John Fisher (1469-1535) (11th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

by Gwen Adams (c.) 2010

Today is the eve of Fisher's death.  Happy Feast.

"Finally, it's a matter of love."
--Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

He was Catherine of Aragon’s confessor, and almost from the beginning he discerned that the “king’s great matter” would end in time with his own doom. John Fisher was a thin, lean man, of great wisdom and prudence, ascetic and disciplined, a lover of wisdom. He used to rise in the dark hours before sunrise and study for four hours every day, so great was his love for truth.

He loved truth unto death. When Catherine of Aragon cast herself before Henry VIII and begged him not to put her away, her gentle voice broken with the young bruised love, her heart laid raw and naked before the court, Henry looked away. And Fisher knew that the comforting of the Queen, was the comforting of Christ, and that to speak the truth would be his last act.

When the last months came and Henry divorced Catherine, exiled her, took away their little daughter Mary, broke with the Church, it became clear to Fisher that his whole life had been a preparation for this trial. For Fisher, it was indeed “the king’s great matter,” but for more than one King. Everything had transpired to set him in a position and make him the kind of man not to wield power and sway events but to stand in this matter. He had been given the quiet, poor, unimportant Diocese of Rochester. Compare him to Wolsey who had the four richest and most powerful sees in Merrie England. Fisher was the wise man of his age, but never famous. Compare him to Erasmus who admired him and considered him the great mind of the age. Yet it was Erasmus whose name was known and celebrated everywhere, Erasmus who was sought after.

Belloc wrote that Thomas More died defending the papacy, died for the authority of Christ’s Church, her hierarchy, the authority of a celibate man to determine the validity of the bonds of matrimony. Thomas More was a layman, a husband, a father, who by his death, as it were, ratified the validity of the clergy, and of the Pope.

But Fisher was a man who died for a marriage. He saw himself called to walk in the footsteps of John the Baptist, who had been a friend of the Bridegroom, all his life growing lesser for an eternal wedding. Likewise, all his life, John Fisher was dying away, growing thinner, more obscure, more dispensable, as he prepared to defend a wedding. He said he could do no less than John the Baptist who died to defend the holy bonds of matrimony and “that at a time when it had not yet been sanctified by Christ’s blood.”

And so when they were arrested in the spring, Thomas More torn from his wife and family, Fisher, an old, sick man, both betrayed by the same contemptible coward, these two friends seemed as if standing on opposite ends of a bridge. On one shore, Fisher looked forth from his priesthood across the bridge to all the marriages and families of this world, and over there More was looking back at him and all the Christ-called clergy. And they spanned a bridge over the rushing water between the two worlds, pledging to defend each other’s lands, forging a treaty, ratifying an ancient promise to be one another’s rear guards, and fight back to back till the consummation of the world.

Catherine begged Fisher not to risk himself. But he must, and in June, a deceitful penitent duped the sick and exhausted bishop and got him to say something that would serve as a pretext for a trial. Fisher was tried, condemned and a few days later beheaded on the 22nd of June, just two days before the birthday of John the Baptist. The long, pale night before he died was Midsummer Night’s Eve.

They killed him in the morning and put his head on a pike over London Bridge to rot as a warning. They thought they had snuffed him out, but in truth, that was not how men like Fisher, More, and John the Baptist died. They became too great for this old shrunken world. The splendor of their souls, their rigor and life, in time burst forth from the confines of sin and death. They would spill their blood upon the soil; they could not hold it in.

When they put John Fisher’s head on a pike for the crows to peck, they thought they had snuffed him out. But Fisher was far away from them all.

It was a June morning, and all the meadow clover was bursting and dewy, as was the lavender by the gate. The morning sun pierced rods through the pearly mist and melted the mist away. John Fisher was climbing the country road to a church as all the bells were peeling. Everyone was going to a wedding, and out in the fields, people were setting up tents and tables and games. Fisher was wearing white vestments and he was no longer tired or weak. As the sun rose and the mist vanished, he found he could see a great distance to the poplar trees on the far horizon, and see each leaf on each branch. He knew he had come to a place where vows are not broken, where love remains true. And he remembered that he was going to hear someone’s marriage vows, he was going to preside over someone’s wedding, but he could not remember whose. As he came round the lilac hedge by the old cemetery, he saw all the graves were open and empty. The lilac blooms were gone, but a drop of dew hung on the tip of a heart-shaped lilac leaf, trembling like the last tear. Then he remembered it was the wedding of the Lamb.



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