St. John Fisher Comes of Age

Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms

by St. John Fisher In modern English, with an introduction

by Anne Barbeau Gardiner

(Ignatius Press, 1998; 284 pp., $14.95)

Meditation on the seven penitential Psalms was long a part of Catholic piety, especially suitable for penitential seasons. In fact, daily recitation of these seven Psalms was part of Galileo's punishment from the Holy Office. (His niece, a nun, was later allowed to pray the psalms in his stead.) The seven Psalms were also popular material for homilists in Galileo's time and before, and some of the great preachers of the day devoted considerable attention to them.

These Psalms are divinely inspired confessions of sin, moving the sinner to make his own the words of King David: peccavi Domino (I have sinned against the Lord). This new printing of St. John Fisher's masterful sermons on the Psalms may well encourage readers to pray them, perhaps at the end of the day (one for each day of the week), or even as a Lenten practice. Praying the Psalms during Lent is an excellent way to deepen the penitential character of common Lenten practices such as fasting and almsgiving.

This reprinting also serves to reintroduce St. John Fisher to contemporary readers. Fisher shares a feast day with St. Thomas More, June 22, the date on which Fisher was martyred in 1535 for resisting Henry VIII's break with Rome. In this century we have become accustomed to courageous bishops standing up to tyrants — for example, just last year Cardinal Stepinac (d. 1962) of Croatia was beatified as a martyr under communism.

Yet in his time Fisher was the only English bishop to defy Henry VIII, understanding himself to be following in the footsteps of his namesake, John the Baptist, in defending the indissolubility of marriage. Fisher was not only a bishop, but a leading scholar, man of letters, chancellor of the University of Cambridge, and confessor to Lady Margaret Beaufort, the saintly grandmother of Henry VIII. Alas, he remains as ignored today as St. Thomas More is celebrated.

This volume presents in modern English Fisher's sermons on Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143. (In some versions of the Bible those after Psalm 6 are numbered one number smaller: 31, 37, etc.) The best-known are 51, the Miserere, and 130, the De profundis. The former appears every Friday in the Liturgy of the Hours, and the latter is traditionally recited when praying for the dead. Together with the other five, they comprise the seven penitential Psalms.

Anne Barbeau Gardiner has rendered Fisher's English (he wrote before Shakespeare) into felicitous modern English, while not sacrificing the elegance of the older, elevated style. Her introduction briefly outlines Fisher's life, describing him as “a virtual one-man counter-reformation in England,” first against Luther and then against Henry VIII.

She makes a contribution to the continuing project of correcting anti-Catholic history, arguing that the popularity of Fisher's sermons, reprinted seven times between 1508 and 1529, “evinced a high measure of spiritual receptivity and showed that genuine faith and devotion were far more alive than usually claimed by defenders of the Protestant Reformation.”

The sermons are of high literary quality, devotionally and theologically rich. His graceful combination of systematic argument and literary devices makes his prose useful both for study and spiritual reading. Notwithstanding either devotional fervor or theological argument, it is Fisher's transparent holiness that gives the work its true radiance.

While Fisher focuses on conversion, contrition, and the need for penance (sacramental and otherwise) in the spiritual life, his reflections are wide-ranging. He preaches at some length on the Virgin Mary (Psalm 37), and his sermon on Psalm 129 interweaves a brilliant exegesis of Jonah with a detailed description of the process by which we entertain sin, consent to it, revel in it, boast of it, and finally are ruled by it. There is no mincing of words about the horror of sin and our culpability. He dwells upon the wretchedness of sin in order to move his listeners to “tears of contrition,” directing them to the “cleansing power of Christ's Blood.”

No recommendation can replace a sample of Fisher at his best. In a splendid passage of his sermon on Psalm 50, the scholar-bishop vividly “measures” the mercy of God, mixing Latin and English, and weaving together verses from other Psalms:

“Truly, the mercy of our most mighty and blessed Lord is great, so great that it has all measures of greatness. Of its greatness in height it is written, Domine, usque ad celos misericordia tua, Lord, your mercy extends and reaches up to the heavens (Ps 56:11). It is also great in depth, for it reaches down to the lowest hell. The prophet says, misericordia tua magna est super me, et eruisti animam meam ex inferno inferiori, Lord, your mercy is great over me and you have delivered me from the lowest and deepest hell (Ps 85:13). It is broad, for it occupies and spans all the world, the same prophet saying, misericordia Domini plena est terra, the earth is full of the mercy of our Lord (Ps 32:5). It lacks no length, for also by the same prophet it is spoken: misericordia eius ab eterno, et usque in eternum super timentes eum, the mercy of God is without end on those who fear him (Ps 102:17).

“Therefore since the mercy of God is so high, so deep, so broad, and so long, who can say or think it is little? Who will not call it great by all measures of greatness? Then, everyone who wants to acquaint himself with this mercy can say, miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam, Lord, have mercy on me according to thy great mercy.”

That passage should serve to whet the appetite for Fisher's works, which themselves scale the heights of erudition, explore the depths of the soul, embrace the breadth of the Church's tradition, and preach the lengths to which God will go to save sinners. Here and elsewhere St. John Fisher moves us to confess peccavi Domino, secure in the knowledge that the prayer, Miserere mei, Deus never goes unheard.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

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