Spirituality

Contemplation: Seeking His Will Together

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“Life,” the old saying goes, “is what happens to us while we are making other plans.” There is a deeper truth captured in this witticism, one that St. Vincent often repeated. It is not that we should make no plans and simply wait for things to happen, but rather, that we should take time not merely to examine what we have accomplished, but to examine what we can learn; in short, to discern God’s will from the people and events in our lives, especially in our Vincentian service.

It is often observed that we can learn more from failure than from success, or as Vincent put it, “the Will of God cannot be made known to us more clearly in events than when they happen without our intervention or in a way other than we requested.” [CCD V:459] When our plans and actions are made with our best effort to do God’s will as we understand it, the results of those plans and actions will either be in accordance with His will, or can give us new insight into His will. Our failures also, then, remind us that any success we experience is not ours but God’s. We may “have the joy of triumph,” Bl. Frédéric explained, “Providence will have the glory.” [Baunard, 209] Indeed, this is the very definition of our virtue of humility! [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1]

Our true measure of success, then, can never be limited to achieving our own goals, because success belongs to God, who does not need us to write His résumé. Rather, we should first examine whether we entrusted our works to the Lord, conformed to His will, glorified Him, and grew closer to Him. While our duty to accountability requires us to properly account for our actions, our funds, and other details of our work, the more important accounting, the core of our spiritual growth in this community of faith, comes through deep reflection upon our experiences, first individually, and then with our Conferences.

Certainly, this practice of apostolic reflection should always follow our Home Visits, beginning with the discussion between the two visitors, and continuing through prayer, and perhaps journaling. We continue by sharing our reflection with other Conference members at our regular meetings. They, in turn, will have a glimpse of the God who was present in our neighbor, which will give them new insights they reflect back to us. This won’t yield the definitive “answer” but will draw us closer to each other and to Christ.

In a similar way, it is important for us to reflect on all of our plans and all of their results — food pantries and special works, systemic change initiatives, advocacy — not in order to tally success on our own terms, but to discern whether we are serving God first, and how we can do that better, always asking, “Where was God present? Did we see Christ’s face? What is He telling us now?” In this way, we all grow together in holiness by growing closer to Christ and to each other. This, not “business,” is the reason we have Conference meetings, and the reason we have them often. [Rule, Part I, 3.3.1]

Contemplate

Do I take time to discern God’s will in both success and failure? Do I share this with my Conference?

Recommended Reading

A Heart on Fire: Apostolic Reflection with Rosalie Rendu

Contemplation: Old and Ever New

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With the rapid growth of the Society within its first two years, there arose a debate as to whether the first Conference, now grown quite large, ought to split in two. “Do you not think that our charitable society itself ought to make changes in order to survive,” asked Blessed Frédéric, noting that the change was necessary not to become something different, but to maintain our special character as a small group of friends acting and praying together. [85, to Bailly, 1834] To continue, then, it could no longer be a single conference, but would instead become many conferences.

In our Conferences, Frédéric later observed, “there is change as in all human things.” When the loss of members causes “some weakness … the cleared ranks are soon filled with newcomers … whose more ardent zeal, new ideas, and original insights prevent routine from setting in and the primitive fervor dying.” [141, to Ballofet, 1837] This is why we continue to welcome “all those who seek to live their faith loving and committing themselves to their neighbor in need.” [Rule, Part I, 3.1]

Founded in a time and place where the Church was far weaker, and poverty far greater than today, the Society had as its primary purpose the renewal of the faith — first among the members, then the poor, and finally throughout society. Challenged to show the good of the Church by those who believed that “modern” systems of philanthropy could do greater good by merely distributing bread, our founders recognized that there is no greater good than to do as our Savior did: to go to the poor, to encounter Jesus where he told us He would be, and to share His hope and His love through our person to person service.

Throughout our 191 years, the Society has adapted to many changes in the world around us. We especially try always to recognize and understand new forms of poverty so that we can truly “strive to seek out and find those in need and the forgotten, the victims of exclusion or adversity.” [Rule, Part I, 1.5] Time and again, we find that adaptations are necessary not to change who we are, but to preserve our essence; to renew, not to replace the vision of Blessed Frédéric and his six friends.

As Ozanam biographer Msgr. Louis Baunard explained, the Society “is not old, if you mean by that term superannuated, withered; but it is old, meaning thereby experienced, powerful; old and ever new; as with all things immortal and divine. It is, I admit, not modern, in the sense that a thing is the fashion for a particular time, or in a particular country. But it is, and continues to be, young with eternal youth, with the youth of Charity that knows not decay.” [Baunard, 416]

Contemplate

Do I take the time to recommit myself to growing in holiness through service to Christ’s poor?

Recommended Reading

Antoine-Frédéric Ozanam

Contemplation: A Friend of a Friend

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Have you ever had a friend with very different interests than your own? Maybe he was a big baseball fan, and you just didn’t follow that sport, or he had a great appreciation for art, but you couldn’t stand museums. How did that affect your friendship? Often, over time, we find that our own interests start to converge with those of our friends; we begin to appreciate the art or the sport or the hobby that animates our friends. We go to a ball game, or watch it on TV, and even begin to cheer for our friend’s team. And why wouldn’t we? We are interested because they are interested. It’s one of the ways we naturally show our friendship and our love.

There is, Our Savior tells us, no greater love than to lay down one’s life for his friends. As a result, St. Vincent asks, “Can we have a better friend than God?” And if He is our friend, “Must we not love all that He loves and, for love of Him, consider our neighbor as our friend!” [CCD XI:39]

It turns out that God, our best friend, has a more fanatical love for the neighbor than any sports fan has for his favorite team. As St. Catherine of Siena put it, God is pazzo d’amore, ebro d’amore (crazy in love, drunk with love) for each and every one of us! If we can watch the game with our friend, we can love the neighbor for our God — it should be completely natural for us to do so. This is exactly what the words of our catechism mean when they call us to love God above all things for His own sake, and the neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. St. John even went so far as to say that “whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen”.

We may begin our service solely to fulfill our duty to Christ’s instruction, but if we love God, if we truly seek to make His will our own, we will find that we cannot help but begin to share His passions. God loves the neighbor; He is rooting for the neighbor; He is weeping for the neighbor. As His beloved friends, how can we not devote ourselves just as passionately to that same neighbor?

We see then, that it is our friendship with God that leads us to friendship with the neighbor; to what the Rule calls a “relationship based on trust and friendship”. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Yet true friendships are mutual, and so, as Frédéric put it, the neighbor “whom you love loves you in return.” [O’Meara, 177] What is our passion that the neighbor might begin to share?

We often say that we evangelize through our actions, that we show the beauty of our faith through our example. If this truly is so, then our love for God should be as obvious as our friend’s team jersey on game day. In our manner and in our actions, the love of God and for God should illuminate every home visit, shining forth in our gentleness, simplicity, and humble service. Through us, God arrives as a friend of a friend, and we welcome each neighbor into our circle of friends.

Contemplate

Does my friendship invite the neighbor to friendship with God?

Recommended Reading

Turn Everything to Love

Contemplation: Guideposts on the Journey

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To boast about our accomplishments in works of charity brings to mind a routine by the comedian Chris Rock, in which he jokes about people who brag when they do what they are supposed to do. (“I graduated high school!” “You’re supposed to graduate high school!”, etc.) We are Christians — we’re supposed to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, welcome the stranger; to seek and to serve Christ in the poor, just as he said we should.

Humility should remind us that no matter how great the material result of our works may appear, it is not our accomplishment anyway, for “all that God gives us is for others … we can achieve nothing of eternal value without His grace.” [Rule, Part I, 2.5.1] St. Vincent de Paul, whose works we know truly changed the world, often explained that they were not his doing, but God’s. “Worldly respect,” Frédéric warned, is the “greatest danger” to the integrity of our work. [Baunard, 297]

We undertake these works for one primary purpose: in order to “to journey together towards holiness.” [Rule, Part I, 2.2] This journey doesn’t happen by itself; we must take each step intentionally. We must strive consciously to connect our works to our growth; to discern in the people and experiences of our Vincentian vocation the face of Christ, the voice of the Holy Spirit, and the will of God in our lives.

We do this first by reflecting silently and prayerfully after each home visit, perhaps writing down in a journal the feelings and thoughts it brought to our mind and to our heart. We also take time to “re-read” experiences long past; like coming to the end of a mystery novel, and surprised by the ending, turning back to an early chapter where we find that the clues were there all along, we just didn’t see them before. In a similar way, we now see past experiences with new eyes, transformed by more recent experiences. God remains present to us in our memories, still speaking the word He meant for us to hear; ready for us to hear it and to understand it whenever we are ready.

Growing together in holiness also necessitates that we share our experiences and our insights with each other. We are created as social beings, meant to live in community, and our Conferences are our communities of faith. This is why our Rule calls us to spiritual reflection at every Conference meeting, where “members are always invited to comment as a means of sharing their faith”. [Rule, Part III, St. 7]  As the Catechism explains, it is “through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” [CCC, 1879]

Sharing our faith, our insights, and our growth makes yours a part of mine, and mine a part of yours. In this way, we are privileged to act as guideposts for each other on our shared journey towards holiness.

Contemplate

Do I take the time to pray, reflect, and share the ways that I have grown spiritually through my service?

Recommended Reading

The Spirituality of the Home Visit – don’t just read it, use it!

Contemplation: Not to Be Forgotten

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There are thousands of agencies, organizations, and individuals who offer assistance to the poor. In our Conferences we often get to know them and refer neighbors to them when it seems they may be better able to provide for the needs we’ve encountered. We live in a very wealthy nation, filled with generous people. What is it then, that sets the Society apart? What do we bring to the neighbor?

In Frédéric’s time, also, there were other organizations, many of them better funded than the fledgling Society. Yet, he observed, “help is generally dispensed with such culpable indifference.” [1457, Report, 1834] Now, as in Frédéric’s time, our primary purpose in visiting the neighbor is not merely to bring them material assistance. Anybody can do that, and if we measured success in bread alone, it could probably be delivered more efficiently by Amazon, but if we believe as we say, that the hungry one is Christ, surely we are called to do more than toss a loaf of bread on His porch.

In a beloved scene from the 1947 movie Monsieur Vincent, the saint explains that “Only because of your love, and your love only, will the poor forgive you for the bread you’re giving them.” More important than what we give is the manner in which we give it – not carefully measured out from our treasuries, but poured out from our hearts. For Frédéric, this devotion is what prevented Conferences from “degenerating to welfare bureaus.” [182, to Lallier, 1838] The assistance we offer is guided by “the inspirations of the heart rather than the calculations of the mind.” [82, to Curnier, 1834]

And after all, a loaf of bread or an electric bill are only temporary comforts; bringing more of them doesn’t really make them less so. As Frédéric observed, “a donation of bread and money is very meager compared to the support our religion requires us to bring for the comfort of sick souls.” [1457, Report, 1834] As our Rule still reminds us, “Vincentians should never forget that giving love, talents, and time is more important than giving money.” [Rule, Part I, 3.14]

We are called to serve in hope; not the hope of a paid bill, a full belly, or a word of practical advice. All those things, as important as they may be in the moment, will pass. We are called to bring with us what Pope Benedict XVI called the “great hope that cannot be destroyed.” [Spe Salvi, 35]

The poet Maya Angelou once said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So it is with the neighbors we serve. They will forget the groceries or the light bill; those things anybody can bring. But through our visit, they will feel no longer ashamed, no longer forgotten, no longer alone. They will feel loved — by us, and by the God who sent us.

Contemplate

Do I, in my actions and my manner, always reassure the neighbor of God’s love?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: Payment for Tears of Joy

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“Help …becomes honorable,” Bl. Frédéric taught, “when it may become mutual.” [O’Meara, 177] It is this teaching that inspires our Rule’s call for Vincentians to “form relationships based on trust and friendship” with the neighbor. [Rule, Part I, 1.9] Because after all, what is friendship if it is not mutual?

Asking for help can be humiliating. In some places, beggars on the street prostrate themselves, hiding their faces as if ashamed, literally with hats in hand to ask for pocket change from passersby. In the impersonal offices of many agencies, people in need often interact primarily with impersonal clipboards and application forms – forms that can be more complicated than a loan application. And unlike a loan, the assistance they receive for food, medicine, housing, and other needs is not something they will ever be expected to pay back. Yet, it is natural to feel an obligation to repay gifts, and when we can’t, to feel emptied in spirit while being replenished materially.

In Frédéric’s time, there were even critics who believed that charitable works wrongly obligated the poor. To them, Frédéric replied that you could only believe assistance imposes a one-way obligation if “you have never experienced the obligation it confers on him who gives.” Those who visit the poor, he explained, “know that in accepting bread from their hand, as he takes the light from God, the poor man honors them; they know that the theatre and every other place of amusement can be paid for, but that nothing in this world can pay for two tears of joy in the eyes of a poor mother, nor the grasp of an honest man’s hand when one has enabled him to wait till he gets work.” [O’Meara, 177-178]

Not only is the obligation mutual, so are the gifts. This is natural among friends. That’s the reason why, when we need help with something – especially something difficult, or that we’d rather not confide in a stranger — we ask a friend. A friend won’t judge us for the mistake we made that led to our predicament. A friend won’t abandon us. A friend won’t embarrass us. A friend won’t ask us to repay the favor.

In a way, asking for help is proof of friendship in itself. Asking somebody to be Best Man or Maid of Honor at a wedding is asking for a very great commitment of time, effort, and sometimes money, yet no friend considers this request an imposition. Rather, it is an honor, and a demonstration of trust.

In this sense, then, it is the neighbor who calls us for help who takes the first step in establishing this friendship. They trust us with their problems and their secrets. When we respond as friends, for love alone, we earn their trust. When we offer not only material assistance, but our time and ourselves, we earn their friendship. In our mutual giving and receiving, in both seeing Christ and in imitating Him, perhaps both we and the neighbor may exclaim, “Oh, what a friend we have in Jesus!”

Contemplate

Do I thank God in my prayers for the friends I have made on my Home Visits?

Recommended Reading

Apostle in a Top Hat

Contemplation: Fulfilling His Promise

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A young Vincentian, complaining about Conference meetings, noted that the members seemed discouraged, that they were just doing good works “by habit”, and that the meeting “is nearly always concerned with business, it seems long.” It’s no wonder members with this experience question the Rule’s requirement that we meet twice a month. [Rule, Part I, 3.3.1] Who would want to be subjected to that twice a month? Yet the International Council General’s commentary makes clear that twice a month is only a minimum — Conferences are expected to meet every week “to talk about all the issues — concerning the poor, and concerning God.[Rule and Commentary]

It would seem they are talking about two very different sorts of meetings. Indeed, that young Vincentian didn’t seem to be attending Conference meetings whose purpose, as the Manual tells us, is “less to conduct business than to celebrate and deepen its unity for essentially spiritual reasons.” [Manual, 18] And it seems unlikely that he was complaining about the meetings the Rule describes as being “held in a spirit of fraternity, simplicity and Christian joy.” [Rule, Part I, 3.4]

It’s easy to fall into habits formed in business, or other organizations, in which meetings become a place, as the old joke goes, “where minutes are kept, and hours are wasted.” Conference meetings in the Society are meant to be a sacred place where members pray, reflect on their service and their faith, and grow in friendship and holiness together, not in isolation. We are not a service delivery organization, and we never have been. We serve for love alone. Our primary purpose is our growth in holiness, and as Frédéric explained, “fidelity to meetings, and union of intention and prayer are indispensable to this end”. [182, to Lallier, 1838]

When our meetings become too business-focused, it shouldn’t be a cause for discouragement, but a cause to rededicate our meetings to prayer and friendship. After all, that young, complaining Vincentian was Frédéric Ozanam, and he was writing about the very first Conference less than two years after it was formed. [90, to Curnier, 1835] Shortly after that letter, the first Rule was written – the Rule that reminds us still that “members meet as brothers and sisters with Christ in the midst of them, in Conferences that are genuine communities of faith and love, of prayer and action.” [Rule, Part I, 3.3]

The spiritual reflection is not merely a checkbox on the agenda. It is the main reason we meet, and the time we devote to it should reflect that. When we spend our time together in this way, we will find, as Frédéric soon did, that “by seeing each other more often, we love one another all the more; seeing even more of us gathered together in the name of Him who promised to be among those who gather in his name, one feels all the more keenly that his promise is fulfilled.” [1372, to the General Assembly, 1838]

Contemplate

Do I invite Christ to my Conference meetings, reflecting with my friends on our service in His name?

Recommended Reading

The Manual – especially “Conference Meetings” p. 18 – 19

Contemplation: A Perpetual Expression

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One of our essential elements is spirituality, but what is spirituality? How do we express it? How do we live it? What is its goal? Given that the spiritual growth of members also is the primary purpose of the Society, we probably ought to have some idea how to answer these questions.

To begin with the end in mind, the purpose, the ultimate goal of our spirituality, is as Jesus told us: to “be perfect, just as Your heavenly Father is perfect.” This is the universal calling of all God’s people. He calls us to Himself. He sent us His Son to share in our humanity so that we might share in His divinity. Jesus, the Son of Man, is our role model for perfection. He is the union of the human and the divine, not half of each, but fully both. In a similar way, we are created not as bodies with spirits, nor spirits with bodies. We are unitary, body and spirit together. [GS, 14] It is the spiritual dimension of our nature that sets us apart from His other creatures, and that enables us to glimpse the transcendent.

Yet, while each of us is made in God’s image, at the same time each of us is “unique and unrepeatable.” [CSDC, 131] As a consequence, each person’s spirituality, each person’s pathway of spiritual growth, also is unique. Just as we are given different gifts, so we are called to use them in different ways in order to fulfill God’s will for each of us — and for all of us. We are all parts of one body, sharing God’s gifts with one another.

Spirituality cannot limit itself to a simple set of practices. As important as it is to attend Mass, pray the rosary, and study Holy Scripture, true spirituality calls us to much more. Spirituality is our entire manner of living our faith; “not a part of life, but the whole of life,” as Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us. [Ecclesia in America, 29]

As Vincentians, we walk together along a very special pathway towards holiness, towards the perfection to which Christ calls us. We live our faith in imitation of Christ, and also in imitation of our patron, Saint Vincent de Paul, who, Frédéric teaches, “is a model one must strive to imitate, as he himself imitated the model of Jesus Christ. He is a life to be carried on, a heart in which one’s own heart is enkindled, an intelligence from which light should be sought; he is a model on earth and a protector in heaven.” [175, to Lallier, 1838]

We devote ourselves, in our little Society, to the spiritual practices modeled for us by Saint Vincent and all the saints and blessed of the Vincentian Family, who found holiness by seeing and serving Christ in the poor, by loving God with the strength of their arms, and by trusting fully in Divine Providence in their lives. And if these are our beliefs, as Christians, as Catholics, and as Vincentians, “let us,” as Frédéric said, “take them seriously, that our lives may be their perpetual expression.” [53, to Falconnet, 1832]

Contemplate

How can I better live my beliefs at work, at home, with neighbors, friends…everywhere?

Recommended Reading

A Heart with Much Love to Give

Contemplation: Answering God’s Call

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Central to the spirituality of St. Vincent de Paul is the importance of fulfilling God’s will. Even more than that, he teaches, we must unite our will with His. In order to fulfill God’s will, to make it our own, we must first discern His will, we must hear His calling for our lives.

From the Latin vocare, “to call,” we have our English word “vocation.” God’s calling, then, is our vocation. The Catechism teaches us that all people “are called to the same end: God himself.” [CCC, 1878] Each of us also has personal vocations specific to our particular gifts and talents. [CL, 49] Whether it is the vocation to marriage, to the ordained priesthood, or to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, our personal calling is meant to help us answer the universal vocation to holiness. But to answer God’s call, we must hear it.

In founding the Society, Blessed Frédéric clearly heard God’s call, sharing with his friends that “we must do as Our Lord Jesus Christ did when preaching the Gospel. Let us go to the poor.” [Baunard, 65] In this, he anticipated Pope Saint John Paul II’s teaching that all the lay faithful are called to share in Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king. [CL, 14]

When we gather together, especially when meeting fellow Vincentians for the first time, we often exchange stories of how we came to join the Society. Those stories usually begin with “I wanted…” or “I thought…” Somehow, many of us managed to answer before truly understanding God had called us.

God speaks to us through the events and people we encounter in our lives, and while we do not always hear His call at the moment it happens, we can always “re-read” our lives, just as we can re-read books in order to find things that we either missed, or were not prepared to comprehend the first time. We do this individually, and we do this together through spiritual reflections, especially apostolic reflection. God speaks to us in His own time. His call awaits our readiness to hear it and to answer.

Alongside the importance of doing God’s will is St. Vincent’s understanding that in the poor we serve the person of Jesus Christ. The neighbor is God to us, and if we see His face in them, we also hear His voice. This is our vocation, this is our calling, and if we are blessed today to hear His voice on our Conference helpline, let us harden not our hearts.

Contemplate

How often do I pause to discern God’s will for me and God’s call to me?

Recommended Reading

Faces of Holiness

Contemplation: To Know Fully

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In his 1978 book, God and the Astronomers, astrophysicist Robert Jastrow concludes that the astronomers, following science alone to scale the mountain of ignorance, would, when reaching the truth at its peak, be “greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” This metaphor captures a truth at the heart of our vocation, since the founders were challenged by those who scoffed at the church’s role in the “modern world.”  Then, as now, the truth we serve is much deeper and more permanent than the temporary circumstances of the times in which we live.

In Frédéric’s time, many philanthropic associations formed whose goal was to get material resources out to as many people as possible, using every modern efficiency of the day. As Frédéric observed, after “only a year in existence … they already have large volumes of resumés.” [Letter 90, to Curnier, 1835] He went on to contrast those works with what he’d been challenged to show: the true good of the church.

The Society’s purpose is not service delivery, but charity — love. Our success is not measured by the quantity of dollars or food we may distribute, but by the quality of the relationships we form. In the recent pandemic, we were forced to make do with alternate forms of contact, rather than home visits. While being grateful for the ability to continue to serve, we quickly saw they were only “half a loaf.”

In 1834, Blessed Frédéric explained that “at-home assistance is one of the best rendered charities and one that produces the best results”, especially, he continued, “in these times when help is generally dispensed with such culpable indifference.” [Doc. 1457, report on works, 1834] As Pope Francis explains, we set aside our own wishes and desires in serving the vulnerable. “Service always looks to their faces, touches their flesh, senses their closeness and even, in some cases, ‘suffers’ that closeness and tries to help them. Service is never ideological, for we do not serve ideas, we serve people.” [Fratelli Tutti, 115]

It’s a well-known axiom that most human communications are non-verbal. We pick up cues such as social context and body language from other people even when we are not aware of them consciously. There really is no substitute. The Apostle Paul even explains arriving at holiness and understanding by contrasting an image in a mirror with seeing face to face, when he will “know fully, as I am fully known.”

Recent psychological research has compared the effects of remote and face-to-face communication. Their conclusion has been that relationships and communication are not only better formed face to face (“fully known” you might say), but that face-to-face meeting is even associated with better mental health. If only today’s researchers had consulted Frédéric Ozanam first. Not to worry – when they reach the mountaintop, he will be waiting for them there…in person.

Contemplate

Do I truly stop to see and to know the neighbor in front of me?

Recommended Reading

Mystic of Charity, especially “Home Visits in the Vincentian Tradition

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