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Ex voto. Gli italoamericani e le radici dell’antica Roma

La Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Monte Carmelo (un monte in Palestina) nella 115esima strada dell’East Harlem: fu la prima parrocchia italiana degli Stati Uniti. Il ‘culto’ di questa madonna sollevò polemiche tra il clero cattolico americano ma venne poi legittimato da Papa Leone XIII. La statua venne ‘incoronata’ nel 1904. Click for credits

English version

New York City, 17 luglio 1900

In quel giorno il New York Times scrisse:

“Little Italy [...] era in pompa magna ieri, il giorno della festa di Nostra Signora del Carmine. Una folla di italiani, variamente stimata tra le 40.000 e le 75.000 persone, assediava il santuario nella Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Carmine nella 115esima strada, dalle 4 del mattino fino a tarda notte. La folla recava in offerta candele di ogni dimensione, denaro, gioielli, figure in cera e in un caso un paio di occhiali”.

Nostra Signora del Carmine esce dalla chiesa nel 2004 durante la celebrazione del centesimo anniversario della sua coronazione. Click for credits

Abbiamo scambiato delle idee qui nel blog del MoR sul tema delle feste religiose italiane e sul loro significato.

Adesso vorrei richiamare l’attenzione su quelle figure in cera. Cosa sono?

Sono per lo più ex voto anatomici, cioè “modelli di arti o organi in relazione ai quali i devoti imploravano la Madonna perché sanasse le corrispondenti parti del corpo umano” – come scrisse il NYT in un altro articolo dello stesso periodo.

Ex voto. Museo d’antropologia e etnografia, Cagliari. Click for credits

Come osserva Robert Anthony Orsi (a p. 3 del suo libro The Madonna of 115th streetFaith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950, Yale University Press, 1985) :

“I venditori di articoli religiosi collocavano bancarelle lungo i marciapiedi, in competizione con il commercio locale in articoli religiosi. Le bancarelle erano zeppe di copie in cera di organi interni umani e modelli di arti e teste umane. Chi era stato guarito – o sperava di essere guarito – dalla Madonna dei mal di testa o delle artriti recava nella grande processione modelli in cera degli arti e delle parti del corpo malate, ben dipinte per farle apparire più realistiche. Il fedele poteva anche acquistare statue di cera raffiguranti neonati, amuleti per scongiurare il malocchio, come ad esempio piccole corna da indossare attorno al collo o piccoli gobbi rossi, il tutto venduto assieme a santini, statue di Gesù, di Maria, dei santi, e a parti anatomiche del corpo”.

Antica Roma, 342 a.C.

Marcia è felice. Suo figlio, di 14 anni, si è appena ristabilito da un terribile incidente di strada. Le gambe fratturate sono guarite e lui adesso può camminare nuovamente. La lettiga che la trasporta viene adagiata sull’acciottolato. Marcia ne esce ed entra in una bottega di fronte all’isola Tiberina dove si trova il tempio di Esculapio, il dio della medicina e della guarigione. Marcia acquista due gambe in terracotta che di lì a poco porterà al tempio del dio, come dono sacro e simbolo di gratitudine.

Ex voto anatomici dell’antica Grecia

Marcia è un personaggio immaginario ma un vera e propria bottega-deposito risalente a più di duemila anni fa – in piena epoca repubblicana – fu rinvenuta nella primavera del 1885 durante gli scavi per la costruzione del muraglione sinistro del Tevere.

Conteneva – come scriverà l’archeologo Rodolfo Lanciani nel 1898 (L’antica Roma, cap. III p.87, Newton & Compton, 2005) “un gran numero di oggetti anatomici in terracotta dipinta, finemente modellata, e rappresentanti teste, orecchie, occhi, seni, braccia, mani, ginocchia, gambe, piedi ecc. Si trattava di ex-voto offerti alle divinità greco-romane da madri e parenti riconoscenti”.

In realtà, Lanciani aggiunge, “sembra che all’ingresso del ponte Fabricio [chiamato in seguito anche Ponte Quattro Capi, vedi immagine sotto, ndr] che conduce dal Campo Marzio all’isola vi fossero botteghe per la vendita di ex-voto di ogni genere … “

Il Pons Fabricius, chiamato Quattro Capi, rimasto intatto dai tempi dell’antica Roma. Conduce all’Isola Tiberina dove si trovava il tempio di Esculapio. Click for credits

Ex voto anatomici offerti alle divinità in segno di gratitudine o nella speranza di guarigioni erano comuni presso innumerevoli popoli antichi. Esistevano in Mesopotamia, nella Creta minoica, nell’antico Egitto ecc, ma i reperti più numerosi sono stati rinvenuti in Grecia e soprattutto nell’Italia centrale dove la maggior parte di essi risale al periodo tra il IV e il I secolo a.C.

Numerosi gli ex voto anatomici anche nelle province dell’impero romano. In Gallia, l’attuale Francia, ad esempio, essi erano numerosi nei santuari della Dea Sequana, la dea celtica della Senna.

Robert A. Orsi nel suo bel libro sulla Madonna del Carmine a New York City non fa uso del termine ‘pagano’ in riferimento alla religiosità italoamericana del periodo 1880-1950.

Egli tuttavia parla di paganesimo quando descrive la reazione dei cattolici non italiani nei confronti della religiosità italiana. Gli italiani sbarcati in America vennero infatti accusati di superficialità religiosa e di strane pratiche pagane.

“In un aspro attacco pubblicato sul The Catholic world nel 1888 – riferisce Orsi a pag. 55 del libro citato – il reverendo Bernard Lynch criticò duramente ‘il particolare tipo di condizione spirituale’ degli immigrati italiani, che si nutrivano di pellegrinaggi, santuari, santini, devozioni, ma che mancavano di qualsiasi reale comprensione della ‘grande verità della religione’ “.

Nella pagina successiva Orsi parla di “un sacerdote italiano che passò tutta la vita nell’East Harlem e nella chiesa del Carmine” e che riferì all’autore di come “egli avesse sempre saputo che il clero irlandese era contrario alle devozioni della Madonna del Carmine perché le considerava superstizioni pagane:” “Ci vedevano come africani, come gente strana. E rifiutavano tutto ciò … Eravamo sempre guardati dall’alto in basso, come se stessimo facendo qualcosa di male … “.

English original

Post di argomento simile:

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Politeismo dell’antica Roma e venerazione dei santi (1)
Politeismo dell’antica Roma e venerazione dei santi (2)
Sopravvivenze della dea romana Fortuna

Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Ex Votos in Italian-American Devotions

The Church of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on 115th street, East Harlem, the first Italian Parish in the USA. The ‘cult’ raised controversy among the US Catholic clergy but was legitimized by Pope Leo XIII. The statue was ‘crowned’ in 1904. Click for credits

Italian version

New York City, July 17 1900.

The New York Times wrote on that day:

“Little Italy […] was out in gala attire yesterday, which was the day of the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A crowd of Italians estimated variously at from 40,000 to 75,000 besieged the shrine in the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, at 115th street and Avenue A, from 4 o’clock in the morning until late at night, bringing with them as offerings candles of all sizes, money, jewellery, wax figures, and in one case a pair of spectacles.”

Our Lady of Mt. Carmel exits the church during the 2004 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the statue’s coronation. Click for credits

We exchanged ideas in this discussion at the MoR’s about the significance of Italian religious feasts.

Now I’d like to draw attention on those wax figures. What are they?

They are mostly anatomical ex votos, i.e. “models of the limbs or organs they prayed the Madonna would heal” – another NYT article reports.

Ex votos. Anthropology and Ethnography Museum, Cagliari, Italy. Click for credits

As Robert Anthony Orsi observes (at page 3 of his 1985 book “The Madonna of 115th streetFaith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950”) :

“Vendors of religious articles set up booths along the sidewalks, competing for business with the thriving local trade in religious goods. The booths were filled with wax replicas of internal human organs and with models of human limbs and heads. Someone who has been healed – or hoped to be healed – by the Madonna of the headaches or arthritis would carry wax models of the afflicted limbs or head, painted to make them look realistic, in the big procession. The devout could also buy little wax statues of infants. Charms to ward off the evil eye, such as little horns to wear around the neck and little red hunchbacks, were sold alongside the holy cards, statues of Jesus, Mary and the saints, and the wax body parts.”

Ancient Rome, 342 BC.

Marcia is happy. Her 14-year-old son has recovered from a terrible cart accident. His fractured legs have healed and he can walk again. The lectica carrying her is now set down. She gets out of it and enters a shop not far from the temple of Aesculapius, god of medicine and healing. She buys two terra-cotta legs that she will soon take to the temple of the god on the Tiber island, as a sacred gift expressing her gratitude.

Anatomical ex votos from ancient Greece

Marcia is fictional but a real ancient Roman shop going back more than a couple of thousand years earlier perhaps (the period of the Roman Republic) was discovered in the spring of 1885 in the foundations of the left embankment of the Tiber.

It contained – archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani wrote a few years later – “a large number of anatomical specimens in painted terra-cotta, beautifully modelled from nature, and representing heads, ears, eyes, breasts, arms, hands, knees, legs, feet, ex-votos offered by happy mothers etc.” to the Greco-Roman deities.

In fact, Lanciani adds, “it seems that at the entrance of the Fabrician bridge (ponte Quattro Capi, see image below), leading from the Campus Martius to the island [where the temple of the god was located, MoR], there were shops for the sale of ex‑votos of every description …”

Pons Fabricius, called Quattro Capi, the most ancient bridge in Rome. It leads to the Tiber Island where the temple of Aesculapius was located. Click for credits

Anatomical ex votos as offerings to a deity out of gratitude or in hope for healing were common in many ancient peoples. They existed in Mesopotamia, Minoan Crete, ancient Egypt etc. but the most numerous finds were unearthed in Greece and especially in central Italy where most of them date back from the 4th to the 1st century BC.

We also found anatomical ex votos in provinces of the Roman empire. In Gallia now France, for example, they were present in sanctuaries of Dea Sequana, the Celtic goddess of the river Seine.

Robert A. Orsi in his valuable work on NYC  Madonna of Mount Carmel does not make use of the term ‘pagan’ as for the Italian-Americans of the period 1880-1950 [I wonder why. I don't think there is anything shameful about the traces of ancient customs. Quite the contrary]

Paganism is though mentioned when he describes the reaction of the non Italian Catholics to the Italian religiosity. Italians were accused of religious superficiality and of weird, pagan practices.

“In a bitter attack published in The Catholic world in 1888 – Orsi refers at p. 55 -, the Reverend Bernard Lynch excoriated “the peculiar kind of spiritual condition” of the Italian immigrants, fed on pilgrimages, shrines, holy cards, and ‘devotions’ “but lacking any understanding of ‘the great truth of religion’.”

On the following page Orsi mentions “an Italian priest who spent his own life in East Harlem and at Mount Carmel” and who told the author that “he always knew the Irish Clergy were against the Mount Carmel devotions, viewing them as pagan superstitions: “They thought we were Africans, that there was something weird. They didn’t accept it at all …We were always looked upon as though we were doing something wrong…”.

Related posts:

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (1)

Ancient (Roman) Polytheism and the Veneration of Saints (2)

Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Survivals of Roman Religion
From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Read also:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)

See also the survival, in the Italian South, of the Greek notion of the ‘envious’ gods:

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Malaria in Ancient Rome. From the Goddess of the Fever to Our Lady of the Fever

Malaria Plagued Rome and Greece

It seems clear today that malaria heavily plagued classical Rome and Greece (read this article out of many.)

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929,) a key figure in the archaeology and topography of ancient Rome, tells us about malaria in the city in his Ancient Rome in the light of recent discoveries, Houghton, Mifflin and C., Boston and New York, 1888 (chap. III., available on-line at LacusCurtius.)

“With regard to the site of Rome itself – Lanciani observes -, we can hardly believe the words of Cicero (De Represent., 2, 6,) in which he describes it as in regione pestilenti salubris, salubrious in a pestilential region, although the same observation is made by Livy, who considers it almost a prodigious fact that the town should prove healthy in spite of the pestilent and desert region by which it was surrounded (5, 54 – 7, 38.) They evidently refer to the state of things prevailing in their own age.”

The Goddess of the Fever

Many centuries before Cicero’s and Livy’s time, when Rome was at its beginnings, the virulence of malaria was much more severe, as it is attested according to Lanciani “by the large number of altars and shrines dedicated by its early inhabitants to the goddess of the Fever [called Febris, MoR] and other kindred divinities.” It seems that men were “imploring from heaven the help which they failed to secure with their own resources.”

At the time of Varro instead (116 BCE – 27 BCE) “there were not less than three temples of the Fever left standing – Lanciani continues – : one on the Palatine, one in the square of Marius on the Esquiline, one on the upper end of the Vicus Longus, a street which corresponds, within certain limits, to the modern Via Nazionale.”

The reason seems clear to me. From the last Etruscan kings onwards the local marshes had been drained and advances in the sewerage system together with a better hygiene had favoured a healthier sanitary condition.

Nonetheless scholars today think that the months from July to October were unsafe in Rome at whatever epoch; which is confirmed by Roman authors advising the population to leave the city during the hot season – which incidentally only the rich could do, with their wonderful country villas awaiting them during such unhealthy months. The populace instead, stuck in the city, died in the thousands each year because of malaria.

The Goddess Returns as Our Lady of the Fever

A stamp with Our Lady of the Fever, issued by the Vatican on March 12, 2002

When centuries later the Western Roman empire collapsed «Rome, almost annihilated by the inroads of barbarians, found itself in a condition almost worse than that of its early age, powerless to accomplish any work of improvement, and exposed again to the full influence of malaria.»

So «the inhabitants – Lanciani concludes – raised again their eyes towards God, built a chapel near the Vatican in honour of the Madonna della Febbre — our Lady of the Fever — which became one of the most frequented and honoured chapels of mediaeval Rome.»

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From the goddess of the Fever to the Madonna of the Fever.

Another indication of how the transition from Paganism to Christianity occurred in Italy and elsewhere.

Tabernacle by Donatello with at the centre a medieval fresco of the Madonna della Febbre

The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

The Appian Way, the Queen of the Roads. Click for credits and larger picture

Found In The Appian Way

Rome, April 19, 1485. The corpse of a very young woman is found in a sarcophagus along the Appian Way [see image above,] face and body beautiful, teeth white and perfect, hair blonde and arranged on top of her head in the ancient way. The body seems as fresh as that of a girl of fifteen buried a few moments – and not 15 centuries – earlier.

From Antonio di Vaseli’s diary:

“Today the news came into Rome … The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. … her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful … the flesh and the tongue retain their natural colour.”

Messer Daniele da San Sebastiano, in a letter dated 1485:

Marbe statue of a young Roman woman. Click for credits and larger size“In the course of excavations which were made on the Appian Way … three marble tombs have been discovered … One of them contained a young girl, intact in all her members, covered from head to foot with a coating of aromatic paste, one inch thick. On the removal of this coating which we believe to be composed of myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs, a face appeared, so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day. The thick masses of hair … seemed to have been combed then and there … the whole of Rome, men and women, to the number of twenty thousand, visited the marvel ..that day.”

Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929) – the Italian archaeologist from whose work I took the above quotes – collects other testimonies:

“The hair was blonde, and bound by a fillet (infula) woven of gold. The colour of the flesh was absolutely lifelike. The eyes and mouth were partly open … The coffin seems to have been placed near the cistern of the Conservatori palace [on the Capitoline hill, see image below], so as to allow the crowd of visitors to move around and behold the wonder with more ease.”

Palazzo dei Conservatori with its new façade by Michelangelo

Jacob Burckhardt‘s (1818 – 1897) comment on the whole episode is remarkable:

“Among the crowd were many who came to paint her. The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, but the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must of necessity be far more beautiful than anything of modern date.

Yes, touching, and revealing.

She was more beautiful than anything modern because she came directly from ancient Rome.

Sweeping Europe With Greece And Rome

Why classical antiquity, the past, had become so attractive?

A new fervour of rediscovery coming from Italy had begun to sweep Europe: manners, architecture, eloquence, military techniques and the overall thought of Greece and Rome.

Antiquity had exerted occasional influence on Medieval Europe – argues Burckhardt – even beyond Italy. Here and there some elements had been imitated, northern monastic scholarship had absorbed extensive subject matter from the Roman writers.

“But in Italy the revival of antiquity – Burckhardt observes – took a different form from that of the North. The wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it. …

In Italy the sympathies both of the learned and of the people were naturally on the side of antiquity as a whole, which stood to them as a symbol of past greatness. The Latin language too was easy to an Italian …”

A new ideal coming from the past was about to boost Europe forward.

Classicism Towards The Future

The School of Athens by Raphael, Rome, the Vatican. Click for credits

I was hit a few weeks ago by this passage from the on-line Britannica:

“For Renaissance humanists, there was nothing dated or outworn about the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Livy. Compared with the typical productions of medieval Christianity, these pagan works had a fresh, radical, almost avant-garde tonality.

Indeed, recovering the classics was to humanism tantamount to recovering reality….In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.

The point is classical thought was not constrained by preconceived ideas. A new spirit of doubt and inquiry was arising. A new world was dawning.

Ψ

Getting back to that beautiful girl, her golden hair and cap made shiny by the sun, we now better understand the impact, the feelings, the deep inspiration she exerted on the people who flocked to see her.

She was seen as a miracle. She was like a fairy appeared by magic from the great times of ancient Rome.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

References

Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1892.
Accessible on-line in Bill Thayer’s Web Site LacusCurtius, a marvellous resource on Roman Antiquity. Quotes from here.

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878.
Available as Gutenberg text. Quote from here.

Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. “Humanism.”  Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Mar. 2009

Note on a Calabrian Greek

There is some evidence that the Italian Renaissance was not only imitation of antiquity, but its partial resurrection. We’ll just say here that Italy had a direct, ethnic and linguistic, connection not only with the Romans but also with the Greeks. Greek dialects were spoken in Southern Italy until a few years ago. They almost disappeared during Fascism who discouraged linguistic minorities.

[See our two posts on the Grikos (1 & 2), South Italians descending from the Greeks of Magna Graecia and Byzantium]

Interesting for our writing is Barlaam the Calabrian (ca. 1290 – 1348), an Italian Greek “by ethnic descent and language.” Great scholar “he was the instructor of both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio [the first humanists], and their writings owe much to him.” (Wikipedia)

He helped Boccaccio to translate Homer into Latin thus preparing the groundwork for Renaissance.

Decline of the American Roman Empire

Posted on
Louvre, Paris, photo by Guillaume Blanchard

Osiris, Isis and Horus. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard

I didn’t want to talk about politics too much in this blog, desiring rather to deal with our Western (Mediterranean, Roman) roots, with ancient habits still surviving today, with Rome past and present, philosophy, history, arts etc.

Three recent discussions though brought me into global politics again:

  1. One occurred in the Canadian Commentator’s blog, also indicated by Theresa from Arkansas in her blog and dealing with the possible decline of the American Empire.
  2. Another discussion took place here in my blog and dealt with a tighter European unification (which I see as a good way of fighting against Europe’s decline): a really LONG discussion among Alex and Andy (two nice Englishmen living in Milan, Italy) and Man of Roma.
  3. Finally, a third discussion among Rob and MoR (in his and in MoR’s blog, 1 & 2) and Indian Ashish and Falcon. It dealt with this void here in the West which we perceive as far as morals and values, plus a lot of other stuff.

Ψ

Ok. What these three discussion had in common? Well, such minutia as the possible decline of the West, also vis-à-vis new emerging countries. I was also being asked by both Theresa and the Commentator to try a comparison between the Roman Empire and the Empire of the United States.

Ok, I’ll try, but:

  1. Allow me to expand it to the entire West (America + Europe) instead of dealing with US decline only and …
  2. allow me to restrict it to the possible effects such Western decline is having on culture, ideas and beliefs of the people involved.

Will this mean I’ll get back to my blog’s track? I do not know, really, but here we are, here is global politics again (though my own way) ;-)

Spiritual Désarroi

The heat is getting so appalling in here that thoughts become weird and erratic. I’m typing with sticky fingers, ants invading my human space in search of cooler air. Wondering if all this can be an extra motive why I accepted this topic again and why I feel like musing on ideas of decline…

Well, actually what we see here in Europe and America are all these people turning towards oriental religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, or doctrines like Scientology, or even Neo-pagan movements growing in Anglo-Saxon countries and probably originating from a disappointment towards Christianity and its different varieties (above, an image of the Neopagan Goddess and the moon).

A woman, a friend of mine, is starting to adore some crazy coloured stones she always brings along wherever she goes. Amazing, no doubt. And what about this person very close to me who turned to Sathya SaiBaba, the Hindu saint, long ago? Or this relative of mine who, once relocated in France, embraced the Muslim religion? (my mother never got over it, I’ll confess).

Many Muslims, vis-à-vis such Western spiritual crisis (and relativism), react in different ways, from a total acceptance of consumer society values up to forms of moral rejection or even active reaction (which unfortunately also lead to terrorism). But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the point.

As the Roman Empire. An Analogy

Referring to Western contemporary societies, numerous commentators and artists have talked of a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire type of situation. It is an interesting analogy, since in those old days the official Roman religion wasn’t so attractive any more and innumerable oriental cults were spreading among the different classes of the Roman society.

Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani ( 1846 – 1929 ) for example unearthed the remains of the Temple of Isis in Rome, who was imported by the Romans from Egypt and set on the banks of the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. We have also mentioned in a previous post how Egyptian rites and culture fascinated the Romans at the times of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (and in other times).


(Ants are now walking on my keyboard. I HAVE to make a pause and gently push them away….)

ψ

Since among all those foreign cults the final winner was the Christian sect, would it be totally absurd to wonder if once again there will be a winner? We mean – and it might be the heat – is it possible that again some faith (new or old) could profit from today’s Western void (which seems to affect Europe much more than America)? Italian Oriana Fallaci feared Islam would be the winning belief about to conquer Europe…. Well, we do hope that no Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) will prevail, for a number of reasons, some of which we can mention in the next post …

(ants and heat allowing… I need to buy AC, good also for mosquitoes, no doubt about it)

A fascinating depiction of Western void is offered by the acclaimed movies Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) and Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) by the outstanding French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, both illustrating in an eloquent way this emptiness affecting at least two generations.

by Denys Arcand

(to be continued tomorrow; we will associate this topic with Buddhism, science and the Dalai Lama. See you tomorrow then.)

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