As a child and teen in the late 1950’s and 60’s in a firmly Protestant family, I was afraid of the symbols and physicality of my Catholic neighbors’ faith. Rosaries, medals of saints, statues of angels and Jesus, and crucifixes seemed both anti-intellectual and idolatrous. Why would anyone need these primitive objects to bolster their faith when there were words–the words of Scripture, prayers, hymns, and theological discourse? Religion was about having the correct thoughts and beliefs, wasn’t it?—not having some sentimental, visual, or tactile experience.
This snobby attitude worked for most of my life–until it didn’t, until words started to fail me in both prayer and worship. When I prayed for others, I lost my words. I could think of nothing to say except the simplest of prayers. “Heal him.” “Keep them safe, Lord.” “Please help her.” I expect God was fine with those barebones words. In the midst of this era of puny verbal prayers, I accidentally started to pray in color. A simple shape with lines, arcs, dots, and a smattering of color with a name became the visual platform for my prayers. Doodling gave me a way to get still on the inside, focus on the person I cared about, and turn my concerns over to God. My drawings were not the object of my prayer as I had incorrectly assumed rosaries, medals, and statutes were for others. But they were an avenue and aid for my prayer life. They released me from the need to have words, but gave me a way to sit in prayer.
I’ve been praying in color for fifteen years now, using it to corral my thoughts and enhance my intercessions, gratitudes, confessions, and adorations. Recently I’ve noticed that my doodles have been body parts. My husband and another friend had heart surgery. My husband had colon surgery. My friend Merry just had a extensive and painful foot surgery. Their names ended up in a heart, a colon, and a foot. As mostly an abstract doodler, I was surprised by the representational prayer drawings.
But I realized that this is not a new idea. People have been “praying with body parts” for years. Christians in Spain, Mexico, and South America use milagros and ex-votos. These are physical objects in various shapes offered to concretize a specific prayer request and a desired outcome. They can be small or large–silver, tin, wax, or wood. Since many prayers are for physical healing , many milagros are in the shape of a body part—heart, breast, kidney, intestine, foot, leg, hip. You name it. Some are small and fit in the hand. Holding them can be a tactile reminder to pray. Seeing them can be a visual reminder to pray. Often the milagros are taken to a church and placed near a candle or statue of a saint to request healing. They are also offered as a token of gratitude for answered prayer.
So I guess my doodled body-part prayers are a form of milagro. They are my way to make my prayers concrete. If words come to me as I draw, I pray them. Keeping the doodled prayers in plain sight is a prompt for me to be vigilant in prayer. On another day I add words, marks, and color to “update” my prayers. I am no longer ashamed that my prayers are tactile and visual. God does not require brilliant and articulate words from me but a willingness of spirit and an openness to God’s presence in whatever form that may come.
The milagros/ex-votos in the collage below belong to my friend Carol. They are made of wax, silver, and wood. In the third picture the wooden feet are life-sized. The silver ones fit in the palm of my hand. Click to read more about milagros and ex-votos.