Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How a Holy Man Dies: St. John Fisher

The author Michael Davies described the day of Fisher's beheading--he was awakened early and told the time of his execution; he asked to be allowed to sleep longer--and he was too weak to walk from his cell through the Tower to Tower Hill:

When he came out of the Tower, a summer morning's mist hung over the river, wreathing the buildings in a golden haze. Two of the Lieutenant's men carried him in a chair to the gate, and there they set him down, while waiting for the Sheriffs. The cardinal stood up and leaning his shoulder against a wall for support, opened the little New Testament he carried in his hand. "O Lord," he said, so that all could hear him, "this is the last time I shall ever open this book. Let some comforting place now chance to me whereby I, Thy poor servant, may glorify Thee in my last hour"----and looking down at the page, he read:

"Now this is etemal life: that they may know Thee, the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent I have glorified Thee on earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest me to do"(John, 17:3-4).

Whereupon he shut the book, saying: "Here is even learning enough for me to my life's end." His lips were moving in prayer, as they carried him to Tower Hill. And when they reached the scaffold, the rough men of his escort offered to help him up the ladder. But he smiled at them: "Nay, masters, now let me alone, ye shall see me go up to my death well enough myself; without help." And forthwith he began to climb, almost nimbly. As he reached the top the sun appeared from behind the clouds, and its light shone upon his face. He was heard to murmur some words from Psalm 33: Accedite ad eum, etilluminamim, et facies vestræ non confundentur. The masked headsman knelt----as the custom was----to ask his pardon. And again the cardinal's manliness dictated every word of his answer: "I forgive thee with all my heart, and I trust on Our Lord Thou shalt see me die even lustily." Then they stripped him of his gown and furred tippet, and he stood in his doublet and hose before the crowd which had gathered to see his death. A gasp of pity went up at the sight of his "long, lean, slender body, nothing in manner but skin and bones . . . the flesh clean wasted away; and a very image of death, and as one might say, death in a man's shape and using a man's voice." He was offered a final chance to save his life by acknowledging the royal supremacy, but the Saint turned to the crowd, and from the front of the scaffold, he spoke these words:

"Christian people, I am come hither to die for the faith of Christ's Catholic Church, and I thank God hitherto my courage hath served me well thereto, so that yet hitherto I have not feared death; wherefore I desire you help me and assist me with your prayers, that at the very point and instant of my death's stroke, and in the very moment of my death, I then faint not in any point of the Catholic Faith for fear; and I pray God save the king and the realm, and hold His holy hand over it, and send the king a good counsel."

The power and resonance of his voice, the courage of his spirit triumphing over the obvious weakness of his body, amazed them all, and a murmur of admiration was still rustling the crowd when they saw him go down on his knees and begin to pray. They stood in awed silence while he said the Te Deum in praise of God, and the Psalm In Thee O Lord have I put my trust, the humble request for strength beyond his own. Then he signed to the executioner to bind his eyes. For a moment more he prayed, hands and heart raised to Heaven. Then he lay down and put his wasted neck upon the low block. The executioner, who had been standing back, took one quick step forward, raised his ax and with a single blow cut off his head. So copious a stream of blood poured from the neck that those present wondered how it could have come from so thin and wasted a frame. 

O God, who in martyrdom
have brought true faith to its highest expression,
graciously grant
that, strengthened through the intercession
of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More,
we may confirm by the witness of our life
the faith we profess with our lips.
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.

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