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Zen Christianity – Zazen & Centering prayer

For the first in this series of posts which will begin to explain what I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’ – I want to start by looking at the practice of Zazen which sits at the heart of Zen. It is this practice which gives Zen its very identity, and sets it apart from other sects or schools of Buddhism.

It is this practice which means that Zen is not actually a religion, nor even a way confined to a particular religious group.Zazen literally means ‘seated meditation’ and refers to the core of the Zen way, the primacy of stillness meditation. Of course different Zen schools vary in their ways of teaching Zazen, but at its most basic, most fundamental, the practice is of sitting still and disengaging with conscious thought.

Meditation is a discipline common to a variety of religious traditions, and you will find practitioners of various kinds of meditation in all of the Abrahamic traditions, as well as the various streams running out of Hinduism and many others besides.

Fr Thomas Keating

In relatively recent years the Zazen practice has been well incorporated in to Christianity by means of the Centering Prayer movement, developed by the Trappist monk Thomas Keating and others.

But while the popularity of Zazen may have spurred on the Centering Prayer movement, the practice itself is developed out of Medieval Christian practice as outlined in the spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. Indeed it is apparently true that Centering prayer was originally called ‘Contemplative Prayer according to the Cloud of Unknowing’ – not quite as catchy.

Put simply and in practical terms, Centering Prayer is a form of meditation which uses a ‘sacred word’ to still the mind. The word is repeated partly in order to simply help the mind keep from engaging in thought. If it is not needed, the word is put aside, but when thoughts begin to encroach again, the word is repeated again until it is no longer needed. I am not aware of many people who have no need of a word.

The difference then, between this and other forms of meditation is simple, a mantra or other form of concentrating meditation seeks to fill the mind, to exclude thoughts by focusing on one particular idea. A similar practice is used for those beginning or learning Zazen.

Centering Prayer is Zen like in its aim of stilling the mind, of disengaging with thoughts altogether, the focus is simply upon gently repeating the word.

When thoughts come, as they continue to do, you simply do not engage. No matter how worthy the thought, your meditation time is not the time for that thought, it is time for meditation.

There are a number of ways that we engage with thoughts, and they basically fall into three categories. You can retain thoughts. Alternatively you can resist thoughts. And very often you can resent thoughts. All of these happen very naturally – but with Centering Prayer the idea is to do none of them.

Retain no thought – so don’t enter in to it. Resist no thought, do not try and rid your mind of anything which enters it, and resent no thought, don’t bother wasting your time getting cross about a thought which has entered your head unbidden.

By simply repeating a sacred word, you have the opportunity to do none of these things.

So much for the fundamental practice, but what is the point of this kind of meditation?

With Zazen one is essentially aiming to achieve a realisation of a greater reality, which exists beyond thought. With Centering Prayer the same is basically true – the difference is primarily how as individual practitioners we understand that reality.

For my own practice, I take as a starting point the idea that there is an ultimate ‘divine reality’ underlying all things, which is most essentially Love. I appreciate this is not a given, but it is an element of faith on my part. I believe it wholeheartedly (and sometimes doubt it almost as sincerely) and it is that which  serves as a foundation for my understanding of the universe and the human condition. I further believe or understand that this divine reality, this ultimate love, which we may know as God, is there to be engaged with. It is there to be loved, and to love. But I acknowledge that as soon as I begin to use words, images or concepts,then my expression of love, and my understanding of God is immediately limited. That is not to say a limited engagement is not to be wished for, but I would rather see it as a way marker than a destination.

Chapter three of The Cloud of Unknowing begins like this: “This is what you are to do. Lift your heart up to the Lord with a gentle stirring of love, desiring him for his own sake and not for his gifts.” It goes on to explain the method of using one word, or one syllable to express this love. This explains the basis of Centering prayer: to express love for, and live in the love of, God without limiting that by imposing words upon it.

Meister Eckhart taught that ‘God is a word, a word unspoken’. By this he meant that while God is ultimately or eventually knowable – God cannot be known fully by any word or concept which we can yet humanly articulate.

By engaging in a Centering Prayer type meditation, we draw closer to the point where we can engage with the unspoken nature of the word that is God. We set aside for a time our human understanding with all of its inadequacy, and go towards the light of love.

Zen Christianity

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For some time I’ve been exploring an approach to Christianity which I have come to think of as Zen Christianity.

There are no particular teachers of ‘Zen Christianity’, at least none that I know to be using that term. But the ancient exponents of Kenotic or ‘self emptying’ Christianity are very influential, as are a number of contemporary writers and teachers.

So what do I mean by ‘Zen Christianity’?

Realistically I suppose I’m using the idea of Zen in its most basic sense, in terms of placing a particularly high value on meditation, and of stillness, in this case in the presence of the divine (immanent/ here and transcendent/ out there).

I’m using the term ‘Christianity’ here to mean two things, firstly an approach to the divine which is centered upon understanding Jesus as the incarnation of God, and secondly a commitment to following the Jesus way/teachings.

I appreciate that in either case this is not a good enough definition for many people. Zen is a more subtle system of thought than this would make it appear, and Christianity has as many permutations as any other system of religious belief, and that is a vast number after all. But in the first place I want to keep it simple, after all, life is complicated enough.

So what does it practically mean to be a Zen Christian? That, among other things is what I will be blogging about through 2015.

Why Christians should celebrate the summer solstice

stones07-solsticeThis week the summer solstice rolls around – on June 21st we will have the longest day and shortest night of the year. On June 22nd we begin the countdown to winter once again.

As part of Oasis Church Grimsby we’ll be celebrating the summer solstice with a forest church gathering. Very informal, as all of our gatherings are, and marked no doubt by the familiar sound of children tearing around and having fun, we’ll get together in a small piece of woodland and share some life and friendship together. If the weather is kind to us, we will bake some bread on a barbeque or open fire.

Fire has been part of solstice celebrations for many many years, since before the development of Christianity in fact, the primal force of the flame reflecting something of the power of the sun – offerings made into the fire whisked upwards towards the heavens on a thermal draft. Back in those times, clever people built stone structures which were perfectly aligned to the light of the sun on these special occasions, and the day itself was believed to have a propitious magic.

The solstice was also seen as a new year, and celebrated as such. As a time of transition, offerings were made to thank or appease relevant spirits who might be able to affect harvests, water supplies and the welfare of animals. In our more ‘rational’ age such spirits have largely been forgotten, with solstice celebrations being left to those perceived as oddballs and refuseniks.

But I think that more of us should celebrate the solstice. In particular I think that Christians should celebrate the summer, and winter solstices.

One reason for that is that I think its a very good thing to reconnect ourselves with the ancient patterns of the world, it’s healthy for us to find ways of making a connection with the earth.

Everything we do and interact with these days is alienated from the earth, we buy bread that comes neatly wrapped in a plastic bag, we buy clean vegetables and packaged meat from supermarkets. We clean our teeth with a mysterious paste that comes out of a tube, our clothes although often made from plant fibres, bear no resemblance to the raw materials they contain.

Our alienation is almost complete, were it not for walks in the country, gardening, and so on, the only way we would experience the natural world would be through our televisions. I generalise of course, lots of us are much more connected to nature than this, but you get my drift.

The word ‘solstice’ is a compound of two Latin words, ‘sol’ meaning ‘sun’ and ‘sistere’ meaning to ‘stand’ or ‘halt’. It’s a time when the sun seems to stand still, to hang in the heavens for an unusual amount of time. And its a time when we humans can be still too – when we take time out of our alienated lives to be thankful for the  world we live in. To be thankful for the fruitfulness of the earth, and the life that comes from the sun. Some say all life comes from the sun, and that’s more or less true – plants have life because of photosynthesis, creatures have life because they consume plants, or consume creatures that consume plants. More or less all life is viable only because of the sun.

So yes, I believe it’s a good thing to celebrate the solstice. Christians in particular should celebrate the summer solstice and give thanks to the great spirit who they understand as the maker of all things, including the massive ball of incandescent gas which we know as ‘the sun’.

But lets not make it exclusive, non Christians should celebrate the summer solstice too, indeed we should all do it. The mid point of summer has arrived, it’s a special time. Give thanks to God, the universe or whatever you believe in, or if you prefer, just think happy thoughts. The sun gives us life, and this is it’s high point, we should celebrate it.

God and the dualist imagination part 3: Us & God

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving already stated that evangelical thinking uses a dualistic lens to create a divide between ‘us’ and ‘others’; I now want to consider the other way that dualism has infected the way evangelicals think, namely the ‘othering’ of God.

Not only are people ‘other’ to ‘us’, but so is ‘God’.

Language of transcendence is often used to speak of the Divine, I use it quite frequently myself. But while it can be helpful in talking about aspects of the nature of God, when God becomes solely transcendent as in the ‘Theist’ or ‘Supernatural Theist’ way of thinking, we have a problem.

When God is entirely transcendent, there seem to be places where he or she is not present, essentially places where God does not exist. These places may be in people, in the hearts and minds of those who we feel are evil or wrong; physical locations; or objects.

For some this is manifest in power relationships – God cannot be present in ‘their’ building, instead it is a haunt for ‘demons’ – their building may of course variously be: Mosque, temple, house of ill repute, anyone else’s church…

Often what lies at the heart of that is straightforwardly a power struggle, but underlying it, I want to suggest, is this kind of thinking about God.

Indeed I believe this lies at the heart of the problems with the way we conceive of all types of others. It can allow us to see ‘others’ as more distant from God than we are; just as it also allows us to conceive of certain places as ‘god forsaken’ or ‘god less’.

On a global/geo political scale of course, it allows us to consign our planet to environmental catastrophe by believing that God is transcendent from his/her creation. By living in this thinking we can justify not only environmental damage on an extraordinary scale, but also be ambivalent about the death and destruction of massive amounts of people.

On a local scale, and one that is very obvious in any kind of missional role, it allows us to abandon sections of society to sink or swim as church bails out and heads for a nicer place to live.

Tomorrow I will explain how this thinking has made me move into a new way of understanding God altogether. New for me that is.

Previous posts are here: 1, 2.

Belief and the unbelievable

Brace yourself with the grace of ease, I know this world ain’t what it seems… You’re unbelievable. (EMF)

It’s interesting to consider what is now unbelievable, and what used to be. It would at one time been perfectly reasonable for instance, to believe that the world is flat – now we no longer think that is reasonable.

Similarly it was once very common to believe in a literal six day creation story, these days that is only thought to be reasonable if one belongs to a particular strand of a religious subculture.

Without making any sort of value judgement on the relative strengths or weaknesses of either of these beliefs, what I want to suggest is that there is a power dynamic at play in what is, and what is not, believable.

In both of the examples above, the power dynamic stems from the rule of the church over society. As modernity progressed the norms of belief which had solidified the authority of the teaching of the church as sovereign were gradually eroded – leaving us in a position where now the church is (relative to its previous position) marginalised. Please note that in talking about this I’ve genuinely no interest in trying to perpetuate the idea of the persecution of the church in the West or any of that stuff, I’m simply talking about the way that belief has developed.

What I am keen to do is reflect the way that what is believable and unbelievable changes according to who has particular interests to protect, and what they want to perpetuate. With the church as sovereign then certain Biblicist notions meant that particular things were unbelievable. With the modern ‘secularlist’ upsurge many of these ideas have become unbelievable.

For instance the idea that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’, or that women by nature cannot hold positions of power, or that the poor are feckless – beliefs aimed squarely at marginalising sectors of society to solidify the power of another sector.

What this means is that by reflecting on the way the power dynamics affect ‘believability’ we can turn an eye inward and ask what things are unbelievable today.

A good example is the very apparent battle over belief concerning who is to blame for the economic problems we currently face – various groups are lobbying hard to make it impossible to believe that they are responsible.

Another example of that could be the overturn or radical overhaul of the Western capitalist system – to ponder such an eventuality is ridiculous… isn’t it? It’s unbelievable that things could change to such an extent, right?

We need to ask, who currently has particular reason to ensure that certain things are unbelievable?

And what would happen then, if we all began to believe the unbelievable?

Read post one in this series – Belief and the believed.

Masculinity, identity, spirituality, religion

Just a few thoughts about issues of masculine identity in the context of spirituality and religion… please dont let is be a soliloquy, let me know your thoughts in the comments box.

There have been a few articles written recently about the disengagement and disappearance of men from places such as church sanctuaries and missionary agencies.

Two notable recent articles on this are: Steve Davies, writing about men and the mission field, and Vicky Beeching (current Christian uber blogger) on feminisation of worship music.

I’m left feeling though that in both cases, what the writers describe are symptoms of a greater malaise, and while both are interesting and important, they arent quite catching the very complex causes.

These causes are complex, and I would categorise them as essentially psycho spiritual and sociological.

For a very long time the church has been deeply patriarchal, as indeed has society. Both church and world remain in thrall to patriarchal hegemony, but arguably less so than ever before. The place of men in society generally has become more confused and unclear, as traditional manufacturing and ‘muscle based’ industry declines in a form of freefall, and women push for a more equal place in corridors of power, the man’s place as ‘provider’ and ‘governor’ is challenged – and quite rightly too.

I am an advocate of gender equality, in fact I’m probably a feminist, I dont bemoan the rise of feminine power in society, rather I celebrate it. What I think it requires however is a movement of masculinity which accepts and understands the role of men in society and church as changing or readjusting. Without this kind of rethinking, we’re in for a prolongued crisis.

Recent attempts to’turn Jesus into a cage fighter’ as some people have described the language of the likes of controversy courting Mark Driscoll and others are evidence of one attempt by some to deal with this issue. This seems like an attempt to claw back ‘traditional’ male imagery. The man as tough and rough, but still loving and fair, and importantly in charge of his world.This sort of imagery is so problematic in so many ways, that it deserves to be discarded as soon as possible. It is precisely this which has led to the denigration of women, homosexuals, people of other colour/creed and religion as ‘less than they should/could be.’

Other men choose to discourage that kind of language and imagery, and opt instead for a kind of image of Jesus which is described by others as feminine.I verge more towards this for sure, but even so, find it troubling at times, Jesus was a man, a real person, not some sort of floating presence who hovered over the earth sprinkling flowers and butterflies. More, Jesus was a man of his time, a physical man used to hard ground and conversant with hard work.

Recent songwriters have written love songs which sound as though Jesus is a boyfriend to be crooned at. I personally dislike most of these songs, not because of their love song type sentiment, but more because of their banality and the ease with which they trip from tongues and fail to engage with brains and hearts. But this kind of music is popular with many, and I dont feel it is putting people off as such, rather I think its a symptom of an overswing away from the kind of ‘masculine’ ‘battle’ imagery prefered by song writers as recently as the 1980s/1990s (Noel Richards et al).

So what is the cause of this crisis situation? In parenting there is a theory which says that for a child to be content, and to mature into a spiritually/emotionally balanced adult, their parents should enable them to have feelings of security, significance, and self worth.

I think that perhaps what we are seeing is that for too long men have had too much of the significance aspect, and as that diminishes they/we are losing our feeling of security, and of self worth. Women on the other hand have for too long been considered less significant than men – a clear fallacy which in Christian terms is not even born out biblically. Consider among so many examples the primal woman ‘Eve’ who had to be whispered to by a snake before giving into sin, her male counterpart the primal man ‘Adam’ needed only a couple of words from Eve to bite the fruit. Consider the female disciples, who without being endowed with the apostleship ‘status’ stayed loyal to the crucified Jesus when his male friends were in hiding. Looking at the history of the church women have been incredibly significant throughout, from Deborah in the Jewish scriptures, to Theresa of Calcutta in 20th century religious life.

Men too have been significant, but seemingly have too often felt the need for status and recognition, developing hierachies with abandon, I fear some of our greatest leaders have been guilty of this. Israel the people of God, kept prefering earthly kings to the leadership of God, such was their downfall. They have even said inspiring things which on reflection are none too helpful.

An example of this is the classic quote attributed to William Carey, and taken from his address to the Baptist Association in 1792:

‘Expect great things from God, attempt great things for God.’

I have long found this troubling, and was pleased to hear it addressed roundly by the Australian writer and speaker Dave Andrews who encouraged his audience to consider a more humble approach, paraphrasing the Welsh patron saint David in his encouragment to:

‘do the little things’.

I am fairly sure that one of the biggest problems with male engagement with church, mission, worship etc is this issue of change – it has removed the psycological security we’ve come to rely on, it has threatened the significance which we have based on a false idea of pre-eminence and special authority, and has dented the male self worth.

In parenting terms, if a child is having difficulties of these sorts, one would expect abberant behaviour, disengagement, and quite possibly retreat (in to his or herself). I think we can probably demonstrate that these things are evident within Christian western men.

These are not the only factors of course, there are a great range of issues at play here, but as we go through immense societal changes, which are deeply impacting the church, we need to understand the fact that while masculinity is in crisis, symptoms are going to show up.

The only solution for this that I can see is for more men to model a more wholistic form of masculinity, building on the humility, gentleness and piety which has been attributed to women over the years, whilst accepting the physicality and earthly strength which goes with being male. The essential point is that we must resist the urge to dominate and control, and learn to give of ourselves in quietness where necessary.

So what do you think?

Are Christian men just wimps who need to pull themselves together?

Are churches too feminine, and too full of love songs and men in frocks?

What are the deeper societal issues which are at the root of the disappearance of men from mission and church?

Do men just not like singing anymore?

Are there some traditions where men outnumber women? Where and why?

Brilliant post about meditation and mysticism

There is a really good article about meditation and mysticism over at Carl McColman’s blog.

It  runs through the importance of mysticism to any expression of Christian faith – at a time when some (most?) elements of the church have yet to wake up to the fact that we ignore the idea of mystical union and the massively important and useful surrounding practises of meditation and contemplation at our very real peril.

For some reason blind eyes continue to be turned towards the ongoing decline in adherence to Christian belief throughout the Western world.

And instead we model a religion which, to many (in the words of this article): “seems to be little more than a highly-funded, complexly-organized campaign against abortion, homosexuality, and extra-marital sex.

Yes this article is mainly about Catholicism, but it directly relates to Christianity as practised across the board these days.

Mysticism is treated with suspicion. Interfaith dialogue is considered at best niche, at worst distinctly dodgy. The idea that our Christian practise”consists not so much in being good as in becoming God…” is anathema to many or most of us. Shame shame shame.

“The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he/she will not exist” (Karl Rahner).

Great article, go read. Note: Carl McColman’s blog is basically always interesting, well worth bookmarking it, subscribing to the feed or whatever you do while you’re there.

Interested in simplifying your lifestyle?

If you are interested in digging deeper into simplicity, decluttering your life (physically and metaphorically) and living altogether more lightly – you should look at the Breathe Network.

Breathe is effectively an online network of people who are dealing with the intersection of physical simplicity and spiritual richness. It dubs itself ‘A Christian network for simpler living’ and if that sounds like your kind of thing, I reccomend you head straight over there and have a bit of a look around.

Its not all online either, the ‘Enough‘ gathering in October is an attempt to bring together like minded folks for some face to face discussion and friendship.

HT to James for tipping me off about them in the first place.

And (shameless plug alert) if community living and simplicity are part of the way you are thinking of walking these days, yo ucould do worse than read my book, ‘Totally Devoted‘ which looks at a number of intentional communities active in the UK today.

Church at the movies #3: Vampirus Nosferatu

This should have been church at the movies #2 – but then cheeky old Joe Turner joined in with a post about men in black, which you are welcome to read here.

It’s quite good that Joe pitched in with a Conspiracy thriller type motif, as I was bit ‘horror heavy’ with my thoughts – following last week’s Zombie post, this week I’m thinking about Vampires.

I recently wrote a little something about Frankenstein, and his monster. The Frankenstein story was written on the shores of lake Geneva by Mary Shelley during a historic house party given by Lord Byron. The Frankenstein story is the most famous product of that party, but it isnt the only important literary product.

The Vampyre, by John William Polidori was first published in 1819. Like Frankenstein though, it too was a product of the creative splurge that followed a challenge to write a ghost story during a long dark Swiss weekend.

Polidori’s tale is widely credited as being the first romantic Vampire story, the great grandfather if you like of the current crop of Vampire fiction which has so failed to capture my imagination. Perhaps if I was a teenage girl I would find it more interesting. But I’m not.

More importantly than Twilight though, Polidori’s Vampyre is also the ancestor of the Dracula story, which was written by Bram Stoker later the same century. Notably Polidori’s main charachter, clearly based on the figure of Lord Byron, was the archetypal aristocratic Vampire, cool, refined, vicious, deadly -undead.

This kind of uber cool motif has come to define the common conception of the vampire, unlike the mindless zombie, a part of the hoard and incapable of its own individual decisions, the Vampire is an individual. He or she is a deadly foe – someone to be reckoned with. Witty perhaps, clever certainly, well turned out, sexy, cool…

But the vampire and the zombie share one notable similarity – the inescapable thirst for blood. The desire to consume blood is all powerful, and drives otherwise decent vampires (e.g. David Boreanaz’s Angel from Buffy the Vampire slayer) to desperate measures. The vampire is the archetypal addict, hooked on blood, and willing to go to any lengths to procure it. More than that, they are vicious heartless (or rather soulless) killers, who get some perverse pleasure from infliciting pain and suffering.

Rather than investigate the questions about vampirism that reflect on our society as a whole, which is worthy of a book or two, I want to make a simple point about church.

While we may think we are free of zombies in church, are we sure about the vampires?

Vampires have certain notable characteristics:

1) They appear different in the day time than in the night.

2) They present as cool, refined, clever and attractive.

3) Their consumption is as driven as the zombie’s, but appears to be the product of a refined mind, rather than part of a mindless gang.

The Vampire is the ultimate individual, they dont want to be part of a gang, they may want others to follow them, (hence the nosferatu aspect, the way they infect their prey with the need to consume blood) but they arent interested in being part of the pack.

So while zombie consumers will just go along with the crowd, the vampire consumer will stand out, cool, isolated, set apart – perhaps as part of an elite set. But they remain, at heart, a consumer – not a producer.

Vampires, like zombies are to be found in our church meetings, in our very midst. And you or I, we are as likely to be bitten as anyone – we can easily fall prey to the vampire’s bite – by succumbing to the idea of cool.

As soon as we start to set ourselves apart, conceive of ourselves as an elite level of individual, refuse or fail to recognise the humility of our humanity, we take steps towards vampirism.

Fortunately it’s not always necessarily to stake the heart of a vampire, sometimes these characters can be rehabilitated. That’s good news for us, given the fact that we’re as likely to have been infected as anyone – askyourself a few questions:

How do you stand up to being washed in holy water? Not talking about literal water, but metaphorical, have you left behind the repentance of baptism which is to abandon the life material and seek the life spiritual?

How do you stand up to the sunshine? Again – a metaphor: can you stand up to the scrutiny of daylight, does your lifestyle bear the characteristics of authenticity?

Have you really put your self to death? This one is both literal and metaphorical, the self in terms of the ego. Does your ‘self’ raise out of it’s coffin and roam the streets at night? Or is it really dead?

Rowan Williams on meditation

I was delighted to read about Rowan Williams this weekend – the whole article is very interesting, but one thing that jumped out at me was this passage:

Someone raised the royal wedding. “Big surprise: the first man to ask that,” said Williams and got a heartfelt laugh. He did not sound woolly in this context at all. No, no, said the prisoner. I wanted to know how you coped with all the attention.

“It’s about the habits you try to form: making time every day to be quiet with God. That’s what I am answerable to. It’s very important to settle yourself and to remind myself that his is time God gives me, not just time I give to God. For me [prayer] is a matter of trying to a clear a space in my head.”

He talked about this daily prayer in the most careful, practical way, almost as if it was therapy: “Breathe regularly, sit upright, breathe, and say some simple words. I will often say ‘Lord have mercy’ slowly, at intervals, and just let it settle into my stomach. It doesn’t always seem to work. Sometime I can be there for half an hour and the thoughts just go galloping round like horses in the Grand National. Then I have to remind myself that this is time God gives to me, and not just time I give to God.” Then, still in the same matter of fact way, he said: “You are trying to open the cellar door and be aware of the darkness underneath the water.”

I often find myself talking to people about meditation and meditative prayer these days, and have become more and more convinced that for many of us, the most important step is just to take time to sit in inner quietness. The description that the Archbishop gives of his personal routine is very helpful. It is simple, as meditation should be. It is quiet, personal, and uncomplicated.

Its the kind of thing any or all of us could do.

There are many ways of meditating, they all have good aspects, in my opinion.  I personally prefer a simple way, similar to what Rowan Williams talks about. But I dont think its the same for everyone. It’s not a question of ‘one size fits all’, but certainly one size fits you.

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