The Scandal of the Particular: Part V

With this we stand on the threshold of that miracle which for some reason proves hardest of all for the modern mind to accept.  I can understand the man who denies miracles altogether: but what is one to make of people who will believe other miracles and ‘draw the line’ at the Virgin Birth?   Is it that for all their lip service to the laws of Nature there is only one natural process in which they really believe?  Or is it that they think they see in this miracle a slur upon sexual intercourse (though they might just as well see in the feeding of the five thousand an insult to bakers) and that sexual intercourse is the one thing still venerated in this unvenerating age?  In reality the miracle is no less, and no more, surprising than any others (Miracles, 223).

The above quote is from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.

 

Hope to Enter Through Christ

Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the city of Krakow for World Youth Day.  Christ telling us today to “strive to enter through the narrow gate” reminds me of two very different gates that I recently walked through – both in Poland and both within about 24 hours of each other.  The last full day there we made a visit to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp where some 1.1 million people were systematically killed.  We walked through the gateway to the original camp, over which the Nazis hung what has become an infamous sign still there today.  It reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates: “Work will set you free.”

Each morning when they went out to labor with their gaunt bodies and each evening when they would come back into the camp, the prisoners (mostly Jews, but also gypsies, and Catholic priests and religious) would read these words knowing that they would only find they were free when they had been worked to death or executed.  Auschwitz has appropriately been understood as Hell on earth.  The gate itself seems to be a clever spin on Dante’s, “Inferno.”  In Dante’s vision of Hell, there is a gate to enter with its own message, and while it is less of a taunt it essentially led its inhabitants to the same conclusion.  It said, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”

Christ took up a human body for the purpose for going through Hell on earth and freeing condemned humanity.  He always thinks of us and tells us what us what we need to hear.  The man in today’s Gospel asks him, “will few be saved?” – perhaps he was going through his own Hell on earth.  Jesus knows that to follow Him to heaven will require hope – lots of hope – and striving in hope.  So notice, Christ does not directly answer this man at all.  He says that many will try to enter and not be able, but Christ does not say whether or not many others will be saved – or if only a few enter the Kingdom.  St. Cyril asks, “What advantage would it have been to His hearers to know whether there should be many or few who would be saved. But it was more necessary to know the way by which man may come to salvation.”  I think Christ chooses His answers today in the way He does to inspire us with hope – for hope is the way.  If He were to say, “Many will be saved” we would be greatly tempted to laxity – to presuming that we will be one of these many who are saved without having to cooperate very much. 

Image result for guy feet up on table slacking

On the other hand, if He says it will be only a few – we would all of us be tempted to throw up our hands in despair.  Oh, I won’t make it – I might as well enjoy myself as much as I can right now.

Looking at our country, a lot of us are living without much hope.  You can tell we are an unhappy people by how many distractions we seek.  If our life was full of hope and joy we wouldn’t need to distract ourselves from it.  But, we want to be busy, so we can avoid thinking about our own emptiness – so we can avoid thinking of how much we need God. 

Hell is real.  Christ refers to it as the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Mt 25:41).”  God is love and has made us to love.  However, to be able to receive God’s love as fully as possible and to love in return, God has given us freedom.  You can’t love if you aren’t free.  Yet, in our freedom, we can choose not to love at all, or we can choose to give our love only to ourselves.  Jesus refers to the people from the East and the West, the North and the South coming into the Kingdom of God.  Those who do not find the way are referred to as evildoers.  In other words they did not take the path to Him, but took a path leading away, the path of evil – choosing to gratify themselves, rather than to do good and to serve God and neighbor.  What should hit us is their response: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.”  The Church fathers see this as a reference to Mass.  They ate and drank in the feast of Our Lord and He taught them.  Yes, but they did evil anyway.  They did not live His Word to them.  They were so busy with themselves that they didn’t allow Him to know them through prayer.

We’ve all done evil.  The key to living again with Christ is to learn to hope in Him, rather than to presume that we’re okay on our own.  He came to save the sick, and it is those who acknowledge they are sinners, who acknowledge that they are spiritually sick.  It is they who can acknowledge Christ as their spiritual physician and call out.  Poland was given another gate in the twentieth century – a gate thankfully for the whole world.  It was represented at the WYD Papal Mass as a thirty foot tall structure that I walked beneath with blue and red streamers fixed to the ground and leading up to an arch that read in several languages, “Jesus, I trust in You.”  Poland was given the famous image of the Divine Mercy of Jesus and the Divine Mercy chaplet which is taking over the world. 

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The path away from Jesus is to do evil and turn inwards towards the self.  The path to Him is not simply to do good.  He says, “I am the Way.”  Doing good is itself to be with Jesus – to touch Him.  And Jesus, is not only the Life that we seek, but He Himself is the Truth.  The truth is what sets us free.  The truth that we are not alone and that we do not need to be afraid.  Jesus actually says, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters through me will be saved.”

St. John Eudes wrote, “Finally, you are one with Jesus as the body is one with the head. You must, then, have one breath with him, one soul, one life, one will, one mind, one heart. And he must be your breath, heart, love, life, your all.”  And once we enter into the truth of Christ’s love for us and live in the hope that we are sinners desired by God we can assist so many others.   We can be point people to the Gate of Mercy that is Jesus and even be that gate when Christ works through us.

If we pray and become a soul for God to inhabit, if we become His host – He will give us souls to lead to Him.  We don’t even need to pray, “Jesus, give me souls, but Jesus, thank you for the souls you give me for I know that you give them to me.”  He has told us that if we believe we have already received the things for which we pray, they shall come to us.

Here are words of great hope from two more saints: St. Therese of Liseaux knew she was small, but she wrote, “Jesus could have saved men without us.  He did not will to do it that way.  The Creator of the Universe, listens to the prayer of a very little soul to save others who are ransomed, as she is, by the price of all His Blood.”  And St. Margaret Mary Alacoque said, “A soul which loves can obtain pardon for a thousand criminals.”  Let us admit our need for Jesus, receive Him in hope, and draw others in through prayer and the gate that is Christ.

 

 

The Scandal of the Particular: Part IV

 Image result for cat and mouse

For when we look into the Selectiveness which the Christians attribute to God we find in it none of that ‘favouritism’ which we were afraid of.  The ‘chosen people’ are chosen not for their own sake (certainly not for their own honour or pleasure) but for the sake of the unchosen.  Abraham is told that ‘in his seed’ ( the chosen nation) ‘all nations shall be blest’.  That nation has been chosen to bear a heavy burden.  Their sufferings heal others.  On the finally selected Woman falls the utmost depth of maternal anguish.  Her Son, the incarnate God, is a ‘man of sorrows’; the one Man into whom Deity descended, the one Man who can be lawfully adored, is pre-eminent for suffering.

   But, you will ask, does this much mend matters?  Is not this still injustice, though now the other way round?  Where, at first glance, we accused God of undue favour to His ‘chosen’, we are now tempted to accuse Him of undue disfavour.  (The attempt to keep up both charges at the same time had better be dropped.)  And certainly we have here come to a principle very deep-rooted in Christianity: what may be called the principle of Vicariousness.  The Sinless Man suffers for the sinful, and, in their degree, all good men for all bad men.  And this Vicariousness—no less than Death and Rebirth or Selectiveness—is also a characteristic of Nature.  Self-sufficiency, living on one’s own resources, is a thing impossible in her realm.  Everything is indebted to everything else, sacrificed to everything else, dependent on everything else.  And here too we must recognize that the principle is in itself neither good nor bad.  The cat lives on the mouse in a way I think bad: the bees and the flowers live on one another in a more pleasing manner.  The parasite lives on its ‘host’: but so also the unborn child on its mother.  In social life without Vicariousness there would be no kindness or gratitude.  It is a fountain both of love and hatred, both of misery and happiness.  When we have understood this we shall no longer think that the depraved examples of Vicariousness in Nature forbid us to suppose that the principle itself is of divine origin.” 

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The above quote is from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.  In it he expresses how our gifts are given to be put at the service of others — everything really being a gift: even our sufferings.

Scandal of the Particular: Part III

Such a process is very unlike what modern feeling demands: but it is startlingly like what Nature habitually does.  Selectiveness, and with it (we must allow) enormous wastage, is her method.  Out of enormous space a very small portion is occupied by matter at all.  Of all the stars, perhaps very few, perhaps only one, have planets.  Of the planets in our own system probably only one supports organic life.  In the transmission of organic life, countless seeds and spermatozoa are emitted: some few are selected for the distinction of fertility.  Among the species only one is rational.  Within that species only a few attain excellence of beauty, strength or intelligence.

At this point we come perilously near the argument of Butler’s famous Analogy.  I say ‘perilously ‘ because the argument of that book very nearly admits parodying in the form ‘You say that the behaviour attributed to the Christian God is both wicked and foolish: but it is no less likely to be true on that account for I can show that Nature (which He created) behaves just as badly.’  To which the atheist will answer—and the nearer he is to Christ in his heart, the more certainly he will do so—‘If there is a God like that I despise and defy Him.’  But I am not saying that Nature, as we now know her, is good; that is a point we must return to in a moment.  Nor am I saying that a God whose actions were no better than Nature’s would be a proper object of worship for any honest man.  The point is a little finer than that.  This selective or undemocratic quality in Nature, at least in so far as it affects human life, is neither good nor evil.  According as spirit exploits or fails to exploit this Natural situation, it gives rise to one or the other.  It permits, on the one hand, ruthless competition, arrogance, and envy: it permits on the other, modesty and (one of our greatest pleasures) admiration.  A world in which I was really (and not merely by a useful legal fiction) ‘as good as everyone else’, in which I never looked up to anyone wiser or cleverer or braver or more learned than I, would be insufferable.  The very ‘fans’ of the cinema stars and the famous footballers know better that to desire that!  What the Christian story does is not to instate on the Divine level a cruelty and wastefulness which have already disgusted us on the Natural, but to show us in God’s act, working neither cruelly nor wastefully, the same principle which is in Nature also, though down thee it works sometimes in one way and sometimes in the other.  It illuminates the Natural scene by suggesting that a principle which at first looked meaningless may yet be derived from a principle which is good and fair, may indeed be a depraved and blurred copy of it—the pathological form which it would take in a spoiled Nature.

 

The above section is from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.  Lewis continues his description of how God chose the Virgin Mary to be the mother of His Son.  To yield this one girl, every other person has not been selected, but yet we can enter into admiration (rather than envy) and realize that nature acts in a similar way all the time.

Confidence in Christ

There is a scene in the classic World War II movie entitled, “A Bridge Too Far” that is the perfect example of confidence.  The British are surrounded in this little town and a German messenger approaches on the bridge below.  Up top are a couple of British officers – the one in charge is holding an umbrella while wearing fatigues that are in tatters.  The German calls out: My general says, “There is no point in continuing this fighting.”  He is willing to discuss a surrender.  And the Commander calls out to the German, “We haven’t the proper facilities to take you all prisoner.  Sorry.  We’d like to – but we can’t accept your surrender.  Was there anything else?”  At which point the completely surprised German shakes his head and sheepishly walks away.  Where does the commander get this confidence, but from vigilance.  Sure he knows the low number of his troops  and the threat outside, but more importantly he knows the stakes – that there is no second place that is acceptable.  He cannot give up his position even if it takes everything.  We could say he keeps vigilant over his mission.

The reality of Jesus is that He gives us a mission that is so glorious and so precious that it is worthy all of our attention – every ounce of focus.  We must have a confidence in Him – for we have no hope to achieve it on our own.  Jesus tells us: “Without me, you can do nothing.”  And in another place, Paul writes that “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”

Without Christ – we are totally helpless.  With Him, there is no limit.  But St. Paul reveals so much about our confidence throughout his adventures.  It is in his weakness, that he is strong.  Our confidence is not to be placed in ourselves.  If it was left to us – thinking of ourselves, we would soon be tempted to follow the servant who forgets to think about the master coming.  He eats and drinks and gets drunk and takes advantage (even hurting) his fellow servants.  We are weak and prone to sin.  And yet – aware of our weakness, we can still remain confident.  It is our very misery that attracts the mercy of Christ.  We are the lost sheep.  If we but call out His name, He wants to lead us again.

St_Therese_of_Lisieux.jpgSt. Therese of Liseaux has provided us with a great prayer, “Jesus, repair what I have done badly; supply for what I have left undone.”  “Jesus, repair what I have done badly; supply for what I have left undone.”  St. Therese has also said that “God’s greatest pleasure is to pardon us.”

It is a great confidence that Jesus wants to elevate us toward.  Think of the centurion.  He did not need Jesus to come to his home, for he had a confident faith in Jesus that He could heal his servant from afar.  This wins from Jesus the highest of praises.  Nowhere in Israel have I found such faith.

Christ says several times to His apostles, “Oh, what little faith you have.”  “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you would say to this mulberry tree – be uprooted and planted in the sea.”

There’s a wonderful scene in the Gospel I think we could call the Missouri Boy Standoff.  It is that scene when Jesus is walking on the sea at night and the Apostles think He is a ghost.  St. Peter, clearly from Missouri, says, “Lord, if it is you – bid me come out to You on the water.”  In other words, “Show me.”  What an uprush of confidence in taking steps that no man has ever repeated.  Ahh, but Christ is from Missouri too.  As a reward for Peter’s confidence, Jesus gives him a chance to make an even greater act of faith by continuing to trust Jesus even as he begins to sink into the water.  Peter, you have demonstrated your faith in me to be with you above the waters.  Now show me your faith that I am with you in distress – and believe that I would never let you drown.  Do we see our own struggles/vulnerabilities as invitations to confidence and intimacy?  If He’s letting us get onto the hot seat, He must have a fancy way of getting out.  If we are not there yet take heart: Peter wasn’t quite ready yet either.

After the Resurrection, the faith of Peter and the apostles grows exponentially, and they asked much of the Lord and received.  They put everything of their lives on the line and so can we.  We know that He will never say to us, “You hoped for too much of me.”  Rather, He says, “All things, whatsoever you ask when you pray, believe that you have already received them, and they shall come to you (Mk 11:24).”

Think about this statement from Mark: believe that you are already in possession of the good that you need through the generosity of Christ and you shall have it.  You might think – oh, there’s got to be a catch!  Yes, not everything that we think we want is actually in our best interest eternally, and so make a thought experiment.  If there is something you want that you do not believe in some way (no matter how slight) that is not in accord with God’s eternal will, are you able to believe that God has already granted it to you?   Nevertheless, we can imagine quite a good amount that God can do through us.

What is one thought that we should bring constantly to the foreground of our being?  What should be our desire that we know God will want to realize for us in our lives?  To be purified in Christ.  If we thirst for God – we will want to reflect Him from a pure heart.  We can always grow in purity.  Yes, the world is dark, but Jesus paints His parable so perfectly.  The Master seems to have gone and that the servant is alone.  Yet He only leaves that we might call out to Him for help.  Christ, bid me come to You over the waves of my own temptation and my own loneliness.  We can desire this more than a blind man desires to see or the paralytic to walk.

The end goal is a transformation.  Christ transforms us into Him.  Our intelligence and will and heart are His.  We begin to love what He loves and to hate what He hates.  Paul writes, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Sometimes at Communion we call for Jesus to enter us, but we do not open our wills, our intelligence, or our hearts.  We are distracted and abandoned and then frustrated with ourselves.  But if we determine to grant Him control over all these keys of our house – oh, what wonderful things will Christ do in the souls of service to Him.  One day we can say with the Church, His bride:

“Jesus, I come to You completely beautiful, beautiful like the Sun which You are, pure with Your own purity, beautiful with Your own beauty, rich with Your own treasures.”

 

 

 

Desiring the Word

I once heard a story on a retreat, and although I couldn’t find it replicated anywhere on the internet – it has such a classic sense of reality about it that I believe it to be true.  There were these two atheists who got married and a little later the woman became pregnant with their daughter.  Straightaway they moved from their home in Europe to the northern coast of Africa.  The intention behind the move into their new home in Tunisia or Morocco, was that they wanted to raise their daughter to have the ideal atheist upbringing, away from any Christian influence or ideas.  And so it went for many years.  They were all safe from the contagion of Jesus, who is Life itself.  But if any of you remember the days of those big 2 inch thick Sears Catalogs, well the family would get big catalogs such as these to order the finer things.  This very bright and inquisitive girl would go through them wondering at all of the merchandise when one day, her eyes fell upon the forbidden fruit.  Towards the back in the section that contained all of the jewelry, she was drawn in by a very odd photograph of a cross with a man upon it and above His head were letters that spelled a very odd word, INRI.  The girl was only ten or twelve and you must realize she had never heard a peep about Christ, and yet she felt that this image depicted someone who loved her.  Perhaps even more amazing, she knew that there was something about it that would not sit well at all with her parents.  She cut it out and hid the picture, referring to the man as her INRI.  Years went by, and her parents were satisfied that they had raised the perfectly rational mature atheist – one who could surpass even their own clear thinking and achievements – and they sent their fine young lady “atheist” to school in Europe where she promptly became a nun.

I love this story, and in our Gospel on prayer I thought of it during the part about the parable of the persistent knocker.  There is a crisis of faith in both of them.  You see St. Augustine sees this story as referring to a time where there is a famine of the Word over all the land.  Not unlike that of the girl in the story with the atheist parents – and now more like the famine over all of Western Civilization.  It is as if the Word has been hidden, or at least the understanding of Sacred Scripture has been shut up – locked away (just as the man is tucked into his house).  Just as society seems to stuff all things religion into the nice and neat dimensions of church buildings in an effort to keep them from influencing politics and dinner conversation, and especially entertainment.  Those who would deal out the wisdom of the Gospel are asleep like the children of that man in the house at midnight – for while the man is awake for he represents God – His sleeping children are like the Apostles and Church Fathers who have all died and now sleep with the Lord.  And yet here comes the persistent man asking for 3 loaves of bread – which stand for knowledge of the Trinity.  He desires this knowledge of God – this knowledge of love that creates in love and can give life and meaning to those traveling the road of life.  And due to his great desire and his persistence fueled by this desire, he will not be refused.  We need to first know of the faith that we might desire.   The girl learned of Jesus through a picture of a crucifix – a picture of a picture.  Give God an opening.

Hope in the virtues.  Jesus starts talking more about food.  First, He mentions the bit about the stone and the bread.  Nobody would hand their son a stone if he asked for bread.  We wouldn’t.  But the devil would.  You see he gets us to ask to what amounts to nothing more than stones.  He tries to get Jesus to crave stones in the desert.  We cannot survive off of stones, and we have no ability to turn them into bread.  The stones today are what replaces our faith.  Oh, we make sure our stomachs are fed, but as a society – we try to live off of the stones of everything else that is not God in the place of God.  There’s too many examples to list them – just think of whatever competes with your ability to pray for even ten minutes a day or come to church on Sunday.  If you wouldn’t let your child starve physically, then don’t deprive him of the opportunity for spiritual food and know that God will deliver.  St. Augustine saw in the fish that we ask for a great symbol for the faith that does not drown in the tumultuous waves of the world.  But perhaps more interesting still was how he saw the egg as a symbol of hope.  The egg is young and yet is nurtured through cherishing and focus.  If our desires for Christ are held onto as the young girl clung to her INRI – we already enjoy the beginning of Christ’s intimacy here.  The scorpion is a warning for it stings from behind – when we look back at the worldly longings we leave behind then we are in danger of its venom.

The apostles though began this whole episode by asking to learn to pray and Christ gave them within the Our Father, a way to expand their hearts’ desires now.   Christ gives us the way to love like God even now.  Luis de la Palma wrote of Christ’s cross: “More than from that thirst which parched His throat and made it hard for Him to breathe, the Lord suffered from the thirst of His desire to save us.  “Your sufferings,” He seems to be saying to us, “hurt me more than mine.  I feel your sins more than my torment on the cross.”  According to the Church Fathers, Christ is showing us that we can be grateful even when we are injured – for we can share with Christ’s thirst.  Even when someone sins against us and becomes our debtor.  For God will imitate whatever patience we practice with them back upon us.  If we are hurt by others and we show mercy, this is the very same mercy we receive back for we owe God so very much more.  If our desire and our prayer is that we be transformed into Christ, we can then rejoice that we have the chance to imitate His mercy.

Why are we so listless, so bored, so lonely, so dull?  Our desires need to be stirred up!  With God we learn to meet Him in our desires.  When we desire earthly things we can be satiated and then depressed.  Yet when Christ is the object of all of our desires – we find Him, we possess Him through desiring Him, but the desire carries us even further…for as He fills us we our find ourselves lifted up to Him in Thanksgiving within His offering to the Father.

 

 

The Scandal of the Particular: Part II

“The mention of that nation turns our attention to one of those features in the Christian story which is repulsive to the modern mind.  To be quite frank, we do not at all like the idea of a ‘chosen people’.  Democrats by birth and education, we should prefer to think that all nations and individuals start level in the search of God, or even that all religions are equally true.  It must be admitted at once that Christianity makes no concessions to this point of view.  It does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about Man.  And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree.  After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out.  He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God.  Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon.  There is further selection still.  The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear.  It is a Jewish girl at her prayers.  All humanity (so far as concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that (Miracles, 187).”

The above quote is taken from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.

C.S.Lewis continues setting up a long prologue to his description of the great miracles of the Incarnation.  Note: “Democrats” does not refer to a political party, but to those who partake in a democracy.

God and the Scandal of the Particular: Part I

“The Hebrews throughout their history were being constantly headed off form the worship of Nature-gods; not because the Nature-gods were in all respects unlike the God of Nature, but because, at best, there were merely like, and it was the destiny of that nation to be turned away from likenesses to the thing itself (Miracles, 187).”

The above quote is from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.

Lewis begins a long section on God’s grooming of Israel to be the people from whom His Son will be born.   In the paragraph above, Lewis describes how not only will God be particular about which people will bring forth the Incarnation, but they must be particular about Him.  They can’t worship anything that is like Him – they must choose Him.

True Greatness: Lifting Up the Lowly

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“In the Christian story God descends to reascend.  He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created.  But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.  One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden.  He must stoop in order to lift, he must disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.  Or one may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover.  He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colourless in the dark, he lost his colour too (Miracles, 180).”

The above quote is from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.

A Waste of Time to Philosophize to Cats

We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less.  Thus solid bodies exemplify many truths of plane geometry, but plane figures no truths of solid geometry:

Cats would inevitably pick bad philosophy if given the chance.

many inorganic propositions are true of organisms but no organic propositions are true of minerals; Montaigne became kittenish with his kitten but she never talked philosophy to him.  Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness (Miracles, 178).

The above quote is from C.S. Lewis’ Miracles.

C.S. Lewis describes how it is possible for the more sophisticated or advanced to humble itself, while the simpler things in creation do not have the ability to climb up and imitate the more sophisticated – at least not on their own.

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