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Is there such a thing as bad sacred art? 

Though seemingly a contradiction in terms this is a question that is often posed and pondered. 20 years ago I would have answered “yes” without much explanation. And, I would have happily slipped you a catalogue of what to avoid. 

Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.

Art Painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Our Lady of Guadalupe by WULFF, 2012
My thinking started to change when I was gifted a somewhat unusual representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Intrigued but not impressed I placed it with the other dubious sacred art I have received over the years. And yet, every time I walked by it I was drawn to it. The image kept beckoning me until I gave in and considered it more closely. To the surprise of many, we ended up exhibiting it in our gallery. When a friend saw it there, he admitted that he had always thought of this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as just one of my religious tchotchkes. Seeing it under glass and in good lighting he finally realized it was sacred art. And so did I.
 

Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art. 

When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place. 

Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.

Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art.  At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.

So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.

 

Follow the link below or copy and paste it into your browser for the readings for February 16th 
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/021614.cfm

In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples:  “unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  As we read these words, it would be easy to think Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees because they were bad people or because they were doing bad things. The fact is, though, the scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of their time.  They carefully observed all the laws and all the precepts of the laws.  In fact, they were so intent on following the law that they constructed a “fence” around the law so that they wouldn’t accidently break it, e.g. they determined how may steps an individual could take on the Sabbath before they broke the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
 
The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not that they were bad people who did bad things.  Rather, the issue was that they had turned their relationship with God into a set of rules and regulations.  While their actions were always in accord with the law, their heart was not.   They had forgotten that following the law was not an end in itself.  Rather the purpose of the law was to help people grow in their relationship with God.  Jesus invited them (and us) to recognize that while following the law is important, more important is that we do so because our hearts are set on doing God’s will.

Our first reading this weekend from the Book of Sirach reinforces the message of the Gospel.   It reminds us that “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live.”   It reminds us that keeping the commandments will save us, if we trust in God.  

In our second reading this weekend we are reminded of God’s mysterious wisdom.   “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:  

1. In many ways a nanny and a parent both do the same tasks.   The difference is the nanny does them because they are paid to do them.  The parent does them out of love.  I believe doing things out of love and not obligation is what Jesus was getting at in our Gospel today.  Do you agree or disagree? 

2. What does it mean to trust in God?

3. What words/images come to mind when you think of what God has prepared for those who love him?   

For the past several weeks, Minnesota Public Radio, as well as other media, have run stories on the financial impact on our local church because of the recent disclosures of clergy sexual misconduct.  These stories have in turn raised concerns about our Archdiocesan and parish finances.  Specifically, concerns have been raised about secret accounts, hidden payments, generous severance packages, questionable business practices, and the impact this is having on parish finances.  While the revelations contained in these stories have been painful, it is important that they be brought into the open.   It is only in being open and honest regarding these matters that we can begin the healing process and move forward in faith and hope.  

In reflecting on the revelations contained in these various stories, it seemed to me they left some questions unanswered, or with answers that were incomplete.  Given this, I would like to offer some comments about our parish finances, our Archdiocesan finances, and the hidden accounts and secret payments that have been made.

In regard to our parish finances, I would note the following:

  • Our Finance Committee is comprised of 18 individuals from a variety of backgrounds.  Members can serve two consecutive three year terms and then must rotate off the committee. I, along with Terri Ashmore, our managing director, and Audra Johnson, our Director of Finance and Human Resources, also sit on the Finance Committee.   The Finance Committee meets monthly except during the summer.
  • At our meetings we review and monitor our monthly income and expenses to make sure we are on target in regard to our budget.   .  
  • The Finance Committee has four subcommittees: Audit, Budget, Investment and Nominating.  
  • An audit is conducted each year by an outside independent auditor, and the results of the audit are shared with the Finance Committee and our Parish Council.  For the past two years, a summary of the audit has been available on-line, and as I mention each year, copies of the full audit are available for anyone who is interested.   
  • Each parish is assessed 8% of its stewardship income to help run the Archdiocese. In the next year, this will increase to 9% for those parishes without a school.  
  • We work hard at being open and accountable for the financial support of our parishioners. Certainly we don’t do this perfectly.  I think we do it pretty well, though, and we are always open to suggestions about how to do it better. 

In regard to our Archdiocesan Finances, I would note the following:

  • As it appears from the recent media reports, our Archdiocese has not done a very good job of being open and transparent in regard to its finances. There is no excuse for this.  It needs to change.
  • As it also appears from the recent media reports, our Archdiocese has not had a system of checks and balances in place to prevent embezzlement and other abuses of the system.  Again, there is not excuse for this.  All of us in the Church need to be transparent.  
  • In addition to the money received from parish assessments, the Archdiocese also receives income from investments, bequests, and special gifts. Our Archdiocese needs to be open and transparent in regard to these sources of revenue and how they are used.     
  • Money collected through the yearly Catholic Services Appeal goes directly to the programs, ministries and services that are funded through the Appeal.  None of the money from the Catholic Services Appeal goes to the Archdiocese.  This was reinforced this year when The Catholic Services Appeal Foundation was established to collect and disburse money collected through the Appeal.

Finally, in regard to the hidden accounts and secret payments that were made by the Archdiocese I would note the following:

  • First, I believe we need to apologize that we weren’t honest and open about these payments. Frankly and bluntly, I believe this was wrong.  It certainly is not consistent with the goal of transparency. 
  • In regard to people who have been victimized by priests, while nothing can undo the pain and harm they have experienced, I personally believe we must help them in any way we can, whether in the form of a settlement, payments for counseling, or other services. 
  • In regard to priests who have abused or victimized individuals, we need to be clear:  because our church ordained them, we are responsible for them.   While many people would like to see these men formally removed from ministry, this is a long involved canonical process that is expensive and can take years to complete.   Most dioceses have chosen instead to reach settlement agreements with these men.   These agreements remove them from ministry but also tie them to ongoing monitoring. It is my understanding that these agreements are negotiated with each individual priest, and are based on their particular needs and circumstances.   Clearly some of these settlements appear to be overly generous.  I don’t understand this.   I do believe, though, ---- and I know many people will disagree with me --- that it is better to negotiate these settlements, and tie them to ongoing monitoring, than to go to the time and expense of trying to remove these priests from ministry through a canonical process.     

The current crisis in our Church is painful to all of us.  It is made more so by the fact that while our Archdiocese has talked about being open and transparent; we seem unable to do this. We continue to be reactive instead of proactive in our communication efforts, and, at least at this point, our words are not supported by our deeds. 

 As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, certainly the current revelations have been painful.  It is important, though, that they be brought into the open.   It is only in being open and honest regarding these matters that we can begin the healing process and move forward in faith and hope. I invite you to join your prayers to mine that this process will begin soon.   

St. Blaise

“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr with the traditional blessing of the throats.

The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.

From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.

Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats on his feast day. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat and to present such ailments.

According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Thus two candles are used during the blessing of the throats. These candles are blessed the previous day on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. They are often held together by a red ribbon and placed around the neck of the person being blessed. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise.

Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing not unlike other sacramentals such as the sprinkling with Holy Water remain popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.

Click on the link below or paste it into your browser to find to the readings for this weekend: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/020914.cfm

In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples:  “You are the salt of the earth.”  “You are the light of the world.”  These words are so familiar that it would be easy to miss their meaning.  Specifically, I think they remind us of two very important things.   First, notice that Jesus didn’t say you “will be” the salt of the earth, or you “will be the light of the world.  Rather he said: “You are.”   This reminds us that in our lives --- in the here and now and not at some point in the future --- we are to be salt and light to the world around us..  Second, though, both salt and light have an impact, and it doesn’t take much of either for that impact to be noticed.   A little salt can add flavor to a meal, while too much salt can ruin it.  In the same way even a small amount of light can guide us on a dark night, while too much light can blind us.   Clearly, even in small ways, we can be salt and light to our world and can make a difference. 

Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.    It shares the theme of the Gospel and tells us very practically how we can be salt and light in our world.   “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn………………… If you remove from your midst oppression, false accusation and malicious speech; if you bestow your bread on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then light shall rise for you in the darkness,”

Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.  In the section we read this weekend, Paul reminds the people of Corinth.  That he did not speak to them with “sublimity of words or of wisdom …………… so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom, but on the power of God.”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

1.    Where are you called to be salt and light in your life?
2.    What concretely and specifically do you need to do be salt and light? 
3.    Have you ever encountered someone who spoke with “sublimity of words and wisdom,” but really didn’t say much?  

Candles at Mass
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Candlemas

The feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2) or Candlemas is one of the lesser known feasts in our church today. Its history is complex and rich yet because it most often falls on a weekday very few people even are aware of it. Nevertheless, I have very fond memories of this feast which go back all the way to my childhood. 

Our family would attend early morning Mass on that day. Upon entering the church we received a candle, one per family. After the priest said a prayer and sprinkled Holy Water we walked around the church in procession. As the oldest child I was tasked with carrying our family’s candle. My current fondness of processions probably dates back to those Candlemas celebrations when I carried the candle under the watchful eye of my parents and the envious glances of my siblings. After Mass we were encouraged to take our candle home and to care for it with reverence. The priest told us to light the candle in times of need. I distinctly remember lighting our candle when my great-grandfather was mortally ill while we prayed for his recovery. We also found some solace in this candle once he died. We even would light the candle and huddle around it during bad storms. It made us less afraid.

Many years later, when living in a Benedictine abbey we celebrated the day with even greater ceremony as the candles were bigger, the procession was longer and the sung psalms were more numerous. We started the celebration in the chapter room. After the lighting and blessing of our candles we processed through the entire cloister into the church while singing Lumen ad revelationem gentium or A light of revelation to the Nations. I can still hear the sounds, see the sights and smell the burning wax which even overpowered the copious amounts of incense used for the procession.

Candle procession
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Procession with candle

Memories are great yet they need to be interpreted carefully. My childhood experience of the feast reveals profound truths but maybe there was a hint of superstition which tainted the use of the candles at home. Or was it the result of a more generous and less complicated faith?  My monastic memories, again revelatory of deep faith undoubtedly suffer from some liturgical romanticism.

The essence of the feast is this: Christ is the Light of the world and we are to witness to the Light in word and deed. The candles are a tangible symbol of the light of Christ. And  the procession is not just a pretty parade rather it symbolizes and rehearses us in our calling to bring Christ’s light to the world.

As a child I always wished we could keep the candle burning throughout the liturgy and even on our way home. I did not quite know why but I thought it made sense. I still imagine this grand procession of all Christians leaving their respective churches on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord or any feast for that matter with lit candle in hand, proclaiming to the world that Christ is the Light and we bear witness to Him in word and deed.

The realities of our world today can be overwhelming. Local and global news show catastrophes and disasters each day. Yet, we also know there is kindness and healing in the world. People have tremendous capacity for good.

One of the greatest challenges of living faithfully today is reconciling the good we know is possible with the often harsh realities of the world around us. We are invited to stand in this “tragic gap” between the heartbreak of our world and the inherent goodness of creation. The tension can be exhausting. It is easy to fall into a corrosive cynicism when we hear the constant pain of the world. We can become bitter or numb to misfortune experienced around us. Conversely, we can shut out the news and the real struggles and become disengaged through an irrelevant idealism. We can shut everything out and live simply without knowing what is going on around us.

A challenge of our faith is to stay in the “tragic gap” between the world as it is and the world as we believe it should be. We are invited to find a way to stay there for the long haul, resisting the slide to either extreme. As people of faith, we are called to stay engaged—to be drawn into the darkness while holding the light of hope, love, and reconciliation.

How can we avoid “compassion fatigue?” How can we avert the experience of indifference or disconnect with all that makes us uncomfortable. The challenge is to stay engaged, to remain compassionate amidst the constant bombardment of pain.

At a daily Mass on May 22, 2013, Pope Francis addressed this struggle of the faithful. He suggested that our answer can be found through a simple guideline: create a “culture of encounter.” Pope Francis encourages everyone to engage in the world together. Simply see what needs to be done in front of you today, and respond by doing good. Rooted in the knowledge that we are created in the image and likeness of our God, Pope Francis encourages everyone to do good, and to meet one another there.

Pope Francis states that this “culture of encounter” is created when all humanity simply seeks to do the good that presents itself.  This uncomplicated act unites all humanity. It creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace. He states, “If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.”

Simple, but not easy. When we feel compelled to withdraw or ignore—engage. When we are tired or weary—do good. Rooted in prayer, strengthened by community, we commit ourselves to the “culture of encounter” and stay involved and engaged.

On February 9th The Basilica will hold a Local Stewardship Fair from 10:30-1:30 in the Lower Level. Representatives from organizations will be present to highlight ways we can be engaged in our community through Liturgy, Sacred Arts, Social Service partners, environmental and community organizations. Together, in small acts of love, we can transform the world. 

On January 27 we observe International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemorating the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. It meant the end of the most horrific and extensive form of Genocide the world has ever known as 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti) and 15,000 homosexual people were systematically killed by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. Millions of others were also killed or otherwise victimized.

To most of us those days seem so far off and almost unreal. Therefor this day of remembrance is of the utmost importance. On the one hand it invites us to honor the memory of all the Nazi victims. On the other hand it forces us to confront the evil reality of genocide that still exists in our world today.

A few years ago I happened to be in Paris on January 27. Though I had been there before I had never visit the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, the memorial to those deported from France during World War II. There could be no more fitting day to make a pilgrimage to this impressive yet often forgotten monument in the shadows of the more famous cathedral of Notre Dame. As I made my way, my heart was heavy with worry for the human race, given our capacity to inflict unthinkable horror on one another. I also pondered the impact the Nazis had on my own family.

My grandfather and the other men working in my grandmother’s shoe factory were deported to Nazi camps because she refused to make shoes for the Nazi army. The family home was occupied by Nazi officers. When my grandmother died, I inherited her papers including the moving letters my grandfather sent from the camp as well as letters from one of the officers who had occupied my grandmother’s house. The latter include his thoughts on the horrors of the war and his striking plea for forgiveness.

Holocaust Memorial in Paris
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Holocaust Memorial in Paris
At the edge of one of the islands (Ile de la Cité) in the river Seine a narrow and steep stairway leads down to the memorial courtyard. A low-level fenced-in window is the only place that allows a glimpse of the outside. A severe sculpture representing imprisonment and torture hangs in guarded by two oppressive columns barely allows entrance into the memorial itself.
The main installation, on the far end of the foyer, is a long front of this window. On the opposite side, a narrow door narrow corridor lined with 200,000 quartz crystals, one for each man, woman, child deported from France during the Second World War. A rod-iron gate prevents entrance. An eternal flame burns at the very end of the corridor.

This extraordinary building captures those who enter it from the very first moment, guiding them down the narrow steps, through the courtyard, into the foyer, to the wall of remembrance and the eternal flame. This journey makes visitors face the reality of the suffering of the 200,000 victims who are honored here and beyond them all human suffering. It also provides a timid light of hope for humanity which too often seems untenable and almost absurd.

My walk back to the hotel that day took me past Notre Dame Cathedral. I could not but enter and light a candle for all those who are suffering at the hand of other people. I stayed for Vespers and prayed “Thy Kingdom Come” with more fervor than ever before.

 

Readings:          Malachi 3:1-4          Hebrews 2: 14-18          Luke 2: 22-40  

This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord.    This Feast is celebrated on February 2nd each year.   Our Gospel for this Feast is the story of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple in accordance with Mosiac law. 

When Mary and Joseph came to the Temple they encountered Simeon, who was “righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.”   Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph and then said to Mary: “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be sign that will be contradicted --- and you yourself a sword of sorrow will pierce --- so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”  

Mary and Joseph were fulfilling the prescription of the law of Moses when they presented Jesus in the Temple.   As is often the casein the scriptures, though, things have a much deeper meaning than is immediately evident.   Simeon’s words prophesy both Christ’s ministry and his passion and death.  

Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of the Prophet Malachi.  In the section we read this weekend God announces:  “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me………”  From our Christian perspective we see this prophecy as referring to John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Christ.  

Our second reading this weekend is from the Letter to the Hebrews.  It reminds us that Jesus “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every way, the he might be a merciful and faithful high priest before God to expiate the sins of the people.  Because he himself was tested through what he suffered he is able to help those who are being tested.”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

1.    Simeon said that Jesus was a “sign that will be contradicted.”  What does this mean to you? 
2.    Have you ever waited, as Simeon did, and eventually found your waiting rewarded?  
3.    I loved the words from Hebrews that “because he himself was tested through what he suffered he is able to help those who are being tested.”   When and how have you felt Jesus’ help in time of need? 

Reasons to Pray

When I was growing up, I was taught that there were four reasons to pray:  1. Adoration, 2. Contrition, 3. Gratitude, and 4. Petition. We still believe these four things are the reasons behind, as well as the motivation for our prayer. My problem, though, is that I never seem to adore God, or tell God I am sorry for my sins, or express my gratitude to God as earnestly or as deeply as I entreat God. My prayers of petition are long, heartfelt and sincere. My prayers of adoration, contrition and gratitude on the other hand, while sincere, tend to be brief and more often than not, superficial. 

Now I know that adoration, contrition and especially gratitude are really what my prayer should be all about. God is so good, so faithful and so loving, that this alone should fill my life with thanksgiving, praise and sorrow. And yet I continue to be embarrassed at the many times I am indifferent and ungrateful. It is so easy for me to take God for granted, telling myself that God certainly must know how grateful and how sorry I am. And yet, while God does indeed know this, it is binding on me as one of God’s creatures to give voice to my gratitude, praise and sorrow.   

I am not sure why it is easier for me to pray for the things I want or think I need, than it is for me to be grateful for the many blessings I enjoy in my life. I suspect, though, that a big part of the reason is that the blessings are so abundant and so pervasive that they sometimes become part of the background and they fail to stand out for me. If I only occasionally knew blessings, they would stand out much more clearly. Because I am surrounded by blessings, though, they don’t always, or even often, stand out as they should.   

The fact is that we all live in a world imbued with God’s grace. God’s love for us is ever present and always being offered to us. We are always held firm in the embrace of our God’s love. If God should forget about us for even a moment, we would cease to exist. It is easy, though, to grow so comfortable and complacent with this, that we can forget that it calls for a response on our part. God’s love for us is not just to be enjoyed, but responded to. And our response needs to be adoration, contrition, and gratitude. Petition should follow after these three. 

I suspect I will continue to petition God more than I praise, thank or tell God I’m sorry for my sins and failures. Prayers of petition are deeply rooted in my life. 

I am hopeful, though, that as I grow older I will recognize the many blessings I enjoy in my life, the love that God constantly pours forth on me, and the forgiveness that is without end, and that this in turn might lead me to be more thankful and contrite, and lead me to give praise to the God who made all things possible.   

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