A Spiritual Consolation, by Saint John Fisher

illustration of Saint John Fisher based on a painting by Hans HolsbienSister Elizabeth, nothing doth more help effectually to get a good and a virtuous life than if a soul, when it is dull and unlusty without devotion, neither disposed to prayer nor to any other good work, may be stirred or quickened again by fruitful meditation. I have therefore devised unto you this meditation that followeth, praying you for my sake and for the weal of your own soul, to read it at such times as you shall feel yourself most heavy and slothful to do any good work. It is a manner of lamentation and sorrowful complaining made in the person of one that was hastily prevented by death (as I assure you every creature may be): none other surety we have, living in this world here.

But if you will have any profit by reading of it, three things you must do in anywise. First, when you shall read this meditation, devise in your mind as nigh as you can all the conditions of a man or woman suddenly taken and ravished by death; and think with yourself that ye were in the same condition so hastily taken and that incontinent you must needs die, and your soul depart hence and leave your mortal body, never to return again for to make any amends, or to do any release to your soul after this hour.

Secondly, that ye never read this meditation but alone by yourself in secret manner, where you may be most attentive thereunto, and when ye have the best leisure without any let of other thoughts or business. For if you otherwise behave yourself in the reading of it, it shall anon lose the virtue and quickness in stirring and moving of your soul when you would ratherest have it stirred.

Thirdly, that when you intend to read it, you must afore lift up your mind to Almighty God and beseech Him that, by the help and succour of His grace, the reading thereof may fruitfully work in your soul a good and virtuous life according to His pleasure, and say: Deus in adjutorium meum intende, Domine ad adjuvandum vie festina. Gloria Patri, etc. Laus tibi Domine Rex aeternae gloriae. Amen.

Alas, alas, I am unworthily taken, all suddenly death hath assailed me, the pains of his stroke be so sore and grievous that I may not long endure them; my last hour, I perceive well, is come; I must now leave this mortal body; I must now depart hence out of this world never to return again into it. But whither I shall go, or where I shall become, or what lodging I shall have this night, or in what company I shall fall, or in what country I shall be received, or in what manner I shall be treated, God knoweth, for I know not. What if I shall be damned in the perpetual prison of hell, where be pains endless and without number? Grievous it shall be to them that be damned for ever, for they shall be as men in most extreme pains of death, ever wishing and desiring death, and yet never shall they die. It should be now unto me much weary, one year continually to lie upon a bed were it never so soft; how weary then shall it be to lie in the most painful fire so many thousands of years without number; and to be in that most horrible company of devils most terrible to behold, full of malice and cruelty?

O wretched and miserable creature that I am, I might so have lived and so ordered my life by the help and grace of my Lord Christ Jesus, that this hour might have been unto me much joyous and greatly desired. Many blessed and holy saints were full joyous and desirous of this hour, for they knew well that by death their souls should be translated into a new life; to the life of all joy and endless pleasure, from the straits and bondage of this corruptible body into a very liberty and true freedom among the company of heaven, from the miseries and grievances of this wretched world, to be above with God in comfort inestimable that cannot be spoken nor thought. They were assured of the promises of Almighty God, which had so promised to all them that be His faithful servants; and sure I am that if I had truly and faithfully served Him unto this hour, my soul had been partner of these promises.

But unhappy and ungracious creature that I am, I have been negligent in His service, and therefore now my heart doth waste in sorrows seeing the nighness of death, and considering my great sloth and negligence. I thought full little thus suddenly to have been trapped; but, alas, now death hath prevented me, and hath unwarily attacked me and suddenly oppressed me with his mighty power, so that I know not whither I may turn me for succour, nor where I may seek now for help, nor what thing I may do to get any remedy.

If I might have leisure and space to repent me and amend my life, not compelled with this sudden stroke but of my own free will and liberty, and partly for the love of God, putting aside all sloth and negligence, I might then safely die without any dread; I might then be glad to depart hence and leave my manifold miseries and encumbrances of this world. But how may I think that my repentance or mine amendment cometh now of mine own free will, since I was before this stroke so cold and dull in the service of my Lord God? Or how may I think that I do this more rather for His love than for fear of His punishment, when, if I had truly loved Him, I should more quickly and more diligently have served Him heretofore? Me seemeth now that I cast away my sloth and negligence, compelled by force. Even as a merchant that is compelled by a great tempest in the sea to cast his merchandise out of the ship, it is not to be supposed that he would cast away his riches of his own free will, not compelled by the storm. And even so likewise do I: if this tempest of death were not now raised upon me, it is full like that I would not have cast from me my sloth and negligence. O would to God that I might have now some farther respite, and some longer time to amend myself of my free will and liberty. O if I might entreat death to spare me for a season: but that will not be; death in no wise will be entreated; delay he will none take; respite he will none give, if I would give him all the riches of this world; no, if all my lovers and friends would fall upon their knees and pray him for me. No, if I and they would weep (if it were so possible) as many tears as there be in the seas drops of water, no pity may restrain him. Alas, when opportunity of time was, I would not use it well, which, if I had done, it would now be unto me more precious than all the treasures of a realm. For then my soul as now should have been clothed with good works innumerable, the which should make me not to be ashamed when I should come to the presence of my Lord God, where now I shall appear laden with sin miserably, to my confusion and shame. But, alas, too negligently have I let pass from me my time, not regarding how precious it was, nor yet how much spiritual riches I might have got therein, if I would have put my diligence and study thereunto.

For assuredly no deed that is, be it never so little, but it shall be rewarded of Almighty God. One draught of water given for the love of God shall not be unrewarded, and what is more easy to be given than water? But not only deeds, but also the least words and thoughts shall be in like wise rewarded. O how many good thoughts, deeds, works, might one think, speak and do in one day? But how many more in one whole year? O alas, my great negligence! O alas, my foul blindness! O alas, my sinful madness that knew this well, and would not put it in eifectual execution! if now all the people of this world were present here to see and know the perilous condition that I am in, and how I am prevented by the stroke of death, I would exhort to take me as an example to them all, and while they have leisure and time, to order their lives and cast from them sloth and idleness, and to repent them of their misbehaviour towards God, and to bewail their offences, to multiply good works and to let no time pass by them unfruitfully. For if it shall please my Lord God that I might any longer live, I would otherwise exercise myself than I have done before. Now I wish that 1 may have time and space, but righteously I am denied, for when I might have had it I would not well use it; and, therefore, now when I would well use it, I shall not have it.

O ye, therefore, that have and may use this precious time in your liberty, employ it well, and be not too wasteful thereof, lest, peradventure, when you would have it, it shall be denied you likewise, as now it is to me. But now I repent me full sore of my great negligence, and right much I sorrow that so little I regarded the wealth and profit of my soul, but rather took heed to the vain comforts and pleasures of my wretched body. O corruptible body! O stinking carrion! O rotten earth, to whom I have served, whose appetites I have followed, whose desire I have procured, now dost thou appear what thou art in thy own likeness! That brightness of thy eyes, that quickness in hearing, that liveliness in thy other senses by natural warmness, thy swiftness and nimbleness, thy fairness and beauty; all these thou hast not of thyself, they were but lent unto thee for a season, even as a wall of earth that is fair painted without for a season with fresh and goodly colours, and also gilded with gold, it appeareth goodly for the time to such as consider no deeper than the outward craft thereof; but when at the last the colour faileth and the gilding falleth away, then appeareth it in his own likeness; for then the earth plainly showeth itself. In like wise my wretched body, for the time of youth it appeareth fresh and lusty, and I was deceived with the outward beauty thereof, little considering what naughtiness was covered underneath; but now it showeth itself.

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, thou turnest into corruption; and naught 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 as a painting or a gilding upon an earthen wall; under it was covered with stinking and filthy matter. But I looked not so deep, I contented myself with the outward painting, and in that I took great pleasure; for all my study and care was about thee, either to apparel thee with some clothes of divers colours, either to satisfy thy desire in pleasant sights, in delectable hearings, in goodly smells, in sundry manner of tastings and touchings, either else to get thee ease and rest as well in sleep as otherwise. And I provided, therefore, pleasant and delectable lodgings, and to eschew tediousness in all these, not only lodgings, but also in apparel, meats and drinks procured many and divers changes, that when thou wast weary of one then mightest thou content thyself with some other. Oh, alas, this was my vain and naughty study whereunto my wit was ready applied, in those things I spent the most part of my days. And yet was I never content long, but murmuring or grudging every hour for one thing or other.

And what am I now the better for all this? What reward may I look for of all my long service? or what great benefits shall I receive for all my great study, care and diligence? Nothing better am I, but much the worse; much corruption and filth my soul thereby hath gathered, so that now it is made full horrible and loathly to behold. Reward get I none other than punishment, either in hell everlasting or at the least in purgatory, if I may so easily escape. The benefits of my labour are the great cares and sorrows which I now am wrapped in. May not I think my wit to have been well occupied in this lewd (i.e., light or frivolous – ed.) and unfruitful business? Have I not well bestowed my labour about this service of my wretched body? Hath not my time been well employed in these miserable studies, whereof now no comfort remaineth, but only sorrow and repentance? Alas, I heard full often that such as should be damned should grievously repent themselves and take more displeasure of their misbehaviour than ever they had pleasure before. And yet that repentance then should stand them in no stead, where a full little repentance taken in time might have eased them of all their pains.

This I heard and read full often, but full little heed or regard I gave thereunto; I well perceived it in myself, but all too late, I dread me. I would that now, by the example of me, all others might beware, and avoid by the gracious help of God these dangers that I now am in, and prepare themselves against the hour of death better than I have prepared me. Alas, what availeth me now any delicacy of meats and drinks which my wretched body insatiable did devour? What availeth my vanity or pride that I had in myself either of apparel or of any other thing belonging unto me? What availeth the filthy and unclean delights and lusts of the stinking flesh, wherein was appearance of much pleasure, but in very deed none other than the sow hath, waltering (i.e, wallowing – ed. herself in the miry puddle? Now these pleasures be gone, my body is nothing better, my soul is much the worse, and nothing remaineth but sorrow and displeasure, and that a thousandfold more than ever I had any pleasure before.

O lewd body and naughty, which hast brought me to this utter discomfort; O dirty corruption; sachell (i.e., satchel or sack – ed) full of dung, now must I go to make answer for thy lewdness; thy lewdness, I say, for it all cometh of thee. My soul had nothing need of such things as was thy desire: what need my soul that is immortal, either clothing, or meat or drink? What need it any corruptible gold and silver? What need it any houses or beds, or any other things that appertaineth to these? For thee, O corruptible body, which like a rotten wall daily needeth reparations and botching up with meat and drink, and defence of clothing against cold and heat, was all this study and diligence taken, and yet now wilt thou forsake me at my most need, when account and reckoning of all our misdeeds must be given before the throne of the Judge most terrible. Now thou wilt refuse me and leave me to the jeopardy of all this matter.

O alas, many years of deliberation suffice not before so great a Judge to make answer, who shall examine me of every idle word that ever passed my mouth. O then how many idle words, how many evil thoughts, how many deeds have I to make answer for! and such as we set but at light, full greatly shall be weighed in the presence of His most high Majesty. O alas, what may I do to get some help at this most dangerous hour? Where may I seek for succour? Where may I resort for any comfort? My body forsaketh me, my pleasures be vanished away as the smoke, my goods will not go with me. All these worldly things I must leave behind me; if any comfort shall be, either it must be in the prayers of my friends, or in mine own good deeds that I have done before.

But as for my good deeds that should be available in the sight of God, alas, they be few or none that I can think to be available; they must be done principally and purely for His love. But my deeds, when of their kind they were good, yet did I linger them by my folly; for either I did them for the pleasure of men, or to avoid the shame of the world, or else for my own affection, or else for dread of punishment; so that seldom I did any good deed in that purity and straightness that it ought of right to have been done. And my misdeeds, my lewd deeds that be shameful and abominable, be without number; not one day of all my life, no, not one hour I trow was so truly expended to the pleasure of God, but manydeeds, words and thoughts miscaped me in mylife. Alas, little trust then may I have upon my deeds!

And as for the prayers of my friends such as I shall leave behind me, of them many peradventure be in the same need that I am in; so that where their own prayers might profit themselves, they cannot so profit another. And many of them will be full negligent, and some forgetful of me, and no marvel: for who should have been so friendly unto me than mine own self? Therefore I that was most bound to have done for myself, forget my own weal in my lifetime; no marvel therefore if others do forget me after my departing hence. Other friends there be by whose prayers souls may be helped, as by the blessed and holy saints above in heaven, which verily will be mindful of such as in earth here have devoutly honoured them before. But, alas, I had special devotion but to a few, and yet them I have so faintly honoured, and to them so coldly sued for favour, that I am ashamed to ask aid or help of them. At this time indeed I had more effectually meant to have honoured them and more diligently to have commended my wretched soul unto their prayers, and so to have made them my special friends; but now death hath prevented me so, that no other hope remaineth, but only in the mercy of my Lord God, to whose mercy I do now offer myself, beseeching Him not to look upon my deserts, but upon His infinite goodness and abundant pity.

Alas, my duty had been much better to have remembered this terrible hour; I should have had this danger ever before my eyes; I should have provided, therefore, so that now I might have been in a more readiness against the coming of death, which I knew assuredly would come at the last, albeit I knew not when, where, or by what manner; but well I knew every hour and moment was to him indifferent, and in his Uberty. And yet (my madness ever to be sorrowed), notwithstanding this certainty of his coming, and the uncertainty of the time thereof, I made no certain nor sure provision against this hour. Full often I took great study and care to provide for little dangers, only because I thought they might hap, and yet happed they never a deal; and but trifles they were in comparison of this. How much rather should I have taken study and care for this so great a danger which I knew well must necessarily fall unto me once. For this cannot be eschewed in no wise, and upon this I ought to have made good provision; for in this hangeth all our wealth. For if a man die well, he shall after his death nothing want that he would desire, but his appetite shall be satiate in every point at the full; and if he die amiss, no provision shall avail him that ever he made before.

This provision, therefore, is most effectually to be studied, since this alone may profit without other, and without this none can avail. O ye that have time and space to make your provision against the hour of death, defer not from day to day as I have done. For I often did think and purpose with myself that at some leisure I would have provided; nevertheless, for every trifling business I put it aside, and delayed this provision always to another time, and promised with myself that at such a time 1 would not fail to do it; but when that came another business arose, and so I deferred it again unto another time. And so, alas, from time to time, that now death in the meantime hath prevented me. My purpose was good, but it lacked execution; my will was straight, but it was not effectual; my mind well intended, but no fruit came thereof. All for because I delayed so often and never put in effect that that I had purposed; and, therefore, delay it not as I have done, but before all other business put this first in surety, which ought to be chief and principal business. Neither building of colleges, nor making of sermons, nor giving of alms, neither yet any other manner of business shall help you without this.

Therefore, first and before all things, prepare for this; delay not in any wise, for if you do you shall be deceived as I am now. I read of many, I have heard of many, I have known many that were disappointed as I am now. And ever I thought and said and intended that I would make sure and not be deceived by the sudden coming of death; yet, nevertheless, I am now deceived, and am taken sleeping, unprepared, and that when I least weened of his coming, and even when I reckoned myself to be in most health, and when I was most busy and in the midst of my matters. Therefore, delay not you any farther, nor put your trust overmuch in your friends; trust yourself while ye have space and liberty, and do for yourself now while you may. I would advise you to do that thing that I, by the grace of my Lord God, would put in execution if His pleasure were to send me longer life. Account yourself as dead, and think that your souls were in prison of purgatory, and that there they must abide till that the ransom for them be truly paid, either by long sufferance of pain there, or else by suffrages done here in earth by some of your special friends. Be you your own friend; do you these suffrages for your own soul, whether they be prayers or almsdeeds or any other penitential painfulness. If you will not effectually and heartily do these things for your own soul, look you never that others will do them for you, and in doing them in your own persons, they shall be more available to you a thousandfold than if they were done by any other. If you follow this counsel and do thereafter, you be gracious and blessed, you shall doubtless repent your follies, but too late.

text taken from A Spiritual Consolation and Treatises, by Saint John Fisher, edited by D. O’Connor, 1903; imprimatur by + Bishop Edward Ilsley, Diocese of Birmingham, England, 25 April 1903