    This is the only account of freedom that makes any sense to me. Not that it is some sort of causless randomness, but that it’s the sort of irreducible outcome that can only be known with certainty to anyone by letting it actually “play out,” by actually running through the calculations as far as that point with no short cut to model it other than letting the thing itself Be.

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    1. Oh, I don't at all mean that we're free of our own natures. That, I agree, would be incoherent. However, I'd parse what constitutes our natures, something like this:
      1. Our intrinsic purpose as human beings (final cause)
      2. Our intrinsic desires and powers as human beings (formal cause)
      3. Our individual desires and powers, as ourselves rather than somebody else (material cause, sort of)
      I take free will to be a power of all human agents -- therefore part of 2 as a "blueprint" and, in each individual human being, of 3 -- but, paradoxically, a power that by definition has the capacity to set 3 at war with 1 and 2. That, among other things, is what sin is.

      Hence I take sin to be acting contrary to our natures in one sense, because it defies 1 and 2, and even certain parts of 3. (Given the multitude of desires we have, probably almost every choice frustrates *some* aspect of 3; more clearly, we virtually never satisfy all our desires in any single act.) But it's certainly within our nature in sense 3; and I think 3 is probably equivalent, or very close to, your description of the unfolding idea in the mind of God, or the Scotist notion of haecceity. All the same, any act of free will, sinful or not, has to draw on the "raw material" of 3, because that's what choices are made about: whether we'll go with this or that desire.

      I don't think that that choice is random, which seems to imply something mechanical. But what I'm seeking to avoid -- and what, to my mind (perhaps erroneously), Thomism doesn't seem to avoid well enough -- is an equally mechanical account, where human nature is conceived as something that manufactures responses based on a divine "input."

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  8. Oh certainly then I think we are closer than I thought.

    As long as it is understood that free will is perfectly compatible with a sort of determinism, just a determinism INternal to the subject and irreducible except to seeing what the subject actually does.

    The choice we make in any given circumstance at any given stage in our development...is an expression and manifestation and revelation of who we are. This is why culpability, responsibility, and agency can exist at all.

    You sometimes hear the very liberal speaking as if the fact that someone “had” to do something means we can’t punish them. And if that “had” was external coercion, I agree. But if the “had to” was internal (ie, simply the result of their character)...then the truth is just the opposite; it’s exactly the fact that THIS character does such things that means we can blame them and need to lock them up. Our own choices aren’t bad luck or something like that...they express who we are.

    And yet, we also know we don’t exactly choose who we are either (where would that initial choice come from??) God makes us, we are formed by society, etc. But none of this is an excuse if who we are in the end turns out to be rotten, because the badness accrues to and inheres in us because it’s the badness of a Subject and we ARE the subject.

    How efficacious and sufficient grace map onto all this I need to think about. But perhaps you’re right that seeing grace as external input is problematic.

    But then, while not ourselves, God is “in” all of us, closer than we are to ourselves, so perhaps grace can somehow be parsed as “welling up” from God’s presence that is *already internal to us* rather “coming in” as from outside.

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  9. Well said, as always, Gabriel.
    Peace be with you!

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