John Fisher (1469–1535) was variously a Catholic cardinal, chancellor of the University of Cambridge and bishop of Rochester. It is sobering to remember, that he was a victim of the wrath of Henry VIII and was beheaded on Tower Hill on the morning of 22 June 1535. His head was displayed on London Bridge for some two weeks after his death. His writings on the penitential psalms were published many years earlier in 1508.
For Fisher our Psalm 51 was Psalm 50. This was because he followed the Latin tradition, which follows the Greek tradition, in joining Psalms 9 and 10 as a single psalm. His work on Psalm 51 is a rich exhortation to deal with the consequences of sin and to lead a life of virtue. We get a taste of this in this short excerpt:
If a tablet has been foul and filthy for a long time, first we scrape it, and after it has been scraped we wash it and make it clean. Our soul can be compared to a tablet on which nothing was painted. Nevertheless, with many misdeeds and spots of sin we have defiled and made it deformed in the sight of God. Therefore, it is necessary that it should be scraped, washed, and wiped. It shall be scraped by the inward sorrow and compunction of the heart when we are sorry for our sin; it shall be washed with tears from our eyes when we acknowledge and confess our sin; and lastly, it will be wiped and made clean when we try to make amends and do satisfaction by good deeds for our sins.Gardiner, 1998, p.102
We note Fisher’s concern with the soul and that the Psalms are very much the language of the soul. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the psalmist knows nothing of a soul/body duality. For the psalmist the word ‘soul’ has a connotation of one’s ‘very being’. It is, of course, quite possible that Fisher has a more dualistic understanding than that of the psalmist. Like other interpreters of his time, Fisher uses the word compunction, which we considered in an earlier post: C is for Contrition and Compunction.
This short excerpt is focused very much on sin as misdeeds. Later posts will consider broader definitions of sin. The emphasis on misdeeds ties closely to the medieval practice of Penance. The closing sentence of the above quotation refers to the deeds required by this doctrine as the final stage of Penance. We will return in a later post to explore the differences between penitence and penance. For now, we note that Psalm 51 was central to both ideas in the Middle Ages. It was one of the seven texts recommended for lay Christians to use to express penitence. In a similar way it was a text given by a priest to say as one of the deeds to demonstrate Penance. In this way Psalm 51 was an everyday reality for many during the medieval period.
Saint John Fisher, Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, Anne Barbeau Gardiner (Translator and editor), San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998.