Imagine this: With some trepidation about their future, a small band of people with a newfound faith commit to a period of intense prayer, out of obedience to their spiritual master. He has left them seemingly on their own, promising something big on the horizon.
After they follow their leader's instructions for nine days, God answers their prayers by acting in a singularly dramatic, transformative way. And the world is never the same again.
That's precisely what happened to Our Lady, the apostles and the other early disciples of Our Lord. After His ascension they prayed, waited and perhaps even felt some anxiety over "losing" Him again.
But they also trusted and persevered. In the end, He rewarded them on the Day of Pentecost with the coming of the Advocate He had promised, the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:1--2:4).
Jesus had instructed His followers to pray, and they obeyed. They were not disappointed.
Those nine days of prayer can be seen as the model for the Catholic tradition of the novena. A novena (from the Latin novem, "nine") is a prayer, or set of prayers, prayed for nine days, hours, weeks or even months.
It is often prayed for a specific intention or grace and may be directed to particular saints for their intercession.
Sometimes non-Catholics, and even a few Catholics, may ask, "Why should we pray novenas?" The short answer is simply that Jesus Christ calls us to pray. In fact, He tells us to "pray always without becoming weary" (Lk 18:1), to pray with persistence.
We'll never go wrong when we obey Christ. He promises that prayer works, and He often responds with electrifying results.
But that's only the first, most fundamental reason why we should pray novenas. A look at the history of this tradition provides ample encouragement for making it a personal practice.
Over the centuries, four specific types of novenas have emerged: novenas for mourning, preparation, petition and indulgences.
Novenas of mourning are the earliest type. They probably grew out of an early Christian custom of offering nine days of Masses for the departed. The global Church witnessed such a novena in 2005 with the death of Pope John Paul II. (A lovely booklet of prayers for that novena can be found at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website, www.usccb.org/liturgy/novena.pdf.)
Preparation novenas are joyful and anticipatory. They look toward major feasts (such as a Christmas novena) or celebrate the founder of a religious order.
Novenas of petition developed historically among the laity. They most likely originated as petitions for good health and eventually became generalized to include requests for other needs as well. For instance, a novena to St. Hubert, for protection against madness caused by a dog bite, was first prayed in medieval times and is still prayed today.
Many other novenas of prayer, directed to saints for special intentions, have proliferated over time.
The final type of novena, the novena for indulgences, overlaps with the others. The Church offers partial and plenary indulgences for more than 30 novenas, including one of the most recent, the Divine Mercy novena.
If the Church has not only approved and recommended a variety of novenas, but has also designated certain novenas as a prerequisite for an indulgence, we can be sure that these prayers are much more than just an instance of popular piety.
The Church recognizes the special value of the novena, whose form is particularly suited to overcome certain tendencies of our fallen human nature.
Boon to Prayer Life
We concupiscent human beings tend toward laziness. Countering that tendency, the repetitive form of the novena can serve to intensify and reinforce our prayer life. It forms a habit of persevering prayer in those of us who, left to our own devices, may fall away from prayer despite the best intentions.
Fallen human beings also tend toward rebellion. We balk at being told what to do. But following a divine prescription such as a novena can be the perfect remedy for such rebelliousness.
In praying a prescribed set of prayers, for a prescribed length of time, we are drawn out of ourselves and our vanities and into prayerful concentration and obedience. In this way, our prayer time is kept on track, becoming more focused by observing a set form.
A novena can also release us from a false attitude that we are somehow in control of a situation and its outcome through our prayers for a desired result.
With its repeated appeal to divine aid, the novena recognizes that we are helpless without God, and that control of the situation is squarely in His hands.
We are like the desperate widow in Jesus' parable who repeatedly asked the judge for help -- whose humble, persistent petitions the Lord offers as a model in prayer (see Lk 18:1-7).
To suggest that with a novena we relinquish (rather than make a play for) control may contradict popular perceptions. After all, some novenas actually promise "never to fail" should we meticulously follow their directions.
Of course, such instructions (always tacked on anonymously) are little more than superstition. Novenas are not magic and cannot manipulate the Divine Will. After praying in a specific way for a specific number of days, we are no more in control than we were at the start.
Instead, we receive from God a result of His own choosing. Our part is simply to demonstrate faithfulness in our commitment to prayer.
That's not to say, of course, that novenas aren't powerful. They certainly are, as is any faithfully attended prayer. A novena may even lead to miraculous results.
So, even though the specific, "guaranteed" promises attached to a number of novenas needn't be taken literally, they do reflect the confidence in this approach to petition that has grown through the experiences of millions who have received answers to their prayers.
In short, novenas work, and we should pray them because they are a valuable form of conversation with God and His saints. They flow from faith, and God always attends to the prayers of His faithful.
We may or may not get what we want. But as we pray novenas, we are praising, preparing, waiting and trusting. And we will be rewarded, just as Christ's first disciples were, in whatever way God sees fit.
Perhaps, then, what "never fails" when we pray a novena is that we always grow in faithful perseverance. And again, like the first disciples, we will not be disappointed. TCA
For the texts of many beloved novenas, see Michael Dubruiel's "The Church's Most Popular Novenas"(Our Sunday Visitor, 2006).
Karen Edmisten is the author of "The Rosary: Keeping Company with Jesus and Mary" (St. Anthony Messenger, 2009). Visit her online at www.karenedmisten.com.