Cross, Exsultet, and the Behoveliness of Sin

Dame Julian of Norwich presents us with antinomies which most of us (excepting hard-core Calvinists and traditional Thomists) would dismiss as metaphysical contradictions and moral nonsense:

  • In his infinite power, God might have created a world in which all human beings, without exception, freely live in perfect love—yet he did not.
  • In his transcendent agency, God causes all happenings, including the free actions of rational beings, including evil actions—yet he does not and cannot do evil.

We deem them contradictions because, we reason, God cannot guarantee the good conduct of libertarianly free rational agents. We deem them nonsense because were it possible for God to have created a world populated by free rational agents and yet did not, then he would not be supremely good, which the gospel tells us that he is. Julian’s understanding of divine providence and agency thus appears to violate the autonomy of human beings, reducing them to automatons and thereby rendering the Creator responsible for the terrible evils of the world.

But Julian’s antinomic theologizing gets even worse!  In chapter 27 of the Showings she tells how she worried and grieved over the presence of sin in the world the good God had made. Jesus then spoke to her these famous words: “Sinne is behovely, but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shalle be wele.” “Behovely”—what a lovely sounding word (“You look behovely this evening, my dear”), but what does it signify? Watson and Jenkins tell us that the word means “necessary or fitting, also good or opportune” (The Writings of Julian of Norwich, p. 208). Each is possible, yet how could Julian intend any of them? Not only is evil unnecessary to human flourishing in Christ, but it subverts human flourishing. We are created for the Good, not for its opposite. Thus Julian can declare that “sinne is worse, viler, and painfuller than hell without ony liknesse, for it is contrarious to our fair kinde [nature]. For as sothly as sinne is unclene, as sothly sinne is unkinde [unnatural, perverse] and thus an horrible thing to see to the loving soule that whole be alle fair and shining in the sight of God, as kind and grace techeth” (LT 63). Hence it is unlikely that Julian intends a strong sense of “necessary,” but a weaker sense is possible. Watson and Jenkins suggest that in Christ’s statement of the behoveliness of sin we hear echoes of the Exsultet, sung every year at the Paschal Vigil:

O certe necessarium Adae peccatum, quod Christi morte deletum est! O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem!

O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out! O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!

From the tragedy of the fall of man God has miraculously brought forth a good surpassing all expectation and necessity. The eternal Logos has become Man, sin has been healed, death has been conquered, human nature has been elevated into the trinitarian life of the Godhead. The sin of Adam has thus become boon and blessing—not in itself but as the occasion and cause of Pascha. The fall was certainly not necessary—it need not have been and should not have been—yet in light of the atonement won by Christ on the Cross, we acclaim it a behovely and happy fault. Its necessity, as Denys Turner suggests, is narratival, not logical or metaphysical:

If, as Julian believes, sin can be seen to be behovely, then this can only one because there is a narrative of everything whatever, because the sum total of things adds up to a story, to just this story of this sequence of events, including those sins. For there is just one sum total of events that is human history, and what is behovely is what fits within the particular narrative of just this world. We could say that the world we inhabit, and the history we have made, are, in respect of this character of singularity, very much like a work of art—unique; and that Julian’s notion of what “fits” is, in consequence, more of an aesthetic kind than a logical one. … Nor is this narratival way of “making sense” of what follows anything like the way in which the conclusion of an entailment is made sense of by the premises that entail it; again, it is more like the right way of something happens in a story. For even if everything in a narrative could have, logically, been otherwise, when we say of what does happen that its happening was behovely, it is because it was just right that it should happen so, and not otherwise, as if with a kind of narratival necessity. It fits. There is a plot to it. It’s contingency is not that of the arbitrary. It just “so happens”—it is not necessary. But also, it’s happening is “just so”—it is not contingent. In short it is conveniens, behovely. (Julian of Norwich, Theologian, pp. 43-44)

Sin is befitting, as it discloses the dramatic befittingness of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, just as the atoning work of Christ unveils the dramatic necessity of the unnecessary sin of Adam. The behoveliness works both ways.

In chapter 51 Julian shares a simple parable given to her by Christ, the Lord and the Servant. The lord sits in peace and tranquility; the servant stands before his lord, ready to do his will. The lord sends him on a mission, and the servant joyously runs to accomplish it but falls into a dell. He is severely wounded and unable to rescue himself. He is not even able to “turne his face to loke uppe on his loving lorde, which was to him full nere, in whom is full comfort.” Christ then gives Julian to understand that the lord of the parable is God and the servant is Adam:

The lorde that sat solemply in rest and in peas, I understonde that he is God. The servant that stode before him, I understode that he was shewed for Adam: that is to sey, one man was shewed that time, and his falling, to make thereby to be understonde how God beholdeth alle manne and his falling. For in the sighte of God alle man is one man, and one man is alle man. This man was hurte in his mighte and made fulle febil, and he was stoned in his understanding, for he was turned fro the beholding of his lorde. But his wille was kepte hole in God’s sight. For his wille I saw oure lorde commende and aprove, but himselfe was letted and blinded of the knowing of this will. And this is to him gret sorow and grevous disses, for neither he seeth clerly his loving lorde, which is to him full meke and milde, nor he seeth truly what himselfe is in the sight of his loving lord. And wele I wot, when theyse two be wisely and truly seen, we shall get rest and peas: here in party, and the fulhede in the blisse in heven, by his plentuous grace. (LT 51)

I understood that the lord who sat in state in rest and peace is God. I understood that the servant who stood before him was shown for Adam, that is to say, one man was shown at that time and his fall, so as to make it understood how God regards all men and their falling. For in the sight of God all men are one man, and one man is all men. This man was injured in his powers and made most feeble, and in his understanding he was amazed, because he was diverted from looking on his lord, but his will was preserved in God’s sight. I saw the lord commend and approve him for his will, but he himself was blinded and hindered from knowing this will. And this is a great sorrow and cruel suffering to him, for he neither sees clearly his loving lord, who is so meek and mild to him, nor does he truly see what he himself is in the sight of his loving lord. And I know well that when these two things are wisely and truly seen, we shall gain rest and peace, here in part and the fulness in the bliss of heaven, by God’s plentiful grace. (Showings)

The story of the sin of Adam is thus revealed to be the story of humanity’s alienation from God. We each are Adam, trapped in blindness and impotence. But Julian wonders where the servant came from, why he is included in the story, for God is happy and complete in his divine aseity and does not need anyone to serve him. In response Christ provides the following illumination:

In the servant is comprehended the seconde person of the trinite, and in the servant is comprehended Adam: that is to sey, all men. And therefore whan I sey “the sonne,” it meneth the godhed, which is even with the fader; and when I sey “the servant,” it meneth Christes manhode, which is rightful Adam. By the nerehed of the servant is understand the sonne, and by the stonding on the left side is understond Adam. The lorde is God the father; the servant is the sonne Jesu Crist; the holy gost is the even love which is in them both. When Adam felle, Godes sonne fell. For the rightful oning which was made in heven, Goddes sonne might not be seperath from Adam, for by Adam I understond alle man. Adam fell fro life to deth: into the slade of this wretched worlde, and after that into hell. Goddes son fell with Adam into the slade of the maidens wombe, which was the fairest doughter of Adam—and that for to excuse Adam from blame in heven and in erth—and mightely he feched him out of hell.

By the wisdom and goodnesse that was in the servant is understond Goddes son. By the pore clothing as a laborer, stonding nere the left side, is understonde the manhode and Adam, with alle the mischefe and febilnesse that foloweth. For in alle this, oure good lorde shewed his owne son and Adam but one man. The vertu and the goodnesse that we have is of Jesu Crist, the febilnesse and blindnesse that we have is of Adam: which two were shewed in the servant. And thus hath oure good lorde Jhesu taken upon him all oure blame, and therfore oure fader may nor will no more blame assigne to us than to his owne derwurthy son, Jhesu Crist.

Thus was he the servant, before his coming into erth, stonding redy before the father in purpos, till what time he wolde sende him to do the wurshipful deede by which mankinde was brought again into heven. That is to sey, notwithstonding that he is God, even with the fader as anenst the godhede, but in his forseeing purpos–that he woulde be man to save man in fulfilling of the will of his fader–so he stode before his fader as a servant, wilfully taking upon him alle oure charge. And then he sterte full redely at the faders will, and anon he fell full lowe in the maidens wombe, having no regarded to himself ne to his harde paines. (LT 51)

In the servant is comprehended the second person of the Trinity, and in the servant is comprehended Adam, that is to say all men. And therefore when I say ‘the Son’, that means the divinity which is equal to the Father, and when I say ‘the servant’, that means Christ’s humanity, which is the true Adam. By the closeness of the servant is understood Son, and by his standing to the left is understood Adam. The lord is God the Father, the servant is the son, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is the equal love which is in them both. When Adam fell, God’s Son fell; because of the true union which was made in heaven, God’s Son could not be separated from Adam, for by Adam I understand all mankind. Adam fell from life to death, into the valley of this wretched world, and after that into hell. God’s Son fell with Adam, into the valley of the womb of the maiden who was the fairest daughter of Adam, and that was to excuse Adam from blame in heaven and on earth; and powerfully he brought him out of hell.

By the wisdom and the goodness which were in the servant is understood God’s Son, by the poor labourer’s clothing and the standing close by on the left is understood Adam’s humanity with all the harm and weakness which follow. For in this our good Lord showed his own Son and Adam as only one man. The strength and the goodness that we have is from Jesus Christ, the weakness and blindness that we have is from Adam, which two were shown in the servant. And so our good Lord Jesus taken upon him all our blame; and therefore our Father may not, does not wish to assign more blame to us than to his own beloved Son Jesus Christ. 

So he was the servant before he came on earth, standing ready in purpose before the Father until the time when he would send him to do the glorious deed by which mankind was brought back to heaven. That is to say, even though he is God, equal with the Father as regards his divinity, but with his prescient purpose that he would become man to save mankind in fulfillment of the will of his Father, so he stood before his Father as a servant, willingly taking upon him all our charge. And then he rushed off very readily at the Father’s bidding, and soon he fell very low into the maiden’s womb, having no regard for himself or for his cruel pains.

Julian pulls together into dramatic unity the fall of Adam and the atoning mission of the divine Son. Adam = Humanity = Christ. One might be tempted to think of Adam’s sin as temporally triggering the Incarnation, yet Julian makes clear that in his divine eternity the Son is already the suffering servant predestined to the Cross. She presents us with three dramatic fallings: “The servant’s falling into a dell is Adam’s falling into sin, and that is our falling into sin, which is none other than the Son’s falling into Mary’s womb” (Turner, p. 117). For us the events of salvation history are unfolded over time, but for God they are foreseen and willed in one eternal event. “God doth alle thing,” Julian declares (LT 11). She does not attempt to explain how this is possible. She does not offer a metaphysical disquisition on eternity and temporality. She simply sees, as Turner puts it, that “Creation, Fall, and Redemption are all, somehow, contained within one another, are in some unimaginable way a single divine action eternally willed in a single act of willing” (p. 119). All is accomplished in freedom, both divine and human; all is enveloped by the absolute and unconditional love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sin is necessary, befitting, behovely. Here is the key to Dame Julian’s theodicy, her theology of divine providence and agency, and the paradoxes cited in the beginning of this article. In chapter one Julian tells us that in the first shewing of the Crucified is “comprehended and specified the blessed trinity, with the incarnation and the oning betweene God and mans soule, with many fair shewings and techinges of endelesse wisdom and love, in which all the shewings that foloweth be groundide and oned” (LT 1). The revelations begin and conclude with the servant “slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). From all eternity the Cross is planted in Paradise. O happy fault!

“Sin is behovely.” We must not minimize the scandal and radicality. As Turner writes:

Here we have a great theologian of the Christian Church telling us that sin is behovely. She tells us this not because she is cheerfully naïve about the world’s evil, but because knowing the world’s evil for what it is, she believes that it follows from core Christian beliefs about the divine love and power, that evil so “fits” with the divine plan that nothing can be “amisse.” Behovely, then, not “amisse,’ was the bureaucratic, cold efficiency with which the murder of 6 million Jews was planned and executed; behovely, the ideologically motivated mass exterminations of the Pol Pot regime; behovely, the frenzied pogroms of Rwanda and the mass rapes of Bosnia; behovely, the betrayals of every adulterous spouse; behovely, every lie told in breach of trust; behovely, every sexual abuse of a child; behovely, every rich person’s denial of food to the hungry. Thus, incredibly, for Julian, none of it is “amisse.” (pp. 61-62)

Julian neither rationalizes nor justifies the horrors of history. She does not provide a theodicy that might persuade philosophers and skeptics. She simply sees in all things the gracious and loving providence of God and in his Name declares to us his eschatological promise.

Sinne is behovely,
but alle shalle be wele,
and alle shalle be wele,
and alle maner of thinge shalle be wele.

(Go to “The God Who Delights to Die”)

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17 Responses to Cross, Exsultet, and the Behoveliness of Sin

  1. Thomas says:

    > “If, as Julian believes, sin can be seen to be behovely, then this can only one because there is a narrative of everything whatever, because the sum total of things adds up to a story, to just this story of this sequence of events, including those sins.”

    This calls to my mind David Bentley Hart’s critique in “Doors of the Sea” against Leibnizian theodicy. It is difficult for me to see how this could possibly escape Hart’s moral critique, even if this theory of evil could be stated cogently as a metaphysical matter.

    A story in which God rescues us from sin, death, and suffering brought about against his will is praiseworthy; a story within a story in which God brings about (however we nuance the causal account) sin, death, and suffering in order to glorify himself is monstrous–isn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It would be most interesting to bring David Hart into conversation with Dame Julian and vice versa.


    • Grant says:

      I’m largely in agreement with this, while I find much of Dame Julian’s views beautiful in many respects I do find this view (if it is indeed her view) quite monstrous. In some respects I find this myself in many of these speculations, they are very interesting but I find so many of the viewpoints articulated seem to me to paint quite a horrific picture (no matter how the accounts are nuanced as you say) .

      It is perhaps very likely I just lack the ability to understand the thinking fully, but as I understand them I find in large measure I cannot accept them, I’m increasingly seeing little difference between such speculation and views on such matters by hard-line Calvinists. At least in the end, when you say we bring the moral critique Hart gives when bringing things back to their first cause. I cannot reconcile these theologies to what I see Christ, so I must believe them to be untrue or at least highly misguided, otherwise God is a monster and reality is worse then any horror story we could invent.


  2. William says:

    This reminds me of Irenaeus saying something like: Why did God create man? It was in order to save him. (I can’t find the citation though, so I might have it all wrong.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “Since he who saves already existed, it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.22.3)

      I almost included the Irenaeus quote in my article, but decided against it. But there is an important similarity here. I am also reminded of Karl Barth.


  3. Iain Lovejoy says:

    There is a jump from “sin is necessary” to “sin is intended and good” which I don’t think is made. Sin would be necessary if creation opened up the possibility of sin (or even the inevitably in practice realised possibility of sin) but that would not make it good or intended. (For my son to learn to ride a bike he is going to have to take the training wheels off, which is going to mean him falling off, and I know this and accept this, but that doesn’t make falling off a good thing in itself or something I want to happen.)

    Sin is “behovely” if (as Julian asserts) one can look at the end of the final process when “alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shalle be wele” and see both its necessity and the final good that swamps all evil in its ultimate glory. (As I will say my son’s bumps bruises were “behovely” when I see him joyously riding his bike.)


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Iain, I don’t think I said anywhere that “sin is intended and good.”


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        Sorry. Didn’t mean to imply you did. All I meant to say was that I thought Julian of Norwich wasn’t saying so either by calling it “behovely”. Thomas in his comment above was suggesting that Dame Julian was following Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” philosophy, and you suggested she thought sin “befitting”, which is a step beyond “necessary”, though not as far as “good”.
        Reading the quote for itself (I haven’t read any other of Dame Julian’s writings) I don’t think “behovely” can mean more than “necessary” here, largely because Dame Julian says “but” all shall be well. “For” all shall be well or “and” all shall be well would imply that the sin is or no account or not counted against all being well, or sin all to the greater good. Dame Julian, rather (at least in this passage) is clear that all shall be well despite sin apparently making things look anything but “well” from our limited perspective.


  4. Jonathan says:

    Just for the record — I don’t say that this changes anything under discussion here — the only sense I’ve ever seen given for “behovely” in all the years I’ve read Middle English is “useful,” i.e. with a rather value-neutral connotation, rather than “necessary or fitting, good or opportune.” I could see “fitting” in the sense of narrative appropriateness, as the Turner quotation suggests (I especially appreciate that take), rather than in a somewhat moral way, like “decorous.”

    I’m really loving catching up on these posts about Julian — they’re definitely behovely for me. Dame Julian has been a fascination since I first read her many years ago, but it’s been a long time since I’ve given her a look.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Turner proposes that Julian’s use of “behovely” is analogous to Bonaventure’s and Aquinas’s use of the Latin word “conveniens.”


      • Jonathan says:

        That sounds about right to me, given my general sense of the Latin. But I’m no theologian, as you know, and I’ll have to take Turner’s word for it with respect to usage with the two Doctors. The paragraph you quote makes beautiful sense to me… I might have to read that book.

        The thing about “behovely,” is that it is a quality that must be stated in the interest of some subject. In other words, that which is behovely is behovely to someone. Whom, in this case? To man, not to God — right? I always took Julian’s point to be roughly: “[Even though] sin is behovely [to man], [in God] all shall be well.” There is, potentially, a contrast of implied grammatical subjects here, which might go some way to explaining why Julian’s language strikes many as being so powerful.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jonathan says:

    A little note here about the last paragraph quoted from Turner. This has been bugging me and I wonder what others think. Turner writes, “Behovely, then, not “amisse,’ was the bureaucratic, cold efficiency with which the murder of 6 million Jews was planned and executed; behovely, the ideologically motivated mass exterminations of the Pol Pot regime; behovely, the frenzied pogroms of Rwanda and the mass rapes of Bosnia; behovely, the betrayals of every adulterous spouse; behovely, every lie told in breach of trust; behovely, every sexual abuse of a child; behovely, every rich person’s denial of food to the hungry. Thus, incredibly, for Julian, none of it is “amisse.” —

    Well, not quite. After the clause ending with “Bosnia” we might reasonably postulate that Julian would call such general instances of sin behovely, if that is what she thinks of sin. But those atrocities of the twentieth century — Julian didn’t know them, or anything like them. Those collective sins, as we might call them, *and the knowledge of them*, are hallmarks of the late modern age. In Julian’s world most people died of natural causes: in childbirth and of disease (encouraged by malnutrition, itself sometimes brought about by unjust rule or war but more often by famine and lack, through ignorance, of proper sanitation); only to a much lesser extent, despite its ubiquity, did people directly from war. There was certainly nothing like “total war” in western Europe then. The cities of western Europe in Julian’s time were not regularly sacked and their inhabitants put to the sword or raped and carried off into captivity. Whole nations did not anymore, in her part of the world, descend upon other nations and erase them from the face of the earth. She knew nothing of that kind of atrocity, either directly or through the sort of historical knowledge that we all take for granted as part of one’s basic understanding of the world. Suffering — physical suffering — was much wider spread than anything we late moderns can understand, we simply do not live anymore in that world, and most of it was natural. Sin, on the other hand, was (one assumes) exactly as common as it is today. We have to keep context in mind in evaluating writers and thinkers of the past. Turner’s statement strikes me as weirdly anachronistic; he might as well have adduced internet porn or opioid addiction as shocking examples of “behovely” sin.


    • Jonathan says:

      Attempt to further explain myself: If Julian “neither rationalizes nor justifies the horrors of history” it’s because “the horrors of history” is a late twentieth century concept, one that is saturated with a feeling of godforsakeness (meaninglessness) and the result of events that occurred and knowledge that was acquired and spread in the twentieth century. And yet, inconsistently, we have in general, notwithstanding our religious confessions or lingering disgust at the horribleness of history, inherited an Enlightenment anthropology. People are basically good and perfectible, we think, and when they’re cruel to each other it’s shocking. For Julian, as for all medievals, the idea was that people are wretched. Of course they’re wretched! they would say. Just look around you! Follow your nose! We might say we believe in original sin and quote horrific statistics or the evening news to prove the point; the medievals *felt* original sin, everywhere, all the time. They knew that people are cruel and constantly sinning. And death was omnipresent. Medievals were positively morbid, even while they knew how to enjoy life with vigor when they could. The medieval sensibility was about as different from ours as you can imagine. Confronted with sin and death everywhere, they mocked it. Constantly. Hilariously. They were masters of the grotesque. But they also wrote scathing satire and diatribe. Increasingly it seems that for us injustice can only ever be tragic; for them it was also always comedic. The supreme poem of the Middle Ages is called simply the Comedy, and yet it’s packed with people suffering in Hell and toiling in Purgatory. But maybe we shouldn’t translate Dante’s “commedia” as “comedy.” It means something more like “pageant” or “masque,” a story of types, and moreover lowly types, people of no great (superficial) dignity. We have roles to play anyhow, and the best of us, regardless of our lowliness, accept this because we know that ultimately we are destined for a world greater than the masque that is all we know now. To take a phrase from an early modern — so early that he could still smell the Middle Ages in the air — life is a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage. Their passions ran as high as ours, but always, even if subconsciously, they understood themselves to be part of someone else’s story — God’s. (And when you are in the story, you don’t get to question the author.) That’s what “history” was to the medievals. Of course, Shakespeare was as everyone knows a modern, one of the first, and so could voice a modern sentiment, the feeling of the godforsaken. Macbeth’s soliloquy — given in response to a death — goes on to suppose that life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing… That is to say, no tale, no masque at all, but sheer lunacy. It is strange, even frightening, but somehow this is our choice: between Macbeth’s tale of sound and fury signifying nothing, and Julian’s behovely sin.

      I’m not expressing very well what I want to say. Simply: death, suffering, and sin are very different for us than they were for the people of Julian’s time and place not only because we have managed to invent a few new forms of these things, but also because we live in a different cosmos. That’s why I think Turner is totally right when he says that “even if everything in a narrative could have, logically, been otherwise, when we say of what does happen that its happening was behovely, it is because it was just right that it should happen so, and not otherwise, as if with a kind of narratival necessity.” That Julian could view “history” as this sort of “narrative” is exactly what we should expect from her and exactly the view that is so hard for us to adopt. We are much more like Macbeth.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “She knew nothing of that kind of atrocity, either directly or through the sort of historical knowledge that we all take for granted as part of one’s basic understanding of the world.” I’m not sure what we know about her reading/being read to, and so on, but if Margery Kempe could visit her, I suppose she could have heard a lot of ‘news’ from second or even first hand about things like the Peasants’ Revolt and other atrocities during the reign of Richard II prior to her writing her Shewings, and that she could have had detailed indirect knowledge of Biblical history and prophecy, including, e.g, not only the books of the Maccabees but the Apocalypse.

      “They knew that people are cruel and constantly sinning”, but the more properly they knew this, the more shocking it would be.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Frederik Willem Nicolaas Hugenholtz, Ridderkrijg en burgervrede. West Europa aan de vooravond van de Honderdjarige Oorlog is very good on popular perception of war around the time of Julian, but I do not know that it has been translated into English. The title is something like Knightly War and Burgers’ Peace: Western Europe on the Eve of the Hundred Years’s War.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    For what it is worth, here is the Middle English Dictionary entry for ‘bihoveli’, with quotations. I note, in Latin glossing, “Oportunus” and two forms ending in ‘-ilis’, and what appears to be a translation of “porro unum est necessarium” (St. Luke 10:42):


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Also, for what it is worth, analogues are very much alive in modern Dutch, though I have not yet tried to check mediaeval Dutch.


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