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A Commentary On The Psalms From Primitive and Mediæval Writers Volumes 1 To 4 by Rev. J.M. Neale D.D.

Gregorian. Office of the Dead. My soul * is athirst for the living GOD: when shall I come and appear before the Presence of GOD?

Ambrosian. My soul * is athirst for Thee, O GOD. Kyr. Kyr. Kyr.

Monastic. (In Septuagesima.) Heal my soul, O LORD, for I have sinned against Thee.

Quignon. Hope * thou in the LORD, for I shall yet give Him thanks.

Parisian. Hope thou in GOD, * my soul: the salvation of my countenance, and my GOD.

1 Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O GOD.

The sons of Korah,* as we are expressly told by Moses, died not when Korah perished; and to them it was that the temple music became in great measure entrusted. The names of those sons who thus escaped when the earth opened, were Assir, Elkanah, Abiasaph; and the tradition of the Jews is that their family was illustrious for the gift of prophecy, even down to the time of Solomon. To them are attributed Psalms 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 84, 85, 87, 88. Eusebius speaks of eight in all; but he perhaps counts the 43rd as theirs, because although it is now called a Psalm of David, it has usually been considered a part of the preceding compositions. Mediæval writers remark how here, as so often, it was the will of GOD to raise up saints where they could hare been least looked for. Who would imagine that from the posterity of him who said, “Ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Aaron,” should have risen those whose sweet Psalms would be the heritage of the Church of GOD to the end of time?

We have already seen how the hart,* or hind, is a symbol of our dear LORD. Here, before entering again on the same type, it will be well to give the various proprieties of the hind, as seen by early commentators.

Clune natans portat: vocat Hydros: cornua mutat:*

Cor senis ossescit: salit: et sitit; et juveneseit:

Sylvester: sapidus: vivax: velox: sine caudâ:

Pes durus: fulvusque pilus; venatio fœtus.

Pugnat ob uxores: fusâ pinguedine squallens.

Surdus demissis: bene rectis auribus audit.

Remember that it is the sons of the Cross, the true Crusaders against the world, the flesh, and the devil, who take this Psalm in their mouth. And who then shall we say is this hart, this morning hind, with whom their song begins? Who but He Whom we saw so lately as the hind persecuted to death by the hands of His pursuers? And during that chase, while on the one hand false witnesses stood up against Him, and laid to His charge things that He knew not, and on the other, Chief Priests and Scribes were exclaiming, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save,” here we learn what that was for which during the long course of that weary day, this Hind thirsted. For so He had said Himself long before, “I have a Baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished;” and so He said in the midst of His Passion, “I thirst.”

O JESU mirifice

Quid est quod agebas?

Tu de siti conquerens

De cruce silebas:

Non quod hoc doloribus

Magis sentiebas:

Sed salutem potius

Nostrum sitiebas.

Yes; it was for the salvation of the whole race of man which lay at the end of His course, that He then thirsted, when that prophecy of Job was fulfilled: “Is there not an appointed time to man upon earth?” That is, a time appointed for his salvation: “are not his days also like the days of an hireling?”* That is, do not his days of eternal life depend on the days of Him Who is a true hireling, “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of GOD.”* But as, of old, Achsah desired the upper springs, so did our Hart pant not only after those waters of His Passion, but also after those upper springs which were to depend on them, the grace of the HOLY GHOST Which “was not yet given, because that JESUS was not yet glorified.” And just as we saw in that verse where the voice of the LORD is said to “prepare the hinds,” that they may be a type of CHRIST’S people, as well as of CHRIST, so also we may understand it here. And what waterbrooks do they pant for, save that most precious stream which floweth from their LORD’S side for the cleansing of the whole world? And so again, if not for the water of Baptism now, because that has already taken place once that it might be for ever, yet at all events, for the every-day forgiveness of transgression, which is a part of the effect of Baptism. Wherein it is written so marvellously in the Nicene Creed: “I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of”—not sin, but—“sins.” And this, not as if those Fathers of Nicæa imagined that Baptism would be usually conferred on adults, but because, full of the HOLY GHOST as they were, they saw that there could be no forgiveness of actual sins, except that which is founded upon Baptism as upon a base; since none could receive the power of the keys unless he was baptized, any more than the benefit of them could reach an unregenerate man. And therefore very meetly was this Psalm part of the early Office of Baptism;* and I have already quoted that beautiful hymn in the Gregorian Antiphonary:

Currite sicut cervi ad fontes vivos verbi:

Bibite aquam vivam: habetis plenam vitam.

Well, then: as CHRIST Himself desired His Passion; as the Confessors of old drank and were refreshed of the graces of the HOLY GHOST; so, say the sons of Korah, longeth my soul after Thee, O God. It is hardly worth while seriously to refer1 to that interpretation of S. Augustine, which nevertheless was the stock allegory of the Middle Ages. “It destroys serpents, and after the killing of serpents, it is inflamed with thirst yet more violent; having destroyed serpents, it runs to the water-brooks, with thirst more keen than before. The serpents are thy vices; destroy the serpents of iniquity, then wilt thou long yet more for the Fountain of Truth.”2 And so again in that the hart is the only animal which brings forth its young with pain, here they see a type of that Passion by which our LORD, so to speak, brought the Church, then not existing, into the world. S. Peter Damiani makes a beautiful use of the metaphor in his “Rhythm on the Glory and Joys of Paradise.”

Ad perennis vitæ fontem

Mens sitivit arida,

Claustra carnis præsto frangi

Clausa quærit anima:

Gliscit, ambit, eluctatur

Exul frui Patriâ.

2 My soul is athirst for GOD, yea, even for the living GOD: when shall I come to appear before the presence of GOD?

First notice the very remarkable reference which there here is to the Blessed Trinity. For God: the living God; the Presence of God. And observe that here, as almost always, it is the First Person of the ever-blessed Trinity Who is mentioned without any epithet or qualification of Deity. And then, with respect to our LORD, it is well said, the living God. For, as we have just been hearing Him speak in the days of His Passion, so it is only fit that we should be reminded of His Resurrection. And yet once more. When shall I come to appear before the presence of God? That GOD, the Blessed SPIRIT, Who evermore dwells and manifests Himself in His regenerate people; when shall they who have hitherto been His hosts in His temple, go to be His guests in that temple which, as the love of the SON has prepared for them, so the love of the SPIRIT has prepared them for? As it is in the Vulgate: My soul is athirst for the mighty, living God: and some copies of it read,* instead of fortem, fontem. To God which is my living fountain.1 On this verse again the Belgian poet, Herman Hugo, has an elegy of such rare beauty that I cannot refrain from quoting some of its verses:

O qui sidereas ducis fortissime turmas,

Cui ciugunt decies millia mille latus,

Quam tua regifico radiant prætoria luxu!

Mens stupet et tantæ languet amore domus.

Stat placidus positis aquilonum flatibus ether,

Servat et eternus longa serena tenor.

Sed neque flammantes liquido lavat æquore currus,

Nec subit occiduas sol fugitivus aquas:

Nec premit astra dies, neque sol fugat ethere stellas,

Nec premitur lassus nocte fugante dies.

O qui sidereas habitas, Rex maxime, sedes,

Quot tua deliciis affluit illa domus?

Jam flagrat et studio nimis inflammata videndi,

Mens desiderio deficit ægra suo.

But there can be no lovelier commentary on the verse than that of S. Bonaventura, when he says, “What would I not give to behold the multitude, composed not only of victors from among every tribe of men, but of Angels, of Archangels, of every dignity of the celestial hierarchy? Of these I may speak; of these I can perchance think: but of the King Who is in the midst of them,—but of the LAMB That liveth, and yet hath, as it were, been slain, what voice of man can say a single word, what heart of man can think a single thought? My soul is athirst for that city which is the dwelling-place of all Angels, all saints: where eternal salvation abounds as from an overflowing fountain; where truth reigns, where none deceives or is deceived, where nothing that is beautiful can be ejected, where nothing that is wretched can be admitted.” It is not wonderful that most of those saints who have preached on the passion of S. Stephen, should have referred to this text. Let us end our commentary on it with a quotation from the noble sequence of Adam of S. Victor:

Forward, champion, in thy quarrel!

Certain of a certain laurel,

Holy Stephen, persevere:

Perjured witnesses confounding,

Satan’s synagogue astounding

By thy doctrine true and clear.

Lo, in heaven thy Witness liveth:

True and faithful proof He giveth

That His martyr’s cause is right:

Thou by name a crown impliest;

Meet it is in pangs thou diest

For a crown of glorious light.

For a crown of life unfading

Bear the torturer’s brief invading;

Victory waits to end the strife:

Death thy heavenly birth revealeth;

And thy latent pang unsealeth

To thy soul a truer light.

3 My tears have been my meat day and night: while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy GOD?

Where is now thy God? It has been the question from GOD’S enemies from that time to this. “Who are they among all the gods of these lands that have delivered their land out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?”* “Then she that is mine enemy shall see it, and shame shall cover her which said unto me, Where is the LORD thy GOD? Now shall she be trodden down as the mire in the streets.”* Where is thy GOD? (Ay.) It was the question demanded of those early Christians when their great persecutor entered in the records and stamped on the medals of the empire that the Christian superstition had been utterly destroyed. But notice this. They daily say unto me. You will observe that wherever time is thus reckoned by days in the Psalms or in the Prophets, it is almost always in a prophecy of good; whereas if it be counted by nights or months, it is almost always a denunciation of ill. (G.) Then how can it be said that so blasphemous an inquiry of the enemy can in any sense be good? Let S. Paul answer. “In nothing terrified by your adversaries, which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of GOD.”* My tears have been my meat. (A.) Compare with this the promise in Ecclesiasticus of him that feareth the LORD, “With the bread of understanding shall she feed him, and give him the water of wisdom to drink.”* Thus we learn that true penitence is the only way to true wisdom: and in this sense also is that reply of S. Bonaventura admirable, who, when he was asked where he had acquired all his marvellous wisdom, pointed to the crucifix. The best food of the soul,* says S. Gregory, is that sorrow for sin which it conceives within itself, when it understands the love that died for sin. And further observe day and night. (Ay.) As the Carmelite says: It is easy enough to sorrow for sin in the night of adversity: so Saul did when being forsaken by Samuel, he cried out, “I have sinned.”* So Ahab did, when being threatened with destruction by Elijah, “he rent his clothes and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.”* But to sorrow for sin in the day of prosperity, that is the true repentance which GOD loves: that explains the ancient proverb.

ἀγαθιὶ δʼ ἀριδάκρυες ἄνδρες

The good man is a man of many tears.” Hugh of S. Victor,* one of the greatest masters of the ascetic life that there ever was, thus speaks: “I will be fed with grief, I will earnestly seek by tears, I will call by groans, until the presence of Him Whom I seek shall put an end to all. I will weep because He Whom I long for is absent. I will weep because that which I love not is present. I love not present infelicity; I desire future beatitude; and so I love both the upper springs and the nether springs: the upper, because my soul desireth to GOD its living fountain; the lower, because it is said to me, Where is thy God? The one pertains to the present misery, because the rebukes of them that rebuked GOD have fallen upon me: the other to future glory, because it is written, ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ ” I cannot help quoting a beautiful passage of Gerhohus with reference to this, (G.) the last verse: “O my soul! O thou that thirstest for the mighty living GOD, behold, thou hast found the virgin flower full of Divinity, fortitude and might, grace and truth! Draw honey from it, like the sagacious little bee; draw honey for thyself, draw honey for the whole Church, assiduously crying in thy prayer to the same GOD; Holy GOD, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us. Holy GOD, to Whom frankincense, Holy Mighty, to Whom gold, Holy Immortal, to Whom myrrh is offered, have mercy on us who offer frankincense to Thee, because we believe Thee GOD to be adored, and honoured with sacrifices: gold, because we confess Thee the King of all wealth: myrrh, because we proclaim that Thy Body, once mortal, is now embalmed with the myrrh of immortality and incorruptibility. Have mercy on us all and on each: each, that Thy SPIRIT may dwell in the soul and body of each one of us, to the intent that our whole spirit, and soul, and body may be preserved blameless until the coming of our LORD JESUS CHRIST: on all, that the whole priesthood of the whole Church may truly offer to Thee that most lucid incense, pure and holy prayer: so that as the LORD’S Body was preserved from among the dead, the Body of His Church may, through the myrrh of continence, be kept free from the corruption and filth of sin.” And then it follows, These things having been so done by the LORD, and done in the Church, and in every member of the Church, When, O when shall I appear before the presence of GOD?

4a (4) Now when I think thereupon, I pour out my heart by myself: for I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of GOD.

4b (5) In the voice of praise and thanksgiving: among such as keep holyday.

I must first give the translation of the Vulgate on account of its marvellous beauty. These things I call to remembrance, and I poured out my spirit within me: for I will pass over into the place of the admirable tabernacle, even to the house of God. In the voice of exultation and confession; the sound of him that feasteth. The question is, to what thereupon refers. And most of them answer, (D. C.) to the panting of the hart after the water-brooks. That is: While I think of the LORD’S Passion, I pour out my heart that I in my sufferings may in my poor measure be like Him in His. By myself. For, as S. Thomas says, then are we most with GOD, when we are without the company of man. But if we take in the first place the words in their literal sense, and in the future, as they ought to be, I shall go forth to the tabernacle, you must see David, having crossed the Jordan, in his flight from Absalom, looking back over the swelling waters of which we shall hear more presently, and comforting himself in the thought that, though the great river now rolls between him and Jerusalem, the day will come when he shall again return to the temple, (Ay.) and to the temple services. And then comes the remarkable mystical interpretation. Why should we speak of the tabernacle rather than the temple? For tent, though it still was, in his own time, yet he rarely so calls it, and could hardly be expected to do so, when he is contrasting the perpetuity of its services with his own exiled and fugitive condition. Why, but for this cause? that the Son of David, also, having passed the Jordan of death, would take up these words with reference to that which was in one sense the temple of His Body, but which in another view might well be called a tabernacle, seeing that like a tent it had now been taken down and laid aside. It is not wonderful that the words of the Vulgate have kindled some of the highest aspirations of mediæval poets: but of none more than of Bernard of Cluny in that glorious passage where he says:

Est ibi pascua, mitibus afflua, præstita sanctis:

Regis ibi thronus, agminis et sonus est epulantis.

Gens duce splendida, concio candida, vestibus albis,

Sunt sine fletibus, in Syon ædibus, aedibus almis;

Sunt sine crimine, sunt sine turbine, sunt sine lite,

In Syon ædibus editioribus Israelitæ.

Others again take the passage of the entrance of a Catechumen into the Church militant, (A.) which certainly is only the tabernacle of GOD, hereafter to be changed into the temple, that Church triumphant, which can never be taken down.

5a (6) Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul: and why art thou disquieted within me?

5b (7) Put thy trust in GOD: for I will yet give him thanks for the help of his countenance.

As these two verses are triply repeated, I shall reserve their consideration till we come to the last repetition, when it will most conveniently fall under our notice.

5c (8) My GOD, my soul is vexed within me: therefore will I remember thee concerning the land of Jordan, and the little hill of Hermon.

First, let us consider the literal sense. And the Bible version is: O my God, my soul is cast down within me: therefore will I remember Thee from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar. But such a hill as Mizar never existed: and the Vulgate gives the meaning most correctly; and of the Hermons,1 from the little kill, or from the lowest descent; that is, the whole territory in which the victories of the children of Israel over Sihon and Og had originally been gained. And the way in which GOD is to be remembered concerning the land of Jordan, has given rise to an infinite number of mystical interpretations. How it was there that the nether waters fell off to the Dead Sea, (Ay.) and the hither waters stood up on a heap “very far from the city Adam:” that is, that here, as it were, first, GOD made a division between the righteous and the wicked, the latter being cut off from the congregation of His people, and finding their just portion in that sea where nothing living can exist; whereas His true servants, who remained joined to their source, rise up on a heap, that is, are lifted up towards heaven: and all this very far from the city Adam, that is, from the original fall of man. That is one interpretation. Then again: they call to mind the way in which first at the prayer of Elijah, and then at that of Elisha, (D. C.) this same river gave a passage to the Prophets of GOD. Whence they conclude how every servant of GOD ought to be comforted by this thought, that no physical hindrance can keep him from performing that work which is appointed to him by his Master. And then again in a deeper sense still, (G.) “I will remember Thee concerning the land of Jordan, that territory of death, the “Jordan” which divides the desert of this world from the land of promise, and of which our LORD took possession, when He said, “It is finished.” The little hill. Some of the interpreters will have this to be the same with the mountain above the little city of Zoar,* where Lot, seeking for safety, fell into his great sin. I will remember Thee. And therefore others, applying the whole text to our LORD see in the river Jordan the remembrance of His Baptism, and in Hermon that of His Transfiguration; the latter called a little hill not in itself, but because He, Who made it the scene of His glory, was, nevertheless, a little lower than the Angels. And yet again: others see in Jordan a type of Baptism; in Hermon,* which by interpretation is “cursing,” or an “anathema,” the renunciation therein made of the devil and all his order, (A.) and in the little hill, that grace of GOD which is only given to the humble; as it is written, (Cd.) “GOD resisteth the proud, and giveth grace unto the humble.”

7 (9) One deep calleth another, because of the noise of the water-pipes: all thy waves and storms are gone over me.

First let us take the literal sense. And no doubt David was looking down on the river which he had just passed in the time when it was swollen into cataracts of water, which is the word that both the Vulgate and the LXX. give. And any one who has seen the bore either in the Severn or the Seine, the roar of which can be heard for many miles off, may have a fairly clear comprehension of that which the exiled king then saw; and to which he compared the state of the Jewish Church then, as others have done that of the Catholic Church from then till now. But the great meaning eagerly seized on by the writers of both the Eastern and Western Church, for those words, Deep calleth unto deep, or as it is in their versions, Abyss calleth to abyss, has been one and the same: the depth of our misery calls to the deep of GOD’S mercy. If I were to quote those who have thus employed the verse, I should be quoting well nigh all penitential writers from the time of our LORD. But there is also another explanation, which, if it be brought forward by fewer, has at least great authorities,* which would see in both these abysses, that which S. Paul expresses: “O the depth of the riches,* both of the wisdom and knowledge of GOD!” That is: in the first place an abyss which would seem utterly to ruin and overwhelm the Church, was it not that a contrary miracle of mercy comes to set her cause right: a providence which follows a Diocletian with a Constantine, a Constantius with a Theodosius. In another sense,* Arnobius takes the first abyss to signify the SON, the second the FATHER; the SON, Who when He called on the FATHER, immediately the cataracts of heaven were open,* and the HOLY GHOST came down. Others understand the first abyss of the infinite wisdom laid up in the prophecies of the Jews; the second abyss, of the vast multitude of the Gentiles, and one inviting another to become a part of the future Church. In a sadder sense one depth of sin involves another and a still deeper abyss,* hurrying on the sinner from this to that. But no doubt the true mystical sense is the first, that of man’s misery and GOD’S mercy: and this on account of that which follows. Abyss calleth abyss in the voice of Thy cataracts: that is, in the midst of that wrath which Thou pourest out against sin and as a propitiation to which I have given Myself up to the Cross. And then it well follows; (D. C.) All Thy waves and storms have gone over me. For on Him, on Him the Only-Begotten, on Him the only-beloved, GOD poured forth not this or that suffering, not this or that denunciation of anger, as against individual sinners; but all at once, as all being poured forth on Him, on Whom the whole weight of the sins of all the world was laid. It is very well said by Hugh of S. Victor in reference to the Vulgate: All Thy lofty things and Thy waves have passed over me: “Tribulations are called high things,* because they raise us up on high. Terrene felicity causes us to cleave to the earth. Adversity and tribulation disjoin us from perishable things, and raise us to those which shall last for ever: just as S. Chrysostom says on S. Matthew: As the rain which descends on the earth raises up the tender plants, so tribulation, falling upon the soul, causes it to spring up towards heaven.”

8 (10) The LORD hath granted his loving-kindness in the day-time: and in the night-season did I sing of him, and made my prayer unto the GOD of my life.

And first, what is the day-time and what is the night-season? They give innumerable explanations; why GOD’S loving-kindness should be confined to the former,* as if it were not equally shown in the darkness of adversity: and again why any praises should only be sent up to Him in tribulation, and not in the time of prosperity. But it is better to take it with Gerhohus. The day-time was the period in which our LORD JESUS CHRIST dwelt on earth: (G.) the words are the words of the Church: and the night-season is the long track of years from then till now, in which our LORD has been absent, and the hope of His second appearance must make up for the joy of His actual presence. And how did He not grant His loving-kindness in that day-time? By what miracles, by what parables, by what labours, by what sufferings did He not express His love to that world which He came to save? And in the night-season will I (1) sing of Him and (2) make my prayer.* But why in this order? Is not prayer to precede praise? Does not the supplication for deliverance from evil come before the thanksgiving for preservation from it? Are we not taught first to say, “Deliver us from evil,” and then, “For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory?” For this reason: that, after the time of praise such as this world can allow, there will come a period when thanksgiving must be silent altogether, and there can be nothing but prayer. That is, they look forward to that time of Antichrist when the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and so the great oblation of the Church’s thanksgiving will come to an end: when from those few scattered servants of GOD who remain without a priest and without a temple, what can there be but earnest prayer, that, for the elect’s sake, those days may be shortened? And to the God of my life. For see how even then, GOD will show Himself as the GOD that has power over death, and the quickener of all things. For when His acknowledged worshippers on earth will be reduced to the two witnesses, and they shall have been slain, then it follows with respect to Him Whom the Church calls The God of my life: “After three days and a half, the spirit of life from GOD entered into them, and they stood upon their feet;”* just as, long before, we read in the typical vision of Ezekiel; “Thus saith the LORD GOD.… behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the LORD.”*

9 (11) I will say unto the GOD of my strength, Why hast thou forgotten me: why go I thus heavily, while the enemy oppresseth me?

The translation of the Vulgate is quite different: With me is a prayer to the God of my life: I will say to God, my upholder art Thou,* why hast Thou forgotten me, &c. My upholder. And how could He have upheld this weakness of our own, but by taking it upon Himself? How could He have enabled our body to rise at the last day victorious over death, unless He had Himself assumed that body? And therefore it is well written: I will say unto God. (D. C.) That is, I will remind Him That is GOD, of what He has suffered as Man; I will bring to the recollection of Strength, what it felt in the time of His weakness. And Hugh of S. Victor tells us how the two verses,* this and the preceding, in their contrariety of assertions, show the true bearing of a loving soul: first it is, The Lord hath granted His loving-kindness; and then directly after, Why hast Thou forgotten me?

10a (12) My bones are smitten asunder as with a sword: while mine enemies that trouble me cast me in the teeth;

10b (13) Namely, while they say daily unto me: Where is now thy GOD?

In what sense are we to take this sword? Is it to be the sword of the SPIRIT, which pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow: that is to say, the conviction of sin? Or is it the attacks of Satan, the first part expressing the same as the last part? It is to be observed that in the Vulgate we have it, While my bones are broken, mine enemies have upbraided me who trouble me. (It is hard to say why the sword of the Hebrew original is in this version omitted.) (Ay.) Others take it as the complaint of the Church, how her chief saints, the bones, as it were of her strength, are smitten asunder, are destroyed by the power of Satan. While they daily say unto me. This upbraiding we have so often met with before, that it need not detain us now.

11a (14) Why art thou so vexed, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me?

11b (15) O put thy trust in GOD: for I will yet thank him, which is the help of my countenance, and my GOD.

As we shall have occasion to consider these verses again at the end of the next Psalm, we need say nothing on them here.

And therefore:

Glory be to the FATHER, in Whose presence we shall come to appear; and to the SON, the Hart That desireth the water-brooks of our salvation: and to the HOLY GHOST, the GOD of our strength;

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

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