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May 10, 2010

Michael O'Brien's Warning About Harry Potter and "Spiritual Nausea"

The "Harry Potter Wars" that raged for a few years awhile ago between Catholics who like and approve of the books and movies versus those who see them as dangerous and to be avoided (I myself am among the latter group) may likely flare up again with the release of a new book on the subject by the preeminent Catholic fiction author and artist Michael O'Brien (Father Elijah). I have known Michael personally for 15 years and can say without reservation that I admire and respect him tremendously and have learned a great deal from his gentle wisdom. (If you've never read any of his books, I'd suggest starting with his excellent Father Elijah and his new one [see below]).

Some years ago, Michael and I recorded our detailed discussion of the Harry Potter phenomenon and what we saw (and see) as the particular problems and dangers inherent in it. After its release on CD, I received a fair bit of reaction from people who strenuously objected to our negative take on HP, as well as others who shared our apprehensions. What struck me by these reactions was how strident, emotional and, at times, downright obstreperous some of Catholic supporters of Harry Potter could be. Not all of them reacted this way, to be sure, in fact most did not, but there were those whose snide and dismissive comments about those who see big problems with Harry Potter were eye-opening. (I hope we don't see another outbreak of that unpleasantness in the comments of this post.)

Anyway, whether or not you have made up your mind about Harry Potter, pro or con, I do recommend spending some time reading and thinking about Michael's eye-opening insights into this controversial issue. Here's his introduction to a new book explaining why he believes that Harry Potter is not good, why it is pretty poison, and why Catholic parents should see that their children avoid it.

Preface to Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture
by Michael D. O'Brien

[published May, 2010]

This book grew out of a series of articles which were written over a ten-year period for various Christian periodicals. At first, I had no interest in reading the Harry Potter novels, and indeed felt that I had already expended considerable time researching the field of fantasy literature when writing a book on the subject in the mid-1990’s. Moreover, the constant reviews of the Potter series had given me a general sense about the stories and the popular opinions. Oceans of spilled ink and electronic text seemed to cover the pros and cons well enough. No need for me to add my opinion.

However, the first volumes were often recommended to our family by well-meaning people, and seemed to be read in so many homes we knew, that I could hardly ignore the phenomenon. Then came letters and phone calls from friends wanting to know what I thought about the series, all describing their initial uneasiness about it. I replied that I really couldn’t offer an opinion without reading the books for myself, and besides, there was such a tsunami of neo-pagan fantasy novels, films, and e-games pouring into young people’s lives it would be a lifetime’s work just to keep abreast of it all, let alone thoughtfully discern each one. They agreed, but suggested that since this particular series was fast becoming the biggest best-selling publishing phenomenon of all time, it might be worth reading. They added that some writers whom they admired said that these books were seductive and potentially damaging; other opinion-shapers said they were harmless and got children reading, in fact were getting a whole generation of young people burying their noses in books!

Nevertheless, I still declined to read them. But then came a curious 24 hour period in which I spoke with three different people (in two telephone calls that came out of the blue and one chance meeting face-to-face). All three described a personal experience in very much the same words. I did not initiate the subject, nor did I prompt their thoughts on the matter. None of them knew each other. All were parents of healthy, happy families, and as far as I knew were emotionally and mentally well-balanced. These were people I respected for their mature stability as well as their gifts of wisdom and goodness. They had strong faith in Christ, were neither superstitious nor suspicious by nature, were not alarmists, and did not tend to hysteria or paranoia. They had provided a thriving cultural life for their families, books were treasured in each of their homes, and among their collections were many fantasy novels for the young. Yet, that day each of them said something like the following:

“I heard so much about the Harry Potter books, and very good people told me they’re great. So we bought one [or were given one] and I started to read it. At first I had no problems with it. Then something strange happened. In the middle of a chapter I was suddenly overwhelmed by nausea.”

“Nausea?” I asked.

“Yes, a kind of spiritual nausea. I didn’t see it coming because I wanted to like these books. The whole world’s in love with them, even a lot of good Christians, so I felt they were probably healthy enough to give to our kids. I just wanted to check it out first. I’m glad I did.”

Unknown to each other, these three spiritually awake parents were speaking about a “spiritual nausea.” All three encouraged me to read the books and write an assessment. Was it a coincidence, or was it one of those moments when the Holy Spirit was speaking, sending a nudge in triplicate?

Even so, I hesitated taking part in any kind of public response to the series. I simply had no time or energy for it. Yet I had learned to pay attention to such “coincidences,” and so took it to our Lord in prayer.

I prayed and listened and prayed—and didn’t like what I was “hearing.”

So I prayed more and listened more, hoping to hear something else, but to no avail. . . . (continue reading)


  1. What struck me by these reactions was how strident, emotional and, at times, downright obstreperous some of Catholic supporters of Harry Potter could be.

    That's interesting, because I've had the same experience with anti-Harry Potter Catholics. Not all, not even most, but there were those whose snide and dismissive comments about those who see no problems with Harry Potter were eye-opening.

    Being pro- or anti-Harry Potter does not make one more or less "obstreperous". Every group has its emotional and strident factions; it is not fair to try to link such behavior with one's views on a children's book series.

  2. Interesting indeed. If it's "not fair," Eric, then why did you just do the very same thing here?

    I neither said nor implied that being pro- or anti- makes one obstreperous. The fact is, some on both sides of this issue have acted obstreperously. I've seen it, and I do hope that those who do act that way won't further prove my point by acting that way in this comments section.

    Rather than wrangle about obstreperousness, it would be far better and more useful to examine and discuss the points Michael O'Brien makes (quite unobstreperously, I might add) in his new book. That would be time much better spent.

  3. Patrick,

    Fair enough. I felt that your original post implied (at least in my mind) that only pro-HP people were obstreperous, but I appreciate that you recognize it on both sides.

    Regarding O'Brien's points, I have a hard time taking them seriously. I have tried - really, I have tried. And I even thought they were plausible for a while - until I actually read the books.

    I read his introduction when he first posted it on the Internet a few months ago, and I couldn't believe he was serious about the whole "spiritual nausea" story. It is an argument that cannot be refuted because it is just the feelings of a few people - people he suggests are more spiritually attuned than others. If I say that I read the books and had no such feelings, then am I less spiritually attuned? Or perhaps they are over-attuned? It is a completely subjective standard.

    I realize that he has other arguments against the books (none of which I have found convincing), but making such a story the basis for why he started his crusade against the books gives me serious pause.

  4. I am a practicing Catholic and follower of Jesus Christ.

    I speak out against The Harry Potter books and movies.

    It's witch-craft for sure. I protect my eyes and ears, and will not allow another spirit out-side of the Holy spirit to enter my mind, or to allow it to have an influence in my life.

    By studying God's truth I believe it is evil and would not like it if my grandchildren were to read the books or see the movie.

  5. Great come back Patrick. Would one learn that in logic class or some such thing? I always get caught in those kind of cross wind arguments that really have nothing to do with the content of the thing.

  6. I would not classify Mr. Sammons comments as obstreperous. Neither would I describe Michael O'Brien's article as such. You, on the other hand Mr. Madrid, (based on your response to Mr. Sammons) are bordering. There's no need for persnicketiness just because one presents a valid point that might steer opposite your own views. This is not, after all, a discussion as to whether or not the Catholic Church is the one, true religion. Clearly, a pro or anti Harry Potter debate knows no religious boundaries.

  7. PS Mr. Madrid- I have every book you've ever written, am a convert, a youth minister and an RCIA leader. I have spoken with you on your radio program several times, and I think you are a blessing and an attribute to the faith and mankind. I'm just trying to help you stay grounded, that's all. I would like to see you keep an open mind about views other than your own. You have obviously opened yourself up to new ideas at least once in your life, and it CAN be done objectively. I promise, you'll only be swayed if it makes sense to be swayed. (I have never, nor will ever, question your intellect.) Thanks.

  8. Thanks for understanding where I'm coming from on that point, Eric. I know you're a good man and a committed Catholic, and we have no quarrel between us.

    I find it truly astonishing, though, that you've had the reaction you describe having to Michael O'Brien's critique of the HP books. I think he's right on target. I know you don't. In fact, I know I'm in the minority and you are in the majority on this issue. That's why it would be tempting to just chalk up such disagreements to a "de gustibus non disputandum est" type of subjective preference. Unfortunately, though, at least from my point of view, there are enough serious, objective problems with the HP phenomenon that I feel compelled in good conscience to speak up about them, even though I know doing so will provoke the ire of many (I am not referring to you).

  9. Marian, I sincerely appreciate your comments about this thread as much as I appreciate your compliments about my work. Even so, I must say that I think you're being a little schoolmarmish in your admonition. I don't see where anything I said to Eric bordered on being obstreperous.

    By the way, I think this thread must surely win the sweepstakes for the most times using the word "obstreperous" in a blog post.

  10. We can always concentrate on what we think is wrong with the world, but why not focus our attention on what we think works? I know some notable Catholics who believe that radical evangelicals have just as much propensity to detract Christians as Harry Potter, if not more so. But the point is, why erupt hatred when hatred is obviously NOT the message evangelical's are trying to promote? Additionally, telling people, particularly children, NOT to read Harry Potter might stir curiosity where it would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

    Why not focus on the postitives and what unites us? None of us think alike, and there will always be disagreements. So I hope Catholic Christians can find our commonalities and promote what brings us together.

    You've most likely read the following article, but it does present an interesting viewpoint: mosthttp://www.up.edu/portlandmag/2004_summer/potter_txt.html

  11. I do agree with Michael O'Brien's objections to the HP series. He does a better job than I could expressing my reservations from a spiritual/theological perspective.

    But aside from disagreements about "spiritual nausea" and such, I'll add one point that is a bit more practical and basic:

    As a Catholic mom who takes the education and faith formation of my kids pretty seriously, having them read Harry Potter is the equivalent of dropping them off in the sci-fi section of Border's and saying: "Whatever." The only thing that separates these books from other like fiction is a great deal of hype and a screen play version. The only other way most of us would ever have heard of them (sans elaborate displays everywhere one turns) is if we heavily frequent that section of the library or allow our kids to. Most of the books that fly off the presses in that genre are just junk food.

    There really is nothing remarkable about the literary quality of the HP books. After reading one, I found it to be a mildly interesting distraction. That does not qualify it as acceptable reading for my kids. I honestly do not see the need for supporters to jump to such an animated defense. If you like the books and really think your kids ought to read them, then buy them! But to attempt to give them some kind of actual value from a Christian cultural, literary or educational perspective is really a bit of a stretch.

    Perhaps I'm a bit uptight about what my kids read. I prefer to call it a high standard. But I simply don't see any room for this stuff in their literary diet when there are mountains of classic (Catholic and secular) works that we have not yet explored. My 12-year old devours Dickens. He gets quite animated when discussing those books. (And by the way, Patrick, he has enjoyed some of your books as well.) Handing him Potter is like saying, "Hey kid, why don't you eat your cake and ice cream instead of dinner for the rest of the week." I don't think he's naturally exceptional. I just don't think he has had a choice since that's what we feed him for his literary diet. And I have not yet seen an incident where ignorance of the HP phenomena has limited the kids in any social capacity.

    So, in response to those who have asked me why I will not bring HP into my house I simply say: "I have many reasons if you are willing to hear them, but the plainest one is that we simply don't have the time to waste."

    (Do I get points off for not using the word "obstreperous"? I really wanted to but it just didn't flow, you know?)

  12. I learned a new word today! Thank you for that Patrick.
    I'm not sure where I fall on this issue, I have read the books and enjoyed them as a diversion, they are not serious literature and as such I did not read them like real literature. But, I also can understand the aversion many have to the books on a spiritual level. I'm not a fan of the spiritual nausea arrangement though, arguments from facts/logic rather then subjective experiences are all in all more convincing (even if those experiences are completely genuine).

  13. As a Catholic I consider myself quite orthodox. My favourite (that's Canadian for favorite) writer is G.K. Chesterton. A few other's are Joseph Ratzinger, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Rene Girard, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, and Scott Hahn.

    I am skeptical in nature and trained in science, so I tend to need sufficient evidence before being convinced of most arguments, especially emotional ones. Arguments regarding Harry Potter can be quite emotional, and sometimes quite uncharitable from either side of the fence. Nevertheless, it is Harry Potter in large part that I must thank for bringing me to love of orthodoxy and the above writers.

    I have read all the Potter books, as well as many negative (including several essays by Michael O'Brien) and positive critiques of them. I must say, that by the evidence I reviewed, the positive criticisms made sense far more often than the negative ones. Furthermore, I found the Potter books themselves spiritually edifying and supportive of my Catholic orthodoxy.

    I'm not saying that the books are great literature. In fact the prose is not particularly imaginative at all. The stories are imaginative though, and according to John Granger (one of the more popular analysts), they use Christian symbolism in a manner consistent with great literature of the past, especially of the English tradition. They rely heavily on literary alchemy, much like most of Shakespeare's work, to illustrate the hero's journey and positive spiritual transformation. I suspect this is in opposition to the discussion Michael O'Brien might present on symbolism, but I found he had reversed the characterizations of the heroes and villains of the stories in one of his essays on the books also.

    It would be interesting to compare the training of Granger and O'Brien in terms of the classics and traditional English literature, as well as hear them debate the topic, specifically from the perspective of the written Potter text.

    The best argument I have heard against the Potter (and Twilight) books is that they open our culture up to acceptance of occult themes. I can't argue against that conclusion and the very poor translation of the Potter books into movies is ample evidence. Further evidence is the plethora of books, games, etc. that try to cash in on the theme. This is not evidence, however, that the Potter books themselves are evil. Keep in mind Dracula, written by Catholic Bram Stoker, was also a story steeped with literary alchemy in description of the hero's journey and positive spiritual transformation. It is unfortunate that Hollywood and other copy cats can't replicate the meaning of the originals.

    The bottom line is, Harry Potter helped to deepen my faith, and I am certainly no New Age liturgical dancing flake. It think how we view Potter may depend heavily on where we have come from and where we are in our faith life. In any case, there are certainly some polar opposite views.

    Best regards,


  14. Pathetic. And soooooooo American.

  15. anonymous America-bashing... now THAT's pathetic...

  16. Patrick, I'm with you on this one, and glad to be able to "drop your name" next time the argument starts in our homeschool group. ;)

  17. [As a preface, let me say I am not directing my comments at any person posting here or accusing them of anything]

    My own experience with the books came when someone asked me to look at them and evaluate them from a Catholic perspective (prior to this, I had no interest in reading them).

    What struck me about these novels were that they were essentially the old "British Boarding School" novels in a fantasy setting. They did not promote interest in the occult, as the magic within was clearly of the fantasy bent.

    Now it is true that some people can interpret the books in a sense which can be spiritually harmful. Certainly parents need to help their children distinguish between fantasy fiction and the real occult.

    The elements which I found could be harmful were in the later books concerning Rowling's heavy handed propaganda in making references to the political issues of the time. Not to mention Rowling's cheap attempts to bolster flagging sales once the series ended by claiming Dumbledore was homosexual.

    Parents who object on these grounds, I believe, have valid arguments in being concerned about the effects of these books.

    Catholic parents of course need to practice custody of their children's senses and if they think it harmful, they ought not to permit them to read it, but really I find many of the common accusations out there to be unwarranted.

    There are certainly more dangerous works out there (Dan Brown, Philip Pullman etc.) and certainly a lot of Manichean concepts of good and evil in fantasy novels and manga which are more harmful to young readers... things which probably slip under the radar because of the focus on Harry Potter.

    That's my $0.02 on the subject. If some parents disagree with me and don't want their children reading these works, I respect their right to set the limits to what they want their children are exposed to.

    However, I would also say that for those of us who do not believe the books harmful also deserve to be respected and not attacked as being lax Catholics.

  18. The USCCB does not seem to have a problem with The Harry Potter Series, at least for adolescents and adults. Would love to hear thoughts about this...

  19. I'm no fan of the Harry Potter books for various reasons, but I do take issue with O'Brien's "spiritual nausea" defense. It's just too subjective and therefore a weak platform to build an argument upon.

    I have no reason to doubt his experience, but there could be other ways to interpret it. I'm more curious as to why another book about Harry Potter? Isn't the attention drawn to this subject somewhat counter-productive?

    At this point, I think most parents have made up their minds about what they think of Harry Potter. I can't help but wonder if Mr.O'Brien's motivation includes financial gain.

  20. How does the USCCB fit into this discussion. According to their website, they do not have a problem with the Potter series, at least for adolescents and adults. Your thoughts.....

  21. I haven't read the books or watched the movies, but one thing I have noticed is that if the secular media is promoting something heavily, look for a hidden agenda. The media today is anything but Christian friendly. I don't wear tin foil hats but I do think there is an effort to silence and defuse the Christian message in our culture today. Why does the media love Harry Potter? Something to think about.

  22. Before I begin my comment proper, I would like to state quite strongly that I am not "pro-Harry Potter."

    In my opinion, the books are mediocre and there is much better literature to be had in the same general genre. However, I don't believe they are harmful either- my strongest criticism of them (I've read them all) is that I simply cannot remember any of the plot of books 3-6.

    However, I do object or at least "not buy" criticisms in the vein of Michael O'Brien's. So, I suppose you could call me "anti-anti-Harry Potter."

    I was interested to read Michael O'Brien's preface that you linked above. I had only read snippets of his HP criticism prior to this and I found this little essay quite revealing and helpful for understanding his point of view.

    My chief objection to Mr. O'Brien's critique is his understanding of the imagination. (Come to think of it, it reminds me strongly of Socrates' interlocutor Adeimantus, in the Republic.)

    Mr. O'Brien characterizes the imagination as "like an empty stage" and "a screen onto which the evil spirits can “project” images;" the implication being that we ourselves and our moral sense are vulnerable, perhaps can even become powerless to defend against what our imagination may offer us.

    I cannot reconcile this understanding of the imagination, and by extension of art, with a Catholic worldview, nor with an Aristotelian philosophical outlook. (I think that Platonic/Aristotelian understanding of art as a mimetic activity best jibes with the Catholic understanding of God as creator-- Tolkein's theory of sub-creation is also worthy.)

    Speaking as Catholic, I want to ask Mr. O'Brien: did not God create us? Evil spirits had no part in the creation of our minds (nor our "desiring part" if you want to get Platonic.) And, while as a result of the Fall, the action of our minds is impeded (it might be harder for our rational faculties to "reign in" our desires, etc.), still they themselves, our imaginations too, are made in God's image and likeness.

    So, if our minds are God's handiwork, and we ourselves cannot create anything- everything we "make" through art is an imitation of God's creation- how then can our imaginations be "a blank slate for evil spirits" to play with?

    If one thinks that Aristotle's hypothesis that subject of poetic mimetic activity (writing/art) must involve action (the actions of men, moral activity) and that better art is art that more "organically" imitates God's creation, then Mr. O'Brien's criticisms are simply beside the point.

    From my perspective, writing as art may be legitimately criticized on two points:

    one: that the writer's technical incompetence makes it fail as imitation- that the likeness to God's creation is not there because of the author's clumsiness or lack of skill


    two: that it fails in truly imitating "men's actions" in God's world: that it presents evil actions as good, or that its action directly contradicts some other moral truth or denies God' providence.

    I think criticism such as Mr. O'Brien's that is built on poor philosophy should be regarded with skepticism.

  23. Dagnabit, I type with more conviction than attention.


    If one thinks that Aristotle's hypothesis that *the* subject of poetic mimetic activity (writing/art) must involve action (the actions of men, moral activity) *is correct* and that better art is art that more "organically" imitates God's creation, then Mr. O'Brien's criticisms are simply beside the point.

  24. "So, if our minds are God's handiwork, and we ourselves cannot create anything- everything we "make" through art is an imitation of God's creation- how then can our imaginations be "a blank slate for evil spirits" to play with?"
    The same way that unwitting humans are used in evil's work when they try to ape God's position (and that's all they're doing), in pride - as in the twisted use of media, art, "creation" itself (cloning, embryonic stem cell manipulation - or same sex use of technology to pretend this is permitted and willed by the Creator just because it's possible) - all masked as for "good" purposes or "freedom". Puleeze - just the naivete of adults and their kiddos in today's irresponsible world makes it sooo much easier for the "non-existent" satan to infiltrate all those open spaces in the delusional human psyche.

    And as for as that excuse that somehow "Potter" drove someone to orthodox belief - it's like the man who has convinced himself that a diamond exists somewhere down there in that cesspool. But as he plunges in and gets deeper in the cover of muck and putridness, even if such existed by some quirk of hope and desire, by the time he would reach it (if it existed in reality), he would have a different condition himself than before he experienced the filth ... it doesn't, by human nature, now appear quite the same as it did in his first state nor does he still have the same desire for its purity and existence! What he doesn't realize is that true orthodoxy would have prevented him from even venturing into that temptation in the first place! Now he has to justify the smell as somehow "sweet"!!

  25. Anonymous (above at 2:45 pm) - Your comment is rather unclear. You write: "the same way that unwitting humans are used in evil's work when they try to ape God's position."

    Are you implying that to write fiction is to play God? If that's so, no Catholic, Mr. O'Brien included, should engage in such activity.

    Somewhat further along you claim that fiction is a means through which Satan can "infiltrate all those open spaces in the delusional human psyche."

    There, I think, you restate in a somewhat clumsier (more obstreperous ;) ) fashion, Mr. O'Brien's thesis.

    Quite apart from how he reads the Potter novels, (and I don't know that his interpretation is fair) I have trouble with precisely that thesis you've restated.

    Generally speaking, the evil one does not gain our cooperation without our knowledge. He gains our cooperation through sin.

    If our desires or our will were meant to rule us as human beings, I'd agree with you & Mr. O'Brien.

    However, I don't believe we have "open spaces" in our souls, nor have I ever heard any convincing argument that such exists. As I understand it, God made us so that our intellect exists to curb our desires and bring them into line with our faith and to inform and direct our will.

    Thus, we can and ought to view art (including fiction) first and foremost through our intellect- which compares the artistic imitation with God's creation and the truths of faith and tells whether or not that artistic imitation is truthful.

    And we certainly ought to avoid that which we have judged to be false.

    Plato argued that the intellect ought to rule the human soul, Aristotle did too, and so did St. Thomas Aquinas.

    Those are three fellows whose grasp of the truth I respect.

  26. We need men and women of courage to speak up about the occult, when necessary, and its many forms. This is also part of God's work in speaking the truth. With the occult, there will always be strong reactions from those innocently drawn in or not so innocent. You, Patrick, and Michael (O'Brien) have a lot of work ongoing. God be with you and protect you, always.

  27. Patrick, do you know if Michael O'Brien anywhere confronts the work of John Granger defending HP as a Christian work in this new book? If he has an argument against Granger I will read with interest, but if he's ignored Granger I am going to pass.

  28. RC, I really don't know about that. I think you should ask him: http://www.studiobrien.com/contact/studiobrien.html

    I find your logic strange, though. You say you'll pass on reading his case against HP in the event that he didn't "confront" the work of Granger, whom I have never heard of before. If Granger's book is new, as you say, then how likely do you really think it is that Michael O'Brien would have had an opportunity to critique a book that came out right about the same time as his own?

    Don't give up so easily, RC. Do the hard work and get the whole story, especially get O'Brien's take on this as a counterbalance to the pro-HP stuff you've imbibed. Setting up such an arbitrary reason to "pass" on reading O'Brien's book strikes me as something somebody who's not really serious about gaining a well-rounded knowledge of the issue would do.

  29. I have to laugh, Patrick -- I am only trying to get an informed opinion of whether Michael O-Brien has himself done the work of gaining a well-rounded knowledge of the issue before I shell out the big bucks.

    There's no reason **you** should have heard of John Granger, but anyone seriously "into" the debate over whether HP is Christian or satanic has, I assure you. Granger's books and website have been around for years, and if O'Brien is serious and well-rounded, he will have engaged Granger.

    I love O'Brien's novels, but found Landscape w/ Dragons unconvincing, and his articles on Harry Potter a few years back didn't seem to reflect thorough reading of the books. To cite but one example, one article asserts that Halloween is the "great feast day" in the books. But this is false; the day doesn't even figure in half the books, and where it does appear it's always an evil day --the day Harry's parents are killed, the day Voldemort sets his evil schemes in motion. By contrast, Christmas & Easter are always genuinely happy days (and they are called "Christmas" and "Easter," not solstices).

    What I am trying to discern is whether O'Brien is more careful this time around, in which case I'd be happy to hear him out. But if it's going to be more sloppiness like that, and if he hasn't engaged a serious argument for the Christianity of the books, then I'll stick with reading Theophilus and give this latest Harry dig a pass.

    His introduction here puts me off, I have to say. I felt a deeply creepy dark presence while reading Fr. Elijah the first time, but read it twice.