prayer – the novena

“I’ll pray for you.”

This is what we say to other people of faith when we don’t know what else to say. We hear words proclaiming sickness or family strife or difficult decisions and then we nod, with sympathetic eyes, and say the words. I’ll pray for you.

I do. I do pray. I throw that prayer up to God and let it float away, wondering as I watch it go if it will find its way…make its mark…even matter at all.

Once, long ago, I didn’t ask for prayers. I didn’t even know I needed them. But somehow, my grandmother, over 500 miles away, did. And so, she began. A prayer of nine days, a novena, a staple in Catholic prayer life.

The nine-day novena recalls the time of prayer observed by Mary and the disciples between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost Sunday. For a short while after Jesus’ death, he returned to give his people strength. But then he was gone again, returning to his Father, leaving his people with only a promise of the spirit. And so, once he left, they prayed, hoping his promise would come. For nine days they prayed. On the next day, Pentecost arrived and the disciples were filled with faith and love for all the people and ready to go out and tell the world, the world, about Jesus.

Jesus didn’t leave me that day long ago, but across state lines, my grandmother knew that maybe, just maybe, I had left him. So she prayed devotedly for nine days. On the ninth day, my path, a path that had been twisting and turning for months, barely giving me a glimpse of tomorrow, suddenly burst onto an open plain with views expanding to forever.

I remember that when I wonder about prayer.

I remember the novena said by my grandma, unknown to me, that guided me back to love.

I remember her love for me now, after hearing my favorite priest has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I remember that prayer matters to me, to him, to God, and to all of us.

“To pray for others is not a futile effort to influence God’s will, but a hospitable gesture by which we invite our neighbors into the center of our hearts. To pray for others means to allow their pains and sufferings, their anxieties and loneliness, their confusion and fears to resound in our innermost selves. It is in and through us that God’s Spirit touches them with healing presence.”
–Henri J.M. Nouwen

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