A few months ago, my husband and I decided to start praying the St. Andrew Novena together. The novena begins on November 30th (St. Andrew’s feast day) and ends on Christmas Day. It can be an intense undertaking, as it calls for praying the same prayer 15 times a day, every day. I will admit, I did not finish all 25 days of the novena (all the kudos go to my husband, who did!). But a few days into it, I started wondering what this novena business was all about, anyway.
I was born and raised Catholic. I have prayed a handful of novenas throughout my life, mostly in recent years. Despite participating in them, I’ve never learned much about them, or why we as Catholics might want to pray them. So I did some digging, and I’m sharing it all here in case you, too, are curious about this aspect of Catholicism.
What is a Novena?
The word “novena” is derived from the Latin word for nine, or “novem.” Typically, a novena refers to nine days of prayer, asking God for a specific intention, often through a Saint’s intercession. Novenas are a beautiful way to grow purposeful, consistent, and persistent in daily prayer.
Many of the most popular and widely-prayed novenas begin or end on a Saint’s feast day. And it’s important to note that while most novenas are indeed nine days long, there are some exceptions (like the St. Andrew Christmas novena, which is 25 days long!).
Why is a Novena 9 Days?
There are a few reasons why the number nine might be significant.
The first comes from the Acts of the Apostles, when Jesus told His disciples to gather together and pray after His Ascension into Heaven. Tradition tells us that the Apostles, along with the Blessed Virgin Mary, went to the Upper Room and prayed together for the nine days between Jesus’ Ascension (believed to have been 40 days after His Passion/Passover) and Pentecost.
Another reason could be that nine is significant because of the nine months that Mary carried Jesus in her womb. In fact, people in the Middle Ages traditionally spent nine days in prayer leading up to Christmas to signify the nine months that Jesus spent in the womb of His mother!
I love these two thoughts behind the significance of the number. The parallel between Jesus spending nine months in Mary’s womb before coming forth to fulfill His mission on Earth, and Mary and the Apostles spending nine days in prayer before going forth to spread the Gospel is so striking.
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How Do You Pray a Novena?
Simply pray the novena prayer that corresponds with each day for nine days straight. Some novenas repeat the same prayer each day (those are great ones to start with!), while others have a specific prayer for each day of the novena.
I personally like to bring one specific prayer intention into the novena. In a world where far too much is clamoring for our attention, our headspace, and heart space, I love the clarity and laser-focus a novena brings to my prayer life. I focus on one thing every day for nine days. I don’t expect the intention I pray for to magically happen on the last day. But I love the intentionality of focusing on just one prayer request for a period of time.
Choosing a Saint
When it comes to choosing a particular Saint’s intercession to seek, I like to choose a Saint who has some link to my intention.
For instance, if you are praying for an intercession linked to motherhood, you might consider praying a novena to ask for the intercession of Saintly mothers such as St. Gianna Molla, St. Zelie Martin, or St. Monica.
If your intention centers around a job or employment, you may consider a novena to ask for the intercession of St. Cajetan, the patron Saint of job seekers, or St. Joseph.
If your intention feels particularly thorny, convoluted, or desperate, a novena to ask for the intercession of St. Jude (patron Saint of desperate situations) or Our Lady Undoer of Knots is a great choice.
These are not hard and fast rules, just ideas to get you going!
Tools + Tips
For the practical aspect of remembering and praying novenas, there are some great tools out there for helping you begin—and stick with—a novena.
Pray More Novenas is a site created by one of our own Blessed is She writers, Annie, and her husband. It was designed to help Catholics—you guessed it—pray more novenas! They choose different novenas to pray as a community. I find that knowing I’m praying alongside thousands of others helps me stick to it. You can sign up to get daily emails to remind you to pray. It’s a great way to implement novenas into your regular prayer life.
There’s also a great app that simplifies novenas by giving you daily reminders, suggested dates to pray, and the novena prayers all in one place.
Finally, I like to utilize the alarms on my cell phone to remind me to pray (if I’m not getting a reminder sent via email or through an app). Set yourself up for success by choosing a time when you’re already likely to be on your phone, so the alarm doesn’t catch you off guard or in the middle of something important. I know that I typically spend some time scrolling in the evening after my kids are in bed. Setting an alarm for that timeframe makes it more likely that I’ll actually say the prayers.
Lean into Grace
Finally, don’t sweat the details too much, sisters. If you miss a day, it’s okay. Say two prayers the next day, or just call it a wash and keep going. God is merciful. A sincere heart and our best effort is what He asks of us!
I have to check myself when I fall into thoughts of, “Oh no! I missed a day! Now this won’t count and God won’t grant my intention!”
It’s important to remember that God is absolutely not a genie in a bottle. We don’t get prayers granted like wishes as long as we click our heels together three times or say certain prayers the right way. While a novena is a beautiful way to bring our specific intentions before God, it’s not a guarantee that He will answer our prayers in the way that we hope. Often, I find His answers are always better than anything I could have imagined or hoped for, anyway.
Let us, as a sisterhood, walk together as we grow more consistent and persistent in prayer. Let’s embrace the beauty and challenge of novenas, knowing there’s no way to “mess up” when God’s will is our highest aim.
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Valerie Keinsley is a wife to a police officer and mama to two little ones living in central Indiana, where she and her husband are currently doing a massive renovation of their 116-year-old home. She loves WWII novels, decaf chai lattes, and trying to keep houseplants alive. She is striving to find and name beauty in the midst of the mundane, and loves to share her “good lists” on Instagram. You can find out more about her here.