Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I remember my late mother praying novenas. Every Tuesday, she would light a small candle in honour of Saint Martha – one of her favourite Saints – and pray the short novena prayer, letting the candle burn itself out afterwards. I still have my mother’s little prayer book and Saint Martha holy card, both of which are in the image above. Her devout practice made a lasting impression on me and it is something I have never forgotten.
The word ‘novena’ comes from the latin word ‘novem’, which means ‘nine’. A novena is a period of nine days of prayer set aside for a particular purpose – to ask for a grace or favour, to make a special petition, to give thanks, or to ask the particular intercession of a Saint. One popular novena is the Rosary Novena, which is perhaps more of a “super-novena” – it consists of 54 days or praying the Rosary; three novenas in petition (27 days), followed by three novenas of thanksgiving (a further 27 days). Another example is the practice of some parishes to pray a weekly communal novena in honour of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, or another in honour of Saint Jude. Most novenas, however, consist simply of nine days of prayer, such as the novena of Chaplets preceding the Feast of Mercy.
One extraordinary example of faithfulness and persistence in prayer by means of a novena, is that of the community of Our Lady of Peace Church, New York City; they are currently praying their 20th consecutive Rosary Novena, totalling more than 1000 days of prayer.
There is something of a sense of need about a novena – the intention is sufficiently important to us to pray throughout the entire period of the novena, and this is a salutary practice, for it allows us to fulfil the command that we “pray without ceasing” (cf. 1 Thes. 5:17).
The origins of the Catholic novena are found in the Acts of the Apostles, immediately after the account of the Ascension of Our Lord into Heaven –
“When they entered the city, they went to the Upper Room where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James, son of Alpheus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas, son of James. All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus and His brothers.” (Acts 1:13-14)
At the conclusion of those nine days of intense communal prayer, the Holy Spirit then descended upon Mary and the Apostles. And so this first singularly powerful novena is, in a sense, the birth pangs of the Church itself.
A novena should always be seen in it’s proper light, that light shone upon it by the wisdom of the Church. It is a holy and pious exercise, certainly – but it is not a guarantee that the requested favour will be granted by God. Sometimes, there can be a tendency for our practice of novenas to become almost magical: ‘I do this, God does that’. This is not how a novena works. Rather, it is an act of both petition and trust. That trust means we leave it to God to determine what is best for us, and to answer our prayer in the ways He deems best, as He deems best and when He deems it best for us. Our particular petition may or may not be granted in the way we ask – but what is certain is that God hears and answers every prayer according to His judgement, not ours.
Following in my mother’s footsteps, I recently completed a novena in honour of the Holy Spirit, concluding at Pentecost; and presently, I am praying another novena in honour of the Sacred Heart, for a particular intention, which will end in a few days’ time. Those times of prayer each day mean a great deal to me.
It is a beautiful thing to offer the Lord our prayers for a particular intention, knowing He hears and answers those prayers in the way that is best for us. There are many beautiful novena prayers available, and many small holy cards contain a short novena prayer directed toward particular Saints.
If a novena is something you have not done yet, why not start?