Ex Votos

san antonio 3An ex voto (Latin, short for ex voto suscepto [from the vow made]) is a votive offering to a saint or divinity. Given by a worshiper in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude or devotion, the ex voto is placed in a church or chapel where the worshiper seeks grace or gives thanks.

Sometimes the ex voto (or retablo) is the work of an artist with the prayer inscribed. As years go by, the ex votos placed for children who got well, for soldiers, sailors, airmen who returned safely or whose wounds healed, for marriages, for teens who made their way safely to adulthood, for sons who made it safely across the deserts to El Norte, for lost daughters who came home safely with her own healthy daughter need to make way for the placement of new ex votos.

So the older prayers go on sale and you may be able to buy an ex voto in one of the San Miguel markets.

On Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist service, the leader asked the congregation to tell about the best present they either gave or received, or both.  There were so many moving stories, so many tales of the best that the human spirit can provide. There were many tears expressed:  I know that, for me, there is nothing that can bring on emotions as does the expression of kindness. I will retell two stories, one from the Jewish tradition and one from the humanist tradition.

The Couple with Child

A couple with a baby, very little money, one of whom was a graduate student and the other an undergrad and with a perpetually near-empty refrigerator were the beneficiary of a woman who at the end of every month cleared out her refrigerator and gave the food to the young couple. She would use excuses such as “oh, this stuff is about to go about bad” and “my husband is tired of looking at these leftovers” and “I don’t know what I was thinking when I bought that.”

Years later, the two women are still friends, and the older woman was the guest of the younger. The younger woman reached into her refrigerator and the past came to the present. She turned to her friend and said, “that was on purpose! Your husband and you knew we were broke!”

The older woman smiled. “Good,” she said. “You know in our religion one of the greatest gifts is to give without the recipient knowing it is a gift.” An early Jewish scholar, Maimonides, listed eight ways of giving, each progressively more commendable. As part of gemilut chasidim, care is taken not to bring embarrassment or shame to the recipient.

A Mother’s Gift

This is Nora’s story.

Her mother worked as a teacher in New York City and the Puerto Rican mother of one of her students had an epileptic fit on the school’s playground. The teacher helped the mother and accompanied her and her child home. The teacher saw that the mother and child lived in a single room, roach-infested, and with no heat. The Christmas tree had been drawn by the mother on a paper bag. Her present to her son was a box of cereal. Both mother and child slept in the same bed under several layers of coats. The teacher had never seen living conditions such as this.

She went home knowing that she was going to do something for that family, but she didn’t know what. A few days later she and her daughter Nora took the subway uptown to where the Nuyorican population lived in East Harlem. They carried a blanket and some presents for the boy. They – dos blancas – were nervous walking the streets of Spanish Harlem as few non-Hispanics ventured there in those days, especially in the drawing darkness of twilight. They climbed the five flights of the walkup to the apartment where they presented the gifts that were most graciously and enthusiastically accepted.

On Sunday Nora thanked her mother for teaching her the greatest gift, that of compassion.

May you have peace in your life, today and always.


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