The Western Church celebrates a relatively late start to Lent this year. One benefit is that as our spiritual journeys of penitence and self-reflection are still relatively fresh, the timing coincides with the traditional dates of the Novena of Grace, from March 4-12. This period dedicated to nine days of prayer seeking the intercession of the Spaniard Saint Francis Xavier could prove a powerful experience for those looking for new methods of deepening their spiritual lives through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Though Xavier lived from 1506-52, the Novena of Grace, culminating on the day he was eventually canonized, dates to a later period.
In 1633, Italian Marcello Francesco Mastrilli suffered severe head injuries after a workman accidentally dropped a hammer on him from a great height in Naples. While in the delirium that resulted, Mastrilli claimed to be visited by Xavier, who assured him of his eventual healing and promised that whoever prayed a novena for the intercession of Xavier would “experience Francis’s protection and might hope with great assurance that any grace they asked of God would be granted, provided it be for their good and the glory of God.”
To my mind, the last phrase of the promise is the most important, and the heart of any spiritual practice that aims to put us in right relation with God. If we approach our lives of faith as seeking to prosecute God on our terms (or put him “in the dock” as C.S. Lewis puts it), and to demand the divine to relinquish the reins of control to our own egos, whims or even admirable desires, we are doomed to be sorely disappointed.
As Saint Augustine memorably asserts: “If you comprehend something, that which you comprehend is not God.” And the finite human mind, though certainly able to strive to perceive and discern what is a proper course of action in given situations, cannot completely comprehend — and much less control — what is ultimately oriented toward our most fundamental good and the glory of God.
It is in the abandonment of ourselves, undertaken in a spirit of pouring our hearts out to God with confidence that he knows our true needs, that we can be assured of the grace to which the novena is devoted.
Mastrilli certainly did not experience a saccharine terrestrial ecstasy as a result of his miraculous healing. Later he would be tortured with an early form of waterboarding and eventually beheaded while on the missions to Japan. So the novena he initiated cannot be envisioned as an easy path to get what we want out of the Supernatural Vending Machine by inserting the “coins” of our time and energy.
Yet, there is a deeper and more profound significance in disciplining ourselves and raising our minds to heavenly things in an attempt to elicit divine assistance in supporting us in a quest to overcome our pride and self-centeredness, certainly worthy and laudable Lenten goals. It is better understood as a process of evermore aligning ourselves with those things in our lives that help us recognize Saint Irenaeus’s claim: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive, and the full life of humanity is the vision of God.”
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University in Chicago.