As a prisoner in the Tower of London, Saint John Fisher (1469-1535), wrote a meditation for his sister, Elizabeth, a Dominican nun. The aim of the meditation, “A Spiritual Consolation,” was to help her and others lead a virtuous life and to be prepared for death.
Death, naturally, would be on the mind of an imprisoned man facing execution for standing firm in the Catholic faith against King Henry VIII’s rebellion against the Catholic Church.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner recounts in her introduction to her translation of Fisher’s Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, that Fisher, on the King’s orders, was beheaded and his body left naked on the scaffold for some time before being dumped without burial rites into a grave. The head of the King’s former tutor and defender was then staked and displayed for two weeks on London Bridge before it was thrown into the Thames.
In this ugly and gruesome display, Fisher became a memento mori for the crowds that came to view his head. Henry surely ordered the desecration of Fisher’s body as a severe warning to all who might consider rebuking him, but perhaps some in the crowd saw the display from Fisher’s perspective as a warning to keep mind and heart always focused on Christ.
Fisher was only one of the many executed by order of King Henry VIII for refusing to acknowledge the heretical king’s right to divorce and remarry and to name himself head of the Church of England. The most famous, of course, was St. Thomas More.
For a Christian true to the Catholic faith in England during this time, death was a reality that had you in its sight, especially if like Fisher and More you refused to bend to state tyranny. But death is also a reality for each of us every day, a reality Our Lord reminds us of in Scripture, and it is this point that Fisher wishes to make in “A Spiritual Consolation.”
Fisher opens the reflection with the statement that “fruitful meditation” can stir the dull and lackluster soul to prayer and good works. For Elizabeth to get the most out of the meditation, he advises that she consider herself unexpectedly in her dying hour and now aware that her soul will leave her body.
He suggests that she read the meditation alone and start by asking God that “the reading may fruitfully work in your soul a good and virtuous life according to His pleasure,” and that she pray the first verse of Psalm 69: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Douay Rheims Bible, Septuagint numbering).
Fisher constructs the meditation as a monologue. The speaker is filled with regret because he is aware that unlike saints who are joyous at death he has “been negligent in His service” for the Lord. Now at death, he no longer has “leisure and space to repent me and amend my life.”
Reading the meditation slowly allows clear images to form, especially in those moments, as in this passage, when Fisher’s language is most vivid and poetic:
“Now my wretched body, thy beauty is faded, thy fairness is gone, thy lust, thy strength, thy loveliness all is gone, all is failed; now art thou returned to thine own earthly colour; now art thou black, cold and heavy, like a lump of earth; thy sight is darkened, thy hearing is dulled, thy tongue faltereth in thy mouth, and corruption issueth out of every part of thee; corruption was thy beginning in the womb of thy mother, and corruption is thy continuance. All things that ever thou receivest, were it never so precious, though turnest to corruption; and nought came from thee at any time but corruption, and now to corruption thyself returnest; altogether right vile and loathly art thou become, where in appearance before thou wast goodly: but the good lines was nothing else but a painting or a gilding upon an earthen wall; under it was covered with stinking and filthy matter.”*
Just meditating on this one passage can bear good fruit.
Less than fifteen pages long, Fisher’s “A Spiritual Consolation” is a good reminder that while most in this passing world live in illusion, often among them kings and leaders, the faithful Christian, always in the service of the Lord, lives in the reality others fail to see.
Quotations from Saint John Fisher are from A Spiritual Consolation and Other Treatises, edited by D. O’Connor (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne Ltd., 1935), now out of print.