St. John Fisher on Why Christians Should Frequently Pray the Seven Penitential Psalms
Image of St. John Fisher, found via Google search on Pinterest
Note: In her introduction to her edition of St. John Fisher's sermons, Dr. Anne Barbeau Gardiner wrote, "Fisher regards the seven penitential psalms as medicine of proven efficacy for healing souls. He states that [King] David was healed by composing Psalm 6 and by repeating it often with a contrite heart, and so we can be, too. Again, in [his sermon on] Psalm 37, he explains that we should use the Psalms every day: they rouse the mind from spiritual sleep as by a sweet melody, and they are 'letters of supplication' to God that are truly effective. While God accepts all prayers from contrite hearts, the prayers most acceptable to him are those approved by Holy Church and made by holy people, prayers that ask for forgiveness, strength of soul, and perseverance in the right way, all of which is 'notably done in the psalms of David.'"
[The following is excerpted is from St. John Fisher's sermons on Psalms 6 and 37, "translated" into modern English by Anne Barbeau Gardiner in Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, published by Ignatius Press. I previously excerpted from the great saint's sermon on Psalm 129 here: Commentaries on Psalm 129, for the Fourth Anniversary of Dignare Me.]
From the sermon on Psalm 6 – The First Penitential Psalm:
"...David, son of Jesse, a man especially chosen of almighty God and endowed with many great benefits, afterward sinned very grievously against God and [His] law. For the occasion of his great offense he made this holy psalm and thereby got forgiveness for his sins....The benefits he received of almighty God are innumerable and impossible for me now to show entirely. God defended him against the envious minds of his brothers, defended him from the dangers and perils of two cruel beasts, the lion and the bear, saved him unharmed from the envious persecutions of King Saul and, moreover, from the hatred of the Philistines. And finally, when King Saul was dead, [He] made him king of Israel. By these great and manifold gifts, we may understand how much David ought to have humbled himself unto almighty God, how much he was bound to [Him], how unkind he ought to appear in our regard if he failed to serve his Lord and maker with a whole mind and a loyal heart."
"But after he was made king, had lived in peace and ease, and had taken many wives, David, not content with these wives, dismissed the goodness and gentleness of almighty God from his mind and took another man's wife, committing adultery with her against God's law. This woman was the wife of his true knight called Uriah....David then found the means, by letters sent to Joab, chief captain of his host, that Uriah should be placed in the foremost line of battle and be slain, which was done according to his desire, so that this good knight Uriah there suffered death. Behold the accumulation and heaping of sin upon sin. He was not satisfied with the great offense of adultery done against almighty God, but shortly afterward committed manslaughter....Yet let us call to our minds how merciful God was to him despite all this. Of [His] infinite goodness and meekness, our blessed Lord almighty God sent him a prophet who warned him of his great offenses. And as soon as David had the will to know himself guilty and said, peccavi Domino, my Lord God, I have offended, immediately all his sins were forgiven (2 Samuel 12:13)....Yet notwithstanding all this, David immediately forgot the goodness of almighty God and again fell into the sin of pride....What might he look forward to, then, except the punishment of God? Greatly fearing this, he was marvellously penitent, and knowing that he had grievously offended our Lord God, he asked mercy of [Him] and made this psalm with great contrition and sorrow of soul, by which he again obtained forgiveness."
"Now you understand who made this psalm, what occasion caused him to write it, and what profit he got by it. Which of us now being sick in any part of the body and in jeopardy of death would not diligently search for a medicine by which to be healed? Would we not first inquire of one who had the same sickness before us? Would we not trust and hope to find a remedy for our disease in a medicine that had cured similar sicknesses and diseases before? Since now, therefore, we have heard tell [told?] how greatly sick and diseased this prophet David truly was, with a sickness not of the body but of the soul, and also with what medicines he was cured and made whole, let us take heed and use the same for our speedy cure when we are sick by our sins in the same way he was. For he was a sinner as we are, but he did wholesome penance when he made this holy psalm, by which he got forgiveness and was restored to his soul's health. By often saying and reading this psalm with a contrite heart like his, and by asking for mercy, we shall likewise undoubtedly purchase and get forgiveness for our sins from our best and merciful Lord God...."
From the sermon on Psalm 37 – The Third Penitential Psalm:
"...All we Christian people are indeed duty-bound to give great and undying thanks to the holy prophet David, who so diligently left us in writing his most devout psalms for us and our posterity to read. And he did so, it seems to me, chiefly for three reasons: first, that the minds of sinners might be raised up and excited by these holy psalms, as by a sweet melody, to receive and grasp the study and learning of virtues; secondly, that if any man or woman had fallen into great and abominable sins, they should not despair but put their entire and steadfast hope of forgiveness in God; thirdly, that they might use these holy psalms as letters of supplication and efficacious prayers to obtain the remission and forgiveness of sins from almighty God....the holy fathers [the Church Fathers] think all sinners are under the power of an evil spirit. Let us, therefore, turn again to these sweet melodies our prophet once sang with his spiritual harp, by which we can chase and put away all the sluggishness and sloth that wicked spirits put into us...."
...[T]he wretched and sinful can trust by these psalms to have God's forgiveness. We have the example of this holy prophet. For every man knows that that the prophet David was a wretched and grievous sinner, yet afterward he lived in a holy manner and by the merits of his life was lifted up to heaven. The medicine and remedy he used to remove his sins was pure and clear penance, at which he labored so much by often reciting these psalms that he was soon made perfectly clean. Therefore, why should we wretched sinners doubt that we can be made clean from all our sins, however grievous, when we know that this prophet's life was unclean before with such a great filthiness of sin and has now been made so bright and spotless by penance, which the true purger of sin?...Is not the same medicine and remedy he used, that is to say, penance, present and ready at hand for all of us? Yes, truly. For it was said to every person, penitenciam [poenitentiam] agite, do penance (Matthew 4:17). Have we not the same God, and is [He] not as rich and plentiful in [Hi]s mercy as ever [He] was before? Yes, certainly....Do you believe [Him] partial to any condition, does [He] not offer [His] grace to every creature everwhere? Yes, truly, for Saint Peter the apostle says in veritate comperi quia non est personarum acceptor Deus: sed in omni gente, qui timet Deum et operatur iustitiam: hic acceptus est illi, I have observed and perceived for a truth that God is no respecter of persons, but among all peoples, whoever fears almighty God and does justice, that person is acceptable to [Him] (Acts 10:34-35). Therefore, if we fear almighty God and do righteous penance, we can trust indeed to have [His] forgiveness and without doubt to be accepted by [His] mercy. To this the holy prophet David both admonishes and entices us by his holy psalms, the matter of which ought to give great comfort and hope of forgiveness to all wretched sinners."
"...[I]t shall be made clear that the holy psalms are like letters of supplication that we can give to almighty God as helpful movers and stirrers of [His] infinite mercy toward us....[W]ho is wiser...to make our business succeed, that is to say, to obtain forgiveness, than our prophet David?..Truly, he was a sinner as we are and an active pursuer of forgiveness. With great diligence he made these holy psalms, offered them up daily to almighty God with great devotion...and thus greatly moved God in [His] goodness to forgive him. Therefore, knowing the virtue and efficacy of these holy psalms, let us use them in our similar business and never doubt to have forgiveness, provided we do it as lovingly as he did in his time. In truth, every prayer offered up from a penitent heart is acceptable to our most good and merciful Lord God, but that prayer is above all others acceptable to [Him] which is approved by Holy Church, which is made by a man of marvellous and known holiness, and which asks first for forgiveness of sins, strength of soul to withstand sin, and continuance of virtue, something nobly done in the Psalms of David, especially in the seven penitential psalms, which we have take upon ourselves to interpret. Therefore, let us gladly and lovingly desire them and offer them up often to almighty God, meekly asking [Him] to forgive our sins, which we have discourteously committed and done against [His] goodness...."
"...[L]et us go by prayer to our best and merciful Lord God with steadfast hope and true penance, meekly beseeching [Him] for [His] help, that since only [He] may defend us from our enemies [that is, the world, the flesh, and the devils], [He] will vouchsafe to deliver us, neither go away nor forsake us, but always give heed to our help. Quoniam ipse est Dominus Deus, salutis nostr[a]e, for [He] is God and Lord of our health. He gives to our bodies temporal health, to our souls the health of grace in this life, and, in the general resurrection to come, which we trust indeed, everlasting health both to body and soul, to which may our Lord by [His] ineffable mercy bring us. Amen."