Doug and Beth Popper, who live in Demarest with their two sons, chant a Buddhist phrase while facing a scroll that is too holy to be photographed.
Although their religions differ with regard to images, both couples believe in creating sacred spaces in their home in which to venerate holy objects.
The Pardalis household is a virtual gallery of more than a dozen handcrafted icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and patron saints. Some hang on bedroom walls, another rests atop the study's door frame. Some are displayed in wooden shrines known as ikonostasi. The principal one takes pride of place in the kitchen, where it serves as the altar of what in Greek is called "the church of the home."
"My family was very pious," says Maria. "Every day my grandmother bowed and made the sign of the cross 33 times in front of each of her icons. When my mother was having her kitchen remodeled, she had the carpenter design the new cabinets to match the shrine's style."
John - who grew up in Australia with his Greek immigrant parents - and Maria belong to the Church of the Ascension in Fairview, where their 6-year-old twin daughters attend Greek and Sunday schools. It was second nature for the family to continue the tradition of a physical religious center in their home.
When the girls and their 18-month-old brother were born, their parents contacted a priest in Astoria, Queens, who is also an iconographer. In the formal style that has changed little in 1,500 years, he painted the figures in front of a gold background representing the divine light of heaven. The name or initials are in Greek.
"An icon is a window to the spiritual world, revealing the heavenly possibilities for each viewer on earth and providing models to imitate." --Marilyn Bouvelas
Often an icon portrays one's patron saint. "For the Orthodox, a person's name day is more important than the birthday," says Maria. "That's when we celebrate with a party. In Greece, it's the day to return to your village. If you can't get there, you pray in front of the icon."
John and Maria saw shrines along practically every Greek road when they visited her widowed father, who retired to his native Chalkidi. In the course of their daily lives, people pause to pray in front of these eklisakia, "little churches."
Before icons are brought home or given as gifts, they are placed in the altar area of a church for 40 days and then consecrated by a priest. Families revere icons and pass them down to children and grandchildren. Maria inherited some from her mother.
The shrines serve as a focus for commemorative rituals, complete with appropriate objects. A candle and incense are lighted during prayer. Holy oil is put out during an unction service (blessing of the sick), when the icon itself may be carried to the sufferer's bed in hopes of a cure.
At Pascha (for Latin rite Christians, Eastertide), a flower from a church's replica of Christ's tomb, red-dyed eggs, and a candle lit by the fire blessed during the vigil service all symbolize the Resurrection.
The person who pulls out the coin baked into the Vasilopita (St. Basil's bread) on New Year's Day --which promises a lucky year ahead - wraps the first slice in foil and places it in the shrine for Christ. "All of these acts are part of our heritage," says Maria. "It's the way we connect to the whole Orthodox world."
In contrast to the Pardalises, Doug and Beth Popper display no religious images --not even of Siddhartha Gautama, the sixth- century B.C.E. founder of Buddhism. They are members of a school founded in 1253 by the Buddhist monk Nichiren.
Their devotional focus is a scroll that they consider the center of their home. On it, in Japanese characters, "is written all of life, its positive and negative aspects," says Doug.
Their scroll (Gohonzon) is a woodblock print copy of the original Dai-Gohonzon ("great scroll") that Nichiren first devised in 1279. His intent was to coordinate teachings and commentaries that express the oneness of the universal law (dharma) and human beings.
Devotion to that law - not to a personal figure - enables one to achieve enlightenment, or as Beth puts it, "to draw from the wellspring you have inside and achieve unshakable happiness and freedom."
The concept of "the law, not the person" accounts for the lack of religious figures in Nichiren practice. Its principal ritual - the four-word chant "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" - is done while facing the scroll. Each word has multiple meanings, making an exact translation difficult. But the repetition alone is believed to spark a host of positive energies.
"You can chant for energy, for health, for yourself and society," says Beth. "You can also chant for infinite patience, which is useful in raising children."
Chanting can be done at any time, although morning and evening worship is traditional. The earlier connects the person to Buddhahood; the later is a time to reflect on how it was expressed that day. The chant can be done in a monotone or varied in pitch and speed, alone or with others.
"You chant until you're satisfied," says Beth, "and you feel renewed and refreshed."
The scroll itself is housed in the innermost section of a butsudan, "Buddha house," usually a large wooden cabinet, with doors to close off the scroll when necessary. In and around the butsudan are ritual or symbolic objects that appeal to all the senses.
Fresh fruit or cake is offered to the Gohonzon, then eaten. Incense, spreading its fragrance, signifies the universality of the Buddha's law. A resonant bell provides a pleasant sound to both the scroll and life.
Just as the veneration of icons links the Pardalis family to the wider Orthodox world, so does the Japanese chant connect the Poppers to other Nichiren practitioners worldwide. The school is established in 188 countries; when they visited Germany and Japan, Doug and Beth felt at ease joining in group chants at Nichiren centers.
Closer to home, they take part in activities at the SGI (Soka Gakkai International)-USA center in East Orange. Beth also is women's division leader of the New Jersey region.
"Just as the Buddha reveals himself in everyday actions, so do we," says Doug. "In our daily lives, we work to develop virtue and improve character."
Upon the birth of each of their three children, Maria and John Pardalis of Leonia commissioned an icon of a saint from a Greek Orthodox priest.