Excerpted from "The Way We Pray" by Maggie Oman Shannon and published by Conari Press.

They can be as small as a thumbnail, or as large as a heart, which is appropriate for a silvery image that represents a fervently said prayer. Milagros (Spanish for "miracles") are used primarily in the Mexican and South American cultures as tangible representations of a prayer of petition or a prayer of thanksgiving. Usually made out of silver, mixed metal, or tin, milagros are made in all shapes and sizes; the littlest among them are called milagritos.

Milagros probably have their origins in the practice of giving ex-votos ("from my vow" in Latin) or votive offerings to saints. When a prayer request was made to a saint, so was a vow--to carry out a particular action in return. To seal the spiritual deal, a token is provided, offered to the petitioned saint. The use of ex-votos, found at the temple of the healing god Asclepius, not only has been documented in classical Greece but is still practiced today in several countries, including Morocco, India, and Iran.

Milagros and their offshoots are also made in glass, pottery, plaster, wax, wood--even sugar. The sugar offerings, often found on altars in Peru and Bolivia, are called mysteriosos ("mysterious things") and are used to honor depictions of Ekkeko, the Andean god of abundance.

Yet the kind of milagros most often seen are those in the form of body parts--a leg, eyes, breasts. These milagros are used as prayers for healing the part of the body depicted--or as thanks for a healing that has occurred. Sometimes, the person who is praying will write the name of the person who needs healing, or even an entire prayer, directly on the milagro, but this detail is not considered a requisite one for receiving Divine aid.

In addition to parts of the body, you can find milagros that represent animals--used in prayers either to have the animal cured of an illness or to be purchased. Milagros also make reference to deities, such as the sacred heart of Jesus, and include images of people kneeling in prayer, as well as items in a person's possession that need to be protected.

Like the prayers that incorporate the use of them, milagros are made one at a time, and are made by the person, not a machine. You'll find milagros placed on altars or affixed to statues or other sacred symbols; since a recent wave of interest in milagros has occurred, they can even be found incorporated into jewelry. You can also buy crosses covered with little milagros, representing abundant blessings from above.

And don't let their small size eclipse their larger place in prayer life. As author Helen Thompson writes, milagros "are symbolic of a covenant between a believer and a higher spirit, tangible testimony that a promise has been fulfilled. Whether you look at their place in your life as a symbol that you are trying something new or as a means to focus yourself on a transition, milagros offer an alternative approach to spirituality."

Suggestions for Beginning the Exploration

  • If you or someone you know is in need of healing, try praying with a small representation that symbolizes the object of your prayers. Does it help to have something tangible to hold onto or see?
  • When you receive a blessing, try honoring it with a material image of thanks. For instance, you might buy a living plant to place in your prayer space.
  • Join the Discussion
    comments powered by Disqus