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Science of Spiritual MedicinehrIllness of the Soul According to the Orthodox Church

If we look carefully at people today and modern society in general, we see immediately that they are dominated by the passion of love of pleasure or self-indulgence. Our age is pleasure-seeking to the highest degree. Human beings have a constant tendency towards this terrible passion, which destroys their whole life and deprives them of the possibility of communion with God. The passion of self-indulgence wrecks the work of salvation. A self-indulgent soul is not fit to become a vessel of the All-Holy Spirit or to perceive the presence of Christ within it.

This is a very important issue, and we shall analyse this passion in the following pages. We shall look at how it is expressed, examine its causes and try to describe how we can be delivered and freed from it.

We should state at the outset that self-indulgence is one of the main causes of every abnormality in man’s spiritual* [i.e., noetic] and bodily organism. It is the source of all the vices and all the passions that assault both soul and body. St Theodore, Bishop of Edessa, teaches that there are three general passions which give rise to all the others: love of pleasure, love of money and love of praise. Other evil spirits originate from these three, and subsequently “from these arise a great swarm of passions and all manner of evil.” Since love of money and praise include the intense sensual pleasure derived from wealth and glory, we can say that self-indulgence gives birth to all the other passions. Self-indulgence distorts the powers of the soul.

St John of Damascus makes the same point. “The roots or primary causes of all these passions are love of sensual pleasure, love of praise and love of material wealth. Every evil has its origin in these.” Anyone who wants to be freed from the passions, which actually means transforming them, must struggle first against the passion of self-indulgence, which is the most fundamental of all. Pleasure is the motivating power that directs the soul. Depending on what sort of pleasure motivates it, the soul either functions unnaturally or in a manner surpassing nature. If we take into account the fact that pleasure also enslaves the nous, we begin to realise the important implications it has for our salvation.

1. Names and Definitions of the Passion

Studying the ascetic writings of the holy Fathers, we come across various names given to this passion, including sensual pleasure, self-indulgence, sensuality and sweetness. Sensual pleasure means the gratification or enjoyment that a person feels from experiencing something, including an idea. Self-indulgence is our fondness for a certain action and, by extension, our love for the object or idea that provides this gratification. Almost the same can be said about sensuality, which is the enjoyment and delight felt mainly by the soul. According to Ilias the Presbyter, “The sensual person actually commits the sin suggested in thought.” “Being impassioned is the evil matter of the body; sensuality, that of the soul.” Whereas the impassioned man “is strongly prone to sin in thought,” even though he may not sin outwardly, the sensual man “actually commits the sin suggested in thought, even though he suffers inwardly” (Ilias the Presbyter). In other words, sensuality is mainly an internal illness of the soul, which desires and commits sin inwardly.

In general, as will be discussed below, the passion of self-indulgence acts in both body and soul and is the cause of every sinful act. Someone who is sensual and self-indulgent has a tendency towards evil. He continually thinks about what is bad, and is inspired and dominated by wickedness. His soul is dirty and foul.

2. Types of Sensual Pleasure and How They Function

The holy Fathers have written that the passions are unnatural impulses of the soul. They are not simply evil forces that have penetrated our soul and must be uprooted. They are energies of the soul that are contrary to nature. The natural workings of the soul are distorted, at the devil’s instigation and with our own free consent. The same can be said about pleasure. Sensual pleasure, as experienced by people like ourselves subject to passions, is natural pleasure moving in an unnatural direction.

According to St Maximos pleasure has a double meaning, positive and negative. He looks at the positive significance of pleasure in the passage, “He knows only one pleasure, the marriage of the soul with the Word”, which is “the natural longing of the nous for God.” Such pleasure is “necessary for the sustenance of human nature” and “beneficial” for the acquisition of virtue. Most of the time, however, pleasure works in a negative way, contrary to nature. Depending on whether the soul is healthy or sick, pleasure works either in a supranatural or an unnatural way.

St John Climacus gives a characteristic example. Someone told him about an extraordinary and extreme example of purity. He writes: “A certain man on seeing a beautiful woman thereupon glorified the Creator and from that sight alone was moved to the love of God and a fountain of tears. And it was wonderful to see what would have been a pitfall for one was for another the cause of heavenly crowns.”

Elsewhere St Maximos, with his distinctive theological astuteness and spiritual health, teaches that human nature by itself does not contain the inner principles (logoi) of what is beyond nature, nor the laws of what is contrary to nature. By referring to the inner principles of what is beyond nature he means, “The divine and inconceivable pleasure which God naturally produces in those found worthy of being united with Him through grace.” In other words, divine or supranatural pleasure is not simply a natural energy of the soul. It is a gift that God bestows by grace on those united with Him.

St John Climacus recommends that we pay careful attention, in case the sweetness that comes upon the soul and grows within it is “craftily prepared by bitter, or rather, treacherous, physicians.” God can bring pleasure to the soul, but so can the devil. Since the devil works with deceptive cunning and is often “transformed into an angel of light”, no doubt he will sometimes bring about apparently spiritual pleasure in order to enslave a person’s nous and secretly steal his love.

We should not, therefore, pay much attention even to spiritual pleasures, since we are dominated by passions and may become victims of deception and the devil’s prey. The pleasure that comes from God is free from all internal disturbance, whereas the devil’s pleasure, even if apparently good, contains an element of disturbance.

Adam was captivated by the idea of deification. This idea, which had been suggested by the devil, was a source of pleasure. It was, however, deceptive and caused him pain and suffering, spiritual and bodily death. That is why the holy Fathers say that “false and deceptive pleasure” brought about the Fall and the death of Adam.

Pleasure is linked with pain. The enjoyment of evil pleasure – pleasure working unnaturally and wrongly directed – produced suffering and sorrow. There is, therefore, a close relationship and interdependency between pleasure and pain, sensuality and suffering. Pleasure brings suffering and the experience of suffering is the negation of pleasure. St Maximos says, “Just as night follows day and winter follows summer, so distress and pain, now or in the future, follow self-esteem and sensual pleasure.” The enjoyment of sensual pleasure creates distress and pain, both in the present and in the future. The more someone indulges in sensual pleasure in this life, the more he will suffer in the next life. It is very significant, as Ilias the Presbyter teaches, that after the Fall desire and distress entered man’s soul and pleasure and pain his body. Moreover, “sensual pleasure is the cause of pain.”

We have already mentioned that according to the teaching of St Maximos, “Pleasure and pain were not created simultaneously with the flesh”, but were “invented” by the transgression. St Maximos writes characteristically, “Because of the irrational pleasure that invaded human nature, purposeful pain entered in, through many sufferings. It is in and from these sufferings that death originated.” Irrational pleasure brought rational pain, resulting in man’s physical and spiritual death. The pain and suffering we feel is the result of experiencing unnatural and unreasonable pleasure. St Gregory Palamas also teaches that, in the world of transgression, in our fallen condition, pleasure within lawful marriage for the purpose of procreation cannot be called a “divine gift” because “it is carnal, and the gift of nature, not grace, even though God created nature.”

Although God created nature, nevertheless the pleasure in marriages blessed by the Church – while it is not subject to condemnation – is not a divine gift, but something carnal and natural. Besides, the way in which man is conceived, develops in the womb and is born is the “garments of skin”, which he put on after the Fall. This process did not exist before man’s Fall. It was introduced after the Fall, not before.

Although the same sensual pleasure lies concealed within us all, many different forms can be distinguished. Pleasure, says Ilias the Presbyter, establishes itself in all parts of the body, “but does not seem to disturb everyone in the same way.” We can say the same about its effect on people’s souls. In some it disturbs the appetitive aspect of the soul, in others the incensive aspect and in others the rational aspect.

We can divide pleasure into various categories. There is the pleasure of thinking and reasoning, the pleasure of desire and the pleasure of accomplishing something. Some people enjoy daydreaming and reflection. This is the sensual pleasure of the rational part of the soul. People who like speaking about God using their rational faculty and human speculation also fall within this category. This is another way of satisfying the passion of sensual pleasure, which is why the holy Fathers teach that pure theology comes from hesychia and chastity. Studying the truths of faith speculatively is a way of expressing and experiencing the sensual pleasure that exists within us. People who are in the grip of passions but do not want to commit sin externally, because of the position that they hold, find an outlet in daydreaming and speculation. As we have said already, in the final analysis this is a means of sensual indulgence.

There are people who enjoy desiring a certain act but who, for various reasons, do not want to commit it. This pleasure excites all the soul’s energies. On the outside such a person is moral; on the inside, however, he is sick. Indulging in this kind of pleasure does not allow a person to have a pure spiritual life.

In the teachings of the Holy Fathers we see that prayer must be linked with the entire ascetic teaching of the Church, otherwise it does not help a person to be inwardly purified. What is more, those who are possessed and pervaded by this secret internal pleasure can never make a full confession. Only when they resolve to rid themselves of this inner wound can they confess sincerely.

According to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, such passions as heresy, atheism and ingratitude are based in the rational part of the soul, those such as unchastity and gluttony are cultivated in the appetitive part of the soul, and passions like hatred, wrath and remembrance of wrongs thrive in the incensive part. Taking this into account, we realise that the sensual pleasure that develops in all three parts of the soul is closely connected with these passions.

Sensual pleasure is not only linked with unchastity and the so-called carnal passions, but also with heresy, hatred, ingratitude, remembrance of wrongs, atheism and so on. Some people find pleasure in atheism and others enjoy hating and persecuting their fellow human beings. It is a many-headed beast and not always easy to discern. In certain major and obvious transgressions sensual pleasure is easy to identify, but it is more difficult to recognise when linked with hatred, ingratitude or heresy. People are usually gratifying their sensual desires when they fight against God or hate their brother. Also, our inclination to win praise and acquire material goods is a concealed way of indulging in sensual pleasure. We want glory, power and money in order to satisfy the passion of unnatural self-indulgence.

Sensual pleasure is not just a many-headed beast; it is also very peculiar. It has its own particular ways of working that make it manifest and betray its presence, but also hide it. I shall not dwell on this point, because we have already touched upon it, but I would like to stress that, according to the teaching of St John Climacus, a proven teacher of the spiritual life who uncovered all the hidden movements of the soul, “Those inclined to sensual pleasure often seem sympathetic, merciful and prone to compunction.” This is an extraordinary statement that shows how squalid passions, particularly love of sensual pleasure, can be hidden under supposed virtues.

How can someone who is merciful and prone to compunction tell if he has the passion of self-indulgence? St Mark the Ascetic teaches that, “The self-indulgent are distressed by criticism and hardship; those who love God by praise and luxury.” When the self-indulgent man is criticised and slandered, he removes his sheep’s clothing, the clothing of compassion and compunction, and turns into a beast, a rapacious wolf. Someone who loves pleasure cannot endure hardship or reproach, whereas someone who loves God is saddened by praise and greed.

3. The Origin of Sensual Pleasure

Everything mentioned so far indicates the origin of sensual pleasure, how it develops and who is responsible for it. It should be emphasised that our own freedom plays a significant role in its development. As our whole biblical and patristic tradition teaches, when we freely accept the initial provocation, all the powers of our soul are distorted and pleasures contrary to nature develop in both body and soul.

The devil sows sensual pleasure. According to St Maximos, “The devil is both the sower of sensual pleasure, through voluntary passions, and the inflicter of pain, through involuntary sufferings.” Voluntary passions are all those sins we willingly commit for the sake of pleasure and involuntary sufferings are the pain and grief that result from pleasure, although occasionally they have nothing to do with pleasure. The devil is the sower of pleasure and the bringer of pain. He is the malicious doctor who poisons the soul with sweetness and prompts man to commit sin.

The holy Fathers teach that, “All physical pleasure results from previous laxity, and laxity results from lack of faith” (St Mark the Ascetic). Every kind of bodily comfort, such as sleep, food, drink, too much relaxation, indulging the senses, excessive recreation of the wrong sort – everything that represents laxity and the avoidance of hardship – gives birth to pleasure. Laxity comes from lack of faith. When a person does not believe in God, when he does not await His Second Coming and denies it, he falls into a state of laxity and starts living a sensual life. That is when sensual pleasure begins, and it nurtures disbelief even more.

St John Climacus, the author of The Ladder, shows us other causes of self-indulgence, which demonstrate its idiosyncrasy. He writes that sometimes singing in moderation relieves anger, but sometimes immoderate and untimely singing “lends itself to the lure of pleasure.” Thus self-indulgence can be caused even by too much singing. The holy Fathers therefore recommend us to avoid anything that promotes the passion of self-indulgence within us, even apparently good things, like singing psalms and hymns. St John advises, “Let us then appoint definite times [for singing] and make good use of it.” Self-control is needed even with singing, because if it is done to excess it provokes self-indulgence. In another passage the same saint says that those who love God are moved by melodies and songs “to gladness, to divine love and to tears, both by worldly and spiritual songs; but lovers of pleasure to the opposite.” It all depends on the devil and the soul’s disposition. The self-indulgent person satisfies his love of sensual pleasure by singing hymns and psalms. Special care is needed on this point.

4. The Consequences of Self-indulgence

Having described what constitutes self-indulgence and what causes it, we should now look briefly at the harm it does in our life and the distorting consequences of this passion.

According to St Mark the Ascetic, “Impassioned self-indulgence and the many pleasures that deceive the soul are the cause of all vice.” All passions can be traced back to self-indulgence. It is the forerunner and forebear of every passion. “All sin is due to sensual pleasure” (St Thalassios). We know that every thought comes with the aim of exciting pleasure, which will then capture man’s nous. If this happens, the captive nous can be led into any sin. Ilias the Presbyter teaches that someone who is virtuous, in other words, who practises the external virtues, may do something wrong as if by force, without really wanting to, because in the depths of his soul he is self-indulgent. Thus the self-indulgent person has evil deep within his soul, which impels him on every occasion to put it into practice. Thus he destroys himself: “The sensual person is liable to harm himself” (St John Climacus).

Sorrow, pain and suffering come from indulging in sensual pleasure. As we discussed above, in the grace-filled asceticism expounded by the Fathers pleasure and pain are linked. The person who enjoys pleasures more than he should, “pays for the excess a hundredfold in sufferings” (St Mark the Ascetic). Someone who worries and suffers a lot in his life, or is distressed by the evils that befall him, shows that he has the passion of self-indulgence.

The thoughts of the self-indulgent person hang in the balance. They continuously vacillate between different states. “Sometimes he laments and weeps for his sins, and sometimes he fights and contradicts his neighbour, pursuing his own sensual pleasures” (St Mark the Ascetic). He is in a state of schizophrenia. Even when he displays repentance, it is superficial. A little later he is ready to indulge in those pleasures of which he previously repented.

The lover of pleasure also loves money and possessions in general. He wants to be rich, so that he can indulge himself. “The self-indulgent person loves wealth because it enables him to live comfortably” (St Maximos the Confessor). In order to indulge his love of pleasure he needs material goods and money. So he tends to acquire lots of money and property.

The gratification of the desire for sensual pleasure, or even its non-gratification, incites the passion of anger. This is plainly evident during adolescence. When teenagers want to indulge in a pleasure and are prevented by their family environment, they immediately lose their temper and flare up. They cannot handle the situation with composure and calm. The same happens with all of us. Indulging ourselves makes us sad and angry, but if we are unable to indulge ourselves, we are infuriated. Everything is against us. The beast of sensual pleasure within us demands satisfaction and nourishment. If it is not satisfied, it roars. That is why Abba Dorotheos teaches: “Wrath is caused by various things, but mostly by love of pleasure.” A certain saint, as Abba Dorotheos tells us, used to say, “I strip away pleasures, in order to cut off the pretexts for anger.”

Longstanding desire for pleasure, whether gratified or not, leads the nous to despondency. Despondency is indifference and lack of concern about eternal life. In such a state a person does not want to struggle in order to keep God’s law. He has no desire to pray; he does not feel inclined to work. We succumb to despondency through self-indulgence. “If the nous lingers on pleasure or sorrow, it swiftly falls into the passion of despondency” (St Thalassios). Self-indulgence gives rise to negligence, and negligence to forgetfulness of God (St Mark the Ascetic). Forget-fulness, which means banishing the remembrance of God, accompanies despondency. “Love of self love of pleasure and love of praise banish remembrance of God from the soul” (St Theodore, Bishop of Edessa). As we have no remembrance of God, God does not dwell within us. We are no longer a temple of the All-Holy Spirit. Self-indulgence is like leprosy, according to St Diadochos of Photiki’s description. He teaches that when a soul is covered in the leprosy of self-indulgence it cannot feel the fear of God, even if someone reminds it every day of God’s great and terrible judgement. In such a state a person is completely leprous, completely dead. He is incapable of any perception or fear of God, because his god is pleasure, which he worships every day.

One consequence of this is that the lover of pleasure avoids stillness. He is completely unable to be on his own. He cannot experience hesychia, which is the “science of thoughts”. Stillness of the body and hesychia of the soul are both incomprehensible and impossible to him. Just as a fish avoids the hook so “a pleasure-seeking soul shuns hesychia” (St John Climacus).

The state of the self-indulgent person appears at its most terrifying when he is departing this life. This present life with all it attractions and comforts feeds his soul and body. He cannot live without these things. When his life is drawing to a close and he sees that he will lose all his material goods, he feels terrible discomfort, because he did not nurture spiritual pleasures and did not rejoice in the sweetness of divine love in this life. Being accustomed to finding satisfaction in sensual pleasure, he seeks gratification through his passions even then. Thus, at the hour of death and following the departure of the soul from the body, the passions, because they cannot be gratified, literally choke the soul. If a single thought can stifle the soul even now, how much worse will it be for the soul then, when all the passions demand satisfaction and the body does not exist to satisfy them. That is why St Mark the Ascetic writes, “A self-indulgent heart becomes a prison and chain for the soul when it leaves this life; whereas a diligent heart is an open door.”

The lover of pleasure cannot live the life of God within himself. The created world is his god, which he worships more than God. The lover of pleasure is completely unable to experience God’s energy. His passions do not allow it. Abba Isidore told someone, “It is impossible for you to live according to God if you love pleasure and money.” We have no hope of meeting Christ while we are slaves to the pleasures of the flesh. “With what hope will we meet Christ if we are still enslaved to the pleasures of the flesh?” (St Thalassios). St Maximos is clear and categorical: “Let no one deceive you, monk, with the notion that you can be saved while you are a slave to sensual pleasure and self-esteem.” This statement deals a blow to those who teach many superficial things on the subject of sensual pleasure, trying to accommodate views that are completely incompatible. The truth is that no one who is enslaved to sensual pleasure and self-esteem can be saved.

5. The Cure for Self-indulgence

As self-indulgence is the fundamental passion from which all the other passions and every type of evil spring, anyone who longs to free his nous and be liberated from the tyranny of the passions of the flesh, must turn his attention in this direction. St Ni-kitas Stithatos teaches that the person who is starting the struggle for godliness and is a beginner in the war against the passions, “must battle unremittingly and through every kind of hardship against the spirit of self-indulgence.” His main struggle is against the passion of self-indulgence. This is where the battle for inner freedom starts.

It is not enough, however, just to want to be freed from the passion of self-indulgence. We must also be experts in this type of warfare. Every war is waged differently. One rule in this inner warfare is that we must struggle against the causes of the passions. This also applies to self-indulgence. We examine where this passion comes from and what provokes it, and turn against this cause. “For our sins are eradicated once we come to hate what causes them and do battle against it” (St Theognostos). We should not only avoid the causes but also hate them. This is achieved by true repentance, which is the source of genuine healing.

Apart from warring against things that provoke sensual pleasure, we also have to experience suffering. We have already mentioned that, according to the grace-filled ascetic teaching of the Fathers, sensual pleasure is linked with pain. Gratifying the desire for pleasure creates pain and experiencing pain annuls pleasure. When we speak of experiencing pain, we mean involuntary afflictions and voluntary asceticism: sickness, deprivation, death, self-control, fasting, vigil and so on.

St Maximos teaches that “suffering is the death of sensual pleasure.” It is necessary for us to suffer, because this is how we are cured of pleasure. “We have to suffer because our ancestor involved our nature with sensual pleasure.” Moreover, St Maximos teaches that nearly every sin is committed for the sake of pleasure, and pleasure is annulled by hardship and sorrow. By hardship and sorrow he means both voluntary hardship for the sake of repentance and the affliction that comes through the divine Economy, “brought about by God’s providence.” Pleasure is cured by hardship, either the voluntary hardship of repentance, or the involuntary hardship arising from the difficulties that befall us in life. Repentance, which is godly sorrow, destroys pleasure. “The destruction of pleasure is the soul’s resurrection” (St Thalassios).

We can say the same thing about difficulties in our lives. We face all the ordeals that come upon us through divine providence with patience and forbearance, believing that this is how we are freed from the passion of self-indulgence. We do not reject suffering because we know that suffering is part of regeneration. It wipes out past pleasure and enables us to see what really benefits our soul. However, the holy Fathers advise great patience in this struggle. Ascetic practice requires patience and forbearance: “Continuing diligence banishes love of pleasure” (St Thalassios). The soul must be diligent and industrious; it must love hard work. “Patient endurance is the soul’s diligence; where there is diligence, self-indulgence is banished” (St Thalassios).

All the ascetic effort of the Orthodox faith is counted as diligence, including self-control, prayer, fasting, vigil and obedience. Ilias the Presbyter teaches that subjection to passions is obliterated from the soul through fasting and prayer, and self-indulgence through vigil and silence. St Thalassios says that “self-control, patience and love, accompanied by longsujfering” dry up the sensual pleasures of body and soul

St Nikitas Stithatos teaches that we make the spirit of self-indulgence inactive by fasting, vigil, prayers, sleeping on the ground, bodily labour and cutting off our own will in “humility of soul.” At the same time, we keep it immobile and ineffective with tears of repentance, and lead it into the prison of self-control.

Ascetic practice of both body and soul helps to cure us of the passion of self-indulgence.

Disdain of pleasure comes through fear or through hope, through knowledge of God or love for Him (St Maximos the Confessor). Through fear of damnation and of God, or through the hope of Paradise, or through spiritual knowledge of God and love for Him, in other words, through our communion with Him, inner delights evolve. We are then freed from external pleasures. The development of inner senses of perception liberates the soul. That is why the Orthodox Tradition constantly refers to the transfiguration of sensual pleasures. God and the life of God fill man’s soul and do not allow it to seek fulfilment in sensual pleasure.

Since we are all beginners in this spiritual contest and do not know what to do in each particular situation in our lives, or where exactly to direct our attention, obedience to a discerning Elder is required. With his own personal experience, but also by God’s grace, he will see the passions lurking within us and heal us.

St John Climacus writes that, when he was in a deserted place outside a cell where hermits lived, he heard them raging against someone who was not present. They berated him with bitterness and anger as though he were actually there. He then advised them to abandon the solitary life, “lest they be changed from human beings into demons.” Also, he saw others living in monastic communities who, although they were sensual and corrupt, were “affectionate towards the brethren and lovers of beautiful faces.” Outwardly they were polite, charitable to others and affable. St John Climacus advised them to follow the hesychastic way of life, “lest from rational beings they should be pitifully changed into irrational animals.” In the first instance, the hermits were in danger of becoming demons and in the second, the monks were in danger of becoming irrational beasts.

However there were others, St John Climacus continues, who told him that they fell into both evils: sometimes they were angry and sometimes self-indulgent. He stopped them organising their own lives and advised them to live in obedience to a discerning Elder and to do whatever he advised them. This shows that self-indulgence is a very dangerous passion, which manifests itself differently each time and so needs to be handled differently on each occasion. Sometimes hesychia helps and sometimes life in a monastic community. This can be determined by the discerning and dispassionate Elder. He is the physician who unfailingly heals the wounds of man’s soul.

We must throw ourselves into the struggle to be cured of the wretched passion of self-indulgence, which closes us in on ourselves and does not let us see things clearly or open ourselves up to God. If we love sensual pleasure we cannot love God. Self-indulgence is the sin of those living in the last times. St Paul the Apostle writes to Timothy, “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous., .lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:1-2, 4).

Lovers of pleasure cannot live a spiritual life or feel the sweetness of divine love. They cannot, and do not want to, see life beyond the senses. They are enclosed in love of themselves. They do not confess fully. When they confess their sins, they direct their attention only to the margins and never see the basic problem, so they find no benefit in confession. Self-indulgence is an experience of Hell starting in this life and leads to the unbearable bitterness and suffering of the Hell to come.

May God free us from its tyranny.

…continued here.

Metropolitan Hierotheos of NafpaktosThe Science of Spiritual Medicine

(* Spiritual = noetic. We should depart from ever understanding spiritual in any Platonist terms.)

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