For we do not know how to pray as we ought,
But the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressive groanings.
After the excitement of Valentine’s Day and celebrations of Carnival, the sobriety of Ash Wednesday can be quite a jolting beginning to our Lenten prayer and good works. Unfortunately, many of us miss out on irreplaceable opportunities for growth and enrichment because we focus too much of our attention on the “thou shalt nots” of Lent and overlook the fact that Lent is really intended to be a spiritual springtime. By thinking only of Lenten penances, we fail to see how our self-denial should be balanced with good works of prayer and charity.
As we make our final preparations for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, the Seven Founders of the Servite Order (who are honored with a common commemoration on February 17) offer a fitting example of what our prayer, charity, and conversion might be as we celebrate Lent.
These seven saints founded the Order of the Servants of Mary around the middle of the thirteenth century. This order, of whom Saint Peregrine (the patron saint of those with cancer) is the best known, is a religious community that has much in common with the Franciscans and Dominicans. And although they are not well known in the United States, we owe them a special debt of thanks for working to spread devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows—certainly a title under which we can honor the Blessed Virgin during Lent.
The seven men honored as the “Holy Founders” are Buonfiglio Monaldi, Alexis Falconieri, Benedict dell’Antela, Bartholomew degli Amidei, Ricovero Uguccione, Geraldino Sostegni, and John Buonagiunta. All were wealthy businessmen of Florence, Italy, and four were married, two were widowers, and the other three had committed themselves to celibacy. All seven men had joined a confraternity called the Laudesi and it was during a time of shared prayer on the Feast of the Assumption in 1233 that they were inspired by a vision of Mary to leave behind their wealth and positions and to dedicate themselves to prayer. Those with families made arrangements for their care and together they eventually settled in the wilderness near Monte Sennario.
When a bishop visited them sometime later, he criticized the small community for their harsh way of life and he encouraged them to take care of their bodies, noting that “the enemy of souls often hides himself under the appearance of an angel of light. The brothers obeyed and prayed for guidance as they discerned the future of their community. As they prayed, they had another vision of Mary carrying a black religious habit, accompanied by an angel bearing a scroll that bore the words “Servants of Mary.” They adopted this as the name of their new community and began to live according to the ancient Rule of Saint Augustine. At the same time they began to accept new members and the order grew rapidly. They finally received official papal recognition in 1304. Over the course of several decades, the founding members died and, in 1888, they were canonized together by Pope Leo XIII.
In many ways, the story of the Seven Founders of the Servites is not all that different from the stories of the founders and foundresses of other religious orders. Responding to grace, these saints set out on a new way of life, true pioneers of prayer and ministry. In time, experience, guidance, and prayer helped them establish a way of life and a mission that would work for the good of the entire Church, not only for a select few. And this is where the lesson is for each of us, whether we are a priest or deacon, religious brother or sister, or a committed married or single person: the Christian life is a gradually unfolding process of discernment and prayer that, by God’s grace, will lead us down paths that we might never have chosen for ourselves. This journey of faith is one that we walk with Christ and for Christ. There are times, as the Seven Holy Founders discovered, when our zeal and energy need to be tempered so that we are able to do and be more than we might ever have imagined on our own.
How many times have you begun your Lenten observance with great intentions to pray more and to “do” some kind of penance, only to discover that life seemed to have other plans for you? I can say that has happened to me every Lent! Despite my best intentions on Ash Wednesday, I quickly find myself beginning to slip in my resolve. When I look back on those times, I realize that this generally happens because my attention is focused on myself, and not on others… much like the early life and prayer of the Holy Founders of the Servites. It is only when we can begin to live for others—a truly worthy goal for any of us during Lent—that we have any hope of growing into the people of charity and prayer that God calls us to be.
In his Message for Lent, Pope Francis has reminded us:
Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral, and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.In these first days of Lent, ask the Seven Holy Founders of the Servites and all the saints to help you discern what Lenten good works will bear the greatest fruit, both for you as a Christian who is traveling along life’s way and for those who are most in need of our loving care.
A prayer in honor of the Holy Founders of the Servite Order +Impart to us, O Lord, in kindness the filial devotion with which the holy brothers venerated so devoutly the Mother of God and led your people to yourself. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)
This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministry and posted on their blog of February 17, 2015.