A novena for the dead, nine days of meditative prayer addressed to the departed for the departed: why have I chosen to use that method of prayer? Why pray nine days, no more, no less? Why this method instead of some other method? Well, whatever its long-time association with the largest branch of the Church, namely the Roman Catholic, the novena must be acknowledged as to be quite old, its origin being bound up with the origin of the Church itself. For, according to Scripture, after the Ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven, the disciples prayed together in the upper room, devoting themselves to prayer constantly:
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away; and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeu and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (Acts 1:12-14).
In those days all movement on the Sabbath was restricted to a distance of 2000 cubits (between five and six furlongs), thus “a sabbath day’s journey away” would mean that Mount Olivet stood substantially less than a mile from Jerusalem.
If we accept that the Ascension occurred on a Thursday as tradition maintains it did, and if we imagine that the company of followers reached the upper room in Jerusalem sometime close to sunset of that day and if, accordingly, we imagine that they began to pray after sunset, then we can consider that this first novena actually began on a Friday, the day immediately after the Ascension of Jesus Christ into the heavens (but only a little time after leaving Mount Olivet), since in those days the next day began at sunset. Nine days from Friday, wherein “all these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer”, takes us to the second Saturday, the day before Pentecost, this being the day when, as we are told in Acts 2:2-4:
. . . suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributing and resting on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
All through the nine days of this prayer, “the company of persons” remained “in all about a hundred and twenty” (Acts 2:15b). After the ninth day, however, the Sunday when the Holy Spirit descended, “there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41b); which is to say three thousand souls were actually baptized on that day, every soul having been “cut to the heart” by the inspired words of Peter and the rest of the disciples (Acts 2:37).
Here, in this first novena, we witness the remarkable results of nine days of determined prayer by a company of determined people, this little band of followers of the Risen One increasing their number by nearly thirtyfold after those nine days. If it is true that prayer, as Saint John Chrysostom claims, “is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings”, then surely this first novena goes a long way toward giving good proof of the claim.
Through the centuries since that time the novena as a method of continual and fervent prayer, used individually or by a group, has been popularly considered to be very powerful for the gaining of favors from heaven. We should note that this form of prayer has been used not only by Roman Catholics, but also to some extent by Orthodox, Anglicans and Lutherans. Surely there is at least some truth in the popular belief as to its power. Stories of its efficacy abound. Besides, with the successful example of the first novena before us, what greater favor could be desired or granted than the descent of the Pentecostal fire upon the heads of the supplicants?
“. . . It is to your advantage that I go away,” said Christ to his disciples before his Passion and Death, his Resurrection and Ascension , “for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7).
Are we to understand that the Master’s disciples prayed for the Comforter to come to them, even though the Master had already said that he would send Him to them? Yes, I believe that we are to understand exactly that – clearly so. For, if the Apostles, the disciples, and his Mother had not prayed for the Comforter, how would they have been ready to receive Him if or when He came?
“The desire is your prayers,” notes Saint Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms, “and if your desire is without ceasing, your prayer will also be without ceasing. The continuance of your longing is the continuance of your prayer.” Without prayer for the Comforter, what desire could possibly live in the soul for the Comforter actually to fulfill? Without longing, what prayer? Without longing, what comfort?
“It is clear.” writes Thomas Aquinas, “that he does not pray, who, far from uplifting himself to God, requires that God shall lower Himself to him, and who resorts to prayer not to stir the man in us to will what God wills, but only to persuade God to will what the man in us wills.” Does it not follow from this that to pray for the Comforter, to pray for the Counselor, is already to “uplift” oneself, is already to be prepared to will what God wills?
As a form of prayer, the novena in its traditional practice has taken a rightful place within the larger, living tradition of Christianity. In this tradition, a novena need not necessarily be prayed over a period of nine days. When one prays any novena, one can do it in one day. One can say the prayer (or set of prayers) one time every hour for nine hours, for example, or one can say it three times in the morning, three times in the afternoon, andthree times in the evening.
“Thank you Saint Jude for favors granted.” Who has not seen this ad many times in the personals column of the local newspaper? Without doubt novenas to Saint Jude are by far the most popular novenas prayed. A novena to Saint Jude would be made by someone in dire straits, by someone who feels desperate and needs immediate help, since Saint Jude is the patron saint of lost causes, those in despair, and those who feel hopeless. Who has not been precisely that someone in dire straights at one time or another in the tribulations of life? Aside from the many stories related regarding the use of this novena, aside from the popular belief that this novena, if prayed in good faith, is always answered, there are these newspaper notices as testimony. To judge by them alone the novena as a method of determined prayer – at least in these specific cases – would seem to be truly effective.
There are many kinds of novenas.
Decades ago I had an aquaintance — a friend of a friend — to whom one day I offered a job in the business I was then starting up. A Brahmin from India, he had a doctorate in philosophy from Germany and had come up from LA where he had been teaching in a small college. Hardly knowing him, I had no idea that he was broke and desperate for a job, although of course I did understand he might be available for work. When he heard my offer his eyebrows shot up, he laughed, and he exclaimed, “This is the tenth day!” It turned out that, having converted to Catholicism a few years before, he had only a little while ago been on a personal retreat to a Benedictine monastery. There he had consulted with the oldest (and simplest) monk around, explaining his predicament. The old monk handed him a card with a picture and prayer on it and said, “Pray this prayer to Saint Joseph the Worker faithfully for nine days. If you do that, you’ll have a job.”
This however begs an important question. Is a method of determined prayer for the seeking of a favor ever justified purely on the ground of its supposedly assured results? If making a novena is a matter pure and simple of consistent prayer over nine days, or nine hours, or – for that matter – nine months, in order successfully to win a favor from God on the tenth day, tenth hour, or tenth month, whether it be through the intercession of a saint or not, however worthy the favor, is not this really a form of vain repetition, as some critics would no doubt be wont to say, if not outright superstition? Is God to be influenced merely by an effective method?
In order to answer this question, I think it would be best to take a closer look at the making of that first novena, together with its successful outcome, the miraculous birth of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The which, dear Reader, will be the concern of my next blog.
Pax et bonum,