Whenever the memorial came along of the Seven holy founders of the Servite Order I was curious. I did not know who these saints were and have to confess that I did not take the time to learn about them. Yesterday Divine Providence was my teacher.
The scholar, educator and author Michael Aeschliman and his wife welcome visitors to their Tuscan hilltop farm–the buildings of which they have converted to holiday apartments. We are staying at Podere Capitignano and Michael pointed out a monastery on a distant hilltop. Sanctuary Senario is the home base of the Servite Order. Founded by seven noblemen from nearby Florence in 1233 as one of the medieval mendicant orders. They are dedicated to serving the poor and promoting devotion to the Mother of God–especially the Sorrowful Mother.
The seven holy founders first established themselves in Florence, but then sought a more secluded place. They were given the mountain by the Medici Family and made their pilgrimage to their new home. It became, and is now, the motherhouse of the order. In our visit we met an Indian priest of the order who showed us around. The main church has been “Baroqued up” but there are some fine paintings and frescos–including a sensitive Last Supper in the refectory. In one of the side chapels the skulls of the seven holy founders reside in an ornate reliquary (pictured here). As in so many of the churches and chapels here the relics and stones speak of this land so impregnated with Catholic history.
Why do we care about the seven skulls of the seven brothers? Because our faith is incarnational. Matter matters. Our bodies matter and the relics of the saints remind us not only of our own mortality, but also of the messiness–the horror even–of our physicality. In conversation with my dear brother in law–the artist Jim Craft–he told of a nun he read about who came to her own “illumination of conscience”
She was in Jerusalem and had been invited to get up early to walk the stations of the cross ending up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. She was reluctant, but joined in. She said she was happy being a nun and thought she was pretty good at it. But she disliked the Stations because she didn’t like “all that messy sacrificial stuff”. The Stations in Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher hit her with her own self righteousness and her need for the “messy sacrificial stuff.”
I commented that this is the sickness of so much of the modern church. We want gentle Jesus meek and mild. We don’t mind his attacks on the Pharisees (because WE’RE not self righteous!) We want his healing and his “let the little children come to me.” We like the Good Shepherd and the miracle worker, but we don’t really want “the messy sacrificial stuff”.
The seven skulls of seven brothers with their vacant eyes and grim grins remind us that unless we die with him we cannot rise with him