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    Mary looking at Jesus lying in a manger

    Hail and Blessed

    The St. Andrew Novena is a prayer cycle so demanding that it invites failure. Here’s why I keep trying.

    By Clare Coffey

    January 2, 2023
    • Brianna Bratrud

      Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for this, Clare! Blessings from Minnesota

    • Caroline Ingles

      This is tremendous. What a good insight, and what a terrific piece of writing.

    • Debra Southworth

      Yesterday our pastor challenged us to pray more. You have challenged me to figure out the distraction that is my true request.

    • Mary Kressin

      I love this article. I will save it and try this novena next year. Thanks for writing this honest and moving piece. And publishing it. Sincerely, Mary Kressin

    • Andrew John

      Great article.

    “Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, I beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.”

    By this time of year, my father is rounding the home stretch of the Hail and Blesseds of the St. Andrew Novena. Most novenas consist of a prayer repeated over a nine day cycle – hence the name. This one is different. It begins on St. Andrew’s Day, November 30, and finishes on Christmas Eve, twenty-five days in total. On every day of the novena, you repeat the prayer fifteen times throughout the day. Each time you repeat the prayer, you name the intention you pray for. Legend says that the completed novena has never failed to obtain its request.

    It has all the elements – complex procedure, overwhelming repetition, legendary powers – that occasionally lead Protestants to suspect that Catholic piety is little more than witchcraft in a wimple. Despite, or perhaps in some more wickedly truculent moments, because of that, I love it.

    Jesus lying in a manger

    Ilya Repin, Nativity, 1890

    I love the urgency of the prayer, the words tumbling upon each other, a tunnel bearing down on that hour and moment – at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold – on which everything hinges. I love the beginning – Hail and blessed be the hour – with its sound of a muttered password among clandestine compatriots. I love the thrum of the words, over and over, carrying you into a channel outside yourself. I love the literalness with which it enacts the parable of the persistent widow, as if you might batter down providence with the monotony of a toddler’s unvarying demands: hear my prayer and grant my desires, hear my prayer and grant my desires, hear my prayer and grant my desires.

    The British theologian Herbert McCabe reminds us that petitionary prayer is not a lever we use to move God, however much it may feel that way. It is God moving us to draw near to him, to entrust to him our concerns for all the lowest as well as all the highest things. Ancient Romans, among others, had small gods as well as great ones; household gods to keep personal affairs running smoothly as well as great ones to move the cosmos. But God is a jealous god; he will not suffer the loss of any intimacy with us; he will not delegate. He holds the sparrow as well as the stars in being, and when he became small he both remade the cosmos and gave us a name in which we might ask for small things.

    The point is not that some activities are below the scope of the Almighty, but that no point of human life is too small to have eternal ramifications.

    Why do the saints’ novenas that populate Catholic piety not seem like a restoration of the small gods? I am sure they can be; it is pointless to deny the possibility of abuse. But with so many other questions of these kinds, it seems to me as much a matter of perspective and sensibility as of raw content. The saints are glorified humans, not transmuted lesser divinities. Their glorification is shaped by the particularities of their human life for all eternity; often in ways that would humble any pretension, if saints could be supposed to have them. Have a supernatural vision of the Mass being celebrated from your sickbed and you will find yourself the patroness of television. Give your life in glorious martyrdom on red-hot coals, and you will be asked to bless the efforts of middle-aged grill masters at Fourth of July parties until the end of time. We invite saints into our petitionary prayers precisely because they are and remain humans with us. The point is not that some activities are below the scope of the Almighty, but that no point of human life is too small to have eternal ramifications. Connecting the trivia of daily life with the heroism of the saints, asking them to lift up our prayers with us, is another reminder that we can bring the smallest dramas of our lives before the throne in total confidence.

    But this confidence, McCabe points out, requires us to be honest about our often embarrassing desires.

    So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in Northern Ireland or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu – when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really do want – promotion at work, let us say. Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.

    The posture of single-minded begging created by the piling up of all those Hail and Blesseds over the course of a day and a month can force a toddler’s maniac simplicity on you. I have said the Hail and Blesseds for, as far as my recollection goes, truly woeful requests: a boy to like me, a final to go well, a decrepit mansion hilariously out of my reach to fall into my lap. The daunting structure of the novena produces the same clarifying effect as the shipwreck: with so many Hail and Blesseds to say, who would not pray for what they really want?

    I cannot add my testimony to the legendary reports of the prayer’s powers, because I have never in fact finished a St. Andrew’s Novena. I start too late, I end too early, I skip days. Sooner or later, I always forget.

    But every year, I try, even if there are only a few days left. This is perhaps the deepest root of my love for the novena. It demands so much perfection that it seems to invite failure. And its own formula provides the antidote for its impossible demands. Hail and blessed be the hour, and the moment, in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. All the failure piling up over time, of a novena, of a year, of a lifetime, is irrelevant. There was an hour, and a moment, that moved the lever for us. In that hour, nothing is impossible.

    Contributed By ClareCoffey Clare Coffey

    Clare Coffey is a writer living in Idaho.

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