Monday, March 10, 2008

Towards Making A Better Novena

The things that hacked me off about these special prayers was not that they were formulaic. If you do something long enough, regularly enough, what you do takes upon itself the trappings of formula. But formula in and of itself is not bad.

A Christian Evangelical's thanksgiving prayer before meals, while looser and more contemporary than the local Catholic's almost-rote "Bless Us O Lord" spiel, is (shocker!) still formulaic.

Prayer Before Meals

  • Step One: Thank the Lord
  • Step Two: Ask Him to make the food nourishing for everyone enjoying the meal 
  • Step Three:(optional) Ask the Lord for to consider the people who ain't eating with you right now

What hack me off about the novena are--

  • the flowery medieval language: alienates the unwary Catholic; ticks off his Separated Brethren (that's the rest of Christendom to you)
  • the wild promises they make: the pronouncements that these things never failed alienate anyone who really bothers to think about the nature of the God-Man relationship;insults the intelligence of the supplicant
  • the contortions these prayer rituals ask you to go through: they tick off people like me who have very little time, energy and much less money.

Make 81 copies and call me in the morning

Looking at this from an ethnographer's and writer-mythmaker's standpoints, the contortions are necessary. Having to make 81 copies of the prayer pamphlet and leaving them in the adoration chapel shows God --and more importantly yourself-- that:

  • whatever you're praying for is important enough for you to inconvenience yourself
  • you are holding up your end of a bargain with a higher power
  • you are on a quest: our plight has been elevated from the mundane to something of grave cosmic importance

Here, though, is what really makes me mad: these contortions also have the function of exhausting you, (think of the medicine man who asks you to look for a two-headed snake or a four-leaf-clover as part of a ritual to cure your ailing son). If the prayer isn't answered the way you like, "God" has an excuse, which is:  you didn't really hold up your end of the bargain well enough. Your own exhaustion will make you susceptible to the suggestion that what you want "was simply never meant to be."

"Never meant to be..." no matter how true, one does not say this to the face of people who've been told this all their lives. We don't deserve to be given the age-old song and dance:

The prayer never fails;
God will not deny you;
You didn't get what you prayed for;
Something must be wrong with your faith, your will, your whatever. Something is wrong with you.

This near-useless palliative, this con-- and really, that's what it is-- may have worked for people living in the dark ages who prayed for immediate relief from the plague and never got it. We're not living in that era anymore. We've outgrown this form of prayer. Those of us who believe in God, in the power of prayer, deserve better than this.

Granted, not everyone is going to see things this way. Some people will stay stuck to their traditional prayer forms. That's fine. I'm enough of an artist to appreciate the Novena as an art form-- yes, the flowery language and ritualistic invocations. But I've spent too much time crying in sacred places and getting dirt and silence for my pains to fully rely on the old forms.

The New Novena must, in my opinion, treat supplicants like adults. It must take into account the kind of supplicant that makes the prayer. It must jettison the old formula and allow the supplicant to engage God differently, if not more so than before. A novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is still a direct plea to God after all, despite the flowery titles and forms of address that point to God.

And no, I'm not about to publicly declare that any modified prayer form I make will truly be superior to something stamped and sealed with the Vatican's Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat.

It's just that we need something better than this. I need something better than this. God has to step up.

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