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Conversion of an Atheist The Story of Hermann Cohen


The Young Composer Hermann Cohen was a German Jew, an outstanding concert pianist, a convert to the Catholic faith, and a Discalced Carmelite monk. He was born in November, 1820, in Hamburg, into the family of a wealthy banker.

“Mary revealed to me
the mystery of the Eucharist.
I discovered that the Eucharist is life.
It is happiness!” [1]

The Young Composer

Hermann Cohen was a German Jew, an outstanding concert pianist, a convert to the Catholic faith, and a Discalced Carmelite monk. He was born in November, 1820, in Hamburg, into the family of a wealthy banker.

As a child reared in the orthodox traditions of his religion, he was highly sensitive to the realm of the Sacred and enjoyed praying in the synagogue. He graduated with distinction from a Protestant grammar school. Showing extraordinary talent in music from the age of four and a half, he obtained his parents’ permission to study piano along with his older brother. Being of frail health, he took lessons at the home of a famous professor who lost no time in infecting his impressionable pupil with his worldly interests.

From a relatively young age, Hermann shrugged off every trapping of his religious formation. Sweet and amenable until then, he suddenly became quite unbearable. With his parents he was capricious and demanding, rebelling at the slightest sign of resistance on their part to his desires. As a ten-year-old child prodigy, he made a trip to Frankfurt, where he was received enthusiastically into princely courts. Having found suitable backing, he set out for the city of his dreams — Paris — where he promptly won fame as a man of genius.

Paris at that time was full of outstanding artists. The twenty-two-year-old composer, Franz Liszt, considered then a very upright young man, at first declined to take Hermann as a student, but, on hearing him play, changed his mind. The boy became Liszt’s favorite student, who appeared with him as his accompanist during his recitals in the salons of Paris. Hermann charmed everyone with his talent and good looks. Newspapers idolized him. He met a great number of artists and writers, including Georges Sand, who made frequent mention of him in her writings. Paris went into raptures over this young virtuoso of extraordinary talent.

Success took its toll on Cohen’s character. Capricious, proud, arrogant and affected, he began to live a hedonistic life. He was unkind and nasty in his dealings with his mother, brother, and those nearest to him. He kept bad company. A spiritual wreck, he fell into bouts of melancholy. His departure for Geneva to join his beloved master only deepened his depression. At last, after several months, he succeeded in rejoining Liszt. But Hermann’s tumultuous life and addiction to the gaming tables in Geneva brought him more and more grief. He traveled widely throughout Europe, made trips to Italy and England, then returned once more to France.

In May of 1847, Prince Moskowa was seeking a choir director for Sainte Valérie Church on Rue Bourgogne in Paris. Even though Cohen was Jewish, he willingly took the position; he had debts to pay off, after all. His choir was charged with the task of solemnizing a Friday Benediction service in honor of Our Blessed Mother.

“Ravished” by Mary for the Eucharistic Jesus

Cohen watched attentively as the people prayed in church. The strange rites were entirely beyond his ken; and yet somehow he felt drawn to them. The extraordinary concentration of the faithful had an increasingly infectious effect on him. Near the end of the celebration, his gaze fell on the altar, where, in the midst of the flowers and lights, there stood a golden object containing a shining little white circle. When the celebrant raised the object in order to bless the people, all fell reverently to their knees. Cohen did not understand this gesture of blessing the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament, and yet he felt himself deeply stirred and touched by some unknown power:

“I had the peculiar impression of being excluded from this, as though the blessing were not for me” (KK, p.57).

God had “ravished” him interiorly with seemingly contradictory feelings: pain that this was not for him and, at the same time, a strange joyous hope that promised to relieve him of the crushing weight that oppressed him. On leaving the church, he was quite beside himself. He thought the feelings would pass like so many other euphoric experiences he had had in the past. But this did not happen. Instead it was his passions that began to subside. He walked around as though in a dream. The following Friday he went to the church as one compelled. During the blessing he burst into tears. On gazing at the Host, he experienced the presence of the Loving God.

This meeting with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament decided the musician’s fate. Many times, feeling drawn by a strange, sweet power, he went back to the church. Finally, he dropped to his knees without knowing Whom he was kneeling before. From his lips flowed the following spontaneous prayer, “Who are you, Lord? What am I to do?”

Hermann felt unable to share these experiences with anyone. At the time he was living in the house of Adalbert von Beaumont. There, in the library, he found an old prayer book belonging to von Beaumont’s mother. It was then that the skies around him began to clear. He plucked up the courage to discuss his experiences with Princess von Rauzan. He wished to know more about these matters that so attracted him. He begged her to introduce him to a priest. She promised she would, but illness prevented her. The introduction was delayed, and then new invitations and a fresh round of concerts threatened to thrust Hermann back into the grip of his old habits.

“Finally – he wrote – after surmounting many obstacles, I made the acquaintance of Abbot Legrand, legal advisor to the Archbishop of Paris. I told him what was taking place within me. After listening to me, he told me to stay calm, to persevere in my present disposition, and to trust in the paths that Providence would without fail reveal to me” (KK, p. 60).

Equipped with Lhomond’s Lecture on Christian Study, the delighted Hermann began purging himself of the false images of the Church and the priesthood that he had entertained earlier. Feeling spiritually stronger, he traveled to Ems, Germany, to give a concert. Upon arriving in the city, he immediately sought out the pastor of a small Catholic church recommended to him by Abbot Legrand. On August 8, he and a friend of his went to the church for Holy Mass.

“The singing and the palpable presence of supernatural power caused me to break out into fits of trembling. I felt both disturbed and moved. During the moment of transubstantiation, I was suddenly conscious of tears flowing from my eyes. God’s grace in all its strength poured over me….As I dissolved into tears, I was seized by a sharp sense of remorse for my past life. And suddenly, under divine inspiration, I made a general confession before God of all the sins I had committed in my life. I saw my faults before me, multiplied by a thousand, hideous and repulsive, inviting God’s wrath….And once again I felt a strange sense of peace, which poured over my soul like an oil of gladness — gladness that the merciful God would forgive me everything and, overlooking my crimes, have pity on me because of my remorse and bitter pain….Yes, I felt that He would forgive me, and, in a spirit of thanksgiving I resolved that I would love Him above all things, and convert. On leaving the church in Ems, I was as Christian as it was possible for an unbaptized person to be” (KK, p. 61).

Returning hastily to Paris, Cohen immediately went to see Abbot Legrand and began preparing for the Sacrament of Baptism. All this time, while attending Holy Mass, he felt tearful remorse over his sinful life. He longed for the Eucharistic Lord; for it was to Jesus that he attributed his spiritual transformation. The period of preparation for baptism brought Hermann yet another powerful experience. On August 15, 1847, he took part in the Catholic baptism of four Jewish women in the Chapel of Notre Dame de Sion on Rue du Regard. Presiding over the ceremony was Fr. Théodore Ratisbonne, also of Jewish origin. The words sung by these new converts from Judaism found special resonance in Hermann’s heart: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, have pity on the children of Israel! Jesus, Divine Messiah, Thou long awaited one of the Jews, have mercy on the children of Israel! Jesus, Thou longed for by the nations, Thou, who healed the deaf, the blind, and the mute, have mercy on the children of Israel!” (KK, p. 63).

So much did the event move him that he did not leave the chapel until he had thrown himself at the feet of the priest and begged for baptism. They decided he would be received into the Church in the same chapel on rue du Regard. The baptism was set for August 28 — the feast day of St. Augustine of Hippo. Princess von Rauzan was to be his godmother, and M. Gouraud, a famous scholar, his godfather. A nine-day retreat immediately preceded his reception of the Sacrament. Hermann recalls the terrible last night of the novena, when, embracing the crucifix, he cried out for God’s mercy. Mounting a great assault on his soul, the Devil sought to convince him of the worldly status he stood to lose. Hermann — he fear-mongered — would not be equal to the demands of his new life. Once more, it was Mary who came to his assistance.

The baptism took place at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, on Saturday, August 28, 1847. Hermann recalls:

“To the harmonious accompaniment of the organ, the choir of white-veiled young girls kneeling around the tabernacle sang the chant for the conversion of the Jews. Father Legrand, together with Father Ratisbonne, processed down the aisle to the altar. I followed them, trembling, but strong in spirit. My godfather walked at my right, my godmother at my left” (KK, p. 65).

The Christian

Hermann, the neo-catechumen, felt enveloped in the love of his assembled brothers and sisters in the faith. He tells us that when the baptismal water was poured over his head, and he heard his new Christian name — Augustin-Marie Henri — pronounced, he felt his heart bound in his breast:

“I received such a sudden and powerful jolt from God, that I can only compare it to an electric shock. My bodily eyes closed, but in that same instant my spiritual eyes were opened to the light of the supernatural and Divine. I felt as though I were in an ecstasy of love. My heart, like that of my patron saint, seemed to partake of the joy of paradise, and drink from the stream of delights that the Lord pours over His chosen ones in the land of the living….I also remember being dressed in a white gown of innocence, and being handed a candle, a sign of the Truth, which set my eyes aflame. It was then that I vowed in my heart to live and die for the Truth” (KK, p.66).

The names Augustin-Marie Henri pointed symbolically to his journey of change and conversion. The old Hermann was now scarcely recognizable. Grace had profoundly transformed him. The former carousing playboy, the darling of Parisian salons, and celebrated artist had become a joyful adherent of Christ Crucified. Paris lamented the loss of a world-class virtuoso. He, on the other hand, would gladly have cloistered himself in a quiet monastery, but first he had to strengthen his faith and, above all, pay off the debts he had incurred before his conversion. Consequently, he gave concerts for another two years, remaining with his former aristocratic milieu, but now modestly dressed, and often ridiculed.

He began to deepen his devotion to Our Lady and felt the need to engage in apostolic work. He prepared himself for the reception of the other Sacraments. On September 8, 1847, the birthday of Our Blessed Mother, he made his First Holy Communion. The Sacrament of Confirmation followed a few months later, on December 3. He characterized himself as “One Converted by the Blessed Sacrament.” He spent hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; nor was God frugal with His spiritual consolations and signs of favor.

One November evening in 1848, he was praying in a Carmelite chapel in Paris. As night fell, he was asked to leave the chapel. Only women were allowed to pray there during the night. Hermann was deeply pained by this. He, for whom an entire day of adoration was too short, who so much wanted to worship the Lord at night as well, had now to leave Him for the sake of “privileged women.”

Seeking to make nocturnal adoration available to men, he obtained the necessary permission from the Church. Thus, beginning November 22, 1848, the pious practice of nocturnal adoration began to spread throughout the world. Later, as a Carmelite monk, he would pledge to promote Eucharistic devotion in all of his sermons.

In addition to nocturnal adoration for men, Hermann instituted the Brotherhood (ratified by Pius IX in 1859), the sole aim of which was to offer thanksgiving to God for all His benefits, and especially for the gift of the Eucharist. A conversation with the Curé of Ars prompted this initiative. Referring to this conversation, the future Father Hermann (as he would come to be known) observed in one of his fiery sermons in the churches of Paris that the only form of thanksgiving worthy of God was the Divine Eucharist.

It deserves mentioning that Hermann had a very demanding spiritual director who would go to the point of depriving him of Holy Communion should the musician wax vain on the effect and success of his past and present recitals.

The Carmelite

Hermann had vowed before Our Lady’s altar to devote himself to priestly service as a Carmelite. In order to become a Carmelite novice, he had, as a recent convert from Judaism, to obtain special permission from the Bishop. This he had already received, though not without difficulty, in 1848. Upon entering the novitiate, he wrote to his family:

“Solitude, silence, seclusion, a hidden life, self-denial — these are now my chosen lot. I am a novice with the Order of the most Blessed Mother of God of Mount Carmel, famous in history for its strict rule, penitential rigor and love of God… My wish is that you will experience the same peace and joy that have been my constant companions for the last two years, and especially since I devoted myself entirely to God. He has given me back a thousand times more than I could possibly give Him. He has poured His treasury of graces over my soul” (KK. p. 88).

On October 6, 1849, upon assuming the habit of the Order of Carmel, he took the name Augustin-Marie of the Blessed Sacrament. In October of 1850, he made his profession of vows and was soon transferred to the town of Agen to begin preparations for holy orders. His studies were briefly interrupted by his superiors, who instructed him to return to musical composition. Out of this period came forth a magnificent collection of songs in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Brother Hermann expressed his joy in his introduction to the work:

“O adorable Jesus! For me, whom you brought to the solitude of Carmel in order to speak to my heart, whom you allowed to abide in Your presence, the Order is the soul of happiness….I kiss the walls of my beloved cell, where nothing draws me away from Jesus, my only thought, and where I breathe the love of the Divine Sacrament….O Jesus, how I should like to show others the happiness which You have granted me!” (KK, p. 95).

On being ordained a deacon, he wrote:

“Jesus has raised me to the rank of deacon. When I think about this, I shake with emotion. On the feast of the Epiphany, during evening devotions, I carried Him for the first time in my unworthy hands. How I trembled when I placed the Lord of the universe upon the altar…. O God of Love!” (KK, p. 97).

Holy Saturday (April 2, 1851) was the day God appointed for his priestly ordination. With humility and thanksgiving Brother Hermann immersed himself in the fullness of Christ’s salvation and Mary’s Sabbath-day vigil preceding the resurrection of her Son and God. After the celebrations, Father Augustin-Marie of the Blessed Sacrament offered up his song of thanks:

“I still haven’t recovered from the experience; nor do I wish to. Let love build up in this poor soul of mine that is so incapable of responding to the favors with which it has been showered so lavishly. Pray that I may be faithful, and grateful, and that I may love the Cross and desire the glory of God. My first Holy Mass! I was happy to be able to touch and hold Jesus in my hands” (KK, p. 98).

Naturally, his first fiery sermon was on the subject of the Eucharist. Who better than he had experienced its power? It was his wish to become its apostle. Armed with the Eucharist and in union with Mary, he began his priestly activity of winning souls for the Redeemer of the world. Above all, he attended to those closest to him. He saw his sister baptized. Soon after, he baptized his nephew who, like him, found himself drawn to Jesus in the Host during a Corpus Christi procession. To Father Hermann’s delight the boy soon brought someone else to Christ. For this his father could never forgive him. Only on his deathbed were the two men reconciled.

Because his former fame represented an occasion of sin to the fiery apostle, Father Hermann willingly accepted the suggestion of going on traveling assignments. He gave guest sermons, founded monasteries throughout France, and busied himself with the growing adoration movement. He valued highly the role of laypeople in the Church. The following is a fragment of one of his ardent appeals in favor of devotion to the Eucharistic Jesus:

“I would strongly urge that, even as the Magdalene anointed the Lord’s feet with tears and perfumed oil, you too would pour out the perfume of constant prayer and contemplation at the foot of the tabernacle. I should like the Eucharist to become a burning flame for your soul, so that, immersed in that flame, it might emerge burning with love and great-heartedness. I should like to see this eucharistic altar, on which Jesus is sacrificed, accept your offering too, so that you may become a victim of love, whose perfume rises to the throne of the Eternal God!” (KK, p. 6).

Urged on by the fire of his love, he traveled from town to town, summoning all those willing to take part in the nocturnal adoration of the Blessed Sacrament — Tours, Bordeaux, Carcasonne, and, finally, Paris, which had witnessed his life of dissipation when he was a famous artist. At Sainte Suplice, crowds of Parisians gathered to catch a glimpse of the musical genius in the simple Carmelite monk. Father Hermann trembled as he entered the pulpit, so great was his desire to speak in this city of his great sins and outrages, and also of his conversion.

“Dear brothers! The first thing I should do on entering Christ’s pulpit here is to beg forgiveness for all the evil that I had the misfortune to commit in this city. By what right — you may well ask me — do you come here to talk to us and urge us to pursue virtue and piety? By what right do you seek to elucidate the great truths of the Faith and speak on the subject of love, of Jesus and Mary, whom many times you profaned to our face. We saw you in the company of public sinners. The plaything of every possible erroneous teaching, you did evil things in public and insulted us with your shameful conduct. Thou wast wholly born in sins, and dost thou teach us? Yes, my brothers, I confess that I have sinned before Heaven and you….I have no right to your favor. I am ready, brothers, to beg your forgiveness both publicly and solemnly, to kneel, candle in hand, at the gates of the church with a rope around my neck, and beg the mercy and prayers of all those who enter. I come here covered in a penitential habit, for I belong to a strict religious order. My head is shaved and my feet are bare. When once I entered a certain church I was only a Jew! That was in the month of May, and there was the singing of hymns. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, revealed to me the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. I saw her, I saw Jesus, and soon I became a Christian! I asked for Holy Baptism. Holy water was poured over my head and, at that moment, all my sins, the terrible transgressions of twenty-five years of sinful living, were washed away. God forgave me! At that moment my soul was made clean and innocent! My brothers, God has forgiven me. Mary has forgiven me! Do you also forgive me? (KK. p.109).

One can imagine the current of grace that passed though the listeners. Many who had sinned with him heard his call and followed his example. Later, having obtained the blessing of Pope Pius IX, Father Hermann went on a mission to England. Again his ardent desire for a reclusive life was denied him.

On the feast of St. Raphael the Archangel, the advanced state of an ever-worsening eye disease (glaucoma) prompted him to begin a novena to Our Lady of Lourdes. He made a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine. The slow process of healing that ensued after the visit suddenly ended with a total and miraculous cure. At Lourdes, Father Hermann had the fortune of meeting Bernadette Soubirous, who, like him, had also been “ravished” by Our Lady.

As a Carmelite, he served as a novice master and acting provincial. For a while, he withdrew into reclusive life. On the eve of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, he decided to leave for Switzerland. As a German national he was not well regarded in France. In Geneva, he worked as a chaplain among the refugees. In December of 1870, the bishop proposed that Father Hermann go to Germany as a field chaplain among the French prisoners of war. The French authorities would not allow French priests to go there but, as a German-born monk, he stood a better chance of obtaining permission to go there. Father Hermann accepted the difficult post, sensing that it would be his last. On his departure on October 23, 1870, he observed ruefully, “Germany will be my grave.” His work as a chaplain among thousands of prisoners of war at Berlin’s Spandau prison, the severe winter, and the many hours of hearing confessions in the icy field hospitals, proved fatal to his health. God called him to Himself on January 20, 1871.

Mary revealed to me the mystery of the Eucharist. I discovered that the Eucharist is life. It is happiness! I have no mother now but the Mother of Perfect Love, the Mother of the Eucharist. It was she that presented me with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist stole my heart. Do you know why I have decided to become a monk? It is to stir up this unappreciated love. The Eucharistic sacrifice and the taking of religious vows do not sunder the soul from the body, for the body and soul offer themselves together. The sword does not put them to death; rather body and soul offer themselves up as a sacrifice that endures until the end of the world (K.K. p. 183).

Extracts from Father Hermann’s Writings

Among the writings that Father Hermann left behind is a sermon on happiness. His manner of expressing himself was always very personal. At the same time, the Eucharistic Jesus gave divine strength to his words.

Happiness

“I have passed through this world. I have seen this world. I have loved this world. And the world has taught me but one thing: that happiness is nowhere to be found in it! Happiness! To find it, I have traveled to cities and kingdoms. I have crossed the seas….I sought it in wealth, in the fever of the gaming table, the fantasy of romantic literature, in real-life adventures, and the gratification of wild ambition. I sought happiness in artistic fame, in the acquaintance of celebrities, in all the pleasures of the mind and senses. Finally, I sought it in the fidelity and truth of friendship. My God! Where have I not sought this happiness — this yearning of every day and every heart! And you, my brothers, have you found it? Are you happy? Is there nothing you lack?…I suspect that from your hearts there also bursts forth the common cry of suffering humanity: ‘O happiness, happiness, where are you? Tell me where you are hiding!’ How is one to explain this puzzle? Is humanity not created for happiness? And yet most people have a mistaken notion of its nature and seek it where it is not to be found. Listen to me! I have found this happiness! I possess it and delight in it utterly! I can shout out with the Apostle: My joy knows no bounds! Yes, I am so happy that I beg and entreat you to share this surfeit of happiness with me! And this is what it consists in: God alone can slake this thirst of the human heart….Jesus Christ has been given to us, but in order to find Him, we must watch and pray. Jesus Christ is in the Holy Eucharist. This Eucharist is life and happiness itself” (K.K. p. 110)

When Father Hermann’s friend, Cuers, was ordained a priest, the Apostle of the Eucharist was beside himself with joy. One more priest to perform the consecration! Once again it was the month of May, and, in conveying his wishes to his friend, he recalled his own vocation with joy and gratitude:

“It was Jesus and Mary that drew me to themselves. Mary brought me to Jesus, and Jesus gave me Mary. She gave me the Eucharist, and the Eucharist stole my heart and so ravished me that I wished to live for Jesus and Mary alone. That is why I offered myself to Jesus in a Marian Order. That is why I became Mary’s monk and Christ’s priest. Oh, yes! I love Jesus. I love the Eucharist. Let this sound forth, let it echo from the choirs, over hill and dale! Repeat after me: I love the Eucharist! Jesus is with me….He came to me this morning. He offered Himself to me. I have Him. I hold Him. I worship Him. He became flesh in my hands! O ineffable happiness! He is my Emmanuel, my Love, my Eucharist! (KK, p. 119)”

Jesus Christ today is the Blessed Sacrament!

“Jesus Christ today! Today I am weak. I need strength from above to brace me. Jesus Christ comes down from Heaven and becomes the Eucharist, the Bread of the strong. Today I am poor. I need a roof to shelter my head. Jesus becomes a House, the House of God and the Gate of Heaven, the Most Holy Eucharist. Today I am hungry and thirsty. I need food to fill my soul and heart, drink to slake my burning thirst. Jesus becomes the bread and wine of the Eucharist! The grain of the elect and the wine that begets virgins. Today I am sick. I need a soothing balm to heal my soul’s wounds. Jesus pours Himself out over my soul, like a costly ointment, offering Himself to me in the Eucharist. Thou hast anointed my head with oil; God…hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows. Today I must offer a pleasing sacrifice to God. Jesus Himself becomes that sacrifice. He is the Eucharist. Today, I am persecuted. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation. I shall become terrible to my enemies. I have lost my way. He is my guiding star. I lack courage. He lifts me up. I am sorrowful. He consoles me. I am abandoned. He remains with me to the end of time. I stand in ignorance. He teaches and enlightens me. But, above all, I need love. No earthly love will soothe my heart. For this reason, Jesus conceals Himself in the Eucharist. Jesus loves me. His love is sufficient to me. He satisfies me and bathes me in an ocean of love” (KK, p. 118).

[1] Sr. Maria Baptista OCD, Künstler und Karmelit, Credo-Verlag, Wiesbaden 1956, p. 183. Abbreviated to KK.

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