The Personalist Project

As a teenage convert to Catholicism, I found that novenas took some getting used to. I didn't have a clear idea (at all, at all!) of what was and what wasn't an integral part of the Faith. I figured I'd better start saying some novenas, just in case that was on the test on Judgment Day. 

Except I couldn't. I couldn't finish a single one. The virtues of consistency and perseverance, which have never been conspicuous in me, didn't suddenly appear when I switched religions.

Besides, being new to Roman rules and regulations, I wasn't at all clear on the spiritual status of saying half a novena, or a whole one in fits and starts over the course of 11 or 12 days. What if you forgot a day? Did you have to start over? Were you supposed to pick up where you left off? Would you get five-ninths of the grace, or what?

I couldn't figure it out--not that I tried very hard--so I just gave up attempting novenas for twenty years or so. I also learned that it was perfectly possible to be saved without them, so I mentally assigned them to the box where I kept odd Catholic practices which, though kosher, were matters more of taste than dogma.

But then I got invited to say a very short, very easy novena for a friend who'd been suffering from infertility for years. I broke down and joined in, and I did it! All nine days! 

About nine months later she had her miracle baby, and I was very glad I'd (somehow, apparently) had a part in it.

After that I said some more novenas, and they were answered in startling and unmistakeable ways. Jobs appeared out of nowhere; psychological burdens were suddenly lifted. I mentioned this to my sister, Abby. "According to anything I know," I puzzled, "There's nothing about saying a prayer for nine days that would make it more effective."

"Exactly," she replied. "According to everything YOU know."

Good point.

I'm not advocating superstition. My aversion to it was what made me suspicious of novenas in the first place, Certainly you can pray one, or splash holy water around, or wear a scapular, in a superstitious way--imagining there's some unseen power in, say, the number nine, or the piece of cloth--and that by tapping into that power you can bend God to your will.

But it need not be approached that way at all. There's a much more natural way of looking at it: that maybe there's something at play here that I have no knowledge of.

Nothing implausible about that.

If the Church, in Her wisdom, recommends (not requires) the practice of novenas, then there's probably something to it, and the fact that it's not what I would have expected really has no weight at all. 

Remember when Naaman the Syrian suffered from leprosy and was advised by Elisha to bathe seven times in the unimpressive Jordan River of the unimpressive Jewish people? He resisted: Damascus had more striking rivers, and besides, Elisha hadn't even bothered to meet him in person to thank him for the ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments he'd sent to Israel. But in the end Naaman listened to his servants and was healed just as thoroughly as if he had embraced his instructions enthusiastically in the first place.

When I was a Protestant kid at Bible Memory Camp, we memorized a lot of verses. (If you could recite enough by heart, you could win a glow-in-the-dark cross from the catalog.) One was: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts." Another was: "Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." 

It's easy for us to focus on the impressiveness of someone's real estate (the rivers of Damascus), or the lavishness of someone's payment (the shekels and talents and festal garments) or our trust in our own minds (overlooking details like our lack of omniscience). But what goes on inside a person--like humility (the willingness to take advice from slave girls and servants) and trust (even if it comes only after skepticism and rage) is more powerful than all the outward appearances and magic numbers in the world.

Comments (2)

Rhett Segall

#1, Aug 13, 2016 11:32am

Devra, I think your connecti novena prayer to the story of Naaman makes a lot of sense.  Perhaps novena prayer is a daring kind of prayer-we are willing to place our believe in God publicly (if we do the novena with others).  I'm reminded of a pastor in a farming community suffering from  drought. He invited parishioners to meet him in the fields together pray for rain.  Before he started the community prayer he looked with sadness upon his flock and said "We've come to ask the Lord for rain but I don't see anyone with an umbrella!"

But of course "Ask and you shall receive", if it be Christian prayer, must be encapsulated in "Not my will but thine be done." and "what father among you would hand his son a snake if he asks for a fish."

Only God's omniscience knows whether the fish we ask for may actually be a snake.



Devra Torres

#2, Aug 15, 2016 10:01am

That's a great story! Those of us who have seen dramatic answers to prayer really shouldn't have as hard a time as we do trusting God's judgment. It brings up something else important, too: what does it mean, exactly, to have faith? The way some people talk, you'd think it meant closing your eyes and trying really, really hard to make yourself believe something is going to happen. But it means something more personal than that, something much more closely related to trust and loyalty (the connection is clearer in some languages than others). There's trust that God has the power, in the first place, to do something about a request of ours, but then also trust that He knows what He's doing and that He has our good at heart--not just a generic belief that something is going to take place, but trust in a person.

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