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Poems of praise

At VivaBooks last week I picked up a copy of Daniel Ladinsky's translation of sixty "wild and sweet" poems by Hafiz, The Subject Tonight is Love. (You can read a handful of poems from the book here at Hafiz was a Persian poet, born sometime around 1320 C.E., known as "the Tongue of the Invisible" because he gave voice so beautifully to the infinite and irrepressible Love he understood divinity to be.

As Ladinsky notes in the book's introduction, Hafiz wrote some of these poems as a student or seeker, and others when he was a teacher or master later in life. In addition to speaking of God as Friend, Beloved, Ocean, Sky, and Moon, he uses more startling metaphors: Sweet Uncle, Generous Merchant, Problem Giver, Clever Rascal. For Hafiz, Ladinsky writes, "God is the Dancer, the Music, the Wine, the Bottle, the Beautiful Companion, the Kind Radiant One." I love the variety and playfulness in his God-language, and the simplicity of his voice. Hafiz wrote poetry anyone can grasp. That's true of many of my favorite poets: Naomi, to be sure, and also Jane Kenyon, William Stafford, Robert Bly -- all poets who concern themselves, to some extent, with the holiness in the everyday.

These poems also tread the fine line between poetry and prayer, a point of intersection which fascinates me. Marge Piercy achieves it in some of her Judaic work (collected in The Art of Blessing the Day), and it's what I aimed for in my series of morning-blessing poems. Ladinsky's rendition of Hafiz holds poetry and prayer in delightful tension, and I think the best poems in this collection manage to be both at once. The book begins with one of these, "Where Dolphins Dance," and the opening lines of the collection are particularly striking to me:

The work starts
As soon as you open your eyes in the

Hopefully you got
Some good rest last night.

Why go into the city or the fields
Without first kissing
The Friend

Who always stands at your door?
It takes only a second...

From the first line, I feel like I'm reopening an ongoing conversation with an old friend. Hafiz' suggestion that we stop to kiss God at the doorway echoes for me in the Jewish custom of placing a mezuzah (which many Jews literally kiss) on our doorposts -- and, more broadly, in the aspiration to be mindful of Oneness in our transitions from one thing to another.

Some of the poems are whimsical. ("Today/ The vegetables would like to be cut/ By someone who is singing God's name," begins one.) Others are more instructive -- like this little one:

Your Medicine

If you have not
Been taking your medicine lately
By saying your prayers every day,
How can Hafiz seriously listen
To all your heartaches
About life

It made me laugh, a little bit ruefully. (Hafiz has a point, there. Somebody remind me of that next time I'm feeling melancholy?) And I love the timeless quality of the language. I don't know whether to attribute that to Hafiz's verse, or whether it's a quality of Ladinsky's translation, but these poems feel like they could have been written yesterday, not six hundred and fifty years ago.

Often Hafiz mixes exhortation with rhapsody. In "Out of the Mouths of a Thousand Birds" Hafiz urges us to listen to what is around us right now, and then describes how he puts that into practice. In his world, he says, the "clanks/ of the morning milk drums" turn "into an ecstatic chorus of the Beloved's Name." And if a wagon wheel bumping over a rut can be the sound of prayer, then so can today's traffic sounds...but how often do we make the effort to hear them that way?

In "Something I Have Learned," Hafiz asserts that just as we clean water by pouring it through fine cloth, we filter ourselves and our words by pouring ourselves through God's Name. "From my constant remembrance/ Of the Friend/ All I now say is safe to/ Drink," he writes. Safe to drink, yes -- though the joy he takes in meeting God on the road and in the alehouse and among the stars is startling, almost radical. If this collection of poems had a warning label, it might be "These poems may wake you up," or "Prepare to see God in unexpected places," or "Be ready to rejoice."

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Meetings and connections

Shalom, y'all! (That's what we say here in Texas, where I am having a wonderful time visiting my folks, enjoying the heat, and eating all the Tex-Mex food I can lay my hands on.)

Today featured two visits which will surely be highlights of my week down south. This morning my mother and I had tea with Naomi Shihab Nye, Jenny Browne, and Nan Cuba. Naomi was my first poetry teacher when I was a kid -- and I'm surpassingly fond of her work (here, read this poem called  "Hidden"). Jenny is an inspiration to me, not least because she's currently juggling writing with motherhood. (She's also an amazing poet: check out "The Medicine Disconnects Her Mind From her Brain".) And Nan, who writes fiction, was one of the cofounders of Gemini Ink, on which Inkberry was partially based. It was wonderful to share food and drink and conversation with them.

And then, as if that weren't enough amazing for one day, I had the profound pleasure of meeting with  Gordon Atkinson of Real Live Preacher! We talked about our backgrounds, the crossover between poetry and liturgical language, writing and blogging, Billy Collins and Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard (whose writing makes us both swoon) -- in short, about a few of my favorite things. I didn't have the presence of mind to ask a bookstore employee to snap our picture together, but if you've been wondering what RLP looks like, here's a nice shot (though I confess to an abiding fondness for this one from his virtual book-signing a while back...)

I love the way the intangible links of the blogosphere can grow into meaningful connections between people, either in different parts of the physical world or different parts of the religious world. Blogging is fun for all kinds of reasons, but making genuine contact with real live people is the absolute best part. I feel blessed to be able to make those connections daily through the intermediary of our screens -- and even more blessed on days like today, when I can cross paths in person with folks whose words and ways I admire. Two fantastic meetings in the same day: truly cosi revaya, my cup runneth over!

On a semi-related note, I hear through the grapevine that the news feature on religious bloggers (for which both Gordon and I were interviewed, some weeks ago) aired on Sunday. Did any of you see it? Was it good? (Was I coherent?) If you caught it, let me know!

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Land, labor, liberty

In this week's Torah portion, Behar, God instructs Moses to speak to the Israelites concerning the shmita and yovel, the sabbatical and jubilee years. Every seventh year, God says, shall be a sabbatical year for the land, during which no fields may be sown, nor vineyards planted. Everyone in the land, up to and including slaves, resident aliens, and beasts of the field, will be sustained by natural abundance. And after a cycle of seven-times-seven years, every fiftieth year is a jubilee, during which everyone returns to their ancestral land-holdings (e.g. all land sales are annulled) and every indentured servant is freed.

Whether or not these practices were followed in antiquity is a matter of some debate. Some scholars - from Rabbi Arthur Waskow to the folks at the American Journal of Economics and Sociology -- assume that they were; others argue that going a year, and periodically two (the 49th and 50th year), without planting would have reduced the Israelites to starvation rations, making them easy targets for attack. In any event, the rabbis of the post-Temple age argued that this teaching was only meant to apply to the land of Israel, so it doesn't hold in the Diaspora. And though some today say that the shmita and yovel should be reinstituted in the modern state of Israel, others argue that they should only hold when the majority of the world's Jews live in Israel, or that they will be followed again in the Messianic Age but clearly we're not there yet.

That said, the question that fascinates me most is (surprise!) not the historical one but the theological one. What does it mean that these words are in our holiest text? What does it tell us about Jewish understandings of land, labor, and liberty that our scripture depicts God speaking directly to Moses about the importance of sabbatical and jubilee? How can this week's Torah portion enhance our understanding of God?

Continue reading "Land, labor, liberty" »

The Jewish Texans

In two days, I'm heading south to spend a week with my family in San Antonio, and my head is already halfway there.  So imagine my pleasant surprise when I opened my mail this morning to find a slim paperback book: The Jewish Texans!

I had forgotten that one of the people I met at Elat Chayyim over Passover had offered to send me her copy of this charming little book. I wish I could find a scan of the cover; it depicts a smiling fellow in a fancy suit and bowtie, with a brushy handlebar mustache, who looks every bit the 1860s gentleman. (He turns out to be rancher Meyer Halff; I'm pretty sure one of my sister's best friends is married to one of his descendants.)

It was published in 1974 by the Institute of Texan Cultures, as part of their series The Texans and the Texians, a collection of pamphlets dealing with "the many kinds of people who have contributed to the history and heritage of Texas."  (Other titles in the series included "The German Texans," "The Norwegian Texans," and a special bilingual set, "The Mexican Texans" and "Los Mexicano Texanos.") I remember the ITC as the folks behind the Texas Folklife Festival (a staple event of my childhood, a kind of educational carnival: think German oom-pah music, Czech kolaches, and every kind of folk art you can imagine) but I'd never gotten the chance to read one of their books before.

Beginning about 1837, Jews came to Texas in constantly increasing numbers. Some settled in the commercial centers of Galveston, Houston, and San Antonio; others in the small towns and at the crossroads of rural Texas. As their strength increased, they began organizing the traditional institutions of Jewish life: benevolent societies, cemetary associations, synagogues, and community centers. Many of these early immigrants brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs and a desire to make the most of whatever opportunities befell them. Virtually all became useful, productive, and responsible citizens of their adopted homeland.

(That's from the introduction.) The book goes on to profile notable Jewish Texans, from Adolphus Sterne (a lawyer, merchant, linguist and financier who participated in the Texas Revolution) to Haymon Krupp (cofounder of the Texan Oil and Land Company, which financed a gusher of an oilwell),  Stanley Marcus and A. L. Neiman (who founded Neiman-Marcus, naturally) to Frances Sanger Mossiker (a writer of literary nonfiction). Along the way it profiles organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Antonio. A few years back I wrote a children's textbook about the state of Texas, but I didn't know to include any of these folks!

I got a special surprise when I reached the last page; the inside back cover sports a black and white photograph of a 1950s-style synagogue sanctuary, with wooden-backed pew seats, two angular lecterns and a central Torah-reading table, and vaguely cubist-looking stained glass behind the Ark. The photo caught my eye. It reminded me of the synagogue we belonged to when I was a kid, where I became bat mitzvah -- but maybe it's just that every synagogue of that era looked more-or-less alike? (We left there the year after; though two of my brothers are now members there, it's moved to a new building and has a totally different look and feel now.) I checked to see if the location of the photo was listed anywhere, and found it in small print inside the front cover. Sure enough, it's a picture of the old Alterman-Salkind Sanctuary of Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, my first synagogue stomping grounds.

I think I'll have to slip this slim little tome into my suitcase on Saturday. Something tells me my parents would love looking through this. The language is a little bit dated, but it's still a sweet portrayal of the community I come from. And next time somebody up here in New England jokes, "there are Jews in Texas?" I'll have printed proof that not only are there Jews where I come from, but we've been there a pretty long time.


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Poetry of exile: Andrei Codrescu

I went tonight to hear Andrei Codrescu speak as part of the Voices from the Edge lecture series in Lenox, Mass., about half an hour from where I live. The postcard I received in the mail promoting the event said:

Humor, it is said in mystical Hebrew texts, is the highest form of spiritual communication. American poet and journalist Andrei Codrescu is employing this higher principle to write some of the most wry, penetrating, and creative cultural critiques of our time. His NPR commentaries, his poetry, and his novels are all elegant reflections of a soul in search of broader horizons, and with liberating delight he transgresses the borders and boundaries of language, culture, and religion. In this Voices presentation, Codrescu will speak about his recent travels to Jerusalem, Transylvania, and the American South, where he went to "see to the disposition of [his] poetry in translation and also to take the temperature of current feelings and yearnings for the divine."

God, poetry, and humor; the Middle East, Eastern Europe and the Southern United States. Could this talk possibly have been geared more towards my intersection of interests? I had to be there.

Continue reading "Poetry of exile: Andrei Codrescu" »

Elohai Neshama

The beginning of my morning prayer practice is a tangible one. I withdraw my prayer shawl from its bag and wrap myself in its rich weave. I remove my tefillin from their plush velvet case, unwind and unbox each one, and twine their retzuot (straps) around my arm and head, blessing the act of connection they both symbolize and embody. And then I move inward, from focus on the body to focus on the spark of holiness that animates me, with the elohai neshama blessing: "My God, the soul that you have placed within me is pure..." I follow Sephardic custom in placing the blessing for the soul immediately after the blessing for the body; I like the way that ordering implicitly teaches that the two go together.

Jews, as Reb Goldie Milgram has observed, aren't weighed down by the baggage of original sin. "We pray," she writes, "with the awareness that any shmutz that gets onto our soul is of our own doing, that each day can be lived from the place of a refreshed pure white page in the Torah of our lives." Taken against the backdrop of mainstream American (read: Christian) theology, that's a pretty radical notion. The elohai neshama blessing asserts that I am not broken. I may stray from the path; I may blind myself to blessing; I may close my eyes to the All, Who permeates creation; but these are my mistakes, and I can fix them.

And every morning I remind myself of this truth by asserting that the soul granted to me is pure. Pure like the cleanest air you can imagine, air that electrifies the lungs, air through which you can see the immeasurable span of the Milky Way. Pure like a stream that's never known pollution. Pure like the chartreuse of new leaves, a color so intense it startles the eyes. Like an unadulterated flavor, my soul is solely itself -- and a reflection of the One, refracted through the prism of creation. My soul is essence of me, and the liturgy teaches me that its most fundamental quality is its purity. No matter how I miss the mark in my daily undertakings, every morning I begin again clean: thankful for my body and my breath, the part of me that's bounded and the part of me that sips from infinity, as pure as pure can be.

The Spanish kabbalist Joseph Gikatilla conceptualized Jewish worship as a ladder leading toward God. The opening blessings of the morning service are the first rungs we climb each day. I think there's something to be learned from the fact that we begin our ascent by blessing body and soul. The asher yatzar and elohai neshama blessings are how we plant our feet squarely, in order to begin a new day's reaching toward God.

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The FP Interview...of me!

The friendly folks at Faithful Progressive run a regular interview series, and they honored me with inclusion in it. The FP Interview: Rachel Barenblat from Velveteen Rabbi just went live!

These weren't one-size-fits-all questions; it was clear to me that FP had spent some time reading my blog, because each of the questions was tailored to me in particular: who I am, what I write about, and what I believe. It was incredibly fun to work on, actually.

FP asked who I am and how I got started blogging, how I define Jewish Renewal, how I make space for spiritual growth in my busy life, how I respond to the extreme Christian right, what I read, what I recommend, and what do I think we can do to effect change -- among other questions. I'm not sure I would ever have blogged about these precise issues in quite this way, and having done my time in journalism, it was a particular pleasure to be on the other side of the interview experience.

Anyway. The interview is online here. Enjoy!


The Rockridge Institute and the People for the American Way Foundation are collaborating to present an online "conference" called

Spiritual Progressives: A Dialogue on Values and Building a Movement

It's an impressively interfaith venture, co-coordinated by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Christian Alliance for Progress, Muslim Peace Fellowship and Tikkun. Here's how they describe the conference:

After 30 years of sustained effort by leaders like Rev. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Dr. James Dobson to merge evangelical Christianity with a conservative political agenda, spiritual progressives are convening in this online dialogue to discuss how to offer a viable and meaningful alternative for millions of spiritual progressives of all faiths who are turned off by the current face of religion in American public policy.

The success of the religious right in appropriating the language of Christianity has led many progressives to become wary of religion in the public sphere. Because of this, fundamental religious values like compassion, justice and peace are largely absent from our political discussion, and progressive people of faith do not see their concerns addressed. To counter this trend, a group of leading progressive organizations has joined together in this online event to discuss how left-of-center values and spirituality can be combined to create a political movement by learning how to frame ideas in the context of the greater American experience.

The conference is taking the form of several threaded discussion boards (I'm particularly enjoying the one which asks Can religion and politics find common ground?) and anyone is welcome to participate. It's fascinating stuff; if you're so inclined, come join the conversation! It's running through May 20th, and registration is quick and easy -- you can do it from their main page.

In a serendipitous twist, Chris at Progressive Protestant is currently engaging in a dialogue with a conservative Christian blogger; each is defending his way of thinking, firmly but respectfully. I particularly recommend Chris' most recent post, Defending Liberalism: Scripture. It's grounded in Christian theology and a Christian sense of Scripture, naturally, but I think Chris' assertions make sense to those of us who think in terms of Torah -- and I suspect it's an interesting thread even if you're not involved with a Torah/Bible/Scripture-based tradition at all.

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Walking meditation usually means walking slowly, deliberately, consciously, allowing the repeated motion to involve the whole body, as breathing does if one pays enough mind. Maybe because I'm a writer, I like the variant which involves heightening mindfulness through naming: "I am moving, stepping, walking, foot-impacting-grass, foot-rising-up, moving, breathing, heart beating..." I like how gerund-intensive it is. Like a song in 6/8 time, the gerunds carry me forward. Nothing is an activity completed; we're always breathing, doing, being.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, it is said, made a habit of walking alone in the fields or the woods every day, in order to commune with the divinity he found expressed in nature, and to speak aloud to God in the privacy of the wild. A kind of walking meditation, maybe, though with an added component. Reb Nachman's walks allowed him to feel connected with God through the beauty of the natural world, and gave him a safe space within which to speak directly to his Source. The times I've tried his practice, I've found it makes a real difference to speak aloud. I don't think it matters to God, and anyway I try not to anthropomorphize God to the extent of thinking in terms of what God "hears" or "doesn't hear." But it makes a difference to me. Speech literally embodies my words, in a way that silent prayer doesn't and can't. It makes them more real.

After days of cold damp grey, days of drizzle and dreary cloud, days of wrapping my hands around pot after pot of tea in an effort to get warm, today positively sparkles: the sky is blue, our trees are leafing, and outside the windows the world is a riot of chartreuse and gold. It's the kind of day that makes me want to take a few minutes to walk outside, as Reb Nachman did, and speak my appreciation aloud. It may seem simplistic, but who could doubt the inevitability of renewal, the birth of new possibility, in a world where spring never fails to come?

Prayer of Reb Nachman

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone; 
may it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass--among all growing things
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.

May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field--
all grasses, trees, and plants--
awake at my coming,
to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer
so that my prayer and speech are made whole
through the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.



Yom HaShoah and Darfur

Today, the 27th day of the month of Nissan, is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. We mourn the millions who perished in the Shoah: six million Jews, tens of thousands of Roma, along with gays and lesbians, disabled people, Communist sympathizers, and others the Nazis considered "inferior." Surely the attempt to destroy a people is one of the worst abominations human history can encompass.

The obligation to remember the Shoah has two components: memory, and action. If our memory of the Shoah is to have any meaning, it must impel us to act against other attempted genocides. We  respond to the Shoah with devastation, and outrage, and sorrow: and we must also respond by wiping genocide from the face of the earth. To me, that means the best way to observe Yom HaShoah is to make a donation to one of the organizations working to end the genocide happening today in Darfur, Sudan.

Sudan has become today's world capital of human pain, suffering and agony. There, one part of the population has been - and still is - subjected by another part, the dominating part, to humiliation, hunger and death. For a while, the so-called civilized world knew about it and preferred to look away. Now people know. And so they have no excuse for their passivity bordering on indifference. --Elie Wiesel

That's from a speech that Mr. Wiesel, himself a survivor of the Shoah, gave last summer. He cited the Biblical prohibition against standing idly by while the blood of a fellow human is shed, noting that the Torah uses the word reakha -- not akhikha, "your brother," but reakha, "your fellow human being." Akhikha might imply that we are bound to act if someone related to (or similar to) ourselves is suffering; reakha implies that the obligation holds firm regardless of who is victimized. Torah instructs us to act against what is happening in Darfur. And if that's not enough, our living memory of the Shoah, when we ourselves were the victims of attempted genocide, should spur us to do so.

Ruth Messinger, too, urges us, as Jews, to take action against the genocide in Darfur. So does Shoah survivor Nessie Godin. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers an alert page about the emergency in Darfur, along with a photo essay by former Marine Brian Steidle. The photos aren't easy to look at, but they're important. Also difficult, and important, are these children's drawings done by Sudanese refugee children, which you may have seen in last weekend's Sunday New York Times Magazine, and which I first encountered here at "...My Heart's in Accra".

The Holocaust Museum provides a useful list of Five Things You Can Do to help prevent genocide. But I think the simplest things we can do are 1) get informed, and 2) donate whatever we can spare. If you're commemorating the memory of those lost in the Shoah today, let your mourning move you forward. Learn about the genocide in Sudan and then do what you can to help stop it. Donate to the American Jewish World Service (you can check a box to ensure that your whole donation goes to relief efforts in Darfur.) If you prefer, you can choose another humanitarian organization to support; here's a partial list.

Today my most fervent prayer is that we will wake up; that we will take action; that the killing and suffering will cease; and that next year, when Yom HaShoah rolls around, I won't have to post about this again. Kein yehi ratzon.


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Sanctifying the body

I was talking with a friend not long ago about embodiment. Like me, she's a geek and a science fiction fan, raised on tales of sentient computers and people taking flight in the cybernetic matrix. She admitted that she thinks of herself basically as a brain-in-a-jar; her body exists to carry her brain around, but if she had her druthers, she'd never have to deal with it or maintain it. It's packaging for what really matters, the part of her which thinks.

Body/mind dualism is hardly new. I can understand wanting to soar, pure thinking spirit, in a world without physical pain or illness. I get fed up with my body's limitations all the damn time, and I'd generally rather read or study or write than go to the gym to keep myself in working order. I've worked hard to counter the pop-culture messages that my body equals my worth, not to mention the old notion that men are lofty thinking creatures and women are mired in embodiment. (Usually I blame Plato or the Victorians for that, though truth be told, the dynamic arises in traditional halakhah, too: men get the positive time-bound commandments, while women are exempted because we need to deal with food for our bodies, children from our bodies, and the mysterious effusions of our bodies that make us tamei.  Oy.)

And yet I don't think Judaism necessarily condones the kind of escapism from embodiment my geek friends and I might sometimes imagine we desire. As a Jew I recite the asher yatzar blessing, sometimes called the Blessing for our Bodies, every day. Jews say asher yatzar either as part of the traditional morning liturgy, or every time we use the bathroom, or both.

The blessing thanks God Who created the human body with wisdom and placed within us a miraculous combination of openings and cavities. It goes on to say, "it is known before Your Throne of Glory"  -- yes, that could be read as Rabbinic bathroom humor --  "that if one of these were to be ruptured or blocked, we wouldn't be able to survive and stand before You." (That's the traditional translation. The one in my siddur says, "Clearly, we would not be able to praise Your miracles were it not for the miracle within us.")

In the morning liturgy that I pray, the blessing for the body is immediately followed by a blessing for my soul. The elohai neshama prayer thanks God for the soul given to me, calling it tehora, pure. (I've written variants on both of these blessings; the asher yatzar one also appears in the current print edition of Zeek.)

Looking at these two blessings together, it seems clear to me that there's some body/soul dualism at work. The soul is pure regardless of the state of the body. (And clearly the traditional binary of tahor/tamei  is fascinatingly problematic for anyone who wants to engage with halakhah and wants to argue that our bodies are inherently holy.) But even so, I think the tradition's perspective on embodiment can't be reduced to "thinking good, embodiment bad," because the asher yatzar blessing reflects a sense of embodied life as miraculous. Our bodies are meant to inspire a regular sense of wonder.

If I had world enough and time, this could lead me to explore a lot of related issues; not only the relationship between body and soul/mind, but also the nature of what follows what we know as life. Or body/mind dualism in the early Church (the Pauline question of why there is matter at all, if spirit is what is essential) and the Kabbalistic response to extreme gnostic dualism. (Jay Michaelson wrote some good stuff in that direction.)

But this is a much smaller blog post than that. Really I just want to muse on how interesting I find it that though Judaism can certainly bolster a sense of dualism (in which minds are valued and bodies, well, aren't), Judaism can also be read as body-positive. (Even sex-positive.) It's an interesting alternate paradigm to inhabit. Especially taken alongside the pretty common geek fantasy of abandoning embodiment altogether one of these days.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think it's time for a late lunch. Holy as my body may be, it still needs to be fed.

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