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Harvesting Theological Abundance From Elizabeth Seton’s Story


Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton wrote no theological treatises, nor did she lecture at a seminary or university. But it would be incorrect to say that her life was devoid of theological content. She lived her life out of a deep spirituality grounded in the soil of solid theology. From the seeds of her life and writings, we may harvest three themes, rich with theological meaning: memory, hope and presence. In these life experiences she found the seeds of transformation.

Memory moved her to forgiveness.
Hope moved her to imagination.
Relational presence moved her to ministerial fruitfulness.

These ideas: memory, hope and presence, describe aspects of ordinary human experience where all of us may encounter the holy mystery of God that surrounds us.



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How we tell the story of our identity – personal, communal, ecclesial – keeps changing. It unfolds in time and place. As we move from place to place, we see ourselves differently. We go away to study or relocate for some sabbatical time, our place of work or ministry changes, we move ourselves and our family somewhere new, and the dislocation allows us to understand ourselves in new ways. Time does that too. Think of moments when you have asked yourself, “Who am I?”. The answer you may give at 68 certainly differs from the answer you gave at 18 or 38.

Our past is “raw material, shaped and reshaped by each individual,” As we shape our story, as we “compose a life,” Mary Catherine Bateson tells us, “there is no way to know which fragments of the past will prove to be relevant in the future.” So it behooves us to preserve those “fragments of the past.” Memory is key to identity.

Christians and Jews understand well the centrality of memory. Our God is a God of history, a God who has entered into human experience. The Exodus event, the Exile and return, the eruption of Jesus, God’s flesh and blood, into our world, all tell of a God who hears the cry of people in pain, a God who remembers the promise of covenant love: “I will be your God, you will be my people.” We remember a God who remembers us.

When Christians gather in worship, we believe that we call to mind these past events of our people’s story in such a way that they become present and effective now. The past lives anew in us now. We call this anamnesis. We “re-create the world…, repeating ancient stories in ever-new contexts, and thereby ‘redeeming the time’ by remaking it.”

Memory served Elizabeth Seton as a unique key to understand her life and God’s presence in it. In 1810, even while in the throes of family and community difficulties, Elizabeth wrote to her friend Eliza Sadler in New York:
…it seems to me I can see you and look within you while you were writing; every article of furniture plants etc round you, and the spot where every thing stood I can bring to the minds eye as distinctly as if they were in view but an hour ago, … — have you this treasure of memory –

Sometime between 1812 and 1818, Elizabeth wrote a reflective memoir called Dear Remembrances, possibly at the request of her priest friend and spiritual director Simon Gabriel Bruté at a time when she was seriously ill. It also may have been her way of processing her memories and grieving after the death of her oldest child, Anna Maria, in March 1812. In any case, she makes note of happenings when she was as young as 4 (when her 2-year-old sister Catherine died). We can imagine her, quill pen in hand, pondering, ruminating, laughing, crying, praising, as her memory recalls moments in her teenage years, on through her marriage and motherhood, the fateful voyage to Italy in 1803 with her very sick husband, her conversion and move to Baltimore, the beginnings of her school and then her community in Emmitsburg. The memoir ends with an entry about the death of Anna Maria, followed by a meditation on Eternity.

Elizabeth Seton told the story of her life over and over in parts and pieces and various ways. In our day, she might have been a dedicated texter and Tweeter! Through her many letters and journals she kept pondering and probing her life, letting its mystery and wonder and heartache and abundance be revealed. Memory helped her make connections between the parts of her life: her family and friends, her relationship with God, her work. They were not three separate aspects of herself but integrated.

What is significant, I believe, is that throughout Dear Remembrances, she remembers not just external events but the quality of her response to them, her inner thoughts and feelings. Memory serves as a tool by which she integrates her experiences, always with a profound sense of grateful awareness of God. “It would be such INGRATITUDE to Die without noting them,” she writes. In 1810 she shared with her friend, Julia Scott, vivid recollections of happier times 15 years earlier:

I remember when Anna was six months old and every thing smiled around me, venerating the virtues of my Seton and sincerely attached to him, accustomed to the daily visits and devoted love of my Father, possessed of all I estimated as essential to happiness, alone with this Babe in the see saw of Motherly love frequently the tears used to start and often over flow, and I would say to myself while retrospecting the favours of heaven, – all these and heaven too?

Even when the memories were difficult, as when she recalled her post-conversion years of struggle in New York, she turned them into reasons to give thanks: “Most painful remembrances now – yet grateful for them – the order of our Grace so evident through ALL”


The God whom Elizabeth met in memory was an accompanying God who fulfills the promise to meet her (and us) in each moment. Flowing from this experience of God, she leaves us a lasting spiritual legacy in her signature sense of meeting your grace, being present to the grace of the moment. It was not an original theme; early in the 18th century the Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a French spiritual writer, had written about the “sacrament of the present moment.” It reflected the incarnational spirituality that was a major feature of the French School of Spirituality which so influenced the French Sulpician priests who were Elizabeth’s advisors in Maryland. God waits to meet us in every person, event, experience, action.

To live in this incarnational awareness is not easy. No less a theologian than Charlie Brown (of Snoopy fame) captures it well: “I love humankind. It’s people I can’t stand.” Elizabeth and her Sisters knew the rub of dealing with the annoyingly concrete, particular “other” whom we meet in the hall, the committee room, the kitchen, the office, the classroom. She knew the pull that we sometimes feel – to get away from all the muck and mess of everyday life, to retreat to the desert or the mountain.

One of the early sisters was a refined, educated soul from Philadelphia who longed for a life of quiet and prayer. Instead, she had been sent on mission to the orphanage in New York, the city that was popularly known at the time as “Babylon the Great.” Elizabeth’s advice to her was bracing: “This is not a country my dear one for solitude and Silence, but of warfare and crucifixion.” She challenged her not to run away from an incarnate, flesh-and-blood life, but to live it fully, with purposeful awareness of its potential to reveal God. In the words of the poet Wallace Stevens: “The way through the world/Is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.”

As she looked back in memory, Elizabeth could find ample reasons to trust the God of the now. To a Sister going away on mission, she gave this advice: “Keep well to what you believe to be the grace of the moment. You will so often be at a stand for what is best in a situation so new, but only do your best as you always have done, and leave the rest for our dear God.”


Memory, as we well know, does not always bring pleasant recollections. It can burden us heavily, even intolerably. In Elizabeth’s transformation story and ours, memory often calls us to a place of letting go and ultimately of forgiveness. In New York City, in the shadow of the former World Trade Center, stands St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street, where Elizabeth made her profession of faith as a Catholic, received First Communion and was confirmed. The building where she worshipped has been replaced by a later one, but over the main altar still hangs a painting of the Crucifixion that she knew and loved.

Here, before the crucified Christ she contemplated so often, she must have poured out her hurt and anger at her relatives and friends who shunned her, who slandered her, who cut her off from financial security, who persecuted her because of her choice to become a Catholic. Here, she must have pondered the words of Jesus, misunderstood and unjustly accused like herself: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34) Here she found the strength to forgive. The dangerous, liberating memory of the Cross freed her to live, to forgive, to let go, to move on. “Who can bind the soul that God sets free?,” she wrote, as she claimed the promise that like Jesus, she too would rise to new life.

There would be other moments of hurt and misunderstanding, plenty of other encounters that would trigger her emotions. When the “torrent of recollection” threatened to stir up painful emotions, her strategy was to follow “a transient glance behind with…a strong look upward.” In a later meditation, she wrote: “Carry those who give you pain in your heart before God, and think of their virtues instead of their faults.” I think Elizabeth would resonate with Dominican Sister Donna Markham, one of our contemporaries, who asks: “Do I add to the gathering reservoir of global rage or am I able to transform my anger into compassion? “

To keep the door open to those with whom we disagree, to take the first step toward those who have offended us, to stretch out our hands and not turn away from those who have spoken harshly against us, and to do it over and over, seventy times seven, with the generosity of forgiveness – these are Spirit-filled gestures. They are actions as prophetic as casting out demons. (You know, I trust, that I am by no means advocating that we tolerate abuse or injustice.)

Elizabeth’s story reminds us that the more we stand at the Cross, the more we enter into the mystery that we call “Paschal.” The Cross moves us out of ourselves toward freedom, toward forgiveness, toward self-giving. It brings us to a new place where we not only see things differently but are empowered to choose and to act in radically transformed ways.

In all the hard and empty places that memory uncovered, as well as in the moments of joy and beauty, Elizabeth discovered that God was making space for something new. The Spirit was indeed sowing seeds of transformation in her.



Some people are born with the gift of seeing the glass half full. Elizabeth Seton strikes me as the kind of person who is hopeful by temperament. As her husband’s business went into a serious tailspin in the late 1700’s, she told her sister-in-law Rebecca: “Hope must go on with us, for it will not do for hearts and fortunes to sink together.” And early in 1808, a widow with few friends and fewer resources, she wrote resolutely: “Is there now anything so dear to us as hope?”

Hope is another name for the “not-yet” place where we hold fast to a promise without yet seeing its fulfillment. (And isn’t that the place where we live most of the time?)

Czech writer and statesman Vaclav Havel writes, “Hope… is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Hope, says theologian Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, is “faith in the one living God brought to its radical conclusion. It is faith in the Creator that does not stop halfway but follows the road consistently to the end, trusting that the God who had the first word will also have the last, and it is the same word: let there be life.”

Elizabeth Seton reveals an explicit focus on the God who has the last word – let there be life – the God who grounds hope, the God who is not yet finished with creation, the God who comes to meet us from the future, to whom the future belongs, who promises and produces transformation, making us and all creation new.

Trust in that God of provident care became a lifelong practice for Elizabeth. She drew on the virtue – the power – of hope. She trusted that God who had led her through the green pastures and the dark valleys of life would still guide her surely through an uncertain future. “God will provide, that is all my Comfort never did that providence fail me.”

Arguably the greatest test of Elizabeth’s hope was the voyage she made in October of 1803. With their 8-year-old child Anna Maria, Elizabeth and her husband William sailed for Italy in hopes of restoring his failing health. It was a desperate move at best. Elizabeth clung to hope like a buoy. Half way across the ocean, she wrote to a friend that she had “not one struggle nor desponding thought to contend with…confiding Hope and consoling Peace has attended my way thro’ storms and dangers that must have terrified a Soul whose Rock is not Christ.”

When they landed in the port of Livorno, they were welcomed by the chilling news that the ship may have brought yellow fever from New York, so the travelers had to spend a month quarantined in a cold, damp, prison of stone. The journal that Elizabeth kept during her stay in Italy is a spiritual classic that ranks with the prison writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Etty Hillesum, Dr. Martin Luther King.

Amid trials almost too much to bear, including the death of her husband, her journal reveals a fierce hope that amazes us. Reading and praying the Scriptures consoled her immensely; she wrote that hearing “the consoling voice of [God’s] word builds up the Soul in hope so as to free it even for hours of its incumbrance.” On December 12 as William’s weakness and suffering got worse, she wrote of her wonderment “that my God could and would bear me through even the most severe trials with that strength [and] confidence… which…seemed more than a Human Being could expect or Hope.” Her bedrock hope throughout her life reminds me of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s one-liner: “It is impossible to be optimistic; therefore, the only thing to do is hope.”


Hope has transformative potential. “The one who has hope lives differently,” says Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Saved by Hope. “The one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.” Hope refocuses our way of seeing and invites us into the territory of imagination, which opens us to possibility. When we choose to see only and always what is wrong with everything (and it is a choice), we know how that debilitates and paralyzes us. Imagination frees us, opens a door, gives us room to move and to breathe, reveals a third alternative where before there was only an either/or. Imagination gives us new lenses to look at life – not rose-colored glasses, not out of touch with all the disheartening evidence to the contrary – but lenses to see with God’s eyes, the God for whom all is infinite possibility.

Time and again Elizabeth Seton found that hope’s imaginative edge gave her the power to meet adversity with serenity and trust. One example: she returned to New York from that fateful voyage to Italy in June, 1804, having lost her husband and her means of support, to find that Rebecca Seton, the sister-in-law who had shared her very heart and soul, was on her deathbed.

In her journal entry Elizabeth allowed herself to recall some of the special moments with her friend that would be no more: “the Evening hymns, the daily lectures, the sunset contemplations…” She continued the sad litany: “…is Poverty and Sorrow the only exchange My Husband – my Sisters – my Home – my comforts—“ Then her tone shifted. “Poverty and sorrow — well with Gods blessing you too shall be changed into dearest friends –“ . You can almost see her squaring her shoulders as her imagination paints a different picture of the future.


In our day where catastrophe is commonplace, we too thirst for the imagination to see and believe in hope-filled possibilities. Is this not a description of us as members of our church? The seamy side of our church has certainly been front and center of late with stories of sexual and fiscal abuse by clergy, cover-ups by bishops, uninvited investigations of women religious, the use of medieval-style punishments like excommunication and interdict. I suspect I’m not the only one who wrestles with Elizabeth Seton’s injunction (which St. Teresa of Avila spoke, long before her): “Be children of the Church.”

We are indeed children of the Church. We are adult children of a Mother that is no stranger to abuse, oppression and blindness. At our moment in history, our Mother the church is increasingly broken, divided, polarized, and without credibility.

When Elizabeth Seton became a Catholic, Mar. 14, 1805, she was asked to profess belief in “what the Council of Trent believes and teaches.” In her journal she wrote that she laughed in her heart because “I knew not what the Council of Trent believed, only that it believed what the church of God declared to be its belief.” She believed because the Church believed it.

In our day, we understand – perhaps even more deeply than Elizabeth did – that our church, like ourselves, is flawed. Many Catholics feel that being faithful, responsible, adult children of the Church calls us to more than the unquestioning assent that Elizabeth gave; it demands that we be engaged, thoughtful, and lovingly critical, that we keep calling our Church – and ourselves – to become what the Spirit imagines us to be.

Perhaps it takes chaos and crisis to unleash imagination. Hopeful imagination would remind us that we bear the church’s burdens, but we are not defined by them.

We so long for our church to be a sign of “divine communion turned toward the world,… a community of equal persons related in profound mutuality,” a place that mirrors God’s “inclusive and compassionate love.” This hope of ours for the church that we love is not always realized. But hope keeps calling us to trust that the Spirit who continually creates new possibilities will re-create our church – and ourselves – in ways beyond all our imaginings. “Hope always awake whispers mercy for the future as sure as the past.”



Elizabeth Seton had a remarkable capacity to love. Her capacity for friendship was truly legendary. She bequeathed that gift as a legacy to the community she began. Her warm expressions of love delight and sometimes embarrass us. Listen to her words: to her sister-in-law and soul friend Cecilia Seton: “My heart and soul is bound to yours – it never says ME any more but all ways US. ” To her lifelong friend Julia Scott: “What would I not give to put my heart in your hands for a few hours…” To her friend and sister-in-law Rebecca: “There is no distance for Souls and mine has surely been with yours most faithfully.” She was not afraid of intimacy, of real presence; she didn’t hesitate to let others know how deeply she loved them.

Even more remarkable was Elizabeth’s awareness that love of God did not cancel out love of one’s spouse, friends, and family. All her love, her bottomless capacity for caring, came from the same one source, from her center, from the peace within. It came from the place where she knew without a doubt that God loved her and would never abandon her. She expressed this belief to her friend Julia Scott: “Religion does not limit the powers of the affections, for our Blessed Saviour sanctifies and approves in us all the endearing ties and connections of our existence [sic].” And to Eliza Sadler she wrote: “I find in proportion as my heart is more drawn towards the summit, it looks back with added tenderness to every one I have ever loved, much more those who have long possessed its entire and truest attachment.”

Elizabeth was realistic about her own passionate nature. Injustice and unfairness made her blood boil. She told her son: “I feel an inexpressible resentment against its [the world’s] barbarous laws.” She reminded a former student: “Any one of your passions (and you know how well I am acquainted with the little torments) are enough to destroy your Peace.” Perhaps that is why she later counseled her Sisters: “Never be hurried by anything whatsoever; nothing can be more pressing than the necessity for your peace before God. You will help others more by the peace and tranquility of your heart than by any eagerness or care you can bestow upon them.” She was present to her life – all of it. Marriage and childbearing were part of her religious experience, as were disease and accidents, constant reminders of the fragility of life.

I believe it would not be accurate to call Elizabeth Seton a feminist. She accepted women’s traditional role as mother, maker of the home, and imparter of values, although she did chafe a bit under its constraints. She told her son William that like him, she too longed to explore the world: “If I was a man all the world should not stop me.” Yet in the early 19th century the traditional role of women was changing. Though not yet welcome in the public arena, women were gaining a foothold in the middle ground of benevolent service.

Like many other women of her day, Elizabeth developed female networks of friendship and support. Less typical were her wide-ranging friendships with laymen and clergy, and the way she carried her genius for friendship into the religious community she founded. Her contagious spirit of tenderness and affection became normative for her Sisters and shaped their style of education and leadership. She once told a priest not to be heavy-handed in his use of authority but rather to imitate Christ’s gentle and humble way with people, because “If the heart is lost, all is lost.”


Spiritual guides tell us that unless we find our ground and center in the Mystery of God, it is almost impossible to extend consistent compassion to others – those with whom we live and work, those on the margins of society, those with whom we disagree, those nameless and faceless millions who inhabit the planet with us.
One theologian says that Christianity is about knowing that we are unconditionally loved, an experience that transforms us. And that produces an overwhelming release of freedom, which leads us to channel our energy into co-creating with God, so that God’s dream for all creation might come true. How well this describes Elizabeth Seton.

Sustained and freed by her experience of God’s relational presence – God her Father, her Shepherd, her provident protector, her light and strength and rock – Elizabeth was led to extend her love beyond her family. Her gift of real presence deepened and widened to include all who came into her life, especially those in need.

Judith Metz gives us an evocative image for Elizabeth Seton’s lifelong story of relational presence transformed into ministerial fruitfulness: she extended her sphere of caring relationships in ever widening circles, from caregiver to family and friends, to her groundbreaking benevolent work as a Protestant New York socialite on behalf of poor immigrant widows with children, and then beyond, to the works of care that she and her Sisters of Charity began, to provide education, religious instruction, social services and health care – every service in their power.


I hope you don’t hear these reflections on Elizabeth’s caring presence as simply an invitation to smile more sweetly at people you’d like to throttle! For her and for us, the way we live our relational lives has far-reaching implications. For one, it affects the organizations we inhabit. Consultant Margaret Wheatley tells us that the quality of relationships carries a positive or negative charge. People who relate in oppressive or dismissive ways generate negative energy; those who “see others in their fullness create positive energy. Love in organizations,” she believes, “is the most potent source of power we have available.”

In a world where everything is connected, the non-relational individual or group or nation is a dangerous dinosaur. The futurist Joanna Macy teaches that the major crises threatening our planet come from “dysfunctional and pathological” ideas of the self, as

▪ so “separate and fragile” we have to mark and defend its boundaries
▪ so “small and needy” we have to “endlessly acquire & endlessly consume”
▪ So “aloof” that we “can be immune to what we do to other beings.”

Another writer, pointing to our world of “ruptured connections,” says that people of faith, especially leaders, are challenged to give an “unwavering commitment to relationship and community as alternatives to separatism, exploitation and vengeance.” Real presence also impels us to make private pain a public issue, confronting the unjust social structures that keep 1.2 billion of our sisters and brothers living on less than $1 a day.

One passion impelled Elizabeth Seton and all the great holy women and men: love of God joined with love of neighbor – one love. With her relentlessly relational gifts, she constantly sought to find the “we” beyond “us and them.” As we applaud the concrete fruits of her ministerial efforts and those of her Sisters, we too hear the call to live as bridge-builders, really present to our world, meeting its pain with a love that is both affective and effective.

Conclusion: Abundance in Scarcity

We meet our grace at a moment in history that cries out for transformation. In her recent address to Catholic theologians, the Carmelite scholar Constance FitzGerald asserted that we are indeed at an impasse in society and in the church: “We are encumbered by old assumptions, burdened by memories that limit our horizons, and therefore, unfree to see God coming to us from the future.” We stand at an historical and historic moment of awakening:

– when the reality of Earth’s rapidly diminishing natural resources is no longer an hypothesis but a glaring fact,
– when the economic downturn has brought many in the developing nations to the sobering realization that our abundance is not an infinite commodity,
– when technology brings the survival needs of billions of our sisters and brothers before our eyes at every moment.

In our Church, here and abroad, despite much that is encouraging, poverty is palpable – poverty of Good News preached and lived, poverty of forgiveness, poverty of imagination and hope, poverty of charity, even civility. Room for the Spirit to move is shrinking, it seems, even faster than the polar ice caps are melting.

Elizabeth Seton was a woman of great energy and creativity, a woman able to find abundance in scarcity. What wisdom does she have to offer us at this time when the taste and feel of scarcity presses in upon us? I tend to think that Elizabeth’s experience of poverty was a conversion moment, pivotal to her story of transformation. When her husband died and she chose to become a Catholic, her former world, that of a comfortable matron who moved in the highest social circles, quickly disappeared. What she had taken for granted was gone. She found herself alone, with few marketable skills, with five children to provide for, without money or “situation” – and we’ve watched Masterpiece Theater and read Jane Austen enough to know what this meant for a woman in the late eighteenth-early nineteenth centuries.

In times when her husband’s business went bankrupt, when her struggling religious community was about to fold because of debt, when she endured loss after loss of those dearest to her, Elizabeth allowed herself to feel the searing pain of it all, then turned it into a moment of grace. She loved to pray Psalm 126: “Those who sow in tears, will reap in joy.” “Poverty and sorrow – you will be turned into my dearest friends.”

Illness, insecurity, job loss, persecution, or traumatic change calls us, like Elizabeth, to “see ourselves and the world around us through a new set of eyes and act in accordance with our transformed vision.” It turns our world upside down.

Liberation theologians tell us that the underside is a privileged locus from which to do theology. Having your world turned on its head can clarify your vision remarkably. God’s poor often have a clear vision of God’s dream: communities where all belong, tables (like the iconic image of St. Vincent de Paul at a round table with his beloved poor of every type) where all have a place and a voice.

One final aspect of “abundance” is “the more” (it’s also a very Vincentian concept). A farmer’s work is never done, not even when the harvest is brought in. There is always more to do, the next season’s planting to prepare for. So in that spirit, I offer some thoughts about more work to be done, theological and otherwise. Perhaps you will join me in that journey.

My reflections on the power of memory and story in Elizabeth’s life lead me to want to find fresh ways to tell her story, the story of the Sisters of Charity, and especially the Catholic-Christian story for new audiences: women, young people, the unchurched and the ‘recovering churched’, those hungry for solid spiritual food. There are untold riches in these stories. “One good word ,“ says poet David Whyte, “is bread for a thousand.” Perhaps as we remember and retell our story, it will move us all closer to embracing forgiveness as a way of life and even as a diplomatic strategy.

Thinking about the power of hope and imagination I am struck by the fact that both President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI have made the theme of hope central to their actions and writings. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney writes:

So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.

Hope is a powerful antidote for the poverty of imagination that afflicts our church and our national and international systems. How might our work as theologians, teachers, advocates, make explicit the hope that sustains us? And the power of relational presence moves me to look for the places of need that I – we – tend to overlook. It reminds me of St. Vincent de Paul’s words: “Love is inventive to infinity.” Like him, the poet May Sarton challenges us to plumb the depths of love with ever more courageous responses:

…We are stretched to meet a new dimension
Of love, a more demanding range
Where despair and hope must intertwine.
How grow to meet it?
Who says it is easy?
But we have the power.
I watch the faces deepen all around me.
It is the time of change, the saving hour.
The word is not fear, the word we live,
But an old word suddenly made new.
As we learn it again, as we bring it alive.
Love. Love. Love. Love.

I hope that my words have led you to think about theology and spirituality in a new light, to regard your own unique story as worthy of theological reflection, and to want to delve deeper into the life of St. Elizabeth Seton, a woman of memory, hope and relational presence. In her story, in yours and in mine, the seeds of abundant spiritual and theological meaning have taken root, have grown, and wait to be gleaned further. Happy harvesting!


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