Catholics are often criticized for reciting formalized prayers. The thought is that in doing so, we are “babbling like the pagans,” which is precisely what Jesus warns against in Matthew 6. Vain repetition gets you nowhere in prayer, because prayer is about coming into relationship with God.
Yet Scripture shows us that there is a place for formalized prayer in the life of the Christian. Jesus taught his disciples a specific formal prayer in the Our Father. Even Jesus Himself—a Jew—recited the Psalms from memory as prayers offered to God the Father.
I bring this up because recently my family and I began a novena. And I’m noticing in my own prayer life a growing love for praying novenas. Of course, things like rosaries and novenas are not supposed to take the place of personal prayers to God, but I’ve been finding that reciting these prayers with a proper disposition does not harm my relationship with God but actually enriches my prayer life and draws me closer to Jesus.
For those that are unfamiliar, a novena is a specific prayer or series of prayers recited for nine straight days (usually. The term “novena” comes from the Latin novem, which means “nine.” Nine days is significant because the Apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary spent nine days in prayer between Easter and Pentecost. But the term has also come to be used to describe any lengthy consecutive period of prayer).
A novena is most often recited for a specific intention as a prayer of petition. For example, I prayed the St. Andrew Novena in 2012 for the intention of getting pregnant, if that be God’s will (of course it’s somewhat unnecessary to add the ‘if it be God’s will’ part, but I always do as a reminder to myself that I want Him to be the one in charge!). Novenas can also be offered as prayers of thanksgiving.
Of course, novenas are not supposed to be superstitious, and Catholics do have to be on guard against treating them so. There’s no magic formula to transform God’s will into mine. On the contrary—prayer is about uniting OUR will to HIS. But I think novenas can help us do just that. As King David writes in Psalm 51:
For you do not desire sacrifice, or I would give it;
a burnt offering you would not accept.
My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit;
a contrite, humbled heart, O God, you will not scorn
Treat Zion kindly according to your good will;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will desire the sacrifices of the just,
burnt offering and whole offerings;
then they will offer up young bulls on your altar.
What is the Psalmist talking about? Any reader of the Old Testament knows that God did, in fact, require sacrifice quite often as atonement for sin. So why is the Psalmist saying that God does not desire sacrifice?
Because He doesn’t—not for sacrifice’s sake, anyway. God didn’t require animal sacrifice because he needed to see blood in order to forgive us. He required it to show us the reality of sin—and it’s ugly. You’re not supposed to want to do it. Sin is supposed to break your spirit. God wants real contrition, not mere formula.
So what does this have to do with a novena? Like offering sacrifice, reciting a prayer does nothing if our hearts aren’t in it. Reciting a formalized prayer doesn’t remind God of what we need—He already knows! But it sure can help us. Meditating on a specific prayer for nine (or however many) days sure can dispose our hearts to receive the graces that God wants to give us.
The current novena I am praying has me praying the following words three times each day: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in you.”
As a result— for me anyway— those words have become truer today than they were on day one.
Praise God for the gift of formal prayers!