It took a Jewish woman to remind me of the irreplaceable significance of prayer and penance in the life of a believer.
This is my third autumn with you here in New York, and each year I have been inspired by how seriously our Jewish neighbors take their high holy days.
On the evening after Rosh Hashanah, the New Year in the Hebrew calendar, I had the pleasure of an enjoyable evening out at an Italian restaurant. (“Where is the penance in that?” I can hear you ask!)
Around the table were Catholics, a Greek Orthodox gentleman, and a delightful Jewish woman at my side.
At my urging, she described to me the way she and her family observed the holy days upon them. She was especially eloquent about the rigor and meaning of the then approaching Yom Kippur, the revered Day of Atonement.
On Rosh Hashanah, she explained, her people entered a period of reflection, examination of the just concluded year, and made some resolutions about the year ahead.
Then, with sundown on Yom Kippur, she and her family began an intense 24 hour period of prayer and fasting from all food and even water.
She went on to share with me what this was all about. Part of it, she pointed out, was repentance for past sin through prayer and mortification.
Secondly, she went on, was a sense of solidarity with the suffering and hungry of the world whose hunger — unlike her own — was hardly voluntary, but part of a daily survival.
Finally, she concluded, was a sense of bodily hunger, thirst, and emptiness, which was but a mirror of the interior hunger and thirst we all have, an emptiness only God can fill, as the Hebrew psalmist so eloquently sang.
She then asked me, “Do you Catholics have such an experience?”
Sure, I was able to reply. Every Friday is supposed to be a day of penance for us. (But is it? I thought to myself.)
Lent, I went on, was a forty day experience of what she described, with special penance on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the other Fridays of that season. (But is it? I wondered to myself.)
Then I reminisced about the Ember Days, fasting before Holy Communion, and penitential vigils of holy days that we used to have.
I mentioned to her that Jesus, steeped in faithful Jewish tradition, told us that reflection, prayer, and penance were essentials in following Him.
As we left, I thanked her for what I described as an “evening of recollection,” listening to her elaborate on her Jewish faith.
“But I worry,” she concluded, “because I fear we Jews might be losing our tradition of sacred times of reflection, prayer, and penance.”
“You’re not alone,” I assured her. “I fear we Catholics are, too.”