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The Benedict Option is more about a change of heart and mind than growing a beard, getting some chickens, and building a utopian religious community in the woods. The Benedict Option means coming to the realization that the time for dialogue and debate is over and the time for quiet action has begun…

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 2.57.46 PMMuch has been written about Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option.” It has been portrayed as not so much an option as an opting out. Critics have said it is a call to run away from the public square, an escape, an indefensible retreat, and an admission of defeat. The Benedict Option is thought to be a flight into the desert—not so much to pray as to put one’s head in the sand.

It has struck me in recent days, however, that the Benedict Option may be the only option. It may be the only option not because the surrounding culture is decadent and we want to protect our children. It is not the only option because we are fed up with the technological, fast-paced, shallow existence of twenty-first-century life. It is not the only option because we are  disgusted by porn, shocked by war, and spooked by gender confused radicals who are on the warpath. It is not the only option because we think the worldlings are worldly beyond redemption.

It is the only option because it is the only option.

What I am digging at was revealed to me with a re-reading of Perelandra— the second book in C.S.Lewis’ space trilogy. Readers may remember that Professor Ransom has been transported to the planet Venus, which is still reveling in Edenic innocence. Ransom not only encounters the Eve of Venus, but Venus’ serpent in the form of the scientist Weston.

In their first conversation, Weston spouts a progressive Tielhard de Chardin-type, secular-spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It all sounds lofty and plausible and highly intellectual. When Ransom punctures Weston’s pomposity with the pin of common sense and the razor of philosophical steel, the scientist responds with condescending arrogance before changing the subject.

As Weston descends first into madness, and then into demonic possession, his temptation of the lady becomes ever more subtle and emotive. He plays on her vanity. He seduces her to disobedience with the high drama that she would be a brave pioneer, taking hold of her own freedom in order to achieve full maturity. Most of all he wears her down with endless discussion  and dialogue. He never rests until he gets her to give in. He bats away Ransom’s objections with non sequiturs, mockery, ad hominem attacks and outright lies.

Ransom expresses his frustration at the fact that the Devil can fight dirty, but that he can’t. He also observes that the demon-possessed creature “used plenty of subtlety and intelligence when talking to the Lady, but… that it regarded intelligence simply and solely as a weapon, which it had no more wish to employ in its off duty hours than a soldier has to do bayonet practice when he is on leave. Thought was for it a device necessary to certain ends, but thought in itself did not interest it.”

I have found the same to be increasingly true in any discussion not only with progressives, but with an increasing number of ordinary folks. The discussion may concern politics, religion, sexuality, economics, or cultural matters. If there is a disagreement, there is very little logical thought or rational debate. The two weapons of emotivism and utilitarianism usually rule the day. No true debate takes place. Instead, arguments are dismissed by changing the subject, launching a personal attack or playing the victim.

A position is advocated according to sentimental feelings or practical considerations. The more intellectual, like Lewis’ demon- possessed Weston, use intellectual arguments not as a process to discover the truth, but as a weapon—and a weapon that is more like a bludgeon than a rapier. If their intellectual argument falls flat, they simply deny, lie, and shout more loudly.

In other words, the Benedict Option may be the only option because debate has ended. Our society is so worm-eaten with relativism the any idea that one might use reason, research and debate to discover truth is defunct. The idea, not only that truth can be discovered, but that once discovered one has a duty to believe and obey, is even more obsolete. Consequently, if there is no truth there can be no reasoning into truth, and if there is no reasoning then there is no reason to argue. All is relegated to a matter of opinion—and often the opinion is not even offered as being true. The person asserts it simply because they believe it and they believe it because they assert it.

“You say pot-A-to and I say po-TAH-to… So let’s call the whole thing off.”

Thus the silence of the monks. They are silent not only in order to listen to God more acutely, but also because all the words are falling on deaf ears. If humanity is deaf there is no need for words.

The Benedict Option is therefore more about a change of heart and mind than growing a beard, getting some chickens, and building a utopian religious community in the woods. The Benedict Option means coming to the realization that the time for dialogue and debate is over and the time for quiet action has begun.

I am convinced that this is the true reason why Benedict headed for the hills in the sixth century. The dialogue was pointless. The debate was a dead-end. So Benedict did what he could with what he had where he was.

Likewise the conservative Christian option today is to step back from the endless dialogue and debate and to focus on being consistent and being Imaginative Conservatives. Within our families, our parishes, our schools and our workplace we will be committed to a way of obedience, stability and conversion of life, and our method will use the timeless tools of work, study and prayer.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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28 replies to this post
  1. I do believe that one has to remain attached to the Western classics if he wishes to remain grounded in what is still a moral pathway. I won’t head for the hills but I will keep my modest library within easy reach, twenty five hundred years are not to be scorned.

  2. Sadly, I believe you are correct. I find I have given up trying to have meaningful dialogue or debate even in my own family, since the response is either yelling or personal attack.

  3. I have to disagree. We can try to isolate ourselves in our little islands, but the outside world will permeate it. Except for the extreme position of the Amish, such isolation is not possible, and even then the Amish are not totally isolated. We do have to protect our children and ourselves from coarse culture but we have to engage it Dominican style and try to shape it. Without us, the culture only further degenerates.

  4. Father Dwight, your column is spot-on. I am amazed and saddened at the number of people who are completely misconstruing the Benedict Option as a form of surrender, a deliberate shrugging off of the Great Commission, and so on. It is true that we, as committed, orthodox, and sacramental Christians are now living in an alien world. It is also true that most Christians have not recognized this reality, or they have, but have failed to articulate to themselves why their efforts at even initiating a dialog or attempting to find common ground on which to base evangelization, have utterly failed.

    Much of the world has become the “rocky ground” to which our Lord referred to. Modern man has no roots, no depth, flits from one thing to another in pursuit of the zeitgeist, something to rebel against. There’s no crusade for abortion rights, gay rights, and so on. It is all a crusade against life, against the intended structure of our families, and even the roles we are born to fulfill. At some point, there is nothing left to rebel against, and the world is again going to be like ancient Rome when it had exhausted itself from military conquest, and physical excess, hungry and seeking for a renewal and purpose.

    Some people may also balk at the term “conservative Christian,” associating it with the failed attempts of the Moral Majority or people who felt there was a divine purpose to our imperial wars, but the Latin root means to “preserve, keep, retain.” If we are conservative, it is not because we oppose change for the simple sake of fearing the new and different, but because we are committed to keeping the teachings of our Lord in our lives and actions.

    It will also take Christians understanding that the modern culture does not have a seat at the table for them, and to understand that they should in turn not be holding a seat for the modern culture, either, before we can begin to realize the work before us, of building into our Biblical and orthodox communities in such a way as to become strong in our zeal for the Lord. However, I think that the outcome of this will be as profound and staggering as anything which has happened in the history of the Church since the Resurrection. We are now free to truly begin to seeking the Lord, because we know the world has rejected us, and because we know that we cannot hope to influence the world as what once happened when Christendom was the ideal of the land.

    In the end, I think the Benedict Option offers us a liberation from relativism, modernity, and a loss of our Christian faith, and that is something that people should celebrate, not reject or enter into with sadness.

  5. Dear Fr. Dwight.
    This happened to me at the end of last year, before I even knew about this ‘Benedict option.’
    I found it virtually impossible to make any sense at all, to my fellow catholics about anything catholic (!!) and simply retreated; convinced that the only option for me was to devote my time to meditation and prayer.

    It got to a point where I couldn’t even utter a word about our faith (and how we owe it to God to love Him with all out heart etc.etc.) without being at the receiving end of a lot of vitriol. (Apparently I was ‘being a Pharisee’ for saying that we really ought to keep holy the Sabbath day).

    And so I unwittingly chose the Benedict option. After all, I reasoned, “union with God surpasses all knowledge.” I have chosen to love God above all, rather than only the things that are of God (I hope this makes sense to you). God bless you, Fr. Dwight.

  6. Christ did not preach in Gehenna… We should follow that example. There are more fruitful places to focus our attention.

    One possibility that presents itself is to pour serious money into homeschooling co-ops which then become attached to parishes.

  7. So what about the children and teenagers out there, who have to grow up in this messed-up world, and make up their own minds about what’s going on around them? As they mature, they need role models, older people who can articulate and provide validation for what might be sloshing around in their own young, confused heads. Otherwise, if every single person in an authority position tells them that 2 + 2 = 5, they’re going to reluctantly accept it even if their brains are telling them that it’s not right.

    We usually call these role models “teachers.” Are you saying they should just jump ship, abandon their calling, find another career and let the students fend for themselves? Or what? And please don’t reply that “parents should homeschool,” because for millions of people that is simply not possible.

    • I would say messed up young adults are very adept, and always have been, from prehistory, to the age of exploration, to the raucus 60s and 70s, in making a beeline to wherever they hear that folk are truly able to be free and happy, where they can participate and learn…..where that society IS the role model, a lighthouse, a beacon, calling them home.

      As someone who teaches our Faith to youth, i know that if i am teaching them about the one thing in the world which can bring them unending happiness, and yet they do not even want to be there in my class, then i am doing something dreadfully wrong.

      If unable to teach that most important of lessons in current circumstances, then it is time to move where it is possible. Otherwise, not much of a teacher except in things which do not matter, and not much joy in that, is there?

      A role model is someone who walks the walk as well as talks the talk. The few minutes a day any youth spends with a teacher is generally insufficient for them to know much about a teacher except whether they learn anything in the class, or just sit there bored. Anything outside the classroom and off the clock is not being a teacher, but a good Christian.

  8. Personally i find anyone who argues against folks wanting to insulate themselves from a decadent culture to be mainly those who find much of that culture very attractive in all its conveniences, whether or not impossible to raise God-centered children.

    They do not really want a life of simplicity centered on returned love to God, and in that humble act, finding the only true and lasting joy possible, both for themselves, and their children. They really do not believe in that, even though they recite those very words in formal worship. They want “success” and more stuff, ever and ever, for them and their children.

    One would think, that even in the United States, there would be enough Catholics in near every area of endeavor so as to be capable of a self-sustaining and very rich world, one where nobody feared getting ill or old, because they were surrounded by those who loved them and would care for them out of love rather than for-profit, where near everything and every skill which is good would be represented. Artists. Musicians. Doctors. Machinists. Internet wizards.

    And us able to live full Christianity in all its beauty, without the addiction to social contract theory, capitalism/consumerism, or worse, worshipping a state and calling it Lord in socialism divorced from Faith.

    I would move there in a heartbeat. And so would many more.

  9. College Prof: I have said “People should do what they can with what they have where they are.” If they are teachers, teach. If they are preachers preach. If they are monks, pray. Just don’t argue. The arguments are pointless now.

  10. Respectfully I would ask you to read 1 and 2 Timothy. The culture at the time of Paul’s penning those epistles in the Roman Empire was very diverse. The Roman government expected everyone to be tolerant of the religious diversity. Paul the Apostle was imprisoned and executed for preaching an exclusive message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He suffered for the sake of the Gospel and the glory of God willingly. He also told Timothy to do the same. God, speaking through Paul, did not apologize to Timothy for the culture he was in, He just expected Timothy to preach the Gospel, in season and out. Not to spite the culture and false teachers, but to preach the Gospel BECAUSE of the false teaching and false religions. Paul never told Timothy to shut up – he said continue doing the work of evangelism.

    Our culture, society, educational systems, and government are intolerant of the exclusive message of Christ Jesus. So nothing has changed in 2,000 years. Eventually Christianity became the dominant religion of the Empire and the West, but not because of people no longer debating and challenging those teaching false doctrine. They stayed true to the calling of God on their lives to fulfill by words and deeds the Great Commission.

    The Benedict option is unbiblical. It is not loving your neighbor. It is not loving God enough to endure hardship as Paul and Timothy did. Not loving God enough to be a part of the sufferings of Jesus.

  11. I can totally relate to your observation how rational debate,logic and just plain common sense have been trashed on the altar of a social progressive narrative that refuses to acknowledge of the existence of “self evident truths”. It is in this insane malady we find ourselves today, where the opinions of left hand path secularism enmeshed with “tolerance” for Islamic Ideology yet pathologically intolerant of “Christian” virtue which best illustrates the inversion in which society is confronted with.

    Respecting someones “opinion” as an example on whether Ronaldo is a better footballer than Messi is a function of personal taste and metrics that one uses to come to their position is one thing. but to assert that a person’s personal opinion on matter’s of TRUTH have the same validation as transcendent self evident Divine truths is blasphemy and deconstructs natural law to be a function solely of one’s own imagination. Basically then, Truth is only just another opinion. Under these circumstances there is no scope for debate or rational discourse.

    Father Longnecker is absolutely right. The world is deaf and is no longer willing to have a vigorous and rational debate on what is Truth. Personal sacrifice testifying our faith with the knowledge that persecution is awaiting us and deep prayer are the only tools we have left to engage the enemy in the public square as we await for God’s judgement.

  12. This fact has played itself out even in my own family. I have a sister who attempts to do the same thing as Weston (in our 2 decades long dialogue). She and her husband are on the same page. I had thought, 20 years ago, b/c i saw here reading a book who’s title suggested she was searching for truth; but 20 years of occasional long discussions (always ending terribly) taught me that she alas, was never seeking truth and still presently is not interested in seeking truth. Her argumentation and clever questioning is only to find creative ways to get out of any acknowledgement that truth has been presented to her. Therefore, despite the 2 day drive distance between us, i’ve been forced to acknowledge this reality and move on; to stop any discussions b/c they are pointless.

    Some others might be open to truth, but for those that are not; and in our day they are so many, it’s pointless to do anything but demonstrate the truth in ones own life.

  13. In my last conversation with the best teacher I ever had, God rest his soul:

    • (He was criticizing a book on Lucretius)
    But only a fool even tries to criticize academic drivel. It’s better just to make the sign of the cross, and reread Auden’s poem called ‘The Chimeras’.

    • (I responded that I would read “The Chimeras”, and that Frost’s “In the Home Stretch” was more important to me than any other poem in English.)

    • (He responded)
    I’ve always loved ‘In the Home Stretch’, and of course it’s far more beautiful than Auden’s drab poem. But to the drab thing I am more indebted because in this or that nightmarish place it has actually taught me what to do, and helped me to live.

    For of course his ‘chimeras’ are not only the drivel of academics; they’re the drivel, the void of non-being, in architecture, politics, diplomacy, schools, internet, everywhere — today even more strikingly than when he wrote the poem. But even 35 years ago how fascinated I was, and how glad, to hear this person, whom I trusted the most, telling me in a parable what the nightmarish stuff was, and giving me accurate instructions about to how to handle it.

    • In passing I’d like to call the lie that “millions of people” can not homeschool. Nothing is more possible than homeschooling. One might do a poor job of it, but one is constantly homeschooling one’s children, whether one plans to or not.

    • And here’s “The Chimeras”, the antidote to the irrationalism of the day—what John Henry Newman used to call the religion of the day, except that now.

    The Chimeras

    Absence of heart – as in public buildings –
    Absence of mind – as in public speeches –
    Absence of worth – as in goods intended for the public –

    Are telltale signs that a chimera has just dined
    On someone else; of him, poor foolish fellow,
    Not a scrap is left, not even his name.

    Indescribable – being neither this nor that –
    Uncountable – being any number –
    Unreal — being anything but what they are,

    And ugly customers for someone to encounter.
    It is our fault entirely if we do:
    They cannot touch us; it is we who will touch them.

    Curious from wantonness – to see what they are like –
    Cruel from fear – to put a stop to them –
    Incredulous from conceit – to prove they cannot be –

    We prod or kick or measure and are lost:
    The stronger we are the sooner all is over;
    It is our strength with which they gobble us up.

    If someone, being chaste, brave, humble,
    Get by them safely, he is still in danger
    (with pity remembering what once they were)

    Of turning back to help them. Don’t.
    What they were once is what they would not be;
    Not liking what they are is what now they are.

    No one can help them; walk on, keep on walking,
    And do not let your goodness self-deceive you.
    It is good that they are but not that they are thus.

  14. I say, do your best, pray to the Holy Spirit daily for the right words and persevere as long as you can. When you can’t continue any longer, move on. That is what I find myself doing after 16 years of teaching at a Catholic High School. It’s time to move on.

  15. Remarkable how this article represents my recent attitude.
    Towards the end of his life Cardinal Dulles found that a dialogue with the contemporary “culture” is hopeless.
    “Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Mathew 7:6)

  16. In my Canadian province, big brother government is increasingly putting legislation into place to tighten the noose on families, in particular Christian families. Folks can talk the good talk about the Benedict Option, but the days may come here when families will need to take steps to protect their children, lest government swoop in and remove them from the home. This is reality.

    The author is correct. The time for discussion has ended. Many have run into it in their families, workplaces, even parishes. It is a stunning, head-shaking eclipse of reason. Faithful families need to find each other, to support each other, to find sanctuary churches – but the day may come when they will have to do all that is needed to protect their families from hostile legislation and government agencies. One may offer noble thoughts about staying to evangelize society, but a season may soon be upon us when parents who are charged by God to guard and guide their children will have to fiercely protect their families. It may mean drastic steps.

    • You should read some Michael O’Brien. His Children of the Last Days series takes place in Canada and describes the kind of government you fear.

  17. I don’t think Dreher is calling for a retreat from debate. He is calling for creating places we can fortify ourselves so we can be prepared to engage the culture on a limited basis. We can then retreat back into our communities and regain our strength. The Benedictines engaged the culture outside. They didn’t ignore it. They just did it in a very limited way. We need to do the same.

    Still, I get Fr. Dwight’s point. You can’t argue with these people. Their opinions are based on feelings not facts. Feelings are immune to facts, logic, reason, and common sense. They have no basis except the ego and we have taught people that their ego is the only thing that matters. I too have tired of engaging with them. It is a waste of time and always reminds me of Proverbs 26:4-12 and similar verses.

    4
    Do not answer fools according to their folly,
    or you will be a fool yourself.
    5
    Answer fools according to their folly,
    or they will be wise in their own eyes.
    6
    It is like cutting off one’s foot and drinking down violence,
    to send a message by a fool.
    7
    The legs of a disabled person hang limp;
    so does a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
    8
    It is like binding a stone in a sling
    to give honor to a fool.
    9
    Like a thornbush brandished by the hand of a drunkard
    is a proverb in the mouth of a fool.
    10
    Like an archer who wounds everybody
    is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard.[a]
    11
    Like a dog that returns to its vomit
    is a fool who reverts to his folly.
    12
    Do you see persons wise in their own eyes?
    There is more hope for fools than for them.

  18. This is quite helpful, and in fact it is the only explanation of the so-called Benedict Option that I’ve ever found compelling or helpful! In particular, the emphasis that “the Benedict Option means coming to the realization that the time for dialogue and debate is over and the time for quiet action has begun” strikes me as very helpful.

    I must add that it is not the impression I’ve gotten of the Benedict Option elsewhere, and so I wonder whether or not it’s ultimately a slightly different approach. Having seen this sort of defense of or claims that people misunderstand the so-called Benedict Option many times now, my question to those insisting it’s really just about communities and not withdrawal has been, if it really is just about living our faith in our communities ardently, what’s the point? How is it a meaningful, distinct idea?

    Of COURSE we should work to foster Catholic community and Catholic communities. Of COURSE we should develop an intentional Catholic family life, and surround ourselves with others of faith and support one another and build up the faith amongst one another.

    …but this isn’t some unique idea, something particularly germaine to Benedict or his approach. This is a basic, fundamental call of the Gospel – a natural and necessary part of living the Christian life *at all.* The thing about Benedict was that he realized he was having a hard time doing this because of the oppression of the world, so he took the extra step of withdrawing from the world.

    This is the problem that the Benedict Option is almost universally posited as a response to: how do we live our faith to the fullest in our families and communities with a society which tries to prevent it, not only by the suffocation of the culture, but even by force of law? How do we live faith in community when the government comes in and forces our community to do things like provide abortions, etc.

    Insofar as the Benedict Option is intended to remedy this problem, it seems to me that it really doesn’t (you can’t EVER get away from the tentacles of the government in 2017), and insofar as its not trying to remedy this problem, what’s the point? Its nothing new. Its nothing unique – at least not for those who sufficiently care for their faith so as to actually read Dreher’s book. Maybe for those who go to Mass 48 weeks a year and hardly think of God in between it is, but for those actively living the faith, building Christian community is already a big part of their lives.

    Now the idea of recognizing that to a certain degree trying to continue to debate or to move the world is at this stage in history a fruitless effort is more helpful and provides a practical approach to consider for those of us already living the faith very intentionally in our homes and communities. I’m not entirely sure that I agree that it’s the right approach, but it’s for the first time something that stands out as a distinct approach that can even really be evaluated.

  19. The call of the laity is to be in the world. If one looks at the earliest communities in the Church, all were in cities…Corinth, Antioch, Rome, etc Those Protestant communities which have chosen to set up utopian societies are heretical–Amish, Mennonite, etc. I am very familiar with the Bruderhof community and visited twice in the past. This type of community mimics the call of the monk or contemplative nun, which is a real call. We are called to be saints in the polis…a hard call, but nothing is impossible with God.

    I belonged to a community of 2000 laity for many years, but we lived in and among the city in which we lived…vibrantly involved in our parishes. We had many converts to Catholicism and we never had to leave the polis.

    Christ did not intend for us to be utopians. And, there is no such place as a safe haven, a popular idea which grew up in the 90s and 2000s. Yes, we can home school. I did. Yes, we can garden and grow our own food and even animals. But, for the laity to get up and leave the cities has never been the call of Christ….He came into a pagan world and yet Rome became the capital of Catholicism.

    If one wants to follow the Benedictine way of work and prayer at home, good. I do this. If one wants to have private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, fine. But, to be lay is a call to be leaven in the world. We should be zealous to save souls, to lead people out of darkness, not to abandon them to sin and corruption.

    • This is a really good post. From
      what little I know of this “Benedict Option”, it sounds too defeatist to me. Our job is to ENGAGE the problems of society, not run away from them. Certainly the election of Donald Trump is strong evidence that the combined forces of the left wing can be confronted and defeated.

  20. As an Oblate of St. Benedict who just made his promises, this is refreshing to hear. It has been a bit disheartening to see so many articles putting the Benedict Option on the sideline with pacifists

    I think you put it well in saying it may be the only option. If we go to the cave with St. Benedict and listen and pray, eventually, after much distress and destruction, the world will begin to wake up and once again rebuild society around the monasteries. Monasteries both in actuality and also in spirit, that is, those found in the families of devout Christians.

    The monastic orders saved Western (Christian) Culture from the barbarians before and they can do it again.

  21. I’ve always found fascinating the overlap between Boethius and Benedict: St. Benedict foresaw it all, I think; Boethius may have, too, but he attempted to converse and convert in the public forum and ultimately paid the price with his life. Both left heroic examples of virtue.

  22. Wasn’t it Paul who advised us to shake off the dust from our feet when leaving towns and cities than were obdurate and unbending?

  23. Fr. Dwight,
    I have always admired you – your faith, your intellect, your ability to see the beauty in so many things and to share it with me (us) on a level that I could actually understand.

    However, even Our Lord and His close disciples went aside to rest when they were tired.
    Not just tired from lack of rest, but tired of all the people.
    As much as you are called to minister to them, (and the laity, as well!), it sometimes feels like it’s draining the life out of you.
    The mean-spiritedness of the post modern secular culture is just astounding to me.
    Twitter is an eye opener all by itself!
    The SJW or “Social Justice Warriors” who scream racist, phobic, or whatever the latest cause of the moment happens to be, are cruel beyond words in their attack of anyone who disagrees.
    I have to watch my reactions constantly – because we are told to “engage the culture” in order to evangelize the faith, not to become cynical and angry just like they are.
    It’s tough when they openly curse you because you are a Christian and a Catholic Christian on top of that.
    It does feel hopeless at times and I’m sure St. Benedict thought so at the time he left “the world”.
    Whatever you decide, I’ll be praying for you, instead of judging you or second guessing you.
    Peace be with your Spirit, Fr. Dwight

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