Since 2006, my friend and artistic partner Raquel Z. Rivera have been celebrating what we call a "promesa" to Mary Magdalene. We say the word in Spanish because it is difficult to translate a concept that contains specific cultural and religious meanings within our own culture, and that we have expanded while at the same time keeping the basic premise of such an act. "Promesa" means "promise" and it refers to an offering to a saint in order to obtain a petition.
When we began this promesa, we did not do it for religious reasons. We just felt like it was an offering to the saint that inspired us, a saint that belongs to everyone, even to those who do not believe in anything.
We also haven't really asked Mary Magdalene for any specific grace. We celebrate the promesa in a spirit of gratitude for the joy and inspiration we have felt since we discovered Mary Magdalene.
What is a "promesa"?
A promesa is a vote or religious offering that is made with a petition to God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, a saint or another important character of a religion. Promesas are part of the traditions of Catholicism.
The practice of this custom usually involves asking a saint to grant a favor (or intecede for the person asking the favor) in exchange for a personal sacrifice.
Some people "pay" their promesas before obtaining the grace as an act of faith that the miracle he has already been granted.
There are other promesas that result in devotions practiced without expecting anything in return. The person may offer prayers, food or specific action to the divinity for no other purpose than to practice their devotion and faith.
How do you "pay" a promesa?
There are several ways to celebrate, meet or pay a promesa.
Sometimes a promesa is celebrated with a party. The person who has received a grace promises to give the deity a party in His or Her honor. During the event, an altar is build. It usually includes the image of the saint or deity in whose honor the promesa is celebrated. Songs are dedicated to the saint or deity. Also, the Rosary is often sung and there might be improvisations of songs. The host offers food and drink
Food and drink are also offered.
A promesa is sometimes extended over the life of the person or it can even become a family tradition. Some people celebrate the promesas that were offered by great grandparents, and the tradition is passed on to each generation.
Some people promise a personal sacrifice. Among Puerto Ricans, even today you can see a person dressed in a simple white habit with a cord tied around the waist. This dress indicates that the person is "paying" a promesa. In America, it is a tradition among Catholics to stop eating a kind of food, like chocolate during Lent. This action does not imply a particular request, but represents the devotion of the person.
In Mexico and many other parts of Latin America, villages have a patron saint. The town throws a party in his or her honor during the day or week of the patron saint. This celebration may include rides, fireworks, music and dances, and feasts in the homes of the villagers. Sometimes people go in procession and carry gifts such as candles, flowers or money.
Most promesa are personal and their celebration is private. A person could, for example, make a pilgrimage or a novena or series of rosaries. Sometimes people make very great sacrifices, such as walking a long distance without shoes. One example is the Mexican pilgrims to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe with bleeding knees or Puerto Rican devotees climbing the stairs of the Basilica of the Virgin of Monserrate on their knees.
The way to celebrate, meet or pay a promesa depends on the individual, the local traditions and the kind of grace that has been requested.