Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Good Things Come in Nines: When at First You Don't Succeed, Pray, Pray, and Pray Again. A Novena Is Repetitive for a Reason; Its Nine Days Help Us Remember Others and Open Our Hearts

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Good Things Come in Nines: When at First You Don't Succeed, Pray, Pray, and Pray Again. A Novena Is Repetitive for a Reason; Its Nine Days Help Us Remember Others and Open Our Hearts

Article excerpt

SIX YEARS AGO, I WAS AT A FOURTH OF JULY PARTY when a woman I know handed me a photocopied sheet. "I'm asking everyone to pray this novena for my fiance's brother, who is struggling with mental illness," she said. "You say the prayer nine days in a row."

I took the sheet. It had an image of a sad, Byzantine Mary, and a short prayer. "I'd be happy to," I told her, but inside I was thinking, "Novenas? I don't do novenas."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As devotions go, novenas were at the bottom of my list. I'd always dismissed them as a fusty church tradition, one drenched in superstition. "What's so great about the number nine?" I wondered. "Won't God listen if I say the prayer eight times, or 10?" The entire concept seemed silly and arbitrary, as if the nine prayers were a spell in a fairy tale, some magic combination that would unlock God's heart.

My reaction said more about my ignorance than about the devotion itself. Novenas, I've since learned, have a compelling symbolism. They recall the nine days that Mary and the apostles prayed in the upper room, preparing for the Holy Spirit. Other sources say that they represent the nine months Christ spent in Mary's womb.

The practice itself originated in Roman times, when nine days of prayer and Masses were said for the deceased. Over the centuries, Catholics found other meaningful reasons to pray novenas. Some were offered in preparation for feast days, while others, like the novena I'd been given, requested the help of God or the intercession of the saints.

THAT JULY EVENING AS I DUTIFULLY BEGAN THE NOVENA I had been given to pray, my heart just wasn't in it. The language was archaic and flowery; it felt odd on my lips. But as the days passed, I realized that something was happening. I've always had a hard time remembering to pray for others; after a day or two, the intentions would slide out of my mind. With the novena I didn't forget. I said the prayer once, and then I went back eight more times. "Hmm," I thought. "Maybe this isn't so silly after all."

Since then, I've prayed several novenas, and I've come to value their steady structure and unique rhythm. I always start off strong, full of zeal. Around day four, I get bored, but I keep on plugging. By day nine I've broken through the monotony and recovered the beauty of prayer.

Even better, I end up with a deeper connection to the person I've been praying for. They've been in my heart long enough to create a bond.

I'VE ALSO LEARNED THE POWER OF being on the receiving end of novenas. A few years ago, I suffered a devastating miscarriage. I was in the middle of researching a book, and I confided my loss to one of the contributors, a woman I'd met only once. …

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