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Dry, Barren, and … Hopeful?

April 17th, 2014posted by Sean Ater

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A few weeks ago, I happened to have two different conversations with two very different people in two very different places about the exact same thing: Spiritual dryness.  Both people talked about not feeling God’s presence, about wanting so desperately to have something concrete to hold on to – some proof that He was there, but finding nothing.  Both people talked about a feeling of desolation, and wondered if there was something wrong with them.

Sometimes even though we believe in God and we try our best to live out our faith, we all go through times like this – times when God seems far away. And it’s so frustrating because we often have the impression that if we do all the right things and live like God wants us to live, we’re supposed to have lives of joy. How can it be that we go to Mass every week, spend time with God each day in prayer, and still He seems so distant and life seems like a dry, barren, desert?  It just doesn’t seem fair.

 I wish there were easy answers for this spiritual suffering, but the truth is, there are none.  Some of the greatest saints struggled with this particular pain in their lives.  St. John of the Cross called it the “dark night of the soul”.  Teresa of Avila once prayed, “Jesus, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.”  Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta’s journals, published after her death, revealed that she spent the last 50 years of her life in this spiritual desert.  In 1948, she’d heard God’s voice clearly and felt his presence strongly as he called her to minister to the poorest of the poor.  She thought that if she gave her life over to God, it would always be like that, but she never heard his voice again.

I go through long periods of this dryness myself.  I’m very much a “head” guy as opposed to a “feelings” guy, and my faith has always been an intellectual matter.  I came to believe in Jesus Christ and in his Church because it made more sense than anything else I examined.  And very often, even though I really want an emotional connection with Christ, that knowledge is all I have to lean on.  

One consolation I have is that Christ himself experienced this same separation from God.  As he hangs on the cross, Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Think about that for a second.  Jesus is God in the flesh.  He has existed since before time and the entire Universe is a result of the love he shares with God the Father. And even he felt abandoned.  Jesus knows our pain.

The other thing is this: just because we don’t feel God, doesn’t mean he’s not there.  He was with the Israelites in their desert and he will be with us in ours. He was with Daniel in the lion’s den and he will help us face the things that want to devour us as well; he walked through the fiery furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and he will walk with us when we feel like we’re getting burned.  Psalm 23 reminds us that when we pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Christ will walk with us.  He was with the apostles as their boat was rocked by the waves, and he will help calm the storms in our lives. 

The Jews had to spend 40 years in the desert to get to the Promised Land.  Daniel had to face the lions and the 3 Hebrew children were cast into the fiery furnace. Jesus had to endure Good Friday to get to Easter. Don’t forget that the Valley of the Shadow of Death is something we walk through.  Keep the faith.  Rely on God.  And though you may not feel him right now, know that he is there and that all shall be well in the end.

Bell Tower

April 16th, 2014posted by propertymanagement

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Mary and Joseph Go to a Fish Fry

April 16th, 2014posted by Sean Ater

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It’s a Friday in Lent and two Catholics go to a local Fish Fry. We’ll call one Mary and the other Joseph. At first glance, the two don’t seem very different. Both were baptized as infants; both attended 12 years of Catholic schooling.

The difference is that Mary attends Mass each weekend; Joseph attends infrequently.

A recent study (see Sherry Weddell, Forming Intentional Disciples, especially pp. 43-44) indicates that the most significant predictor of whether a Catholic attends Mass each weekend or not depends on how the person answers this one question:

Do you believe it is possible to have a personal relationship with God?

It’s not necessary for a person to feel close to God, but to acknowledge the possibility of a God who wants a relationship with us – who cares for each of us and who is knowable and relatable.

If someone believes that a personal relationship with God is possible, he or she is far more likely to seek out that relationship through Mass and the sacraments.

Yet, for those who believe in an impersonal God – which is what upwards of 1/3 of Catholics said characterized their belief– there is little reason to worship on Sunday since they believe that a personal and life-giving relationship with God may not even be possible.

The Gospels offers us an invitation to see God as He is and to believe in a loving savior who deeply desires a relationship with each one of us.

In the Gospels, Jesus ministers directly and personally to people – to lepers, the possessed, the blind, the sin-sick – not only healing their physical maladies, but helping bring them to faith.

We might ask ourselves, what is my fundamental understanding of God? Do I see God as “out there” somewhere, not involved in my life? Or do I acknowledge Him as someone who wants a relationship with me?

And if I do believe that this kind of relationship is possible, do I seek to foster that relationship in response to His love?

Purification and Enlightenment

April 15th, 2014posted by Sean Ater

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One of the most challenging, most exciting and most meaningful of the “jobs” I did as a Director of Religious Education for the thirty years that I was in that profession was working with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). It was a process for those who were exploring entrance into the Catholic Church that lasted as least nine months and for some longer.

During that time those in this process listened to presentations on Catholic doctrine/teaching, asked questions and discussed the answers with sponsors, catechists and among themselves, and slowly discerned whether the Catholic faith was for them. Some began as searchers wanting to find answers to both practical and deep questions about Church, God, Jesus and life itself. Others began wanting to be part of the faith of a spouse, or wanting to be a parishioner to be part of the parish school or a thousand other reasons.

But most began to move to meeting the mysteries that the Catholic faith both confronts and presents:

  •          Who is this God who is both here and beyond?
  •          Who is Jesus the Christ?
  •          Where is the Spirit leading me/us?
  •          How does the Church fit into this picture?
  •          What does each of these speak to my/our life?

This journey is one that not only those in RCIA is called to join, but one which all Catholics are (or should be) part of. The RCIA process itself calls the people of the parish to join the inquirers in reflecting on and re-experiencing the Faith.

Lent evolved out of the RCIA process of the early Church as it prepared those intrigued by the Church to be baptized at Easter. It was a time to purify their intentions and way of life and meet (be enlightened by) this God/Jesus/Spirit/community they had found so attractive. Each of us now is called to be part of the 21st century Lenten scrutinies and presentations of Creed and the Lord’s Prayer that are elements of this faith-exploring process, so we to can make our faith deeper and more real. Thus those outside our Church can experience a community that cares, challenges, grows and lives those values that are essential to living truly human/divine lives

When the level of pain caused by
the present situation becomes greater than the fear
of making a change, we are willing to act.

We all get stuck sometimes.

Some of us find ourselves in unpleasant situations, like losing a job or not being able to find one, being in an abusive relationship, or dealing with unhealthy habits and addictions. We are unable to break away until the pain grows to a point where it becomes our greatest motivator to make a shift in our hearts, minds and souls. And get unstuck.

Some of us, on the other hand, get stuck in a comfortable situation, which we don’t even want to change, or see no reason WHY we would want to change it. But deep inside, we have this nagging feeling that we are living only half-awake – coasting, really – rather than actively living.  We know we aren’t happy, despite the perfect image we give out to the world, and post on social media. (Related: blog post about keeping up the ‘perfect picture’)

APPLYING THE SAME PATTERNS WON’T WORK

Earlier this year I attended Mary Morrisey’s webinar, in which she gave a really great visual for times in our lives when we feel ‘stuck’ and we know we desire a change but we don’t know what to do. She pointed out how applying the same patterns and expecting a different picture will not work.

It’s really the same thought as Einstein’s famous definition of insanity: “Doing the same

thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Being ‘stuck’ means we are not getting anywhere. We aren’t growing, only working hard to keep our ‘hamster wheel’ spinning.

We aren’t getting anywhere, which means we aren’t growing personally, emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. We stay in the same place, doing the same thing, and wondering why we feel unbalanced and ‘off’, even unhappy.

Life flows like a river. When we are ‘stuck’ in the same place, we aren’t able to be present to its constant changes and movements.

Luck or fate that takes the form of.pngThe life’s river takes us; we float, but because we are half-asleep, we can’t really enjoy the ride and take in all its precious moments. We are not aware of the boulders in our way, or the white waters that leave us feeling exhausted and hurt.

We wake up one day really unhappy and miserable, far from where we started, feeling numb and lost.

LESSONS ARE EVERYWHERE, JUST KEEP YOUR MIND AND HEART OPEN

I believe that the Creator of all Life is the one who keeps the river of life flowing in the first place, and I am big on ‘surrendering’ to the bigger purpose and the open paths He guides my feet onto. But I also know that I have to be an active and engaged player. I have to keep my mind and my heart open to recognize the signs and make the best choices on my journey.  (Related blog: Magic Wand? Or Combo of Hard Work and Faith)

I don’t play much (and that’s one area of my life that needs a change), but in my occasional moments of unwinding, I like to play Candy Crush.

Since I promised myself I would not solicit FB requests, or ever spend a penny on the game, I get ‘stuck’ a lot on different levels. Level 184 was giving me an extra hard time, until one night, after losing all of my lives, I decided to Google “solutions for beating level 184″. Right away, I found a few useful tips – like learning the difference between “vertical” and “horizontal” striped candies – which I hadn’t bothered to identify before.

Then I followed a link to an interview with Simon Leung, an award-winning Internet entrepreneur and Internet keynote speaker whose words I copied into my journal: “The challenge of passing each level represented the everyday challenges we go through in life. Sometimes, you will fail because you’ve made a bad choice or move. In the end, if you are persistent and don’t give up, even some of the most difficult stages in life can be overcome.”

When I went back to my level 184, I beat it in two tries and moved on to the next level. Just like that!

It felt so good to get ‘unstuck’!

In the morning, I collected the information I had gathered from my ‘research’ and wrote into my journal: “Lessons From Candy Crush”

1. Admit you are stuck at a particular level and seek counsel. There are people out there who have the answers.

2. Know your objective and how many moves you have – because the number is limited.

3. Know your distractions (the blinking candies) and obstructions (annoying chocolate factories) and how they affect your moves – in life this is especially important.

4. Know your assets – make sure you realize their full potential.

5. Don’t waste any moves – your resources may be limited.

6. You could play mindlessly and sometimes you will luck out. The randomness of the game will eventually make all the pieces ‘fall into the right place’ and you will finish the level.

Or you can develop strategies, finish the Candy Crush game and do something better with your spare time.

FIND THE TOOLS AND USE THEM TO GET UNSTUCK

There are amazing tools available to us: books, prayers, stories of saints, music and art.  We only need to be open to look for them even in unexpected, unusual places. When we do, the patterns of our lives will shift just enough to produce a different picture. And we will find ourselves no longer stuck.

And yes, God has a sense of humor and He can use even a Candy Crush game to get through to our stubborn minds (and hearts)!

RELATED VIDEO EPISODE “TUESDAY WITH TAJCI”

http://tajci.net/tajci_vlog/twt_ep2/

RELATED SONG:
I Feel (Kissing Air) by Tajci

The Encounter of Two “Yeses”

April 4th, 2014posted by Sean Ater

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Typically, when I ponder the event of the Annunciation, I spend much time considering Mary’s act of faith in light of my own struggles with trust. I presume I am not alone in this way of thinking about the events recounted in Luke 1.

However, today I would like to expand this reflection:

1. The “yes” that came first. Before Mary uttered her “fiat,” God was at work. This Fact is worth serious consideration and should surprise us. The struggle with sin following the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, the constant turning to idolatry, the hardness of heart, the breaking of the family-bond (i.e. covenant), infects the chosen people like terminal illness. Israel takes on the role of the harlot. Yet God continues, covenant renewal after covenant renewal, prophet after persecuted prophet, sign and wonder after sign and wonder, to pursue His beloved. He risks love. He utters the first “yes.” He initiates. He says, “Yes, it is my will, for the sake of your salvation, that I give you my Beloved Son, conceived in human flesh, as little as an embryo, that you would receive my personal love.”

2. Mary’s “yes” perfectly mirrors that of her Son’s. In light of our first point, the second becomes clear. The Immaculate Conception, Mary, born without the stain of sin, receives God’s gift. A gift is not a gift if it is not received. A gift implies a Giver and a receiver. A dual “yes.” “Mary’s ‘yes’ perfectly mirrors that of Christ himself when he entered the world, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, interpreting Ps. 40: ‘As it is written of me in the book, I have come to do your will, O God’ (Heb. 10:7). The Son’s obedience was reflected in that of the Mother and thus, through the encounter of these two ‘yeses,’ God was able to take on a human face” (Pope Benedict XVI).

It is interesting to juxtapose the annunciation account with the fall of Eve in Gen. 3. There, Eve, questions God, believes the lies of the enemy, sees the goodness of the fruit and tastes it. She fails to trust in the Father’s plan, and she takes. Adam does as well. The wedge of sin results: between man and creation, man and himself, male and female, and man and God. Mary, in Luke 1, is united through betrothal to Joseph, though alone in her home in Nazareth. A mysterious presence approaches with a strange greeting. Mary is frightened (as Eve surely would have been by the snake/serpent) and questions. Yet Mary, through the grace offered to her by Christ’s “yes,” and her free response to it, is able to receive God’s gift even though she could not see it, taste it, touch it or smell it. God’s word, which she hears in the silence of her heart, is enough to warrant her complete faith.

This “yes” allows God to take on a human face, which was what he longed for all along, and what we were created for (Cf. Gen. 1:27). In Mary, the Word becomes flesh. In her active receptivity, God’s life springs forth into history in unprecedented fashion.

The energy of the gift, patiently poured out at the heart of Jerusalem, ends here in a fountain whose entire vital energy takes the form of acceptance. Mary has carried the Word long before conceiving him and has learned the self-giving of him whose whole being is consent to the Father. She has been fashioned by the Spirit and sees without realizing it that the most fruitful activity of the human person is to be able to “receive” God. (Jean Corbon. The Wellspring of Worship.)

The vital energy of our lives comes about, not through conjuring up feelings, impassioned humanitarian efforts, moralistic endeavors of the will, or Ulyssian striving for knowledge  about the ends of the earth. Vital energy, that which allows God to take on a human face, or that which generates the fullness of our humanity, comes through the active and ongoing reception of God’s “yes.” It comes for us by receiving a Person through the action of the Holy Spirit.

3. Mary’s “yes” was unseen by human eyes. At a time when nearly everything is sensationalized, tabloidized, emotionalized, publicized, institutionalized, globalized, etc., Mary’s “yes” stands out as a sign of contradiction. God comes in silence (though not in a vacuum) and Mary utters a thoroughly contemplative “yes.” There is no report of thundering voices, trumpets, pyrotechnics, loud music, falling over, and so forth. She simply knew with her whole being God’s presence and His will, and she responded fully and freely to that gift. This is an apt reminder for a generation dominated by materialism and driven by passion and phenomena. She simply said “yes” (and not for the first time), to the Lord in the quiet of her home. Indeed, “The Annunciation, recounted at the beginning of St. Luke’s Gospel, is a humble event – no one saw it, no one except Mary knew of it, but at the same time it was crucial to the history of humanity” (Pope Benedict XVI).

Originally posted in The Christian Event, used with permission.

Soul Satisfaction

April 3rd, 2014posted by Sean Ater

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Luke 9:24-25

For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?

 

What are you living your life for? What is the purpose? If it is to satisfy your ego…it is to satisfy your “false self.” As I have said in the past, “ego” stands for: “Edge God Out.” The false self will never be satisfied. It subsists on a program for “happiness” set up in childhood in which every whim and self-centered desire needs to be satisfied. Lent is a good time to practice letting that system for happiness dry up. It is a false system leading nowhere. Walk into the desert with Jesus. Follow in the ways of Jesus. Live to love and live to serve and you will find soul satisfaction…and your “true self.”

 

Children Love A Good Story

April 2nd, 2014posted by Sean Ater

 Just the other day, I was sitting down for dinner with my wife and two children.  After prayer, my son, Michael immediately jumped in with, “Daddy, I want you talk about day.”  This is his four-year-old expression for asking me how my day went.danis

It’s just a little ritual that has developed naturally over the last year.  We each take turns going around the table describing all the big events of our day and how they affected us.  The kiddos mostly talk about toys and tv shows.  Mommy and Daddy mostly talk about errands and meetings.  We try to speak in a way that will make sense to our children, but that will also challenge them to think more broadly about how their world works.

 Anyway, after Daddy and Mommy had each shared at Michael’s request, Michael began to describe his own high points of experience.  Suddenly, from the far end of the table came an ear splitting whine of resistance.

“But Daaaddddyyyy!”  Lillie croaked.  “Michael can’t go next because if Michael goes next than that means I have to go last, and I hate going last!” 

“Lillie, it’s okay to go last.  It doesn’t mean we will care any less about what you have to say…”

“No Daddy, Please don’t let me go last!”  my six-year-old daughter whined again.

I paused for a moment, wishing I could just get out of the situation.  Part of me wanted to console her that it really did not matter.  Part of me wanted to scold her for insisting to pout about something so mundane!  Instead, I took a deep breath, and I asked God how I could turn this around into a teaching moment for my children.  Immediately, the answer rushed back to me.

“You knowwwww,” I said grinning slyly at Lillie.  “This kind of reminds me of a story I once heard about Jesus.”  Both children’s eyes locked onto me and they grinned back.  Thank God children love a good story.

“One day Jesus was visiting with his friends and having a big dinner just like the one we are having.  Everyone was arguing about who would get to sit at the place of honor” I pointed to my wife’s seat for effect.  “But Jesus didn’t worry about things like that,” I continued.  He told people that they should sit as far away from the seat of honor as they could, and then maybe the host of the dinner would invite them to come forward to a better seat!  This means that with God, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

danis1“So Lillie?” I questioned with playful sweetness.  “If you want to be first with God, what do you think that means you have to do?”

 “Go last,” she offered.

“Very good!” I affirmed.  “You understood the story, and I am very proud of you.  So, can Michael finish telling us about his day?”

“Yes!” she answered, grinning from ear to ear.

Now my little girl may not yet understand the larger theme of the power of humility, but she has captured the general concept that Christ invites her to be okay with being last.  It just might be better for her in the long run.  Best of all, a little bible story was all it took to turn our family dinner back into an occasion of joy and peace.  Children love a good story!

Keep Calm and Tear Down the Walls

April 1st, 2014posted by Sean Ater

Allowing another person a glimpse into your soul is actively participating in creating those moments in which the change within may happen.

It’s one of those cool instances when the giver becomes the one receiving, and the one receiving becomes the giver.

Each of us is beautifully unique and we all have so much to offer to each other – even when we think we don’t.

We are all drawn to those around us who seem to be unafraid of letting their light shine and their soul show (like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, the saints, or people like the kids on The Voice or X Factor, or the athletes we watched this winter at the Olympics).

 We watch them from sidelines.

Actually, mostly from a couch where the only way we engage is by clicking the remote control as we surf through the stories: neatly organized, scripted, well-lit, captured perfectly with HD cameras, edited and produced.

Almost always, I get emotionally stirred by those beautifully produced and powerfully scored montages of people doing great things… And I love how video and film can make us feel uplifted, moved and inspired to maybe consider that old dream of ours that we so badly wanted to come true, but never really committed to working on it.

And that’s just it.

If we forever just watch from sidelines as other people love without fear, live with passion and purpose and achieve their life-time goals and dreams, what happens to us?

We become insecure, we begin to believe we have nothing as grand to offer, and we feel less and less adequate to open up our soul to someone and be the gift to them.

Our souls, our lives, our stories don’t seem so ‘beautifully crafted’ as we push through the day jobs, finances, as we change diapers, chase toddlers or reason with our teenage sons and daughters, as we navigate through the craziness of GMO and hormone infused food in an effort to simply feed our bodies.

 If we always just watch, learn passively and don’t practice this “opening of our soul”

and “letting our light shine”, we are bound to become less and less comfortable or willing to try… we close up, become afraid to love and trust, and out of that insecurity and fear we start putting up walls around our heart.

God constantly sends us people and events to give us a chance to engage, to practice, to gain confidence… He gives us grace to help us with fears, insecurities and past hurts… He crosses our paths with those whose soul shows through as a chance to awaken.

And when we do awaken, we feel like the person in the montage – even the sound-track shows up!

(My 13-year old son Dante often points this out as every time we have a deep conversation, a song would play on the radio that perfectly fits into what we are talking about.)

So, what do you say?

Let’s get off the couch, off the sidelines and let’s tear some walls down!

I’ll go first.

Recently I released a beautiful song and music video “Keep Your Head Up”. It’s well produced and professionally edited and yes, my make up and hair is perfect (thanks to my amazing team. When we were shooting it, I was completely connected with the emotion and message of the song, I opened my heart wide and let my soul shine… (and that’s why the twirling showed up).

BUT here is the ‘Behind the Scenes’ video and story:

I hired the crew, bought my plane ticket and was on my way to produce this video with a partner/ sponsor in Croatia. It was going to be an expensive and logistically challenging project, since we were shooting at the absolute peak of the peak season, but I felt really good about my partnership with the sponsor who was going to take care of all finances, locations, lodging, travel and food.

About four days before I got on the plane, I received a call that the partner/ sponsor fell ill and was unable to honor the agreement.

I decided to go ahead anyway and find a way to work things out, knowing that I still had a great crew (already booked) and a coordinator with whom I was working on a different event. Everyone on the team agreed to take a chance.

I had to cancel the musicians because of the lack of accommodations (and yes, the lack of budget). All of our locations fell through.

The moment I landed in Croatia I hit the ground running: calling around and looking for solutions, which was incredibly challenging, since it was the middle of summer, a time when Croatians (rightfully and leisurely) slow down, migrate to the coast and leave their phones at home.

My coordinator, Kreso Koletic, (president of Zagorje In My Heart Association) was my first God-sent… He spent enormous amount of time calling his connections in the hospitality business until he finally found a few rooms and possible locations.

It was a crazy, stressful and at one point, completely hopeless situation, in which I finally gave up. I had been pushing, and I was done. “God you better take over from here” I said out loud laying in my mother’s apartment only a few hours before the whole crew was leaving for the coast to shoot. Remember, “Keep Your Head Up” was the song we were shooting…

Well, we got the video done, and it looks AMAZING!!!

If you are curious what happened, once I surrendered, watch the video: Keep Your Head Up – Behind the Scenes Story.

Now, it’s your turn!

Do Not Be Afraid to Dream of Great Things!

March 31st, 2014posted by Sean Ater

greatthingsA little over one year ago, on March 13, 2013, the College of Cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the 265th successor of St Peter.  He chose the name Francis, and ever since he stepped out onto the Vatican balcony and shyly waved hello, he has taken the world by storm. 

  The amazing thing I’ve seen about Francis is that he has said nothing really very different from what John Paul II or Benedict had said before him.  On all the so-called controversial issues like women in the Church, abortion, homosexuality, etc… he has said nothing but the truth of what the Church has taught for centuries.  But he has spoken and lived in a way that has made the Joy of the Gospel real.  And this authenticity has allowed him to be heard by people who have dismissed the Church as irrelevant or uncaring or hopelessly stuck in the past.  Suddenly, the simple words and actions of one man are making the Gospel real to the world. 

The thing is, all of us are called to do the same.  All of us are called, by virtue of our humanity, to lives of holiness.  All of us are called, by virtue of our Baptism, to be Saints.  All of us are called, by our participation in the Eucharist, to be Christ for the world. 

Lent is a great opportunity to rededicate ourselves to this call to holiness and sainthood.  Through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we’ll all have the chance to re-evaluate our lives in light of the Gospel. Chances are your parish has special opportunities this Lent for praying the Stations of the Cross and for Confession.

This Lent, let’s take the opportunity to grow closer to our Lord.  May our sacrifices help us to understand the sacrifice Jesus made for us; may our prayers unite our will with God’s, and may our fasting remind us of our hunger for the Truth that is found only in God.

And through it all, may others look at us as they look at Pope Francis and see that Christ is alive and at work in our lives.