And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask Him?
Then Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart…
“And will not God bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off?”
—Luke 18:1, 7
Doing a novena can be viewed as calculative, treating prayer like a magic formula where, if we just say the right words for a set number of days, our wishes will come true.
Many non-Catholics come to the extremely popular shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Succor in the Redemptorist parish of St. Alphonsus in Singapore (colloquially known as Novena Church), because they hear that their prayers will be answered there. The devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Succor has become so renowned that even the entire suburb (and the train station, as well as nearby shopping centres and housing estates) has been named Novena. [So, to most Singaporeans, “Novena” is just a place name; many do not know that it refers to a nine-day prayer.]
However, God works in mysterious ways, and though our rationalistic modern minds may recoil from what appears like superstitious tripe, God deigns to bestow His graces through the beautiful tradition of novenas – even to non-Catholics.
The Prayer of a Mother
A long time ago, a gentleman added me on Facebook, and told me the story of how his Taoist mother had prayed and prayed to her Taoist gods for a son, especially with her nagging mother-in-law on her back. In desperation, she went to Novena Church, where the novena is prayed ten times every Saturday. [It is so crowded that the shrine was recently rebuilt in order to accommodate the throngs, and traffic police are deployed every week at the front of the church.]
To her joy and relief, a son was conceived, but she told no-one about visiting the church, afraid that her Taoist gods would be angry.
Years later, this son (married with a little daughter) felt a strong urge to visit Novena Church and ask for baptism. During the RCIA process, everyone else said they were there because of a significant other or a friend. They looked askance at him when he said he was simply there because he felt that his life would not be complete if he did not become a Catholic.
After he was baptised into the faith, his mother finally told him the secret of his conception.
Besides the novena for the dead, we find in the earlier part of the Middle Ages the novena of preparation, but at first only before Christmas and only in Spain and France. This had its origin in the nine months Our Lord was in His Blessed Mother’s womb from the Incarnation to the Nativity.
—“Novena”, New Advent
Dependence on our Heavenly Father
Novenas, like other forms of prayer, are an opening for God’s grace to work in our lives. They are an acknowledgement that we are not entirely self-sufficient; they are a persistent begging for Divine Providence.
God, who created all things in mathematical harmony (as beautifully evinced by the Fibonacci Sequence), entered into our postlapsarian chaos to restore peace and order in the hearts of men. He is intimately interested in our lives, for He loves us and is ever-ready to help us order our lives towards Him, so that we may have the fullness of life (John 10:10).
The discipline of praying a novena, or praying the rosary, or even praying the Mass with its set prayers (and the mathematical acoustics of music), is not to be undertaken superstitiously. A superstitious attitude is one that thinks it’s us doing the work. The attitude of faith is that we are nothing without God – everything we have is from Him, including our very being.
The religious emphasis of the film is not how to use the Force, but how to conform oneself to something that is beyond use. We do not hear the iconic line, “Use the force,” in Rogue One. We hear a reverent one: “Trust the force.” The difference between use and trust sums up the difference between magic and religion. Magic wishes to use supernatural powers for material ends. Religion wishes to subordinate material ends to a good and wise supernatural power. Rogue One elevates the disciple over the magician and the saint over the technician.
—Marc Barnes, “Rogue One and the Return of Reverence”, First Things
Just as we obediently follow the doctor’s instructions to take a course of medication over a set period of time, allowing it to restore or maintain our bodily health, so do we engage in the spiritual discipline of committing to a novena to discern God’s will in our lives, allowing Him to tend to all our needs, and conforming our lives according to His perfect plan.
My favorite novena is the Pentecost Novena to the Holy Spirit, based on the nine days which the apostles and Our Lady spent praying in the cenacle between the Ascension of Christ and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts Of Apostles 1:13-14). Which is yours?
“My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean.
—2 Kings 5:13-14
God has led us into solitude to speak to our heart. Let our heart then be a living altar from which there constantly ascends before God pure prayer, with which all our acts should be imbued.
—Carthusian Order (Statutes, 4.11)