Coming to the culmination of Great Lent

In his “Note on the Religious Tendencies” published by Liberation magazine in 1959, the Zen Buddhist and poet Gary Snyder remarked, “The statement common in some circles, ‘All religions lead to the same goal,’ is the result of fantastically sloppy thinking and no practice.” His very next sentence is equally startling. “It is good to remember that all religions are nine-tenths fraud and are responsible for numerous social evils.”

Well, the essay is largely a defense of the beat generation, and he was an American studying in monasteries in Kyoto. I wonder if he’d admit today how much social progress and learning have come about through religion, too. That could make for an illuminating debate.

I did hear him once mention that on the Buddhist spectrum, Zen starts at one extreme and Tibetan tradition at the other, but that as followers of each advance in their practice – as he said this, his outstretched arms began to sweep over this head – they eventually approach and then cross places. Just as his arms were doing. Go far enough, of course, and each would land where the other one had set forth.

Without going into detail, I find a lot in common there when it comes to Quakers and Eastern Orthodox on the Christian spectrum.

The one is plain, even austere, and very much centered in the present. The other is visually and tactily rich, accompanied by an accentuated awareness of mortality and death.

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I am a Quaker who’s been fascinated lately with Greek Orthodox life. It doesn’t all spring from questions arising as I drafted and revised my novel What’s Left, either. Besides, Cassia’s family wasn’t all that observant of their native faith, even if members were toying with the Tibetan Buddhism her father practiced.

Admittedly, few Americans know much about either Quakers or Orthodox Christians, despite their impact on the larger society. Ditto for Buddhism.

Today is an especially important day for the Orthodox.

While Protestants and Catholics are celebrating the day as Easter, for the Orthodox it’s Palm Sunday – the beginning of an intense week of daily services leading up to the nearly riotous Pascha liturgy after midnight next Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection. Altogether, it’s about 25 hours or so of chanting, prayers, readings, and hymns that comprise what some call the marathon. (The priests and deacons have to repeat much of that the next morning, too.) There is nothing quite like it in Western Christianity, and the extended ritual goes far beyond Wagner’s grueling Ring Cycle week in opera. Oh, yes, that also means getting through the last week of the strictly limited diet known as fasting that accompanies Great Lent. It’s a wonder that the priest or the psalmists have a voice left approaching the final days of these services.

In contrast, Quakers adhere to no fixed round of observances – every day is to be holy, befitting what’s given as the day’s portion. (Well, we do have yearly and quarterly meetings on the calendar, but they’re for the conduct of church business, mostly. Quite down-to-earth by comparison.)

I’ve been called a dyed-in-the-wool Quaker for good reason, but the coming week helps me from getting lazy in that practice.

I won’t quibble with what Snyder might define as the goal in religion – I imagine that could vary widely – but I do contend that all religions are not the same. The differences can be very important and essential to vitality. They can be as different as a rocky Maine seashore is from a Florida mangrove or as both are from a glacial mountaintop or desert expanse. You can’t live everywhere – you have to choose someplace specific and tune into it. It is nice to travel and visit, though.

Let us note, too, that the Jewish Passover has just begun, celebrating the liberation of the Israelites from the bondage of pharaoh.

What distinctive teaching or practice in your own faith tradition is especially important to you? What do you find most emotionally moving?

Worship in Annunciation Greek Orthodox church, Diver, New Hampshire. The arch over the Blessed Gate looks much smaller in this shot than it does in person. (Photo by Maria Faskianos)

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