Popular Piety: Litanies and Novenae

Popular Piety: Litanies and Novenae

“When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). These words of Our Lord are often cited by opponents of the traditional practices of Novenae—which involve the repetition of set prayers on nine consecutive days—and Litanies—with their repeated invocations and responses. These forms of prayer are inherently repetitious and predictable; they are often caricatured as monotonous and lengthy (‘litany’, for example, has passed into idiomatic secular English: “the customary litany of complaints having duly been received…”). 

It would be quite wrong to suppose that Litanies and Novenae are possessed of some magic efficacy, to slip into the belief that they ‘work’ on the basis that if we say something often enough God will eventually give in and grant us our requests. Rather, they are a gift of God to the Church, a way of praying particularly suited to our human condition: it is good for us to turn repeatedly to God, to bring to mind our friendship with Christ in the midst of everyday life and implore his mercy again-and-again. The repetitious nature of litanies helps us to manage distraction and to move more deeply into prayer, as the words begin to flow over us, drawing us beyond the words themselves into a deeper contemplation; the familiar text of a novena becomes an ‘old friend’, a comfort and a guide for our journeying. 
In moments when we can’t find words for ourselves (yes, even garrulous Dominicans find this happens sometimes!), we make our own these well-worn words, tested in the crucible of centuries of Christian witness and endorsed by the Church. We insert ourselves into the community of saints whose names we invoke to pray with us and for us; we recognise that there are others who will say ‘amen’ to our prayers as we say ‘amen’ to theirs. So whilst I have to admit that there are times when I’ve neglected these traditional devotions—and it is certainly important to develop our friendship with Christ through mental prayer—it might be worth me pondering whether I’m more likely to babble like a pagan in my own extemporaneous prayers, or when I turn to these prayers recognised by the Church as a gift of Our Lord.

Oliver James Keenan OP

fr. Oliver is Master of Students of the English Province, teaches dogmatic theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, and has recently been appointed Director of the Aquinas Institute.