God Underneath: Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest


A delightfully different approach to religion and spirituality, this collection of engaging personal tales transcends specific doctrines to reveal the presence of God in everyday life.

Father Edward L. Beck spins tales like a master, presenting with candor and a touch of irreverence incidents and events that will resonate with readers. Exploring such universal themes and concerns as friendship, sexuality, illness, alcoholism, loss, and death, the vignettes and stories in this ...

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God Underneath: Spiritual Memoirs of a Catholic Priest

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A delightfully different approach to religion and spirituality, this collection of engaging personal tales transcends specific doctrines to reveal the presence of God in everyday life.

Father Edward L. Beck spins tales like a master, presenting with candor and a touch of irreverence incidents and events that will resonate with readers. Exploring such universal themes and concerns as friendship, sexuality, illness, alcoholism, loss, and death, the vignettes and stories in this collection are animated by intriguing characters, pitch-perfect dialogue–and a surprising twist. Probing beneath the surface of ordinary life, each selection contains a hidden message, a subtle but powerful reminder of the signposts that mark a spiritual journey.

Quotations from the Scriptures introduce the tales, providing a context that will help readers uncover the meaning the story holds for their own personal lives and beliefs. To encourage further reflection and rumination, Beck offers insights into the specific religious and theological themes that inspired the writing of each tale.

A lively, unabashed look at the challenges of living a spiritual life in contemporary times, God Underneath will appeal not only to Catholics, but to all spiritual seekers, regardless of religious affiliation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The very first time I saw Father Edward’s face, I knew I would learn something about ‘men of the cloth’. A little the way you come to realize that your most erudite teachers have nightmares and hurt feelings and stomach aches. I had always been a little too much in awe of Priests, monks and other clergy or theological types. Maybe this is because they have to keep a distance in order to have you (the hopeful believer) believe they are a link to the great unknown. Edward Beck allows us close enough to see the emotions of a man. Because of the flawed humanity revealed, there is more reason to see that link. It will mean something special to the reader to see the courage that enables him to reveal himself so simply and honestly. To identify with him: to empathize, to feel his doubts , and then his overriding desire to go beyond and through them, is what his journey is about.
-Carly Simon
Library Journal
In his memoirs about the significant persons and experiences of his life, Beck, a fortysomething priest of the Passionist Community, shows how he has come to see God living and moving, touching his heart, tolerating his hubris, or tweaking his nose. Of Henry, a rough-and-ready parishioner, he writes, "With Henry things were rarely how they appeared on the surface. There was always an underneath that you eventually got to if you were tenacious enough to hang around for a while." As with Henry, so with Beck, who spends his professional life traveling around the country to give parish retreats. His work experience has served him well in honing his eloquence and his ability to tell good stories, but his book is not without its flaws: though sometimes poignant, his spiritual observations, based on the stories he tells, are sometimes pedestrian; his theological observations can be imprecise; and his English usage is occasionally inelegant. Despite the warts, this book offers an instructive glimpse into the ministry and the spirituality of a bright and devoted Catholic priest. Recommended for libraries with some demand for books on contemporary spirituality. David I. Fulton, Coll. of St. Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Episodes, told both annoyingly and effectively, along one man's road to Damascus. Beck, a forty-something Catholic priest and member of the Passionist Order (which emphasizes the Passion of Christ in its daily observances), takes a God-as-homey approach to matters theological in his memoir of spiritual growth. There's no trace of the Old Testament's angry deity in his conception of the boss upstairs. Quite the opposite: "When God speaks my name," he writes, "it is always as lover-never as angry parent or disgruntled spouse." That highly personal approach leads Beck into reveries that would not be out of place in the more esoteric literature of the New Age movement, one of which reveries encourages the reader to imagine that prayer is a kind of chat with God "as if He was my best friend, sitting on the floor of my bedroom after winning a baseball game." All is not warm and cuddly in Beck's theology, however, and he takes issue with the official doctrine at many points, defiantly insisting that "our absolute moral obligation is always to follow our own conscience, and never to act against it. This presumes we take time to inform our conscience, which includes knowing the Church teaching, approaching it with respect, and being open to it. But it doesn't mean we will always literally follow that teaching." Readers with a pre-Vatican II sensibility will likely take constant issue with Beck's view of matters such as priestly celibacy, homosexuality, poverty, marriage, and the role of women in the church-and with his penchant for citing the likes of Meryl Streep and Carly Simon while examining some moral point or another. Catholics and spiritual seekers of a liberal bent, however, willfind Beck's opinions refreshing and well stated.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385501811
  • Publisher: Crown Religion/Business/Forum
  • Publication date: 7/16/2002
  • Edition description: First Image Books Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 528,323
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

EDWARD L. BECK, C.P., is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Passionist community. A onetime parish priest, director of seminarians, and campus minister, he travels throughout the country preaching and organizing retreats and workshops. He has experience in theater, radio, and television. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt



See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name.

--Isaiah 49:16

I was supposed to be named Adelaide . . . if I was born a girl. My mother gives thanks to this day that the first thing she saw while lying on the delivery table was a penis. The doctor held me up all bloody, squirming, and screaming and moved to lay me on my mother's chest.

My mother winced and said, "Oh, thank God, a boy. But, please, clean him up first." She is still saying that in one way or another. Who could have predicted the lasting power of that first breath metaphor?

My parents married young--three times, each time to one another, and with no divorces. That must be a record somewhere. The first wedding occurred after an evening of revelry spent with friends at Frankie and Johnny's pub in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The magic of that evening and the lowering of inhibitions provided by enough beer and whiskey sours made an expeditious marriage seem inviting. My parents hopped into a 1955 Chevy Impala and headed toward the Mason-Dixon line. My mother called her mother from Maryland (a state known to marry you within twenty-four hours, no questions asked) to tell her where she was and what she was planning.

"Momma, I'm in Maryland with Eddie and we're going to get married."

"Well, I figured that was coming sooner or later. He's a good guy and he seems to treat you well. It's just too bad he doesn't have money. You know love goes out the window when the bills come in the door."

"Oh, Momma!"

"You can learn to love anyone who treats you well, but you love them even more when they have money and can treat you really well."

"Momma, we'll be fine, and I do love him--money or no money."

"O.K., but don't you come home here unless you two get married. If you stay out all night with a man, you had better be married to him."

"Momma, we are getting married. That's why I called you. I'll see you sometime tomorrow."

Once the inspiring phone call had ended, my mother anxiously sought out a priest, because she wanted to be married in the Church. Religious affiliation was not yet paramount for my father. A justice of the peace would do just fine for him. But late in her teens my mother had discovered her Catholicism anew and she fell for it mightily, making novenas three times a week and never missing Mass. It was important to her that the Church from which she received so much solace and meaning bless this marriage.

They finally found a priest willing to sit down with them after ringing the doorbells of a few rectories. The seasoned cleric listened patiently to this young woman's story, touched by her desire to make this marriage sacramental, but not touched enough.

"Are you pregnant?" he asked her.

"No, no, of course not," she said.

"Then go home and forget about this nonsense. It will never last. Take your time; plan a proper wedding. Do this right. It's too important to rush through on a whim."

But my mother knew they couldn't go home. It was too late. It was already well into the night and Nanny's words echoed in her mind--she had better be married to him.

Left with no other alternative, my parents sought out a justice of the peace, who performed a no-frills nuptial in a private chamber with people they met that night serving as witnesses. Geraldine, a twenty-year-old red-haired knockout with a dazzling smile, and Eddie, a twenty-two-year-old blue-eyed charmer with a gelled pompadour, exchanged rings and promised forever. The obviously overworked justice flatly said words he probably uttered in his sleep, "I now pronounce you man and wife." The newlyweds spent their first night in a prosaic Maryland hotel which offered them congratulatory free beer as a toast to their legal but not yet sacramental bond.

During the drive home, my mother began to consider the priest's question: "Are you pregnant?"

"He had some nerve asking me that. Is that the only reason people elope? It did get me to thinking though about when we do finally have a child. What will we name it?"

"Gerri," my father said, "that's quite a ways off. Do we really need to talk about it now?"

"Well, I mean just for fun. I already know anyway. If we have a son, I want to name him Christopher Michael after my stepfather and real father, and if it's a girl, I think, Maureen, a nice Irish name."

"Fine, whatever," my father said, more intent on worrying about where they were going to live.

Once they had secured a modest apartment and had gotten settled with the details of newly married life, the call of the sacrament returned with an insistent beckoning. My mother still earnestly wanted to be married in the Church, and my father had gradually become convinced of its value. My parents went to see another priest. After listening sympathetically to their Maryland odyssey, this priest finally agreed to marry them.

"You know, of course, that this is a serious sacramental commitment," he said to them in hushed tones. "You must invite God into this union if it is to perdure. And you must work at it. I'll do this wedding, but you are the ones that will have to make it last."

They accepted the priest's counsel, ready to agree with whatever he said, and were elated that someone was finally willing to marry them. A small wedding was planned. My parents felt some embarrassment at having to repeat the nuptials, but they trusted that this time would be qualitatively different. With family and friends gathered, pungent lilacs placed at the high altar and in front of the Mary statue, and the organ playing a melodious Bach cantata, the priest leaned over to my father, who had on a flattering charcoal gray suit, and requested the marriage license. My father looked at my mother in her beige, lace-sleeved dress. She turned and looked at her red-haired sister, who didn't know to whom to look. Then everyone looked horrified. No one had realized my parents would need a New York State marriage license and blood test after having already been married in Maryland. The wedding was off. With sacramental connubial bliss evading my parents once more, the disgruntled guests retired to a local bar to await word of the next ceremony.

After attending to the New York legalities, some weeks later my parents returned to the church and were married in an unceremonious wedding, witnessed by only my aunt and grandfather and a few friends at a side altar in St. Edmund's Church in Brooklyn. Others who had attended the first aborted Church wedding passed on this one, sure that another mishap would dictate a further delay. They had better things to do with their Saturday afternoons. With New York State license and blood test in hand, the young couple said, "I do," again, this time before God; thus making the legal bond a sacramental one as well. With God finally giving His stamp of approval, my parents were determined to live up to their end of the bargain.

For years this escapade has remained a running joke in my family, especially at the time of my parents' anniversary each year. "Now, which one are we celebrating anyway?" My mother is not amused.

Oh, yes, but about my name. It all came down to money. My parents struggled financially in the early years of their marriage. My mother had heeded Nanny's advice in marrying a man who treated her well, but unfortunately not one who had money. My father worked three jobs at one time to keep them afloat, including driving a taxi in New York City, which in itself merits praise and extra life insurance. When not bartending at Monahan's, he would do odd handyman jobs, like fixing leaking sinks or helping to remodel outdated kitchens that no longer satisfied Flatbush housewives. He was dexterous with a hammer and screwdriver, prompting people to remark how lucky my mother was to have a husband who could do things around the house.

But about the name. I learned late in life that I wasn't my parents' first child. They had endured a miscarriage a few months after their marriage. In addition to the obvious sadness, this also put them in a delicate position. Because the pregnancy was interrupted, no one was able to accurately chart the date of conception. My mother got wind that some were concluding that she and my father "had to get married."

"They have some nerve," she said to my father. "They should only know that I wouldn't even let you kiss me the wrong way because the priest told me it was a sin."

My mother took a protective stance toward the next pregnancy, the one that ultimately resulted in my being born. She maintains that she hardly went out of the house for the nine months for fear of miscarrying again. She ate a lot of Breyer's ice cream and Nathan's hot dogs, watched Lucy and Desi on TV (Lucy was also pregnant), and ballooned to 175 pounds from a svelte 135 pounds. Liver spots covered her face and the red hair dye she used wouldn't take. She says it wasn't pretty.

Because of my parents' limited resources, the costs of having a child so soon proved daunting. Perceiving my imminent arrival, Grandpa Beck saw an opportunity. An overweight man with a chin that doubled down to his chest, he was a dinner guest most Sundays. He was also a wonderful cook, holding culinary secrets to savory German meals, secrets he often shared with my mother, if she agreed to execute the meal as he directed. He was a tough tutor, though, always correcting, subtly putting down even her most earnest of efforts. He also had trouble with gambling, losing large amounts of money at the racetrack, including my father's share of a taxi business they owned together--something my father won't talk about to this day.

"Well," Grandpa Beck said one day as he lowered himself onto the sofa in the living room for the beginning of a TV ball game. "I know you two are kind of strapped financially and you have a baby on the way, so I'd be willing to help out. I'll buy you a beautiful baby carriage, so it's one less thing you'll have to worry about."

"Gee, that's very nice of you, Pop," my father said. "Thank you. We appreciate it."

"There's just one thing," my grandfather continued. "I'd like to be able to name the baby in exchange for me getting you the carriage."

"Name the baby?" my mother said warily. "What would you name it?"

He said, "Well, if it's a girl, I'd like to name her after my deceased wife, Eddie's mother, Adelaide."

My mother choked on her rye and club soda and dropped her handful of peanuts back into the dish. "Adelaide?"

"And if it's a boy, I'd like to name him Edward Leon Beck III. We may as well continue my and your husband's name. It has served us well all these years."

My mother was able to swallow her drink on this one, but barely. She saw her dreams of Christopher Michael and Maureen being dashed more quickly than my father could mix another drink. She also resented being bribed, but she needed a carriage. "After all," she reasoned, "this probably wouldn't be their only child." The names would still be there. She could live with Edward III; at least it had a regal quality to it. She didn't know, however, if she could forgive herself if forced to name a daughter Adelaide, who she was sure would be called "Addy" for short. The mere thought of it gave her stomach cramps well before the onslaught of labor. But having little choice, she entered into this Mephistophelean agreement, albeit reluctantly, with the hopes that Adelaide would never be a name she'd have to put on a birth certificate. So, that day in the delivery room, as she prayed up a storm and held her medal of Saint Gerard close to her chest, she was never so happy to see a penis.

I have always preferred Edward to Ed or Eddie, partly because my grandfather was Ed and my father, Eddie. I wanted my own version. I like the sound of my name being called, probably because it signals that the one calling has some connection with me. As a child, I could tell the caller's emotion by the mere intonation used. The "Edward!" screamed by my mother when I had inadvertently crayoned the living room wall as a child sounded like a different language from the "Edward" cooed when I brought home a self-made Mother's Day card complete with kisses and hugs. Of course, this is a universal experience. The name uttering you might welcome in moments of unselfconscious lovemaking is worlds apart from the name sputtering you surely dread when it is discovered that you mistakenly left the water running in the bathtub, ruining the freshly painted ceiling of the den below. Whole sentences are spoken in one word, the name.

There is also power in a name. When someone calls me Edward, as opposed to the various derivatives, I know that person has a part of me not everyone does, however small it may seem. They know me well enough to be familiar, and to respect my preference. This is the reason ancient Israel never said or wrote the name of God. They believed that to say or write the name gave one power over the Deity. It was too familiar. Ancient Israel presumed no such power. When needing to refer to God, YHWH was written, which cannot be uttered without the vowels that render YAHWEH. Today one often sees G-d, also unspeakable.

The Scriptures do, however, refer to a God who calls us by name, sometimes suggesting a lover whose hands are all over us. The God who has written our names on the palm of God's hands (Isaiah 49:16) is the One of whom the psalmist sings, "Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13).

From the moment I was conceived, I am confident God has been whispering, "Edward," beckoning me forth into a fullness of life that only God can ultimately provide. God calls me by name because God knows me that intimately, the most intimately anyone can know me. And when God speaks my name, it is always as lover--never as angry parent or disgruntled spouse. God makes rainbows out of the crayoned wall and waterfalls out of the overflowing tub.

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2001

    Kirkus Reviews Errs

    The Kirkus reviewer shows a disconcerting disdain for a discussion of spirituality which is both highly personal and touching. Edward Beck's stories of the God in every day life is a refreshing voice within Catholic spirituality, a reclaiming of the spirit that forms the basis of the Catholic faith. Rather than annoying, the stories are real, and the reader will be able to relate to the struggle and the drive to find God underneath evrything that surrounds us.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 15, 2011

    Highly Recommend

    I am not sure why I purchased this book, I am not catholic and had never heard of him before, yet I was drawn to it. He is a real person, and writes wonderful stories, that are candid and real. I liked this book so much, I went out and bought his other two. I especially liked reading the stories about his family.

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  • Posted February 23, 2010

    God Underneath, By Father Edward L. Beck

    A good enlightening read for everyone but also for those who believe our Roman Catholic Priests are above the every day struggles of life.
    A superb writer, Father Beck's experiences, thoughts, reflections, word selection and everything about his writing style expressed his humanity and spirituality. As I read, I smiled, laughed, cried and at times felt real pain for him in my pounding heart. I could not turn the pages fast enough, yet I hung on to every word. No other book has ever moved me like this spiritual memoir. I loved reading it, will probably read it again which is something I never do and suggest it to our Book Club to use as a selection.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2005

    Good but needs a little seasoning and editing

    A wonderful memior of life as a priest, a work of honesty about the demands of priestly life, its rewards and, the growth of a kid from Brooklyn into a Passionist giving retreats. Fr. Beck does not present this as a heavy theological tome and it's not. It is a nice easy read and an open and not prurient visit into the life of a boy growing into a man who is still growing in faith. The vignettes about the hospitals, the drunk driver, the man touched so much by a retreat that he bagan going to AA, and the wonderful response of a parish priest to the young Edward who had just been subject to an older male's ianappropriate advances during an audition, were absolutely heartwarming. There are some things, though, that are gratuitous and would have been better edited out--the snide comment about the superior to whom Fr. Beck made his vows not really understanding them and leaving to marry a nun...the comments about the bishop looking bored during ordination and 'thinking about a steak dinner'...the sentiment expressed early in the book that he wished he'd had more love from his father. His stories later on illustrate that his dad did love him abundantly but had trouble expressing it.The chapter on Carly Simon seems like alot of name dropping and is a bit obsequious. Beck is also too cocky when describing the superior who left and fellow seminarians with whom he did not get along. He, himself, acknowledges the sometimes conflicting pulls of intimacy, friendship, and chastity. He has been able, up to the time he wrote the book, to resolve them in favor of remaing a priest, but the future is an unknown for all of us. I think if Fr. Beck wrote this ten years further into his priesthood some of the cockiness would disappear. Nevertheless, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone curious about the world of a priest and the men called to it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2005

    Memoir Is Hopeful and Inspiring

    It seems everyone is writing memoirs these days. Edward L. Beck's GOD UNDERNEATH was published in 2001 and joins a vast number of other books that reveal the heart, soul and spirit of the memoirist. Edward L. Beck is a Passionist priest whose chief purpose is to present himself as truly human and to show that he relates to all those to whom he ministers with love and compassion. In all his striving 'God is underneath,' buoying him up, supporting him, loving him. People are very important to Edward, as he wishes to be called. His mom (a dear person with a fine sense of humor), his dad, his fellow Passionists, a Franciscan whom he met when he went to Chicago to study theology, Carly Simon (yes, THE Carly Simon), Sister Alicene, his first grade teacher. Serious about his priesthood,Edward is not afraid to share his true feelings with his readers. He writes with honesty and humor and uses a great deal of specific detail in describing people and places. He tells the truth as he sees it, though I'm sure he made some people a bit uncomfortable. The titles of his chapters are clever and he begins each with an appropriate Scripture passage. Most readers would probably like to see him in person and hear him speak at a retreat or parish mission. I know I want to read the sequel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2002

    Getting to The Truth

    Father Edward has written a marvelous book. In an age when we question the intentions of our faith leaders, Edward puts his heart on the table. This is not a book just for Catholics, but for other people "of the cloth." I have given this book to Protestant pastors and they identify with the fine Father. Thank you Edward for getting to the truth.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2001

    A man of God, Unmasked

    I highly recommend this book to Catholics, particularly to those who may not be regular practicing, or feel distanced in some way. In addition, anyone who seeks to understand the life of a 'man/woman of God' would benefit. Fr. Beck's collection of life stories helps to peel away a facade that not only has been imposed by the clergy itself, but by its faithful followers. This unpeeling is done with grace, humor, and candor. I appreciate his conversational tone and honesty. This book has given me healing, and strength to continue seeking on my own path, albeit one very different from Fr. Beck's.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2001

    Discovering the GodUnderneath in Everyday living.

    GodUnderneath is a moving, sincere glimpse into the heart and soul of a religious man. Fr. Edward bravely reveals his deepest joys and fears, his struggles and doubts, the rewards and challenges of being a priest. He allows us to intimately share with him his own spiritual journey. Each story in a clever and unique way leads us to a common message: To discover the Godunderneath in our our life and in those around us. I have never formally met Fr. Edward, but with just a shake of his hand and a look into his eyes it was evident of the devotion and dedication to his calling. We are fortunate to have him working at God's side. I recommend this book not only to the faithful but to anyone searching for a more gratifying spiritual life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2001

    GOD is everywhere!!!!!

    Father Edward Beck weaves a wonderful tapestry of his spiritual experiences as a passionist priest. Starting with a pasage of scripture, Father Edward then demostrates this passage in his own life. He discusses his faults, failures , triumphs and joy with candor and complete humilty. The mystery of a life in the clergy is removed and what is left is a very special man called to minister to all who cross his path. I only hope this is but the begining of a new voice in the written word of spirituality. This book is a must read for anyone on or looking to live a spiritual life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2001

    God Underneath Honest and Intimate

    God Underneath is a raw and intimate look inside the life of a Catholic Priest in todays world. In 21 short stories Fr. Beck details his path to priesthood,friendships,alcoholism and celibacy through the eyes of people he has met along his spiritual journey. He dares to approach the topic of Women in the Church and the Catholic teachings with regard to homosexuality and sexual ethics, issues modern day Catholics question. Beautifully written with sensitivity and humor.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2001

    A Gift of Spirit in Everyday Life

    Through a series of twenty one stories, Fr. Edward L. Beck highlights the God in every day life using a particularly refreshing voice within Catholic spirituality, a reclaiming of the spirit that forms the basis of the Catholic faith. Fr. Beck's candor and honesty afford us a level of intimacy with a Catholic religious seldom available but highly welcomed. Through eloquent, heartfelt narratives Fr. Edward leads us into a journey where we are invited to find the Spirit present in the travails of daily living: love, family, friends, work, personal loss, turmoil, trials, and tribulations. The book is an open invitation to share the bittersweet paths of life in the comfort of knowing that underneath all that surrounds us, God is ever present.

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