A Map of Life: A Detailed book Summary

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Title: A Map of Life
Author: Frank Sheed


“A Map of Life” by Frank Sheed is a clear and concise explanation of the Catholic faith, presented as a metaphorical “map” to guide readers through the complexities of life and faith. It explores the purpose of human existence, the laws that govern us, the nature of sin and suffering, and the journey towards heaven, explaining key concepts like the Incarnation, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the sacraments. Sheed’s work offers a clear framework for understanding the Catholic faith and its relevance to everyday life.

Chapter 1: The Problem of Life’s Purpose

Sheed begins by highlighting the unique duality of human existence: we are both spirit and matter, residing in two worlds simultaneously. This sets the stage for the crucial question of life’s purpose, arguing that without understanding this purpose, intelligent living becomes impossible.

He uses the analogy of a razor to illustrate the importance of purpose. Using a razor without knowing its intended function leads to misuse and ultimately, destruction. Similarly, living without knowing the purpose of our existence leads to a life of aimlessness and potential self-destruction.

Sheed then proposes two ways in which a thing can come into existence: intentionally or accidentally. Intention implies purpose; accidents lack purpose. He firmly states that humanity, like all things, must either be an accident or have been created with a specific intent. Catholics believe that man was made intentionally by an intelligent being who knew the purpose of their creation.

He critiques the idea of deducing human purpose through the study of human nature alone. Even with a complete understanding of human nature, we cannot determine purpose if it lies beyond the inherent capabilities of our nature. This is where divine revelation is essential, as it reveals God’s intent in creating man.

Sheed argues that without God’s revelation, we are left with no choice but to choose our own purpose, increasing the risk of choosing incorrectly and ultimately spoiling our lives. He further emphasizes the dangers of this approach when individuals with power, like dictators or parents, choose wrongly, causing significant harm.

Finally, he refutes the idea that accepting divine revelation hinders freedom or represents intellectual suicide. The goal of thought is truth, and accepting necessary truths revealed by a reliable source is not surrendering freedom but rather embracing it in pursuit of truth. Without this understanding, we cannot truly know man’s purpose, making intelligent living impossible.

Chapter 2: The Problem of Life’s Laws

Sheed expands on the idea of purpose, introducing the concept of laws governing both the body and the soul. He argues that these laws, both material and spiritual, are not created or controlled by man, but are rather inherent to the world and independent of human approval.

He uses the example of the law of gravity to demonstrate that we cannot escape these laws, and trying to do so results in disaster. Similarly, the moral law, which governs the soul, cannot be ignored or emancipated from. He criticizes those who promote liberation from the moral law, comparing this to attempting to escape the law of gravity, a pursuit doomed to failure.

Sheed then clarifies that no human authority can abrogate God’s law, not even the state. States can declare certain actions legal, like divorce, but this does not make those actions morally acceptable. The moral law is absolute, and human institutions cannot change its nature or consequences.

He draws a parallel between the discovery of laws governing the physical world and those governing the soul. While humans have made progress in understanding physical laws, they face constant uncertainty and error. This makes it clear that man, left to their own devices, will struggle to understand the laws of the soul, with potentially disastrous results.

He highlights the importance of divine revelation, emphasizing that God has chosen to reveal the laws governing the soul while leaving the discovery of physical laws largely to human effort. This is because understanding the laws of the soul is vital to avoid eternal catastrophe, while understanding physical laws is less critical.

Sheed concludes by reiterating the dependence of freedom on knowledge of God’s laws. Freedom, he argues, is not simply doing what we like but rather doing what we ought, leading to genuine freedom within the bounds of God’s law.

Chapter 3: Heaven

Sheed begins this chapter by emphasizing the importance of understanding the end of the road in order to understand the road itself. In this case, the road of life leads to heaven, making a grasp of heaven’s nature vital to comprehending the journey.

He critiques various approaches to understanding the afterlife: atheism, which proposes death as the end, is seen as exceptional and ultimately unsatisfactory. Other approaches, such as working out the afterlife theoretically or relying on spiritualism, are deemed unreliable and fraught with potential deception.

He posits that the only reliable way to understand the afterlife is through revelation from someone with personal knowledge of it, ultimately pointing to God as the ultimate source of truth. He introduces the concept of heaven as the endpoint of the road of life, a place of perfect happiness characterized by the knowledge and love of God.

Sheed addresses the misconception that heaven is a place of endless hymn-singing, arguing that this is simply a symbol meant to convey the idea of eternal joy. This misconception, fueled by the lack of theological understanding within some Protestant groups, has made the concept of heaven less appealing to some.

He then explores the nature of happiness, arguing that it resides in the soul, not the body. Happiness comes from the proper functioning of the soul’s faculties: the intellect rejoices in the knowledge of truth, the will in the love of goodness, and the soul as a whole delights in beauty.

He further argues that the happiness experienced in earthly beauty, like sunsets and music, is simply a reflection of the infinite beauty that exists in God. This explains why we can tire of earthly beauty, but never of the infinite beauty of God.

Sheed concludes by introducing the concept of the Supernatural Life, a crucial element for understanding heaven and its connection to earthly life. He argues that our human nature, though sufficient for earthly existence, is inadequate for the life of heaven. Therefore, we must receive the Supernatural Life, a gift from God, to enable us to live a life beyond our natural capabilities.

Chapter 4: The Creation and Fall

Sheed introduces the first road of human life, which existed before the Fall, highlighting the simplicity of this original plan. Adam, as the representative of the human race, was given the three essential gifts: the twofold truth (knowledge of purpose and laws), the Supernatural Life, and exemption from death.

He describes the Fall as a rebellion against God, a choice of man’s will over God’s will, resulting in the loss of the Supernatural Life. This loss brought about the separation of soul and body at death, introducing the concept of death into the human experience.

Adam’s sin not only affected his own being, but also the entire human race. His descendants inherited an impaired nature, prone to sin, and the right relationship between God and humanity was broken. This state of separation from God made heaven inaccessible to all subsequent generations.

Sheed explains the concept of original sin as the absence of the Supernatural Life, not as a personal wrong or corruption of the soul itself. This highlights that we are born without the Life that enables us to be sons of God and enter heaven.

He describes the gradual deterioration of the original revelation, emphasizing the corruption introduced by error, passion, self-interest, and forgetfulness. The remnants of the original truth, though fragmented, still bore witness to God’s purpose and law.

He concludes by stating that God intervened, offering a threefold restoration and building a new road for humanity. This road, however, is more complex and arduous than the first, reflecting the damaged state of humanity after countless generations of sin.

Chapter 5: The Incarnation

Sheed introduces the central concept of the book: Christ, God-made-man, as the key to understanding the new road of human life. He highlights the significant difference between a teacher who possesses truth and one who is truth. While a teacher can convey knowledge, Christ, being both Truth and Life, can only offer himself.

He then introduces the concept of Christ’s two natures: divine and human. He is truly God, possessing the divine nature, and truly man, having taken on a complete human nature, including body and soul. These two natures exist within one person, God the Son, a concept crucial for understanding Christ’s mission.

Sheed clarifies the distinction between person and nature, using the analogy of a man asking “What is that?” and “Who is that?” to demonstrate that every individual has both a nature and a person. He then applies this distinction to Christ, stating that he is both a divine nature and a human nature within the one person of God the Son.

He explains that Christ’s actions, whether done in his divine nature or his human nature, are always attributed to the person of God the Son. This means that when Christ raised the dead, it was God who acted, and when Christ suffered and died, it was God who suffered and died.

He introduces the concept of the atonement, explaining how Christ’s dual nature enabled him to reconcile God and man. Through his human death, an act of infinite value because it was performed by God, Christ repaired the breach caused by Adam’s sin, making heaven once more possible for humanity.

Sheed concludes by highlighting Christ’s role as Teacher. He summarized the ten commandments into two: love God and love your neighbour. This emphasizes that love is the essence of all laws, and that internal sin is as serious as outward action. Christ’s teaching revealed the purpose of human existence: to come to God, and he further revealed the mystery of the Trinity, a truth that will be explored in greater depth in a later chapter.

Chapter 6: The Mystical Body of Christ

Sheed re-emphasizes the three essential needs of humanity: Truth, Law, and Life, and reiterates that these needs cannot be met by human effort alone but require divine revelation. He then introduces the Church as the means by which Christ delivers these gifts to humanity.

He describes how Christ, after his ascension, established his followers, particularly the apostles, as a body to continue his mission of teaching truth and administering sacraments. This body, united by the successor of Peter, is the Church, a vehicle for delivering Truth, Law, and Life.

Sheed then addresses two unanswered questions: why should humanity benefit from Christ’s atonement, and how can we understand Christ’s statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” given that he is no longer physically present?

He answers the second question first, exploring the concept of Christ living within us. Using the analogy of cells living within a body, he argues that we must be incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, to allow his life to flow through us.

He further clarifies that this is not simply a symbolic relationship, but a real and organic one. The Church is Christ’s body, and becoming a member means being incorporated into his body, becoming a cell within it. This union allows Christ to live within us.

He then addresses the first question, exploring how we share in Christ’s atonement. Just as we are all inherently linked to Adam by birth, we can be incorporated into Christ through baptism, the sacrament that makes us Christians and allows us to share in his redemptive act.

Sheed expands on the concept of the Church, highlighting that it includes not only living members but also those who have died with the Supernatural Life in their souls, regardless of whether they are in heaven or Purgatory. This emphasizes the Church as a growing body, united by Christ and extending beyond the boundaries of time.

He clarifies the dual aspect of the Church: its perfect, divine nature, and its imperfect, human side. While the divine nature of the Church is perfect, the human side, composed of individuals at varying degrees of spiritual development, is constantly striving for perfection.

Sheed concludes by introducing the concept of the Communion of Saints, the oneness of all men in Christ, made possible by membership in his Mystical Body. This oneness allows for a flow of prayer between living and dead members of the Church, transcending death and facilitating mutual support.

Chapter 7: Truth: The Teaching Church

Sheed begins by explaining that the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, received a vast body of truth from Christ himself, which was passed down through generations, partially preserved in written form as the New Testament.

He emphasizes the unique nature of Scripture, highlighting that it is not simply a human text, but divinely inspired, a result of God acting upon the minds and wills of its authors to convey his intended message. The Old Testament, written by the Chosen People of Israel, recounts the creation and fall of man, God’s dealings with humanity, and the preparation for the coming of Christ. The New Testament, on the other hand, focuses on Christ’s life, mission, and the establishment of the Church.

Sheed explores the concept of doctrinal development within the Church, arguing that it is not simply repetition of past teachings but a dynamic process of continued learning and understanding. The Church meditates, prays, and lives the truth revealed by Christ, leading to deeper and deeper insights.

He clarifies that this development is not simply a product of human minds, but is guided by God’s protection, preventing the Church from teaching error. He uses the analogy of a dark room to illustrate this point, explaining that while human minds can learn more through exploration, they also risk falling into error. God, however, guides the Church, ensuring that only true knowledge is revealed.

Sheed then focuses on the teaching authority of the Church, highlighting the bishops as the official teachers. While individual bishops might err, the collective teaching of the bishops as a body, or the teachings of the Pope, the head of the Church, are infallible, guaranteed by God. He clarifies that the bishops do not receive new revelation from God, but rather use their minds to interpret and understand the truth already revealed. God’s protection simply prevents them from teaching error.

He concludes by emphasizing that Catholics accept the teachings of the Church, even those that seem difficult or counterintuitive, because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and therefore, her teachings are the voice of Christ himself.

Chapter 8: Truth: The Mystery of the Trinity

Sheed introduces the concept of mystery, clarifying that it does not refer to incomprehensible truths, but rather to truths that cannot be fully understood by the finite human mind. He highlights that there is always a degree of mystery when dealing with the infinite nature of God, who cannot be fully contained or comprehended by our limited minds.

He then explores the challenges of mystery, specifically the potential for apparent contradictions within revealed truths. This can be especially difficult for the human mind, which finds contradiction unsettling.

Sheed suggests that this perceived contradiction can stem from either a misunderstanding of the doctrine itself, which can be corrected by accurate explanation, or a limitation of the human mind, an inability to fully grasp the depth of the truth. He emphasizes that the inability to reconcile two statements does not necessarily indicate contradiction, especially when dealing with truths that transcend the limitations of human understanding.

He concludes that mysteries, far from being barriers to thought, should be seen as invitations to deepen our understanding. They represent an inexhaustible source of truth, pushing us to expand our knowledge and explore deeper levels of meaning.

Sheed then focuses on the mystery of the Trinity, presenting it as the supreme mystery revealed by Christ. He describes the Trinity as one divine essence, one single entity, with three distinct Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Person possesses the complete divine nature, not sharing it but each possessing its totality.

He clarifies the distinction between nature and person, emphasizing that while human nature is one, each individual possesses their own unique nature. In the Trinity, however, there is only one divine nature, one mind, and one will, shared by all three Persons. This explains the concept of one God, not three.

He further explains the distinctness of the three Persons, not through separation but through relations. He explores the relationship between the Father and the Son, highlighting that the Son proceeds from the Father through an eternal act of generation, not subject to human limitations of time. This relationship is also expressed through the concept of the Word, God’s thought about himself, which is a perfect image of him.

Sheed then introduces the Holy Spirit as the “term” of God’s act of love for himself, emphasizing that the Holy Spirit is not a product of a new nature, but a manifestation of the love that exists between the Father and the Son.

He concludes by discussing the “appropriation” of specific actions to each Person within the Trinity. While God acts upon the world as a unity, certain actions are associated with specific Persons based on their internal relationships. He highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in sanctification, and his role in the Mystical Body will be further explored in a later chapter.

Chapter 9: Law and Sin

Sheed begins by reiterating Christ’s summarization of man’s duty: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He emphasizes that these two commandments are not simply guidelines but rather fundamental principles that must be expressed through action. Christ’s teachings provide detailed rules for both action and inaction, outlining what is required to express love and what is to be avoided.

He then explores the role of conscience in moral decision-making, acknowledging that we must follow our conscience, but also clarifying that it is not infallible. Conscience is not a fixed faculty but rather an action of the soul, a judgment of the intellect based on the natural law imprinted on our nature.

Sheed clarifies that conscience, though often strong and definite, can be wrong. This is because it is guided by the imprint of God’s law on our nature, which can be distorted by individual experiences and biases. He argues that the general consensus of humanity’s conscience might largely align with the natural moral law, but individual consciences often vary widely.

He highlights the limitations of conscience, particularly when dealing with matters related to our supernatural destiny. It cannot provide guidance on matters like divorce, but it remains silent on questions like baptism, which require divine revelation.

He emphasizes the importance of instructing conscience, acknowledging that we need external guidance to fully understand God’s law. Catholics accept the moral law taught by the Church, understanding it as God’s law and judging it to be right according to their own instructed conscience.

Sheed then defines sin as the breaking of God’s law. He distinguishes between venial sin, which does not break the bond with God, and mortal sin, which leads to eternal damnation if unrepented.

He highlights the gravity of sin, emphasizing that it is a transgression against God’s law, an act of ingratitude and incredible stupidity. Sinners, despite their defiance, remain entirely dependent on God’s power and grace.

He addresses the misconception that God’s laws are arbitrary limitations on freedom, arguing that they are actually guidelines for using ourselves and others correctly. Breaking God’s law is an act against our own nature, leading to self-destruction.

He further criticizes the justification of sin through “self-expression,” arguing that sin is a perversion of the self, contradicting God’s will for humanity.

Sheed concludes by introducing the concept of vocation, God’s individual will for each person. He emphasizes that this vocation is a deeply personal matter between God and the individual, and there is no single method for discerning it.

Chapter 10: Law and Suffering

Sheed begins this chapter by acknowledging that resisting sin often involves suffering, sometimes even great suffering. He addresses the common temptation to relax moral law when the consequences of obedience seem too difficult.

He emphasizes the immutability of God’s law, stating that even the Church cannot change it. The Church has the authority to create its own laws, but these must always align with God’s law. He uses the example of marriage to illustrate this point, highlighting that the Church cannot grant divorce because marriage is a bond established by God, not by human agreement.

He then explores the futility of attempting to alter God’s law, arguing that doing so would be both foolish and disrespectful. Humans cannot change the laws set by God, and ultimately, it is God who will judge us, not those who have tried to modify his laws.

Sheed further critiques the notion that altering the moral law is a way of reducing suffering, arguing that suffering is not necessarily evil. He proposes that suffering can actually be beneficial, contributing to personal growth and development.

He distinguishes between curable and incurable suffering, emphasizing that the choice to endure suffering, even when avoidable by sin, is morally required. Suffering is part of life’s test, and God ensures that no one is burdened with more than they can bear with his grace.

Sheed argues that the effort to modify God’s law to reduce suffering is a misinterpretation of life’s purpose. Life is not only a test but also a preparation for heaven, and suffering can be a valuable tool for spiritual growth. God knows the amount of suffering necessary for each individual’s perfection, and interfering with this process can prevent the soul from reaching its full potential.

He concludes by highlighting the significance of voluntary suffering, a triumph over human weakness. This involves accepting suffering as a gift from God, offering it up for one’s own sins and the sins of others, and even seeking out suffering as a means of spiritual growth.

Chapter 11: The Supernatural Life: How It Comes to the Soul

Sheed begins this chapter by reiterating the concept of the Supernatural Life, emphasizing that it is essential for attaining heaven because human nature alone is inadequate for the life of heaven. He then explores how this Life comes to the soul, focusing on the role of Christ as “the Life.”

He re-emphasizes the concept of Christ living within us, referencing Saint Paul’s statement “I live, yet now not I, but Christ liveth in me.” He utilizes the analogy of cells living within a body to illustrate this concept, arguing that we must be incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, to receive his life.

He then introduces baptism as the means of incorporation into Christ’s Body, highlighting its significance as a rebirth, an entry into the life of Christ.

Sheed then delves into the concept of prayer, stating that it is a fundamental aspect of both natural and supernatural life. He distinguishes between direct prayer, speaking to God, and indirect prayer, performing actions for God’s glory.

He outlines the four elements of prayer: adoration, thanksgiving, sorrow for sin, and petition. While petition is important, it is incomplete without the other three, emphasizing the need for humility, gratitude, and recognition of our dependence on God.

He then explores the different modes of prayer, highlighting its roots in the soul but also involving the body, both in its effect on the soul (like the use of a crucifix) and as an expression of the soul (like kneeling or striking one’s breast). He also emphasizes the social element of prayer, acknowledging that man is inherently linked to others and therefore must include them in prayer.

Sheed then discusses the Mass as the prayer of the whole Body of Christ, a manifestation of Christ’s continuous offering of himself in heaven. This offering is made by Christ, through the instrument of his Mystical Body, and specifically, through the priest. The priest acts as a conduit for Christ’s sacrifice, with the congregation participating through the priest.

He describes the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, as the food of the Body of Christ, receiving Christ himself into ourselves. This highlights the Eucharist as the ultimate gift, culminating the process of baptism, prayer, and all other aspects of life.

He concludes by exploring the other sacraments: Confirmation and Holy Orders, which confer a character on the soul, signifying a share in Christ’s priesthood; Penance, the sacrament of forgiveness; Matrimony, the sacrament of marriage, and Extreme Unction, the Last Anointing. He emphasizes the centrality of the Eucharist, drawing power to all other sacraments.

Chapter 12: The Supernatural Life: How It Works in the Soul

Sheed begins by reiterating that grace, the gift of the Supernatural Life, elevates human nature without destroying it. He then explores the effects of the Supernatural Life on the soul, emphasizing that it does not add new faculties but rather enhances existing faculties, giving them the power to act above their natural level.

He outlines the natural life of the soul, highlighting the two faculties, intellect and will, with their respective actions (knowing and loving) and objects (truth and goodness). He acknowledges that the natural life, through reason, can deduce the need to know and love God, but this understanding remains limited by the constraints of human nature.

Sheed introduces the concept of supernaturalization, explaining that grace enhances the soul’s faculties, enabling the intellect to believe upon the word of God (faith) and the will to love God supernaturally (charity), while also empowering the will with hope, the aspiration to God.

He clarifies that the full realization of the Supernatural Life is not achieved in this world, but rather in heaven, where the intellect will see God directly, faith will give way to direct knowledge, and hope will be fulfilled through possession.

He explores the potential for losing the Supernatural Life through mortal sin, which breaks the bond of love and causes the loss of charity. While faith and hope can be retained, they are not supernaturally alive without charity.

Sheed outlines the main effects of the Supernatural Life: access to God through faith, hope, and charity; the ability to perform actions that merit a supernatural reward; preparation for the life of heaven, and becoming sons of God through grace.

He concludes by reiterating the importance of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, emphasizing that being a member of the Church means being united with Christ and, through him, with the Father. This unity is not limited to the living but extends to all members of the Mystical Body, regardless of their state after death.

Chapter 13: Hell

Sheed begins by exploring the separation of soul and body at death, highlighting that the soul survives while the body decays. He emphasizes that death is not the end of life, but rather a transition, a finality that marks the end of the road of preparation and the beginning of eternity.

He then focuses on the importance of the will in determining our eternal destiny. The will, in its final choice at death, is either fixed toward God or away from him, leading to heaven or hell.

Sheed explains that membership in Christ’s Mystical Body does not guarantee a life united with God. While the Supernatural Life flows through all members, only those whose wills remain united with God experience its full benefit. Those who turn away from God cut off the flow of life, becoming dead cells within the Body.

He then defines hell as a state of eternal separation from God, a consequence of a will fixed in hatred of God. He clarifies that this hatred can be implicit, stemming from a self-love that prevents a soul from embracing God. This separation, he emphasizes, is everlasting because the state of will that produces it is unchanging.

Sheed explores the consequences of this separation, highlighting the suffering inherent in being deprived of what our nature needs. This deprivation, experienced for all eternity, is a consequence of the sinner’s own will. While God would grant mercy to those who ask, the souls in hell choose to remain in their misery, hating God more than they hate their suffering.

He emphasizes the tragic reality of hell, a state beyond the reach of help, resulting from the sinner’s own choice and the unwavering direction of their will toward evil. God respects human freedom, and those who have hoped for the salvation of the damned have mistakenly assumed they would one day turn from evil.

Sheed concludes by highlighting Christ’s insistence on the reality of hell. He quotes passages where Christ describes the separation from God, punishment, and the everlasting nature of hell. He emphasizes the importance of this doctrine, which, despite its harshness, reflects Christ’s love for humanity.

Chapter 14: Purgatory: Heaven

Sheed begins this chapter by examining the varying degrees of union with God within the Mystical Body. While some members experience a complete union, others have only a partial union, with elements of self still unsubjected to God.

He then explores the two main reasons why souls might require further purification after death: unrepented venial sin and mortal sin repented of but not sufficiently. Venial sin, while not leading to damnation, still requires punishment, while mortal sin, though forgiven, may leave a debt of justice to be satisfied.

He introduces Purgatory as the place where souls undergo this cleansing and compensating suffering. He emphasizes that souls in Purgatory suffer, but they are assured of their eventual entry into heaven.

Sheed then returns to the concept of heaven, reiterating the three main truths about its nature: perfect happiness, indescribability, and the Beatific Vision, the direct apprehension of God.

He explores the nature of heaven’s happiness, arguing that it stems from the complete realization of God, the ultimate source of all joy and beauty. This realization is experienced through the Beatific Vision, the direct knowledge of God, a supernatural state made possible by grace.

He highlights the fellowship that exists in heaven, emphasizing that it is not simply about individual union with God, but also about communion with Christ, his Mother, and all the angels and saints who have achieved God’s purpose.

Sheed then briefly discusses the Last Day, when souls in heaven will be reunited with their glorified bodies, and the General Judgment, where all men will be judged by Christ. This final judgment will be a culmination of God’s plan, revealing his perfect will and bringing all men to their final destiny.

He concludes by emphasizing the importance of the “map” as a guide for understanding the whole of revealed truth, encouraging further exploration of each individual doctrine. He highlights the rich depth of each truth, urging readers to meditate on the mysteries of God and delve deeper into the beauty of revealed truth.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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