St Thomas More and St John Fisher, by English School (Historical Portraits.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the 1530s in England, it was dangerous to be a public figure or outspoken religious leader. Henry VIII, King of England, imprisoned John Fisher for refusing to endorse him as head of the English church. Fisher believed only the Pope could fill that capacity. In due course, Henry had John executed. Because the nation compared Fisher and John the Baptist, the king had him beheaded sometime before the annual feast of John the Baptist, but the method of execution only made the comparison more apt.
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Fisher was an eminent scholar and a cardinal, well-known and loved across Europe, so his death could not go unnoticed. As he came to his execution, he prayed, “Now, O Lord, direct me to some passage which may support me through this awful scene.” Opening his Bible he read, “This is eternal life to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” He immediately closed the book and said, “Praised be the Lord! This is sufficient both for now and for eternity.”
While a prisoner in the tower of London, Fisher wrote his short book, The Ways to Perfect Religion. It stresses the importance of love for Christ if religious activity is not to be laborious and goes on at some length in its comparison of the zeal of hunters with the zeal Christians should have. Here are two excerpts from this, his last book, adapted into modern English.
The Ways to Perfect Religion
Sister Elizabeth, I would gladly write you something that might be to the health of your soul and the furtherance of it in holy religion. But well I know that without some fervor in the love of Christ, religion cannot be to you savory, nor any work of goodness delectable, but every virtuous deed shall seem laborious and painful. For love makes every work appear easy and pleasant, though it is thoroughly unpleasant in itself. And on the contrary, the easiest labor appears grievous and painful, when the soul of the person that does the deed has no desire nor love in doing it. This principle may be illustrated by the life of hunters, which, beyond doubt is more laborious and painful than the life of religious persons, and yet nothing sustains them in their labor and pains but the earnest love and hearty desire to find their game.…
Here, perhaps, you will say unto me, how may I love that [which] I cannot see? If I might see him [Christ] with all the conditions you speak of, I could with all my heart love him. Ah, good Sister, that time is not yet come; you must, as I said, in the present age prepare yourself in cleanness of body and soul against that day, so that when it comes, you may be able and worthy to see him, or else you shall be excluded from him with the unwise virgins of whom the Gospel tells that they were shut out from his presence with great shame and confusion, because they had not sufficiently prepared themselves. Therefore, good Sister, for the present don’t be negligent to prepare yourself with all good works, that you may then be admitted into his presence, from which to be excluded, would be more wretched pain than any pain of hell. For as Chrysostom says, Si decem mille gehennas quis dixerit nihil tale eft quale ab illa beata visione excidere, that is to say, if one would rehearse unto me ten thousand hells, yet all that should not be so great pains as if to be excluded from the blessed sight of the face of Christ.