What is a novena?
Q: Dear Father John, I have a question for your blog! I think I don’t really know what is a novena? How did it appear in the church and why? I know “neuvaine” means 9, but why 9 days before the feast/saint you are praying? Why would I pray a novena…?
A: This question is right on time! One of the Church’s most popular novenas is the Novena to the Divine Mercy, which starts on Good Friday. Maybe a few thoughts regarding the issues you raise can help all of us live it more deeply. We’ll take your questions one at a time: What’s a novena? Where did novenas come from? Why would anyone pray a novena?
What is a novena?
A novena is a formalized vocal prayer extended over a specific amount of time. Remember, vocal prayer is the kind of prayer where we use other people’s words to address God and to lift our hearts and minds to him. The “Our Father” is a vocal prayer, for example. St. Francis of Assisi’s famous “Make me an instrument of your peace…” prayer is a vocal prayer. You don’t have to say these prayers out loud to make them “vocal,” rather, you just have to give “voice” to (“voice” and “vocal” both come from the same Latin root: voco, vocare, which means to speak out or to call) the words of the prayer. We can recite the words of a vocal prayer in the silence of our hearts, or audibly. In either case, however, vocal prayers give us a channel for the desires and thoughts of our souls.
When we use this kind of prayer, we align our minds and hearts with the meaning of the words, giving God praise, renewing our faith and trust, asking him for things we need or desire, or all of the above. A good vocal prayer helps us connect with God. It also reinforces our Christian convictions: by giving words to good desires and expressions of love for God, we actually exercise those desires and that love, and when we exercise them they grow.
A novena is a vocal prayer, or series of vocal prayers, that you commit to praying over an extended period of time. These prayers are usually linked to a specific devotion (for instance, devotion to a particular saint) or liturgical celebration (a novena for Pentecost, for example). They are also very often linked to a specific intention that we are praying for – you can offer a novena as a way to petition God for a special grace, like the healing of a sick person or the conversion of someone who is far away from God. The words of the novena will reflect all of these factors. They will remind you of the meaning of the liturgical celebration, the virtues of a saint, or the goodness of God. And the combination of prayers will also, usually, give you a place to insert your personal petition.
It’s important to remember, however, that novenas are not magic formulas. They are prayers. They are one way we can enter into conversation with God.
Where did novenas come from?
The most common period of time during which we pray novenas is nine days. The word “novena” actually comes from the Latin for “nine.” The nine-day period of prayer has its origin in the Book of Acts. After Jesus’ Ascension into heaven, the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, and some of Christ’s other followers all “joined in continuous prayer” (Acts 1:14) for nine days, until the dramatic coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. We know it was nine days, because the Ascension happened forty days after the Resurrection (cf. Acts 1:3), and Pentecost was always celebrated fifty days after the Passover. The Resurrection happened the day following the Passover, so we can do the math: 50-40-1=9. This period in which the fledgling Church “joined in continuous prayer” in anticipation of the promised coming of the Holy Spirit is the first “novena.” Through the centuries, the strict period of nine days has taken various forms, including the nine First Fridays devotion recommended by our Lord to St, Margaret Mary and linked to the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Sometimes you even find local traditions of thirty-day or three-day “novenas.”
Why would anyone pray a novena?
In general, we pray novenas for the same reason that we pray at all: because God deserves our praise, and because we need his grace. Novenas are prayers, and all the benefits that prayer always brings are also brought by novenas. This particular form of prayer, however, has some special characteristics.
First, they provide a channel for strong spiritual sentiments or desires. Sometimes, our souls are so full of sorrow, or anxiety, or hope, or thirst for holiness that it is hard for us to find the words to express ourselves. Novenas give us a vehicle for prayerful expression. A novena of prayer can be a powerful way to mourn the loss of a loved one, for example – a novena of Masses can be a beautiful way to commend their soul to God’s mercy. In a crisis, a novena can channel our apprehension in a positive way: entrusting our deeply felt needs to God through the intercession of a saint, for example. Novenas put clear parameters around deep spiritual sentiments, enabling us to have confidence that we are keeping them in harmony with God and his will. In this way, they provide true comfort to our souls; they assure us that we are “doing our part,” so to speak, in response to particular needs of our own or of others.
Second, they help us stay in synch with our spiritual family, the Church. By joining in the Novena of the Divine Mercy (from Good Friday to Divine Mercy Sunday), for example, we unite ourselves to millions of other Catholics all over the world who are engaged in the same prayer. By praying a novena before a major liturgical celebration like Christmas or Pentecost, we can prepare our souls to engage in that celebration more fruitfully, less superficially.
I hope these observations have helped you understand a little bit better this long-standing devotion in the Church. And maybe it will even motivate you to try it out for yourself. I would like to invite our other readers to share their favorite novenas, along with any relevant experiences they may have had through praying them.
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