I just finished up the St. Anne novena, a prayer prayed over the nine days preceding her feast day. Those nine days are a time when single Catholic girls storm heaven in hopes that a tall, dark, and handsome man will come knocking on their front door on the ninth day. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But I’m pretty sure St. Anne gets a sharp increase of prayers during that time, and I bet most of them are prefaced with the plea, “St. Anne, St. Anne, find me a man…”
When the novena rolled around this year, I decided not to pray it for myself but for a handful of lovely single girlfriends I have, all of whom would make beautiful and holy wives for some lucky young men. But as I thought about the novena, I began reflecting on the way many of us (myself included) use novenas or even prayer in general. I have often found myself approaching prayer with a vending machine mentality.
Put my money in. Push C3. Receive candy bar.
Pray this prayer for nine days. Add in half-heartedly the clause “or whatever you will, God.” Receive what I want.
I’m a firm believer that St. Therese has not given me roses at the end of the nine-day prayer to her precisely because I subconsciously pray the novena just to get roses. This isn’t a vending machine or a test. It’s a prayer.
When you look online for prayers to St. Anne, you find lots of pleas such as, “What is the most successful prayer in finding a husband?!” (I’m going to try not to address the idea husband-hunting—my thoughts on that are worthy of a whole other post.) While I want to give the anxious pray-er the benefit of the doubt, that sort of question seems to lean toward a vending machine mentality. I want a husband—so what is the special formula to get what I want/need/desire/am made for?
Is this really how and why we are supposed to pray?
Let’s start, however, with what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that novenas aren’t good or that prayers for a particular intention or to a particular saint aren’t good and beautiful and true. After all, the first novena (nine-day prayer) was prayed as a response to a direct command from Jesus Christ! In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his apostles to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit. After his Ascension, they do just that—they return to the Upper Room, and instead of staying there in fear, this time they stay there in prayer. “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) Nine days later, the Holy Spirit descends upon them.
Novenas are part of the spiritual patrimony of the Church and prayers of intercession for a particular intention are an obvious response to Jesus’ command to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7-8). There is nothing wrong with praying for a future spouse—in fact, that’s the best first step one can take.
The danger lies in treating novenas as if they are some sort of magic formula. If you aren’t married or dating, it’s not because you haven’t found the right prayer to pray. It’s not because you haven’t put enough money in the vending machine. If at the end of the ninth day, there’s no handsome, daily-Mass-attending man knocking on your door, it’s not like the novena failed.
What is the purpose of the novena, then? Why am I bothering to pray a prayer for nine days to St. Anne, asking her to find my St. Joseph for me? If it’s not going to happen at the end of the nine days, why bother?
I’m not saying it won’t happen. I’m sure people could fill the comment box of this post with stories of answered prayers at the end of the novenas. I don’t want to belittle any of those. I’m only admitting that I often concentrate on the outcome I want while missing the whole point of prayer. I fall into the trap of thinking that if I do x, I will obviously receive y. And if I don’t receive y, I must have done something wrong. Maybe it was that day that I forgot to say the prayer until after midnight…
St. Jude has come through me repeatedly, and every time God works a little miracle in my life through the intercession of St. Jude, I give him glory. I love to tell my St. Jude miracle stories to anyone looking for a new saint to pray to in a particularly hopeless situation. But novenas can be used poorly. When they become our focus, we lose sight of the purpose of prayer. When we focus on the vehicle of prayer instead of the purpose of prayer, it’s like my friend Matthew Leonard says—we’re focusing on the car that got us to the beach instead of the beach! (I highly recommend his book on prayer, Prayer Works!, for anyone looking for help jump starting their prayer life.)
Anything in this life is a gift. Jesus asks us to pray for great gifts, and assures us that if a father is willing to give his child good things, how much more is our Heavenly Father willing to give us the best (Matthew 7:11). But the greatest gift we can receive is a relationship with him.
The giver of the gifts doesn’t want you to come, insert your money in the machine, take your snack, and go home. He wants a relationship with you. Rather than a vending machine, maybe I should strive to have my prayer life more like those trendy “farm dinners,” where you eat dinner with the farmer who raised the crops you’re eating. Rather than some sort of automatic transaction where I put prayers in and receive blessings back, it’s time to sit down and talk with the giver of the gift. That is more important than any gift he could give me, and any gift he gives me is always for the purpose of that relationship.