Little Miracles For All
by article and photos by Joan Robinson-Blumit
Miracles. Except for the most cynical, the majority of us want to believe that miracles can occur; and, in fact, extraordinary things do happen in seemingly hopeless situations. Frequently the miracle is attributed to a Higher Power, whose intercession is believed to come after we contact them.
As Pagans many of us utilize spells, often likening them to prayers. We also fashion amulets, talismans and charms, imbuing them with our energy or with requests to our gods to protect, cure, or assist us.
The Mission San Xavier del Bac is noted for the abundance of milagros left there by pilgrims.
The use of milagros, “miracles,” is a tradition in the Southwestern United States as well as in Central and South America. This devotional practice interweaves Catholic Christianity with a spiritual practice that dates back at least as far as the classical period in ancient Greece.1 Tacitly, or sometimes even explicitly condoned by the Church, these objects of folk art are concrete expressions of piety and devotion.
The process works like this: a vow (la promisa,) is made to a saint or the Virgin Mary, as part of a petition for assistance. Created personally by the petitioner, la milagro represents fulfillment of the vow or as commemoration of a miracle which has been received. The expression of faith is quite concrete. As Helen Thompson puts it, “Milagros are symbolic of a covenant between a believer and a higher spirit, tangible testimony that a promise has been fulfilled.2
Chimayo, a town in Northern New Mexico, is renowned for its church, Santuario de Chimayó. Legend states that a crucifix was found in a sand pit now situated behind the main altar, and the soil is now believed to be a source of curative power. Over 300,000 pilgrims a year come to Chimayó seeking miracles, and as part of their pilgrimage they place milagros among a crowded tangle of other items in the Prayer Room located in the sacristy. To make room for new milagros, it is necessary for the old ones to be cleared away fairly rapidly, or the shrine would be completely overwhelmed.
Another example of milagros can be seen in a mission just outside of Tucson, Arizona on the Tohono O’odham reservation. The Mission San Xavier del Bac or “The White Dove of the Desert” as it is sometimes called, has within its rooms a wooden statue of a reclining Saint Francis Xavier.
During a recent visit, I observed that the statue’s white gown was festooned with a seemingly random assortment of items: photographs, prayer cards, a lock of hair and a variety of milagros secured with safety pins. Included were representations of a leg, an arm joined to a hand, two legs pinned together and a kneeling woman, along with numerous replicas of saints and a variety of hearts.
While I was there, I observed a pilgrim approach the candles stationed next to the statue and light one. After kneeling in prayer, he faced the statue and pinned a small tin heart pierced with a dagger into the white fabric of the gown. Then he offered another prayer, followed by kissing the statue’s head. Finally he crossed himself and stepped away. Whether he offered his milagro to represent a diseased heart or a broken one, I do not know, but he seemed confident of the success of his petition.
The creation of a milagro is not a trivial matter: it is believed that not to fulfill a promissa can mean terrible consequences for the petitioner. Thus, a milagro represents a grave decision associated with a great deal of responsibility.
Milagros as Personal Talismans
Traditionally the placement of a milagro involves a solemn pilgrimage to a shrine, but today many people are finding new ways to draw on the milagro tradition. It is now common for many to carry a milagro with them to draw on the power it offers, or to have milagros on personal altars. Such uses are not limited to Catholics.
A display of milagros in the Mission San Xavier del Bac’s museum described them as “symbols of physical and mental pain and joy placed with images of saints to relay messages to God.” Milagros come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes and are usually rustic items made from a tin and silver alloy. Milagros can (and provably have) been made in almost every shape imaginable.
For instance, a milagro can represent a physical part of the body such as the arm, but the very same image could also represent an emotion or transcendent force of quality associated with it. For example, an eye with a brow might mean a petitioner seeks healing for an eye disease or one who seeks “spiritual vision.” The omnipresent heart can denote a request for cardiac healing (perhaps after a heart attack) or healing from an emotional upheaval (a “broken heart”.)
Some buy milagros instead of making them. Robert Bitto, owner of Sueños Latin American Imports in Phoenix, describes a Native American healer who visited his shop.
Robert keeps silvery milagros in baskets on the counter by his cash register. When the healer’s arm passed over one of the bowls, he commented on the high energy coming from it. Robert said that type of reaction happened with regular frequency and attested to those who repeatedly experienced success in gaining the miracles they sought.
Roberto Bitto, proprietor of the Latin American import shop in Phoenix, carries a large selection of milagros.
A client in the store added “they (Robert’s milagros) work, but it means a little more when you buy them on the church steps (in Mexico) from a little old lady.”
The purchase of milagros is not limited to those seeking miracles, however. Robert also has clients who collect them as a form of folk art.
Roberto Bitto told me about the meanings on some of the more popular milagros he stocks (see chart on next page) but stated that people drawn to milagros usually intuitively select the ones they need. When I showed him a card I had picked from a stack with a woman’s head milagro on it and a picture of a woman guiding a boat in a stream, he told me it was for healing a woman who had headaches. (I’m a migraine sufferer.)
A creative friend of mine, Linda Rettinger, grew up in the tradition of milagros and, although she is not Catholic, has deep faith in them. She explains that the small shiny milagros with top holes for a nail are used to adorn home altars, shrines and especially picture frames of family members. A common place for them would be on wooden crosses or simply on plain pieces of wood. She’s even seen them worn on shoes.
Linda recently turned a gourd into a powerful rattle which she uses in her shamanic work. She designed the rattle with a removable top so that she could change the contents. Currently the rattle holds Paloverde seeds, amethyst, a wrist rosary from Italy, and several milagros. One example is a cow milagro: in the past, owning a cow meant you were rich — so it represents prosperity. But the cow also serves to call upon animal spirits for her shamanic journeying. A pig milagro was included for the same reasons.
She also has bird, eye, corn, woman, hand, and arm milagros in the rattle. The bird represents a messenger; the pair of eyes bring her vision (both spiritual and actual). The ear of corn represents nourishment and growth of spirit; the woman symbolizes the feminine energy and enhances her woman’s power.
In addition to my woman’s head milagro, I’ve collected a few since first discovering them, but only one so far has truly affected me. I was Inspired to created a simple ritual, adapting a dove milagro, a universal representation of peace, to suit my Wiccan faith by nailing the dove to a wooden pentacle. After casting a circle and drumming to John Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance, I lit a white candle then held up the milagro in offering to goddesses of peace with the following petitions:
Irene, Greek Goddess of Peace, let order be restored.
Vesta, Goddess of the Sacred Fires, bring peace to our battlegrounds. Pax, Roman Goddess of Peace, let serenity fill the leaders’ hearts and let all hatred depart.
Binah, 3rd Sephirah of the Tree of Life, walk with us and bestow understanding, and everyday be a part of our hearts. Wave Maidens, the Nine Teutonic goddesses, wash away the strife and to all bring a calm commitment to life. Nakisawmae-No-Mikoto, Japanese Goddess of Mourning, we weep with you in memory of the innocent lost in wars throughout the ages.
Let us finally learn from our collective past.
Wohpe, Lakota Goddess of the Peace Pipe, bear our message sure; keep our intentions pure.
Where anger dwells, let there be peace.
May harmony be restored.
Inanna, Sumerian Lady of the Heavens, let your gentle tears wash from the sky and put out the emotional fires that keep people apart in our world.
My peace milagro remains on my altar; daily, I light the candle for a few minutes to affirm my petitions.
It might seem naïve to propose that others create similar rituals with a dove milagro, but if nothing else, sending peace petitions is a positive, selfless act. And miracles do occur.
A tradition that has lasted for thousands of years upholds the proof of milagros.
- Martha Eagan, Milagros: Votive Offerings from the Americas, Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1991, page 2
- Helen Thompson, Paddy Bruce, Artwork, Milagros: A Book of Miracles, Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, California, 1998, page 7.
- Field review by the editors of www.roadsideamerica.com, El Santuario de Chimayo: The Lourdes of America, http://www.roadsideamerica.com/ attract/NMCHIshrine.html.
- Don Carlin, “Little Shop of ‘Miracles,’” Arizona Living section, The Arizona Republic, Phoenix, Arizona, Friday, August 27, 2004.
- Linda Rettinger, interview on January 19th 2005.
- Mission San Xavier del Bac, 1950 West San Xavier Road, Tucson, Arizona 85746, 520-294-2624.
- Sueños Latin American Imports 6035 N. 7th Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85014. www.milagromercado.com, Robert Bitto, owner.
- Patricia Telesco, 365 Goddess, Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, California, 1998.
— JOAN ROBINSON-BLUMIT is publisher of The Wheel, a magazine of Pagan fiction, and priestess for a women’s coven in Phoenix, Arizona. You may reach her at: Rowan Press, P. O. Box 80954, Phoenix, AZ 85060-0954
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #45 - Religious Freedom
Support Your Path —
Subscribe to Witches&Pagans magazine.