Confessions of a Novena Skeptic

MattPMy friend Matt (Rounding30) was recently diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.  As far as cancer goes, this is by far the “best kind of cancer” one could have.  He has been assured by doctors and survivors that Hodgkins is curable.  He is in excellent health with no real symptoms (other than a big lump on his neck).  Still in the early stages, Matt has none the less reached out to friends far and wide asking for their prayers.  Matt specifically asked all of his friends to pray this nine day novena to St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer patients.  Today is Day 9 that I’ve been praying for Matt.

What’s a novena?  Basically, a novena is a series of prayers, usually recited for a prescribed number of days (typically 9) where we ask the saints – our great cloud of witnesses, those whom we know to be with God in heaven – to plead our cause on our behalf.  We ask the saints to pray with us and for us.

I used to be really suspicious of novenas.  To be honest, I still AM a little suspicious of novenas.  They seem a little too “hocus pocus” for me.  All too often I’ve seen novenas that are akin to email chain letters promising all your dreams come true if just you read these saccharine sweet words aloud and then forward them to exactly seven of your friends including the person who sent this to you.

Prayer isn’t magic.

Prayer always begins and ends with our relationship with God.  The purpose of prayer is not to change God’s mind.  Rather, we place ourselves before God in prayer in order that God can transform our hearts and draw us closer to Him.  After all, God already knows what is best for us.  God is God, and we are not.

For the last three weeks, Matt has gone public with his fears (and sighs of relief) over complicated medical procedures.  An accomplished journalist and natural story teller, his regular blog updates are not only a great way to keep friends informed, but perhaps a bit of therapy at the end of the day as well. He’s been incredibly forthcoming about the strength he finds in knowing that hundreds of people are lifting him up in prayer.  Honestly, Matt’s testimony could make even the greatest skeptic a firm believer in the power of prayer!

In some ways, asking the saints to pray for us is no different than putting a shout out via our favorite social media channel and receiving a rousing affirmation and promise of prayers from our friends.  Who doesn’t need a little help from their friends every once in a while?  Especially if that friend is also close friends with God!

Perhaps there are still a few novena skeptics out there who need a bit of convincing.  Well, despite my own disbelief, I know with great certainty that the communion of saints will plead our cause to God!  Here’s my living proof:

therese-as-a-childSt. Therese’s mission was to make God loved!  She said, “After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses. I will spend my heaven doing good upon earth.”  This young woman once dreamed of becoming a great missionary and even hoped to die a martyr!  Sidelined by a long illness, she spent her days supporting the missions by her prayer.  St. Therese died from tuberculosis at age 24, and today she is considered one of the great patron saints of missionary causes.  (You can also watch this great story of her life here.)

Many of you know that I’ve been traveling to Nicaragua for over twelve years to volunteer with the Fabretto Children’s Foundation.  Before our very first campus ministry trip in 2006, I prayed this novena to St. Therese of Lisiuex.  Many people have reported receiving roses upon completion of a novena to St. Therese.  I was wary about the flowers and told myself that I was only asking Therese’s assistance for the sake of our mission.  I did not tell anyone about this, and on the last day of the novena, I happened to attend a luncheon.  Afterwards, someone stopped me and gave me one of the table centerpieces (filled with roses!) and said, “I thought you might like to have this.”  All these years later, those Nicaragua trips are still going strong, and that was not the first time St. Therese sent me flowers!

XavierHaitiSt. Francis Xavier is another great patron saint of missionaries.  St. Francis Xavier was a Jesuit priest and one of the first followers of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  He was first sent as a missionary to India and later ministered to the people of Southeast Asia and Japan.  His right arm (the hand he used to bless and baptize converts) is preserved at Il Gesu Church in Rome, which I visited this past summer.  My fondness for praying with St. Francis Xavier was completely accidental yet quite providential!

Several years ago, we had to cancel our Nicaragua mission trip due to a conflict of dates.  At the same time, we were struggling to work out the details of a potential trip to Haiti instead.  During my summer retreat, I stumbled upon this novena to St. Francis Xavier.  Shortly after returning from retreat, some important logistical details began to fall into place.  Not only did we send mission groups to both Nicaragua AND Haiti that year, but the village where we stayed in Haiti had a church named St. Francis Xavier.  Coincidence?  I think not!

Last spring, I went to visit my sister for a long weekend.  While I was there, I met a friend of my sister who told me two almost-unbelievable stories about praying a 54-day novena to the Blessed Mother.  This novena involves praying the rosary every day for 54 days. (No small feat for anyone in my humble opinion!)

mary-icon-bulgariaI had never met this woman before, and she had no idea of the personal situation in my life that was already unfolding.  I’d been anxious about some things at work, and I was uncertain about where to turn.  I shared very little of my story with her, but she did not hesitate to share her novena stories with me!

She warned me that the graces of this novena are quite unimaginable.  From her own experience, it was clear that God had answered her prayers in some utterly surprising ways.  God often gives us gifts we think we don’t need, yet she assured me, these are the kind of graces you will receive from this novena!

To be honest, I’ve never particularly enjoyed praying the rosary, and I could feel my novena skepticism kicking in!  I went online to do a little research about the 54-day novena, and I came across this commentary which confirmed my own sensibilities.  It reiterated what I have always ascribed to – that there is no “magic formula”.  This is not about saying all the right words, in the right order, at the exact time every day.  What is most important is that we give our hearts to God.  (And in this case, ask Mary to pray with us, too!)

RosaryBraceletIt’s funny, for someone who doesn’t “like” praying the rosary, I always keep a rosary in my purse!  (How’s that for superstitious hocus pocus?!)  I prayed the rosary on the airplane ride home that night and continued to do so for the next 53 days.  Even on the most hectic days, I would look forward to spending this time in prayer and experienced a tremendous amount of inner calm while I prayed.  I remember saying once, “God, if the only grace I receive from this novena is 20 minutes of peace a day, I will take it!”

In the midst of this novena, I learned that my position at work was being eliminated.

After the immediate shock wore off, the peace I experienced was almost exponential!  I haven’t shared this with many people, because it still seems absurd to me that someone could lose their job (a job that I loved dearly!) and experience this kind of consolation. Six months later, I’m still searching for full-time employment.  I’m also taking Spanish classes, doing some freelance writing, and considering a long-term volunteer project with our Nicaragua partners.  And I continue to experience a peace and a freedom that is beyond my understanding!

There is certainly no comparison between losing one’s job and acquiring a cancer diagnosis.  Although, I think there is a particular gravitas and emotional strain that uniquely results from either one.  Upon confirming the doctor’s initial suspicions, Matt posed this rhetorical question on his blog:

“Who gets a cancer diagnosis and spends the day feeling grateful?
This guy, apparently.”

Not unlike the affirmation I experienced after praying with St. Therese or St. Francis or the Blessed Mother – it’s called grace my friend! It is nothing less than God’s unabashed love for you – reminding you that you’re exactly where you are meant to be.  We aren’t always able to see God working in our lives in such obvious ways.  What a gift when it’s right there for us to see!  Time and time again, I’m reminded that faith is not about easy answers or magical solutions.  It is about trusting in the deeper mysteries of God.

Finally, while we’re on the subject, one important note….

I’m sure that many (if not all) of us have lost family members and other loved ones to cancer or other horrible diseases.  Good and faithful people die of cancer every day, even those whose friends and family never ceased praying for them!  God hears all of our prayers, even if God does not answer them in the ways we would want.

joan-of-arc2I have some dear friends who lost their teenage son to cancer several years ago.  Near the end of his life, it became clear that a “cure” was highly improbable.  Their family and friends continued to rally and pray for a miracle.  With great trust in God’s mercy, my friends affirmed what we believe as people of faith – we believe in the resurrection!  Death was not the end for Jesus, and it is not the end for us either!  My friends knew that long days of sadness and mourning awaited them, but they were never without hope – even in the face of death.

I was so impressed by what they shared on their blog, and I will try to summarize it here.  They said:  We know that many of you are praying for a miracle.  We are humbled by your prayers that our son would experience a physical cure.  Please keep those prayers coming!  But sometimes the greatest “miracle” is being able to catch a glimpse of the impossible work of God that remains hidden most of the time.  God can use the worst tragedy (cancer, brain tumors, even death!) to accomplish the miraculous: reconciling alienated family members, forging a bond between siblings, or inspiring renewed faith in those who have left the church or doubt the existence of God.  We are confident that a miracle awaits us, even if a cure for cancer does not!  (Inspired by their son’s courage, they continue to fight for a cure.)

I think about my friend Matt and the journey he has undertaken. Thanks to modern medicine, I have no doubt that he will experience a complete CURE to this unfortunate disease.  My hope is that his upcoming bout with chemo will be nothing more than a temporary inconvenience, and life can return to “normal” in a few short months.  Although, I suspect he will be forever changed by coming face to face with the reality of cancer, and I can already see his life transformed by the tremendous outpouring of love and support from his friends.

I know Matt to be a person of deep faith.  And I know that God is faithful to all who put their trust in Him. I have no doubt that we will soon be celebrating the life of a young man who is cancer free!  And I am confident that God will use this time in Matt’s life to accomplish the miraculous.


7 thoughts on “Confessions of a Novena Skeptic”

  1. Reblogged this on Rounding 30 and commented:
    My friend Beth Knobbe, whom I first met at Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University (more than 10 years ago?!) when I was a senior and president of Catholic Undergrads and she was interning there, wrote an insightful post to her blog today that mentions me and examines the power of prayer (and novenas) a little bit more personally. Thanks for the prayers and for giving me the day off from blogging, Beth!

  2. Thanks so much! Matt wouldn’t remember me, but I always was struck by what a remarkable person he is! Please pass on my best wishes if you know how to contact him. This old lady will join the chorus of people seeking to support him in prayer and any other way we can. Your writing continues to amaze me! Keep the good work flowing, please!!

  3. My novenas have never worked out the way I expected. I’ve prayed the 54-day rosary novena twice! Still no husband! LOL! Although . . . maybe “no husband” was the answer I needed at that time. Maybe it’s the answer I still need.

    And don’t even get me started on St. Therese! I prayed the novena, she sent me roses, and then . . . well, let’s just say that’s a story I’ll save for my spiritual memoir. 🙂

    Great post, as always!

    1. Hi.. I’m on the 53rd day… I was hoping to find a testimony where someone found their life mate after the novena. Ur testimony disappointed me a bit :)..but I am sure it will be worth the wait and you will soon …I am 27… I wanted to find the riggt person ever since I turned 21…waiting. . Praying… growing in faith .. This is the first time I’m praying the 54 day novena though. I am hoping my prayers will b answered. It will happen in God’s time….and I hope you find a partner soon 🙂

  4. K, we will see if some divine intervention is necessary to get this one posted, but at least I will copy it in case it doesn’t.

    No, novenas or other devotions are acts of faith. The first time I remember trying one was when my life pretty much went to hell, and I had to move back to Chicago and move in with my mother. A friend made a suggestion. Spend twenty minutes in prayer for the next nine days. I mentioned this to another friend and he said, “Oh, a novena.” It finally occurred to me that the word novena comes from the number nine.

    It reminded me of the incident in 2 Kings in which Elisha instructs Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was a high official from Syria who came to the land of Israel looking for a cure for his skin disease. His first reaction was to refuse. Were there not bigger and better rivers in Syria? His servant then suggests to him that he give it a try. If Elisha had suggested that Naaman do something extraordinarily difficult, wouldn’t he have done it? Why not agree to do something simple. So Naaman does, and he is cured.

    The result of my novena was… um, I don’t know that there was one. My situation did not significantly change. I did not find a solution to the problems facing me. Perhaps all I got out of it was the twenty minutes of peace Beth refers to. But I am pretty sure that it did not do me any harm.

    Recently, I find myself looking back at that period of time in my life, thinking about how I got to where I am today, thinking about how little apparent progress I have made, and thinking about what I have lost in the meantime. That is pretty painful, and frankly, I am more than a little pissed at God right now. I have found in the past that often the most difficult and painful parts of my life were the times of greatest spiritual growth, but given the choice, I think I would opt out of growing right now. But I am trying every day to pray for guidance, to remember that God is not a vending machine, and to try to give thanks for the struggles and pain I am going through now, because I truly believe, or at least want to believe, that there is some divine purpose in them.

    I suppose that is what I got out of my novena experience. The idea that I might be willing to put my life in God’s hands, with no reliable view of the future, with no guarantee of positive results, with the possibility that I will find myself in more or less the same place years later, and accept that and do it anyway. As Christians we truly believe that God has an active role in our lives. One of the things I love about our Catholic faith is its acceptance – even embrace – of paradox and mystery. So I do not have to know what God is doing or how He intends to do it. I can choose to move forward with faith, not necessarily with confidence, that I am being lead in the direction I need to go. Perhaps I need to travel on a seemingly dark and lonely road for a long time before I see any result. I hope not, but I guess I am going to find out. But I give thanks that despite the pain and confusion, there is at least a part of me that is willing to follow the path before me, wherever it may lead. I am grateful for that part of me. If it has taken lots of uncertainty and disappointment to engender in me that meager amount of faith, it is a price I am willing to pay.

  5. Please have a bit more respect when referencing the Holy Rosary. You should’nt use it along with words such as “hocus pocus”. Be serious and mindful always. Are you using those words to show you are not “corny” or “over doing it” a bit? Have a sense of humility please. You have a gift for writing so use it sensibly and mindful of what you write and who your audince will be. Heaven is watching too. Be Blessed.

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