CELT document E890000-006

The Seraph of Assisi

Patrick Augustine Sheehan

The Seraph of Assisi


I will ask you, dear reader, to go with me for a few moments to that sunny land, the home of saints, the centre of Catholicity, and witness in fancy a strange spectacle in these days of unfaith and injustice. Between the Apennines, that lift their cold crests high into the ever blue air, and the sunny plains far beneath them that know no winter, there is many a delicious valley where Nature, exhausted neither by excessive cold nor heat, but invigorated by tempered breezes, brings forth all its wealth of fruit and its pomp of flower, and where one would imagine, men would never think of Heaven at all, so perfect is the paradise around them. By far the most beautiful of these rich valleys is that which is called the Umbrian; and cresting the Umbrian valley, looking down upon and crowning all its beauty, is the city of Assisi. And, this warm summer day, is it a jubilee pageant that stirs the ancient city? Is it some worldly feast of king or emperor, or some political triumph, that brings from every part of Italy those sun-browned, dust-stained, travel-wearied pilgrims, who throng every square and street of the city, and who linger  p.469 around it as if unwilling to leave it, and go back to their own home? From the sun-parched plain below, where the yellow Tiber rolls lazily, from the cold heights of the Apennines, from city and village and hamlet these multitudes have come— old men at the close of life's journey, the young with free and agile step, children in their mother's arms, all have come the weary journey and some indication of their business here is that they, for the last two days, have thronged the churches, have besieged the confessionals, have come in thousands to the altar of their God, and have crept on hands and feet to a certain modest shrine, around which and above which there springs one of the noblest basilicas of Europe. What is the meaning of the vast concourse of people? What is the secret of the fervent prayers, the deep heartfelt contrition, the beautiful commingling of the love and fear of God, the ardent communion, the joy and peace which are spread over this vast multitude of souls— peace which the world never gives, peace that will abide with them many a day to come, and lighten the burden of life, and heal its sorrows, and make pleasant many a happy day in many a happy home in this holy land of Italy? The secret is that here a child was born seven centuries ago, and born like his Master, in a stable, and "his name has gone abroad over the world, and the report of him unto the ends of the earth;" and here in this very shrine, seven centuries ago, he was given the highest favour that mortal man could receive, not for himself, but for his people; for here he stood face to face with Jesus Christ, spoke to Him, heard His sacred voice— the voice that stilled the storm on the sea of Galilee, that won the heart of Magdalen, that made the Apostles burn with divine love.

It would be a good and profitable thing to bring before our minds the life and example of this wonderful saint. I am sure they are familiar to you, dear reader; I am sure that the figure of this "wonderful man of God," worn with fasting and penances, his face so withered and pale, but resplendent with the light of Heaven that is always present, and those dark signs in his hands and feet, the stigmata which were burned into his flesh by the Spirit of God. I am sure that often and often you have studied this picture, gazed upon it, wondered at it, prayed God that some day you might have the happiness of seeing this “dear St. Francis” face to face, and hear him call you, as he called his brethren here below, little child— little lamb in the sheepfold of his  p.470 Master. But there are just three scenes in his life which rivet our attention, and make us wonder at the singular graces which flowed from the hand of God upon our Saint, and which made him so holy, so perfect, so sublime, that the people called him another Christ, and believed that the happy days of gospel history had come back again.

It is his native town. Francis, the son of Pica and Bernardone, has been known as the gayest and handsomest youth amongst his equals in social standing. He has the pleasantest face, and the sweetest voice, and the moist agreeable manners of all the young men of the place. He dresses sumptuously; and at their revels he holds the place of master, and all obey him. Suddenly he retires from Assisi, gone no one knows whither, and then as suddenly reappears in his native streets. But how changed! That bright, handsome face is grave, and worn and disfigured; that exquisite raiment is replaced with rags; tattered and wayworn as one who has come from a long journey, Francis moves slowly along the pavement of the streets. And he has come from a long journey! He has passed from Egypt into Israel, he has gone out from the world of men into the company of Jesus Christ; he has stepped from riches into the deepest poverty, and commenced his lifelong journey in the painful steps of his Divine Master. His eyes have been illumined by the Spirit of God, and his heart has been touched by the grace of his Saviour, and he has seen the world and its supreme follies by the light that falls from Heaven above, by the lurid light that shines from Hell below; and he has abandoned all things to find his God, and he has embraced as his spouse and Queen that holy Poverty which Christ, our good Master, came down from Heaven to embrace, and which He raised up, sanctified and ennobled by His Life and Passion and Death.

But what do the people of Assisi think of him? Well, the people of Assisi were like the people of to-day, and every day; and they came to their doors, and hooted him through their streets, and called him by that name it is so painful to men to hear— they called him “Thou fool!”

Francis a fool! Yes, but the days are coming when God will prove that his folly is the wisdom of the Cross. Francis a fool! Yes, but a little while, and he will appear to the Pontiff in his dreams as a pillar of the Church. Francis a fool! But there will spring from his inspirations and his prayers generations of  p.471 men who will carry the fire of the love of God, and cast it over the entire surface of the earth; who will break down heresies, and extend to remotest lands the empire of Jesus Christ. Francis a fool! Yes, but long centuries after this people shall have passed away, temples will spring to his name, thousands will be clad in imitation of him, that rough brown habit will be the favourite fashion in the Church of God. Francis a fool! Yes, but when God's good time goes by, this fair land of Italy will be covered with monasteries and convents where his children will dwell; and on the sunburnt plains of Spain, and amongst the vineyards of France, and by the Irish rivers, and far away where the warm Pacific Ocean washes the distant shores of America, the praises of the God whom he loved so tenderly will be chanted by thousands from the choirs of churches built in his honour, and by the lips of men and women who are fighting the good fight under his guidance and in his holy name. Francis a fool! But here around Assisi will yet be gathered the grandest school of artists that Christendom ever produced; and holy men, in the pauses of their prayers, will take up brush and pencil and paint Crucifixions that will make strong men weep, and Madonnas so pure and perfect that Angels alone could dream them; and in the far-off ages— that is, in this our day— Protestants, and even infidels, will linger in Umbria for one purpose alone— to revere the memory of our Saint, and to study the marvellous works that have come from the hands of those on whose souls his inspirations fell, who embraced the same poverty that made him in the eyes of the world a fool, and that same simplicity which made him in the eyes of God a Saint.

What a lesson for us is here! In this noisy, turbulent life of ours, with our passionate straining after pleasure, and power, and gaiety, how reproachful is this example of St. Francis, cheerfully giving up all these things, and embracing the rough, hard way of the Cross, determined to carry it through step by step, after his Divine Master, to the end! And in this hard, money-seeking, ambitious life of ours, when Mammon once more has been set up in the market-place as the idol of men, when the heaping-up of money has become the business, and the only business of the world, and when even the just who strive to be perfect are carried away in the current of fashion, and strain every fibre of the heart for gold, and are miserable and disquieted at the slightest reverse, what a divine  p.472 comment on their madness is St. Francis, standing with outstretched arms, begging at the doors of the churches in Rome, and walking the streets of Assisi in his rags! And, to this proud haughty, intellectual generation of ours, puffed up with the wisdom that is not unto eternal life, what a rebuke is the divine simplicity of our Saint, who was the father in the hands of God of a spiritual race, before whose handiwork, ancient as it is, the proudest intellects of to-day are fain to fall down and worship.

The next scene, dear reader, I have to show you is one that has been familiar to you from childhood. Francis, the gay, the worldly young man, has become transformed into the meek and lowly child of God; and, having once given himself to God, he is determined to go on with swift strides into perfect communication with his Master. He goes out, then, from the society of men altogether, he wants to be alone with God. He needs silence and solitude to strengthen him, and the immediate presence of the Divinity to sanctify him still more. It cannot be had down here amongst the busy haunts of men; but there are the blue mountains rising above him and afar off; and in their recesses the voice of man has never been heard, only the screams of the eagles, and the music of the waterfalls; and sometimes God's majesty descends upon them veiled in clouds, as it descended on the Lawgiver on Sinai; and Francis thinks he will go up there, and, alone with God in prayer, he will try to come nearer and nearer to his Maker, and, perhaps, see behind that awful veil that has dropped down before the eyes of us poor mortals, lest we should be blinded with the effulgence that streams from the “great white throne,” or appalled at the awful mysteries that lie concealed behind it. And so, as our Blessed Saviour took with Him Peter and James and John when going up the mountain for his Transfiguration, our Saint takes with him three disciples, and, after a weary journey of many days, he ascends his Calvary— the holy mountain, the scene of so much austerity and pain, of so much miracle and mystery. The landscape is one that is very unlike what he has been accustomed to from his childhood. Instead of rich valleys and fertile plains, he sees a black and gloomy mountain, a picture of desolation, and the solitude of it is brightful. There are dangerous precipices by the way, and caverns where the wild  p.473 beasts hide, and not a trace of vegetation; and, whilst the plains below are scorched by the sun, Francis and his companions shiver on the lonely mountain. Yet here he is determined to remain, and by fastings that will wear him to a skeleton, and austerities which appal his brother monks by their severity, and prayer so intense that he will be lifted from the earth and remain suspended between earth and Heaven, Francis will come to the full knowledge of his God, will meet his Saviour face to face, will speak to Him, and be answered by Him, and finally become, as it were, trans formed into his Divine Master.

For many days the sacred intercourse between God and His servant went on, Francis praying and crucifying himself, and God lifting him higher and higher on those celestial steps that reach to the foot of His throne. Several times he had seen Him whom kings and prophets desired to see and could not; he has spoken to Him suspended in mid-air, as on Thabor; he has spoken to our Divine Redeemer, as He sat side by side with him on a rough rock in the darkest and gloomiest grotto on the mountain. And that something wonderful will come from all this Francis knows by a secret inspiration, which tells him that it is God's holy Will that His servant should come nearer to Himself, and be, as it were, changed into His very likeness. And so he consults the oracles of God; and brother Leo opens the holy Gospels thrice, and thrice does the holy book open at the history of the Passion of Christ. Here, then, was the way in which God's designs were to be accomplished. And so, for the thousandth time, Francis began to meditate on the Sacred Mysteries connected with the Passion and Death of our Divine Saviour. And as they began to unfold themselves before him, and as he began to see in the wounds of the Lord Jesus the meaning of sin and Divine justice and Divine love, he trembled with fear and humility before God, and his prayer ever was: “Who am I, Lord, and who art Thou?” And at last, as the time came near the feast of St. Michael, the holy servant of God was vouchsafed a vision like unto those that Ezechiel saw.

It is a saint, and one of his children, Bonaventure, who tells the story, and it is confirmed by the authentic decrees of the Church authorities of the time. Francis, the servant and the truly faithful minister of Jesus Christ, being in prayer on Mount Alvernia, and being raised up towards God by the seraphic fervour of his desires, and being transformed by the most tender and  p.474 affectionate compassion into Him, who by an excess of charity has wished to be crucified for us, suddenly saw one of the Seraphim, who shot down from Heaven towards him with the swiftness of light. And, as he approached, the saint saw that he had six wings, shining with the brilliancy of fire, two raised above his head, two extended, and between these two a figure of the Crucifixion, which was partly veiled by the other wings. Seeing this wonderful vision, Francis was surprised. It was familiar to him, for day by day he had bent over his crucifix and studied every wound, every scar in the body of His Divine Master; but fancy can never paint the reality, and now Francis saw the very figure on which John and Magdalen had looked on Calvary, and the contemplation of which was the sharp sword which pierced the heart of the Blessed Mother. The white body of our Redeemer was before him, darkened here and there by the cruel scourge; the head was there, bent under its royal crown of thorns; the gaping wound in his side was there, from which flowed blood and water unto the healing of the nations; and, above all, the gentle, but oh! sorrowful and anguished face was there, looking down at him with pitying eyes; and, though the lips never spoke a word, the merciful eyes made known to the kneeling saint things which no tongue may reveal. The vision vanished; the Saint returned to himself again; but lo! the Passion has left its mark upon him, for here in his own hands and in his sandaled feet are the marls of the nails, and Francis knows that he too is crucified, not by the hands of men, but by the love of God himself.

O wonderful Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ! O Book of all the saints! O mystery of all mysteries! There we can read the love of God that is incomprehensible. There we can read the malice of sin which is indefinite. There we can read the meaning of those things which puzzle us so much— God's justice and man's iniquity. There, above all, can we read the nature and the malice, the shame and the crime, of those sins which we ourselves have committed in our childhood, in our manhood, in our old age— sins countless in their hideous sum, sins that mocked God by the coolness with which they were committed, sins that lay lightly upon us as the down upon a feather, and we went on our way heedless and thoughtless, not caring that every sinful thought was a thorn in the brow of Jesus, and every sinful desire a lash on the tender flesh of Jesus, and every sinful word was a pain to the heart of  p.475 Jesus, and every sinful deed was a blow that drove the nails deeper and deeper through the hands and feet of Jesus, and fastened Him on the cross, as Francis saw Him, tortured, pain-stricken, dying of the wounds inflicted by us and His own dear Love.

Oh, if God would only open our eyes to see the things that Francis saw in his vision; if God would only touch our stony hearts to understand the anguish and the desolation and the pain of Christ in His agony; if God would only teach us the unutterable love of His dying Son for every soul that was purchased by the Precious Blood which fell upon the green grass of Gethsemani and Calvary, we would not indeed feel the sacred stigmata as Francis felt them, but we would pray God to give us back those years that we sent into eternity laden with our sins; or rather, as those years cannot be recalled, we would beg of God grace and strength to make the time that remains a time of reparation, devoted to the faithful service of our crucified Master. May such a vision come to us before we die, and with it the grace to understand its full meaning!

Yes, the past is irrevocable. Each golden day rose from eternity, and passed into eternity again, laden with our good or evil deeds, and is not to be summoned back by any reward. Each golden day was a leaf in the Book of Life, written in black and white, which our good angel turned over and sealed down, not to be opened again till the day of final judgment. But the future is our possession, to make or mar, for better, for worse, and the pressing question is, how shall we use it for God's glory and our own salvation. Well, the life of every saint is a track of light, which, if we follow, we shall come to the dawning of eternal day. The life of the humblest servant of God is a Gospel, containing many and many a lesson of wisdom unto perfect sanctity and holiness. And the life of such a saint as St. Francis is so holy, so wise, so sublime, that we may ponder over it every day of our lives, and yet find new marvels of sanctity, new mysteries of God's omnipotent love.

Yet here I can fancy some one saying: “But St. Francis lived seven centuries ago, and the world has advanced in many ways since then. Don't you think that the age of evangelical virtues,  p.476 the age of mysteries and miracles, of supernatural visions and supernatural austerities, is gone for ever? Don't you think the example of a more modern, and less ecstatic saint, would better meet the exigencies of our time?” Yes, certainly, if God had come to terms with the world! Yes, if a truce had been made between sin and grace! Yes, if God had revised His Gospel, and expunged from it those terrible things which His Divine Son had said against the world: “I came not to bring peace, but the sword.” Yes! if there were not at this moment a terrible conflict raging above us, and around us, and within us, between God and Satan, good and evil, light and darkness, virtue and vice, sin and grace, Christ and Belial. But we are engaged in such a fight; and, as soldiers going to battle fortify themselves by tales of high valour and victory exhibited and won by those who are gone before them, so we, by reading the virtues of our saint, may strengthen our souls for this conflict under the standard of the Cross of Christ.

And, strange to say, in this age of progress and education, in this age of mammon and ungodliness, in this age of infidelity, when God is ignored and religion despised, there is a fascination about the life of St. Francis, which even freethinkers cannot resist. It is a romance of simplicity, of humility, of charity, that will be read with pleasure centuries after we, I hope, shall have seen the Saint in Heaven. His love of Nature and of this wonderful world, his love of everything that God had made, because the hand of God had touched it, is inexpressibly beautiful. He was a child in the picture gallery of God, and every day opened to him fresh revelations of his Father's mercy, and his Father's power. The firmament flecked with clouds, or blazing with stars, was the open Book of Omnipotence. The earth, so varied and beautiful, was his home which his Father had made and decorated for His child. The winds were to him a sweet psalmody; and the hoarse roar of the ocean was a voice from eternity. The flowers were beautiful in his eyes, for God had painted them. No wonder they bowed their lovely heads to him as he passed. And the dumb beasts, whom he called his brothers and sisters, came to him, as they came to the martyrs in the Roman amphitheatre, and fawned upon him, and the birds sang with him the praises of their Maker. I know nothing half so beautiful in all the legends of the saints as that story of St. Francis, who, after the evening vespers in the choir,  p.477 came out into the soft twilight, and hearing the nightingale sing, challenged the bird to sing with him the praise of God; and they sang alternately, strophe by strophe, the Saint chanting the psalms of that sweet singer, David, and the bird chanting the melodies his Maker taught him, until at last, wearied and tired, the nightingale sought the shelter of his nest, and the Saint went on through the night into the dawn, celebrating the praises of his Creator. And, not only with the gentle creatures of God, but even with those that are fierce and untutored, the servant of God was uniformly mild, and invariably succeeded in taming and subduing them. The wolf of Gubbio he drew from his forests and brought into village, where, fed from house to house, he renounced his fierce habits, and became docile as a domestic animal. To the wild bandits that stopped him to plunder him, he promised everything if they would give up blaspheming God. And when he had to undergo a terrible operation by fire a little time before his death, he addressed that terrible element in these touching words: “My brother fire, the Lord made thee useful and beautiful: be thou gentle to me in this hour.”

And so, with that singular simplicity and gentleness, and love of all things that come from the hand of God, and live beneath His smile, he succeeded in undertakings where learned men would have utterly failed. He preached from the depth of his own great heart, and his words went direct to the great heart of humanity, and pride bowed down before his majestic humility, and wealth abased itself before his sublime poverty, and he stood before kings and princes with the same sublime composure that he maintained amongst his brethren, and he walked through palaces and lordly places with the same indifference as the air would wander through them or the bird would fly. And the people looked on him as a being not of this world at all— as a spirit clothed in the frailty of flesh for a moment to teach the world that after all the soul is man, and not the body or its raiment. Nor can we find fault with the popular faith, which, to quote the words of a Protestant lady, Mrs. Oliphant, tells us: “He lies under the great altar, but no one knows the precise spot of his grave, and a mysterious legend has crept about, whispered in the twilight for ages, that far underneath, lower even than the subterranean church, the great Saint, erect and pale, with sacred drops of blood upon his five wounds, and an awful silence around him, waits, rapt in  p.478 some heavenly meditation, for the moment when he, like his Lord, and with his Lord, shall arise again.”

For us, however, his life has a deeper lesson. It is a perfect following of Christ. Take the holy gospels; and mind, the holy gospels are not obsolete or antiquated. The gospel teachings are as true to-day as when Christ spoke his words of wisdom by the sea of Galilee, or on the mountain. By the gospels we shall be judged. Take the holy gospels, and place side by side with them the life of our Saint, and you will find that every thought, and word, and deed, of his life correspond with their high teaching. Contempt for everything that does not lead to God— there is the one great maxim of his life. Sacrifice of everything that kept him from God— there was his one great practice. Hatred of the world that hates God— here was one great passion. The complete crushing of every sinful inclination— here was his perpetual study. To spread in every soul love for his Divine Master— here was his daily task. To save sinners— here was his one ambition. To be crucified with Christ— here was his glory, as with St. Paul. Oh! how that blessed figure rises up before us, perpetually rebuking our coldness, our sensuality, our pride. Oh! may God grant that, as Christ put the marks of His own dear wounds in the body of our Saint, so our holy Father would print upon our souls some faint image of His own great sanctity. If we cannot embrace his absolute poverty, let us love it at least in spirit, for blessed are the poor in spirit. Let us practise it by honouring, loving and venerating the poor, who are the special friends of God. We cannot practise his awful austerities; but here are passions to be daily kept under, here are mortifications to be daily endured, here are crosses to be daily borne. Every soul has its own cross; let it bear it meekly for the love of God and St. Francis. We are not called to bear the stigmata as our Saint; but if we are faithful to Christ, we have a daily martyrdom to endure in the struggle with the world and ourselves, and that martyrdom will leave its scars and wounds upon us that will be to us a glory hereafter, as the wounds of the martyrs shine brilliantly in Heaven. Visions will not be sent to us— angels will not visit us— Christ will not appear to us— what do I say? I am wrong— quite wrong.

For soon, very soon, for “man's life is but a vapour that appeareth for a little time,” 1 that strange revelation will be made to us which is made to every child of Adam. Soon, very soon,  p.479 for “man's life is but a dream of him that awaketh from sleep,” the veil will be lifted, and, in a silence unbroken by the levity of men, each lonely soul in turn shall find itself face to face with the Son of Man. The dream of our life is realised. There is the silent and gentle Jesus whom we have known. The wounds are in His hands and feet and side, as the seraphic Francis saw them, between the wings of the seraph on the mountain. His eyes are looking into ours, scanning every feature of our souls to see if we are known to Him. Oh! what a fearful thing it will be for us if Jesus does not recognise us then! if, seeing in our souls only the marks of our pride and sensuality, the smile dies from His face, His hands are stretched to repel us if icy and cold and terrible the words come from His sacred lips: “Amen, I say to you, I never knew you.” But happy, thrice happy, is this other soul! As the mother lingers over every lineament in the face of her long-lost child, so do the eyes of Jesus linger over the features of the soul that has loved Him. He knows them well! He has seen them at the morning Mass, at the evening devotions. He has seen in the twilight, when, unseen by men, that soul crept into the darkness of His temple, and, in loneliness and sorrow, prayed to Him in His Tabernacle. And, now, it is all over! “The winter is past; the rain is over and gone; the flowers have appeared in our land; arise, make haste, my love, and come.” And Jesus stretches forth the strong arm of His Omnipotence, and gently lifts it over the dark stream of death, and places it in the eternal light that glitters round His Throne. That such a vision may come one day to us, may our holy Francis pray, that Christ may grant!


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Title (uniform): The Seraph of Assisi

Author: Patrick Augustine Sheehan

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Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: School of History, University College, Cork

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  • [Details to follow].

Canon Sheehan on the Internet

  • http://www.canonsheehanremembered.com.


  1. Mrs [=Margaret] Oliphant, Francis of Assisi (London 1902).
  2. Herman Joseph Heuser, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: the story of an Irish parish priest as told chiefly by himself in books, personal memoirs, and letters (New York 1917).
  3. Arthur Coussens. P. A. Sheehan, zijn leven en zijn werken (Brugge/Bruges 1923).
  4. Michael P. Linehan, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile: Priest, Novelist, Man of Letters (Dublin 1952).
  5. James O'Brien (ed.), The Collected Letters of Canon Sheehan of Doneraile, 1883–1913 (Wells 2013).
  6. James O'Brien, Canon Sheehan of Doneraile 1852–1913: Outlines for Literary Biography (Wells 2013). [Bibliographical references 205–11.]
  7. Joachim Fischer, 'Canon Sheehan und die deutsche Kultur', In: Joachim Fischer, Das Deutschlandbild der Iren 1890–1939, (Heidelberg: Winter 2000).

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‘The Seraph of Assisi’. In: The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature‍ 18.207. Ed. by Matthew Russell SJ, pp. 468–479.

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  title 	 = {The Seraph of Assisi},
  journal 	 = {The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature},
  editor 	 = {Matthew Russell SJ},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {Irish Jesuit Province},
  date 	 = {September 1890},
  volume 	 = {18},
  number 	 = {207},
  pages 	 = {468–479}


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Creation: By Patrick Augustine Sheehan (1852–1913)

Date: 1890

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  • A few words are in Italian. (it)

Keywords: essay; prose; 19c; science and nature; christian education; catholicism

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  1. 2013-11-11: Additions to bibliographical details made. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
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  4. 2013-09-22: Text scanned. (file capture Beatrix Färber)

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