I’ve quipped that I know I’m truly Catholic because I anticipate the St. Andrew prayer novena as part of our Advent season while still cleaning up Thanksgiving dishes. I have found rote recitation of prayers written by others to be a precious part of my life. Prescribed prayers, even when spoken (or during difficult times, just breathed) all alone and for personal reasons, always contain an element of community. There are millions of saints spending quiet Advent moments hailing and blessing that holy hour:
“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, 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.”
It is the only time I actually ask God for specific intentions (When you have children with a chronic disease, no other desires matter much but a cure.). This prayer has become a pool of peace during busy season for me to focus on the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary. Its contemplative cadence is the place I feel comfortable voicing my deepest desires, there with my brave, gentle mother and her son, my Emmanuel.
And yes, I do know that Jesus probably wasn’t born in the middle of winter. The significance of the date is due to the winter solstice and the turning of the earth bringing the return of light (He is the Light of the world, right?). The novena begins Nov. 30, the feast day of Saint Andrew, the brother of Saint Peter. He is the first disciple called by our Lord and who ran to his brother Peter to drag him to Jesus. We all know the rest of the story! A traditional novena is recited for nine days, after the nine days the disciples waited and prayed in the upper room before the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; but the Saint Andrew prayer, although its origin is unknown, has been prayed for at least 100 years from Nov. 30 all the days until Christmas Eve, 15 times a day. The words are especially beautiful during this time of anticipation, remembrance, and penance, and can lead one to live the spiritual significance of Advent toward a deeper conversion to Jesus.
Several years ago, when I first passed out copies of the prayer for the family to memorize (We do the first five as a family in the morning), some child gasped, “We’re not supposed to say ‘Oh my God’!” leading to an explanation about the motivation behind the phrase. Then, “What’s ‘vouchsafe’?” I had a vague notion and quickly responded, “Old fashioned for ‘pretty-please’; now be serious for prayers.” When we began Advent devotions a few weeks ago, a different child asked about vouchsafe. This time I looked it up.
The word means, “Give or grant in a gracious manner;” from Middle English, “To vouch something safe on someone.” Well, well. So vouchsafe is nothing that we do — not our correct words or proper postures or perfect numbers but something that God does. We’re saying, “Graciously grant; safely give; Oh my God, hear my prayer and grant my desires.” Our prayers and desires are safe with our Lord. To open ourselves up to ask (often so difficult), even if the answer is suffering, can keep us tender like Mary’s, “Let it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38);” and keep us tough like Jesus’, “Not my will but Thine (Luke 2:42).” It can be disheartening to consider that our prayers may never receive a “yes” on this side of heaven. This is the place where the theological truths of our Holy Faith crash like waves upon the rocky shores of our real lives. But with this poetic prayer, we hail and bless the Incarnation; we ask that our desires be heard and granted; and we acknowledge the merits of Jesus Who is the Perfect Lamb (I Peter 1:19) and Mary whose effectual, fervent prayers availeth much (James 5:16). Then we live our lives safely in God’s watch. We pray the old words and we voice our desires in the piercing cold of Bethlehem, for Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8) — the importance of His Incarnation just as efficacious now. Perhaps the answers will be granted exactly how we wish. Perhaps we’ll pass on to heaven with a request on our lips. But we hail the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary. It is blessed. The world is blessed. We are blessed.
Vouchsafe, oh my God.
Originally published in the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. Reprinted with permission.
Allison Howell and her family are longtime residents of Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley. They are Catholic converts and keep a hobby farm full of animals and children.