Angelic Doctor Lecture: Catholic Universities Are Where Students Draw Near to God

The singular purpose of the Catholic university is to provide a place where students can draw near to God through love.

Father Peter John Cameron O.P shared that insight in the inaugural Angelic Doctor Lecture at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, the home of the Newman Center for the University of St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto on Thursday, January 26.

Teacher of homiletics at St. Joseph’s Seminary–Dunwoodie, artistic director of Blackfriars Repertory Theatre in New York City, and editor-in-chief of “Magnificat”, Fr. Cameron celebrated Mass and presented a talk entitled “The Person of St. Thomas Aquinas and His Contribution to the Intellectual Life of the Catholic University Students.” St. Thomas’s example of struggling with sadness, his definition of friendship and his assertion that faith is necessary are important to the intellectual life of Catholic university students today, Fr. Cameron told his audience.

A full transcript of the talk can be found below.

The Person of St. Thomas Aquinas and His Contribution to the Intellectual Life of the Catholic University Students

Just a few weeks ago, in November 2016, the legendary Canadian poet and Canadian Hall of Fame inductee Leonard Cohen died. Cohen was also a celebrity songwriter, and you probably know him best from his famous 1984 song “Hallelujah,” which has been covered by artists more than 300 times and was a featured song in the movie Shrek. That’s how I came to love it.

Another popular Grammy Award-winning Canadian singer considers the point of that song to be about, as she puts it, “the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom. It’s being caught between those two places.”

This is very interesting because Leonard Cohen was also famous for being terribly melancholic. He has been called “The Poet Laureate of Pessimism”; his first studio album was dubbed “The Suicide Songbook.” His poignant lyrics are especially dark and grim, even though he claimed that he was no more depressed than anyone else.

All the same, there exists one beautiful song of Leonard Cohen’s that, although probably much less known, is even more profound and actually hopeful. It may even be fair to call it a hymn. The title of the song is “Come Healing”, and it goes:

O gather up the brokenness / And bring it to me now / The fragrance of those promises / You never dared to vow / The splinters that you carry / The cross you left behind / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind / And let the heavens hear it / The penitential hymn / Come healing of the spirit / Come healing of the limb / Behold the gates of mercy / In arbitrary space / And none of us deserving / The cruelty or the grace / O solitude of longing / Where love has been confined / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind / O see the darkness yielding / That tore the light apart / Come healing of the reason / Come healing of the heart / O troubled dust concealing / An undivided love / The heart beneath is teaching / To the broken heart above / Let the heavens falter / Let the earth proclaim / Come healing of the altar / Come healing of the name…/ And let the heavens hear it / The penitential hymn / Come healing of the spirit / Come healing of the limb.

There it is again: the struggle between having human desire and the searching for spiritual wisdom. And who is the person doing the speaking in that song? It doesn’t take deep analysis to realize that the speaker is God: “O gather up the brokenness and bring it to me now… Let the heavens hear it, the penitential hymn… Behold the gates of mercy… O see the darkness yielding… Come healing of the reason, come healing of the heart.”

In effect, what Leonard Cohen’s song is asking for is to meet Saint Thomas Aquinas. Because probably nobody in the history of the Christian Faith has understood and articulated better “the healing of the reason, the healing of the heart.” For St. Thomas Aquinas, the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom are not at all two places where we are caught. They are, rather, one Person who is caught up in love for us—Jesus Christ—who blesses us with these longings precisely to set us free.

St. Thomas Aquinas was a wonder…a force of nature. Thomas’ first biographer, a man who knew Thomas personally—William of Tocco—wrote: “In his lectures, Thomas raised new questions, and discovered a new and clear way of solving them, and he used new arguments in arriving at these solutions. Those who heard Thomas Aquinas resolving difficulties and problems in a new way, with new principles, believed that he had been endowed by God with a new light of understanding.”[1]

Thomas Aquinas was a genius in the sense held by the French writer Maurice Barrès: “A genius is one who can give us what we need, when nobody else can do it.”[2]

According to a modern biographer: Thomas “went below the foundations of his own age and found the eternal principles of things.”[3]

The 13th-century poet Heinrich von Würzburg remarked about Thomas Aquinas: He could have discovered philosophy anew, if it had been destroyed by fire. He could have restored it in a better way.[4]

Can that new light of understanding somehow make a significant contribution to the intellectual life of Catholic university students today?

His whole life it seems St. Thomas was poised to do just that. Thomas was born to a noble family in 1225 in the family castle of Roccaseca near Naples, Italy. His father, Count Landulf, was a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. His mother, Countess Theodora of Teano, was related to the Norman barons.

At the age of five, Thomas was brought to the nearby monastery of Monte Cassino, where his Uncle Sinibald was the abbot. In the words of one of Thomas’ best-respected modern biographers: “The sacred solitude of the holy mountain of Cassino may have permanently influenced the susceptible heart of the ideally-minded boy, and may have developed in him his bent for reflection, contemplation, and the inner life.”[5]

But it was a life not without trials. His ambitious father had set his sights on Thomas taking over as abbot of Monte Cassino. He even engineered a way for him to do it without Thomas having to become a Benedictine. Moreover, when his worldly mother discovered that her son had opted to join the Dominican Order instead of the Benedictines—a huge step down on the social scale—she arranged for Thomas’ brothers to kidnap him and hold him prisoner in one of the family castles. Even locked in a tower, Thomas wouldn’t budge. So the brothers hired a prostitute and threw the woman into the room with Thomas, hoping that she would persuade him. It didn’t work.

At long last, the family relented and allowed Thomas to proceed to his studies with St. Albert the Great. But, if all this wasn’t stigma enough, in the classroom he fell prey to the bullies of his day. As G.K. Chesterton explains in his biography of Thomas Aquinas, “It is clear, before long, even his imposing stature began to have only the ignominious immensity of the big boy left behind in the lowest form. He was called the Dumb Ox. He was the object, not merely of mockery, but of pity.”[6]

On occasion Thomas was made to feel like a bit of a freak, owing to his great girth. “The mother of Thomas’ [secretary and right-hand man] Brother Reginald of Piperno, recounts that when [Thomas] was passing, the peasants in the fields left their labors and came near to look at him, full of admiration for a man of such corpulence and beauty.”[7]

Perhaps it was out of a mild sense of defensiveness that St. Thomas went on to write: “Pulcritudo proprie consistit in corpore magno”—beauty is found in a large body.[8]

What we are sure of is this: the many troubles that Thomas was forced to face did not weaken his resolve to follow Jesus Christ as a Dominican friar, but only deepened his desire. And for St. Thomas Aquinas, desire is everything.


The sadness that Thomas Aquinas may have experienced over being misunderstood and rejected by his own family, mistreated by his schoolmates, and feeling self-conscious about his personality and bearing would have affected him a lot. In his teachings, St. Thomas notes that, of all the passions—the four basic ones being sadness, joy, hope, and fear—it is sadness that “causes the most injury to the soul.”[9]

Maybe he personally felt the threat of that. But, because he was a thoughtful and reflective person, Thomas turned his hurt into something constructive that led him to wonder: What is sadness?

And the ingenious conclusion Thomas came up with is this: Sadness is the “desire for an absent good.”[10] He made it his life’s goal to go after this absent good because “the human desire for joy is stronger than the fear of sadness.”[11]

Thomas learned this the hard way. One night when Thomas Aquinas was a little boy, he was sleeping alongside his nurse, and his baby sister was sleeping in the nursery with them. A thunderstorm erupted in the middle of the night. The infant was struck by lightning and died. But Thomas was spared.

A contemporary biographer of Thomas Aquinas writes: Remembering, no doubt, the episode when his young sister had been killed by lightning as he slept by her side, [Thomas] had the [pious] habit of making the Sign of the Cross during [thunder] storms, and repeating, “God came in the flesh, God suffered for us.”[12]

A calamitous happening like that might cause some to despair and give up. For Thomas Aquinas, it produced enlightenment that moved him to keep going. As he would later write: Despair, like hope, presupposes desire. Neither hope nor despair is directed towards anything that does not move our desire.[13]

In fact, Saint Thomas is never more eloquent, never more lyrical and romantic, than when he is speaking about hope: Hope, like smoke from the fire of love, mounts up from life and vanishes in glory.[14]

St. Thomas Aquinas instructs us, “There is no desire which is not directed towards a good.”[15] “A natural desire cannot possibly be vain and senseless.”[16]

No—our desires are given to us with the intention of leading us to the One who gave them to us in the first place. Our desires are given to us so that we can understand the purpose for which we are living. Desires are given precisely so that we can know who Jesus is, and just how much he can fill our lives with total satisfaction. Desires are given to us so that we can share in the happiness of the One who created us.

Desires are not to be feared or repressed. They are to be embraced.

St. Thomas says in his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, “Every person’s life consists in the affection that principally sustains them and in which they find their greatest satisfaction.”[17]

The moment we dare to go to the root of our desires and find that affection that principally sustains us, we want what St. Thomas Aquinas wants. A story is told about a time when Jesus, miraculously from a crucifix, spoke to St. Thomas. The Lord was pleased with what Thomas had written about him—regarding his Passion and Death—and the Lord wanted to reward him. When Jesus asked Thomas Aquinas what he wanted for his reward, Thomas replied, “Non nisi te, Domine.” Nothing but you, Lord.


To speak about “that in which we find our greatest satisfaction” is to speak about the Truth. This is a topic Pope Saint John Paul II addresses so powerfully in his encyclical letter Fides et RatioFaith and Reason. He says:

One may define the human being as the one who seeks the truth….The thirst for truth is so rooted in the human heart that to be obliged to ignore it would cast our existence into jeopardy…. The desire for truth spurs reason always to go further…. At the summit of its searching reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.[18]

And what do you think John Paul goes on to talk about next? St. Thomas Aquinas. The pope continues:

Thomas recognized that…faith…has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfillment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free…. This is why the Church has been justified in consistently proposing St. Thomas as a master of thought.[19]

Here’s the humility with which Thomas Aquinas looked at reality. He says in the Summa Contra Gentiles:

Human beings are ordained by divine Providence towards a higher good than human fragility can experience in the present life. That is why it was necessary for the human mind to be called to something higher than human reason here and now can reach, so that it would thus learn to desire something and with zeal tend towards something tha surpasses the whole state of the present life.[20]

Again, this is emphasized in Fides et Ratio:

The human heart…yearns for the infinite riches which lie beyond, knowing that there is to be found the satisfying answer to every question as yet unanswered. Faith liberates reason in so far as it allows reason to attain correctly what it seeks to know and to place it within the ultimate order of things, in which everything acquires true meaning.[21]

What all of this means is that, in our common insatiable search for meaning, purpose, truth, faith is not optional.

We just have to look at history to see how much, when left to reason alone, we’re stuck with a terrible impasse. One leading Thomistic scholar, Dominican Fr. James Brent, comments on this predicament:

Human reason has many questions, but the history of thought proves that human reason faces great difficulties in finding shared answers to its own most profound questions. Philosophical questions about whether life has a meaning and what it is, whether there is a God, why God would permit evil, whether human beings have a purpose and happiness beyond life in this world and what it is, whether it is possible for universal justice ever to be secured in human society, and other such fundamental questions have been raised in all or most human societies. But answers to those questions seem also to elude human reasoning both with philosophers and with common people…. Faith in divine revelation, however, speaks to all of these questions and more. When one believes by faith the testimony offered by God, one receives answers to the questions of life. And those answers are susceptible to support, defense, and illumination by reason.[22]

Or, in the words of the author considered to be the definitive biographer of Thomas Aquinas, Dominican Father Jean-Pierre Torrell, “Only faith allows us to encounter the Reality beyond the formulas that attempt to express it.”[23] For as St. Thomas himself tells us, “In the progress of knowledge, the human mind is usually most helped if its natural intelligence is strengthened by a new light: the light of faith. By that light, the mind recognizes that God lies above and beyond everything that it can know by nature.”[24]

Thomas Aquinas didn’t devote his life to research, writing, teaching, and scholarship because he was an erudite and studious sort of guy. He did it as his way of getting as close as he possibly could to God.

“Yes, but,” you might reply, “he was a mega-intelligent brainiac.” And if you were to say that to St. Thomas, he would take that word “intelligent”—as he often did—and turn to the etymology of the Latin intelligere. Calling upon his theory of interpretation, he would tell you that that word is made up of two words—“intus” and “legere”—which put together mean “to read within”, “to penetrate beneath the sensible surface and discern the rational meaning.” “This is a penetration into ‘the very essence or substance of a thing.’”[25] That’s the true value of “intelligence” for St. Thomas Aquinas. An intelligent person is one who wants to read within things…to penetrate to the deepest meaning…to get to what is real.

Ironically, one thing that human reason, all on its own, is very good at is bringing us to the certainty of the reality of God. In the Summa, St. Thomas observes, “In all of us there has been implanted by nature something that leads to a knowledge of the existence of God.”[26]

Very likely it was this conviction that attracted the American author Flannery O’Connor to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. In her letters she admits:

I read the Summa for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression would reply [in the form of a Summa article], “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing.[27]

And Flannery O’Connor probably ascribed to the counsel Thomas Aquinas borrowed from St. Jerome: “Never let a book be absent from your eyes and hand.”[28]

No wonder, then, that Thomas Aquinas was always absorbed and preoccupied in adapting his thought to the matters and concerns of the world, which he considered to be the philosopher’s chief purpose in life.

In the assessment of Dominican Fr. A.G. Sertillanges, “Thomas tackled these problems, not out of curiosity or ambition, but because they were of importance to mankind. He thought in order to live himself and to help others to live. He sought to find his way about the world, that he might walk in it and help us to walk.”[29]

St. Thomas agreed with Plato—error about things that it is our duty to study is as bad as murder.

St. Thomas Aquinas referred to the whole of his work as sacra doctrina—but that expression means more than what the English suggests, “sacred doctrine”. Sacra doctrina is a significantly broader reality than theology alone. It incorporates all forms of Christian teaching at all levels.[30]

As the famous editor of the sixty-volume English Summa, Dominican Fr. Thomas Gilby, points out, “Sacra doctrina [is] an imparting of God’s mystery to human beings which is a communicating of his life, not merely the conveying of information…. The effect of sacra doctrina is…an invigoration of the mind’s own proper vitality, contemplative and active…shaping human activity in the bustle of temporal affairs.”[31]

According to the testimony of those who lived with him, Thomas Aquinas would on occasion place his head tenderly against the tabernacle in the hopes of discovering its secrets, like a trusting little child.[32]

St. Thomas was thoroughly convinced that a person “enlightened by the gift of wisdom possesses an intimate familiarity with divine things that the theologian cannot procure merely by his pure science.”[33] So, in a sermon that he preached at the University of Naples, the great Common Doctor of the Church was heard to say to his devout hearers: “Any elderly woman today knows more about divine things than did all the philosophers of antiquity put together.”[34] And, as a witness at St. Thomas’ canonization proceedings attested, when Friar Thomas preached at Naples, he was interrupted by the tears of the congregation.[35] They were crying because St. Thomas made them happy—for happiness, as he taught, “is the joy produced by truth.”[36]


What all this is showing us is that we don’t engage in the pursuit of wisdom just to become “cerebral” or “smart.” The Angelic Doctor assures us, “The learned person not only attains to knowledge of divine things, he also experiences them [literally ‘suffers them’], i.e., not only does he receive them as knowledge into his mind, he also becomes one thing with them by love and by affection.”[37]

There is something momentous held out to us through the eminent and ardent pursuit of wisdom. St. Thomas tells us what that is:

The pursuit of wisdom is more noble than other human pursuits because through this pursuit the human being approaches to a likeness to God who made all things in wisdom. And since likeness is the cause of love, the pursuit of wisdom especially joins the human being to God in friendship.[38]

A hint of this is to be discovered in the very word we have designated to refer to an institution of higher learning. We call this place where we earn academic degrees a “university.” And the word “university” is a shortened version of the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which can be translated as “community of teachers and scholars.” Before all else, a university is a community!

It is not a coincidence that Dante referred to St. Thomas Aquinas as “an intellectual light full of love.”[39] The Doctor of Humanity wants to model for us in every way how to live in a lasting union with God…to live the charity that is friendship. He goes so far as to claim that the human being approaches nearer to God through love than through reason, because in love the human being does not act himself, but is in a manner of speaking draw nearer by God himself.[40]

According to St. Thomas, what is the primary purpose of human law? His answer? To cause friendship between people. And what is the purpose of the divine law? To establish friendship between human beings and God.[41]

So too, a singular purpose of the Catholic university is to provide a sacred locus where that communion of divine charity can flourish—a place where we can draw near to God through love.

Friendship is critical if we are ever to be victorious in the struggle between the goading of human desire and our search for spiritual wisdom. For, as the Angelic Aquinas teaches us, the happy person needs friends in this life.[42]

Friends enable us to be our truest self. Without friends, one would be likely to lose enthusiasm for and interest in the activity of virtuous living. Friends act virtuously towards each other, mutually feeding the motivation of the other to act in a virtuous way. By looking at our friends, we can look at ourselves in a less biased fashion.[43]

For example, when St. Thomas considers something like disordered sexual lust, what he finds so evil in it is how it is utterly opposed to the very possibility of friendship. Look at what Thomas lists as the eight effects of sinful lust:

  • blindness of mind
  • thoughtlessness
  • inconstancy
  • rashness or impertinence—temerity
  • self-love
  • hatred of God
  • love of the present world
  • and despair of a future world.[44]

The lustful person is not unhappy just because of the bad sex they engage in. The lustful person is unhappy because they are incapable of having—or being—a true friend. Friendship, our spiritual master insists, begins only with reciprocity—redamatio: “to love in return.” Which means that the key to the pursuit of wisdom—whose goal is to be joined in friendship with God—is prayer. Prayer, in the judgment of St. Thomas, is the indispensable interpreter of our desire. It’s what we’re meant to do with our desire so that it doesn’t torment us. This is why the wisest Catholic university student does not distinguish too much between “oratory and laboratory.”[45] St. Thomas promises you: “If a person submits their learning and their other powers to God, his devotion, as a direct result, will be deepened.”[46]

This is done, St. Thomas advises us in his commentaries on the Psalms, simply by raising, elevating the soul to God:

  • the elevation of faith through the admiration of God’s grandeur
  • the elevation of hope by straining toward beatitude
  • the elevation of charity through intimate union with God and his holiness
  • the elevation of justice by imitating God’s justice in our own actions towards him and
  • towards others.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reflects on the priority of praise in the spirituality of Thomas Aquinas. He writes:

Saint Thomas says that through the praise of God the human being ascends to God. Praise itself is a movement, a path; it is more than understanding, knowing, and doing—it is an “ascent”, a way of reaching him who dwells amid the praises of the angels. Thomas mentioned another factor: this ascent draws the human being away from what is opposed to God. It awakens the inner man.[47]

Reason gets us close to God; love expressed through prayer gets us nearer. And “the nearer a being stands to God, the further away it is from nothingness.”[48] And who doesn’t want to be far away from nothingness!

So we study and we pray, because we want to live life boldly. And “the boldest people,” the Dumb Ox bellows, “are those who are rightly related to divine things.”[49] “All those who think rightly recognize that the end of human life is found in the contemplation of God.”[50]

As he lay dying in the Cistercian abbey of Fossanuova, Thomas Aquinas, contemplating God, dictated to the monks there a commentary on the Song of Songs. His dying words were a love letter to his divine Friend. Thomas Aquinas was about forty-nine years old when he died. Remarking on the tragedy of Thomas dying so young, one biographer says that “thought, like a raging fire, had used up his strength.”[51]

St. Thomas may be who the 14th century Rhineland Dominican mystic Johannes Tauler had in mind when he wrote, “A man may die of a broken heart because God works in him so vehemently that it is more than he can bear.”[52]

The published acts of the canonization process of Thomas Aquinas relate that, after Thomas’ death, his beloved teacher and master, St. Albert the Great, could not bear to hear the name of Thomas’ spoken without bursting into tears.[53]


Leonard Cohen, in that song “Come Healing”, makes this plea:

O solitude of longing / Where love has been confined / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind / O see the darkness yielding / That tore the light apart / Come healing of the reason / Come healing of the heart / Let the heavens falter / Let the earth proclaim / Come healing of the altar / Come healing of the name…

And another hymn writer—a glorious inductee of the angelic Hall of Fame—replies:

Being born, He became our friend. / At supper, He became our food. / Dying, He was our ransom’s price / And, reigning, is our eternal good. / O Sacrifice for our salvation, / Heavenly Gates You open wide. / Our enemies press hard around us. / Give us strength; our help provide. / To the One and Triune God, / Be glory and eternal praise. / May He grant us life forever / And to our home our souls upraise.



[1] Vita.

[2] Cited in Sertillanges, p. 46.

[3] A.G. Sertillanges, O.P., Thomas Aquinas: Scholar, Poet, Mystic, Saint, p. 119.

[4] Cited in Sertillanges, Thomas Aquinas, p. 22.

[5] Martin Grabmann, Thomas Aquinas: His Personality and Thought, pp. 1-2.

[6] G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas, ch. 3.

[7] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Person and His Work, p. 26.

[8] Sententia IV, 8, 1123 b 5.

[9] ST I-II, q. 37, a. 4.

[10] In Dionysii de divinis nominibus 4, 9.

[11] ST I-II, q. 35, a. 6.

[12] Torrell, The Person, p. 284.

[13] ST I-II, q. 40, a. 4, ad 3.

[14] Epist. ad Ephes., Prologue.

[15] ST I-II, q. 8, a. 1.

[16] SCG, Bk 2, 79.

[17] ST II-II, q. 179, a. 1.

[18] Fides et Ratio #28, 29, 42.

[19] Ibid. #43.

[20] SCG, Bk 1, 5, 2.

[21] Fides et Ratio #17, 20.

[22] — Accessed January 21, 2017.

[23] J.-P. Torrell, Christ and Spirituality in St. Thomas Aquinas, p. 24.

[24] In Boeth. de Trin. I, 2.

[25] Christopher T. Baglow, “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Doctrine,” in Aquinas on Doctrine: A Critical Introduction (Ed. Thomas G. Weinandy, et al.), p. 5.

[26] ST I, q. 2, a. 1.

[27] The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor (Ed. Sally Fitzgerald), pp. 93-94.

[28] Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem, XI, 2.

[29] Sertillanges, p. 46.

[30] Torrell, Christ, pp. xv, 3, 4.

[31] Thomas Gilby, Summa Theologiae: Volume I, “Appendix 5—Sacra Doctrina”, pp. 58, 60.

[32] Sertillanges, p. 54.

[33] Torrell, Christ, p. 15.

[34] Sertillanges, p. 42.

[35] Ibid., p. 56.

[36] ST II-II, q. 3, a. 4.

[37] Expositio in librum b. Dionysii de divinis nominibus, no. 191.

[38] SCG I, 2, 1.

[39] Dante, Divine Comedy, “Paradise,” canto 30, line 40.

[40] ST I-II, q. 26, a. 3, ad 4.

[41] ST I-II, q. 99, a. 2.

[42] ST I-II, q.4, a. 8c.

[43] Eth. IX. 10.

[44] ST II-II, q. 153. a. 5.

[45] Sertillanges, p. 5.

[46] ST II-II, 82, a. 3, ad. 3.

[47] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, p. 116—citing ST II-II, q. 91, a. 1 resp.; ST II-II, q. 91, a. 1, ad 2.

[48] SCG, Bk. 2. 30.

[49] ST I-II, q. 45, ad 3.

[50] Sent. I, Prologue, a. 1.

[51] Sertillanges, p. 27.

[52] Sermons, Sermon 11.

[53] Grabmann, p. 33.

[54] Verbum Supernum Prodiens.

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