How Novenas Keep Me on Track With My Lenten Promise

Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

I’ve always struggled with daily prayer — I don’t have the self-discipline to commit to something every day. So, as a way to get better at prayer and to deepen my relationship with God, I made daily prayer my Lenten promise for several years.

It did not go well. I’d get off on the right foot but quickly start missing days, and by the end of Lent, feel like a failure. I kept trying year after year, but I kept falling short.

I needed a strategy to make good on my Lenten promise. And I found it in novenas.

A novena, as the name implies, is a nine-day prayer dedicated to a specific cause and usually to a particular saint or Our Lady. I had done a few novenas before, including a diocesan novena offered for couples struggling with infertility, miscarriage, and infant loss leading up to the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I’m still not perfect at daily prayer, but last year during Lent I was more focused than I had been in the past. Here’s why:

Novenas gave me something to say each day.

The hardest part of writing is facing a blank page. The hardest part of praying (sometimes) is figuring out what to say. I often fell into reciting memorized prayers out of obligation and laziness. I needed something to guide me forward so that my Lenten promise didn’t turn into me going through the motions and not actually growing closer to God. 

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Novenas often feature repeated phrases with a variation of the prayer intention each day and also room to make more personal intentions. This prayer structure gave me a thematic text that I could contemplate each day and space to think about who or what I was personally praying for. The nine days kept me on track and starting a new novena after I’d finished one gave me the variety I needed to stay inspired during the whole season of Lent.

Novenas helped me focus on others during Lent.

Another prayer trap I’d fall into was staying confined to my personal bubble and selfishly praying for what I wanted. Because novenas revolve around a specific intention, they pushed me to think about people I knew who were struggling and could use my prayers.

I started with a novena for a fellow parishioner whose spouse was battling cancer. Then I prayed for a relative who was struggling with infertility. Novenas also include larger, more societal intentions as well, the perfect example being a novena I found for accountability, transparency, and healing in the sexual abuse crisis.

Being more focused on others encouraged me to keep praying. I wanted to finish each novena for the person or cause it was dedicated to, but once I started, I found I always had someone or something additional to pray for.

Novenas taught me more about saints.

In the Catholic tradition, there are at least 10,000 saints — that’s a lot! The last time I studied the saints was during my Confirmation prep. So when I was looking for novenas, I researched the patron saints of various causes and the saints themselves.

I prayed to Saint Peregrine, the 13th-century Italian patron saint of cancer patients, who was miraculously cured of a cancerous growth in his foot (and whose novena was also dedicated to other, more metaphorical cancers in society).

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I prayed to Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, the 20th-century Italian patron saint of mothers, physicians, and unborn children who had been a pediatrician in her earthly life. This was extra special because a good friend of mine has a daughter named Gianna and because the person for whom I was praying had some things in common with Saint Gianna.

The novena for the abuse crisis introduced me to several saints, including Saint Charles Lwanga, the 19th-century Ugandan patron saint of youth and Catholic action, and Saint Dymphna, the seventh-century Irish patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, and those who suffer neurological disorders.

My experience using novenas during Lent made prayer more accessible and gave me a new tool I could use in my prayer life during the rest of the year as well. Whether joining a community novena or following one on my own, novenas give me the words that, with faith and intention, help open my heart to God.

Originally published March 2, 2020.