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Novenas: how to go deeper

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Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated today in the Church, and it is also considered the first day of the first novena, as Mary and the Disciples remained in Jerusalem to pray for nine days for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit. This is the heart of our novena tradition.

A novena can be a special time between God and the praying soul, a pilgrimage of transformation and insight, as well as a way of “storming heaven,” with a petition. A novena prayed with faith is also a time of expectant waiting.

Whatever I am praying for, I try to ask with an open heart, one that is actively seeking God’s will.

Sometimes God does not give me what I thought I wanted when I began. Sometimes he changes me instead.

Sometimes I begin to get a sense that I should ask for something different than the petition I started with. My prayer seems to be redirected. Maybe this is so that I might pray with the Holy Spirit rather than just out of my own will.

I know, dearest Mother, that you want me to seek God’s holy Will concerning my request. If what I ask for should not be granted, pray that I may receive that which will be of greater benefit to my soul, [and the souls for whom I pray.] ~ from the Novena to Our Lady of the Rosary

Other times, my single-mindedness of purpose grows and I continue with my petition, like the “persistent widow” I am.

When I begin a novena, I am not sure what God will do but I know he will do something!

I try to be attentive to what God may want to say to me during this time of focussed, dedicated prayer.

The divine synchronicity interwoven with daily life reminds me that heaven is near, and that God is always speaking.

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The symbolic meaning of having a dove land on the hood of my car and look through the windshield at me while I am praying at a red light may seem hard to miss. But it is possible to think nothing of it. I want to notice and make the connection.

If I dedicate and consecrate these nine days of prayer to cultivating my awareness of God’s voice speaking through life itself as it happens, a novena can be a time of becoming attuned to Holy Spirit and wonder.

If I am praying a novena to a particular saint, St. Therese, let us say, I try to find ways to weave her presence into my life. I may read about her or read from her writings during that time. I will talk to her as I go about my day, ask her to join me in my work and prayers.

I might do small acts of service in her honor; especially the kind she liked during her life on earth, the sneaky kind.

I may make use of imaginative prayer to go into the situation I am praying about, letting St. Therese lead me in bringing God’s light into darkness, to let her show me something, or to visually surround the people involved, with God’s love, with hers, and with mine.

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I often ask friends or family to join me in praying a novena. Jesus encouraged us to join together when we ask for something, and it encourages me to know that someone I love is praying along with me.

I like to to begin a novena by going to Confession.

It always seems to me that I can “hear” God better after Confession. The grace released into my life from the sacrament enlivens my prayer.

At mass I may offer my reception of Holy Communion for the person or intentions I am praying for.

I try to drop in at church and visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament more often during my novena too, even if only for a moment. I can bring all my concerns there to him for healing; setting them at the foot of his alter for him to arrange in divine order. In his Eucharistic presence, my intentions are blessed, and my troubled heart can rest.

Sometimes I plan a series of nine Scripture verses that I think correspond well with my novena, one for each day to reflect on during the day. Bringing God’s Holy Word into my prayer deepens and interconnects the experience. “God’s word is alive.” Also it never returns to God void but always does what he sends it to do. I trust the word to act on my heart and to return to the Lord full.

I usually give up something at least for a day, or for the duration of the novena. This may be something small, like sugar in my coffee, listening to music in the car, or my favorite drink. St. Therese said her greatest weapons were “prayer and sacrifice.” Fasting and prayer are well established practices for us in our faith when we are commending a situation to God.

Right now I am keeping a novena journal. In it I am recording my prayers, thoughts, insights, Scripture passages and events that stand out to me during this time. It seems to be a fruitful and helpful way to pray, reflect, and notice how God is working in my life through my novena. I look forward to reading it through at the end.

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Often when we pray a novena, it is because we are suffering in some way. Part of praying a novena meaningfully can be offering our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus, that it may be redemptive for others, especially those for whom we pray. St. Therese once offered her difficult walk across the infirmary when she was very ill, for missionaries.

A novena can be a transforming experience when lived and prayed deeply; both for ourselves and those around us.

I like to give thanks at the end of a novena, for all God has done, is doing, and will do in response to my petition, whether or not it looks like my petition was, “granted.” I know that God will only give me what is right and at the right time.

His love never fails; nor does its power to change everything, anything, anytime.

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Easter Maria

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This year I crave a quiet Easter-

Pitch black peace

In which to bloom

In secret knowing.

This was Mary’s Easter-

Before ever a word was said.

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Mary is our home girl; The Assumption

She is so often portrayed as too pretty to touch, air brushed like a fluffy cloud or a pink puff of spun cotton candy. But she knew gut-wrenching grief. She cried real tears when she was widowed. Of course she did. Joseph’s death must have been a bottomless loss for her.

She walked the way of the Cross with her Son, wanting to die with Him as any mother would. But she stood at the foot of the Cross all the same, to love Him, and to go on doing whatever He told her. Maybe her toes clenched in her sandals as she stood there; toes that probably looked more like Mother Teresa’s than the dainty artistic feet that peek out from beneath her dress in so many representations. Maybe she took her sandals off because she knew that Golgotha had just become Holy Ground.

Her hands, likely bloodied from attempts to comfort her bleeding Son, were probably rough and work scarred from a lifetime of labor and loving service. These hands of Mary’s, so soon to be assumed into Heaven, had held babies, hauled water, kneaded bread, cared for the sick, worked in the fields, watered the donkey, expressed human affection, and were often raised to God in prayer.

What do you think of when you think of Mary’s Assumption? I don’t know why, but I always think of the hem of her dress; a dress which was doubtless as simple as a worn tee shirt and faded jeans would be to us today. I see its frayed, homespun cloth brighten as she is taken into the Light of Heaven. I want to see her feet. I always look for them under there.

I am sure that in the mysterious process of the glorification of her body, Mary’s calloused feet were much honored in Heaven; every scratch, each leathery sole, becoming what they always were: beautiful, heavenly bright. Maybe that’s what happens in Heaven. Things begin to look the way they look to God.

Thinking of my own mother’s dirty little feet when she came in from the garden tracking mud on the kitchen floor convinces me that Our Lady tracked dirt all the way to her Son’s throne. She brought the Earth with her, I’m sure of that.

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We are a very Incarnation-al people, we Catholics. Earth is good, the body is good, because God is good, and Jesus is true God and true man; Incarnate in the flesh. In spite of the air brushed holy cards of Mary, in which her pupils seem far too small and she is painted to look like a pastel ghost, we know that the stars in Mary’s hair represent the way she looked to God: gloriously human, the humble and barefoot Spouse of the Holy Spirit who was lowly and invisible to the world, but brilliantly radiant to the Lord. Then again, our exalted Mother, as brightly shining as we see her in Revelations 12, shows us she is real and totally human. Even as Heavenly Queen, rather than sighing with celestial bliss, she wails in the pangs of birth.

That particular wailing is for us, I think. She is with us in our struggle with evil, in our determination to follow her Son, in our attempts and failures at practicing virtue, in the Church’s painful war against the powers and principalities of darkness.

There is a trail of glory that Mary left, but it looks a lot more like dirty foot prints to me as she runs to the Seat of Mercy with our burdens and pains, about her latest enmity with the Evil One, with her requests for us, her lost, suffering, fighting and dying children she wants to lead to her Son. Her Son, I like to think, must smile when he sees those clods of soil in the throne room that show she has been in. She will keep working for the Kingdom until her work of Queenly discipleship is done and there are stars in our hair too as we reign with God forever.

She was assumed into Heaven, body and soul. She is the Living Tabernacle of the New Covenant. She is Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of us. She listens with a real heart, leads us to Christ with real love.

The Assumption reminds me of this: Mary is real. She’s tracking in dirt. She’s holding my hand. And she’s beautiful- the way God sees beauty. Not only that, but as Bishop Mike Sis said once in a homily, “The Assumption means God’s gonna win! God’s gonna WIN!”

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In answering my Methodist friend, Paula, with an explanation of what the Assumption was, she exclaimed, “OH! Isn’t that what happens in the end to all of us?”

Can I get a “Heaven yeah?”

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“Sinless Virgin, let us follow joyfully in your footsteps;

draw us after you in the fragrance of your holiness. “

( Antiphon from The Little Office of the BVM).

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A reflection on the Immaculate Conception of Mary (December 8)

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“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5

In Michelangelo’s painting of the Creation of Adam, I noticed that the Father’s cloak, flying up around him in the painting, is shaped like a cross section of a human brain. Looking at the painting, you can see that Eve is just behind God as he creates Adam. She is under his arm looking on. I love this. Eve was already known and loved by God before he made her. Of course she was. The way she is depicted looking on, even before her creation, reminds me that she and Adam were made for each other, as all spouses are.

Mary was deep in the mind of God from the beginning, and she was designed for union with the Holy Spirit, to be the perfect wife for Joseph, and to be the Mother of Jesus. God for-knew her from all time, and who she would be. He must have loved thinking about her.

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At the perfect time, Mary’s precious, pure humanity was conceived in human love in the womb of her mother, whom we call Anne. So much about Mary is hidden but exceedingly beautiful. Her glory was like a pearl in a shell; God’s own secret of what was to come, his quiet mystery veiled in the dark silence of the womb. Already she was in the perfect innocence of the first Eve. Already, she was in union with God without impediments. She was innocence beyond all innocence then in existence. She was already completely full of grace. How the Blessed Trinity must  loved looking at her, the private jewel of his heart, in her littleness. Her glory was like an unseen star shining on all humanity.“From my mother’s womb, you are my God. “Psalm 22″10b

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Little girl of incomparable beauty and promise, help me to be fully alive to God’s often hidden presence and beauty in my life, and to grow in awareness of his love and providence, His voice speaking to me, in every moment, pondering Him in my heart as you did.

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