The Metamorphosis of Hermann Cohen
This past summer, I observed the first flight of a monarch butterfly. I tried to imagine its joy as it glided and fluttered for about 75 feet. To my surprise, it flew back to me. I stretched out my hand on a whim, and glory to God, it landed on my wrist. As its wings gently opened and closed, I marveled: this lovely creature was once a lowly caterpillar living on milkweed. Henceforth its nourishment will be nectar. Though breathtaking, such transformations are common in nature whereas the metamorphosis of a soul is rare indeed. The life of Venerable Hermann Cohen manifests such a transformation, from lowliness to loveliness.
Hermann was born in Hamburg, Germany of wealthy, Jewish parents on January 10, 1821. He revealed a precocious musical talent from the age of four and likewise excelled in the classroom. His parents entrusted him to a professor of music, who often exclaimed, “Hermann is a genius!” By age eleven, Hermann was stunning sophisticated audiences in various German cities.
When he was twelve, his mother brought him to Paris to advance his career. The Conservatoire denied his application because he was German. Mrs. Cohen then begged Franz Liszt to take him as a student. At first, he refused but after listening to Hermann play, he soon changed his mind. In a short time, Hermann became his favorite student, earning the nickname, “Puzzi.”
Liszt introduced him to his circle of friends and the Paris whirlwind. Among these was the author George Sand, who doted on Puzzi and often mentioned him in her writings. Regrettably, these bad influences caught hold of young Hermann. He grew his hair long and acquired deep-rooted vices, especially gambling. A precocious talent, good looks, and a charming personality made him the darling of Paris salons. Towards his mother and siblings, however, he was shamefully arrogant.
Towards his master, though, he revealed true affection. When the latter moved to Geneva to establish a Conservatory, for instance, Hermann begged to join him. Liszt acquiesced and obtained a teaching position for Hermann who was only thirteen years old at the time. Alas, the poor boy squandered his salary as fast as he made it. Despite his dissolute life, there was a brief moment of religious awakening. It occurred when Liszt played an organ improvisation of the Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem in the Cathedral of Fribourg.
Liszt played the great organ, that colossal harp of David, all of whose majestic notes convey some vague idea of your greatness, O my God…You were at the door of my heart, and I did not open to you.— Hermann Cohen
Before long, however, Hermann resumed his Bohemian lifestyle. With his debts piled high, he approached Grand Duke George of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who arranged for a series of concerts. He traveled throughout Europe including England where he gained considerable notoriety. Though reckless in his personal life, Hermann usually received a standing ovation wherever he played. Yet, not all was well.
In fact, it was disastrous. Herman’s addiction to gambling and debts brought him to the brink of suicide. A respite came when he fell in love with a circus rider, Celeste Mogador, but this relationship ended suddenly at Hermann’s request. In a farewell letter to her, he explained that he was placing his life in God’s hands. He consequently spent time in Paris churches, searching for some chink of light in his darkness. God answered his pleading in two remarkable events.
In May of 1847, one of Hermann’s friends, Prince Moscowa, asked him to substitute as music director for a Benediction service at the church of St. Valère, in Paris. Benediction is a ceremony that honors the Blessed Sacrament, which Catholics believe is Christ Himself. As Hermann observed the priest raise the monstrance in blessing, he was overwhelmed.
During the ceremony, nothing affected me much, but at the moment of Benediction, though I was not kneeling like the rest of the congregation, I felt something deep within me as if I had found myself. It was like the prodigal son facing himself. I was automatically bowing my head.— Hermann Cohen
The same phenomenon occurred the following week. In consequence, he started attending Mass on a regular basis, “Not understanding what was holding me there.” Even when he returned home, he felt drawn to return. Though he had a lifelong distrust of priests, he sought one out in Paris, named Fr. Legrand. This elderly priest calmed Hermann and gave him wise counsel, saying the Lord would guide his steps. Hermann’s conversion experience culminated during a brief concert tour in Germany. He attended Mass at a country church and as the priest elevated the host, Hermann burst into tears.
I remembered having cried as a child, but I certainly never experienced tears like these. And while the tears flowed, a deep sorrow for my past sins welled up. I immediately wanted to confess everything to the Lord, all the sins of my life. They were all before me, countless and despicable…but at the same time, I felt a deep peace, which really healed me and I was convinced that the merciful Lord would forgive me.— Hermann Cohen
After he returned from Germany, Hermann yearned for baptism. Fr. Legrand became a true spiritual father, as he instructed him every evening in spiritual doctrine. Hermann’s baptism occurred on August 28, 1847, the feast day of St. Augustine. He fittingly chose Augustin-Marie for his baptismal name; he included Marie as he attributed the grace of his conversion to the Virgin Mary. At his baptism, he experienced a mystical ecstasy, where he saw Christ, Mary, and the saints, smiling at him in brilliant light.
Although Hermann wanted to dedicate his life to God, possibly as a priest, he had first to level a mountain of debts. This took two years of teaching and one last concert. In the interim, his lifestyle was diametrically different from that of “Puzzi.” He lived austerely and dressed very modestly. His former friends thought him mad and ridiculed him in the streets. Fortunately, he had not given up his musical talent. He composed thirty-two hymns that proved to be very popular. All the proceeds went to a family that had fallen on hard times.
As he was busy during the day, he prayed at night, principally in the Church of Notre Dame des Victoires in Paris. His powerful attraction to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament led him to found the Association of Nocturnal Adorers. This group of men took turns praying through the night before the Blessed Sacrament. While this practice is now widespread, it was unique at the time.
Hermann finally paid off his debts and turned his eyes to the monastic life. With his Jewish background, he felt drawn to the Carmelites, whose roots are in the land of Israel. He entered the Carmelite house at Bordeaux, where he started out as a novice. He was clothed in the habit and received a new name, Augustin-Marie of the Blessed Sacrament.
He revealed his true mettle under these circumstances, as he sacrificed his love for coffee and tobacco. Unlike his former life of satisfying every whim, he lived a life of strict obedience, silence, poverty, and fasting. With his yearlong novitiate completed, he set about studying for the priesthood. He received a visit from his mother, who was duly shocked at his change. His long gorgeous hair had given way to a monastic tonsure. She tried in every way to change his mind but finally surrendered. He was a man on fire.
Hermann was ordained a priest on April 19, 1851, a mere four years after his baptism. Hermann, now Père Augustin Marie, soon revealed himself a powerful preacher. The Carmelites sent him on a preaching tour, where vast crowds assembled to hear him, often 3-5 thousand people. He went to Ireland, where approximately nine thousand people gathered to listen to him speak. Over the years, he was much in demand as a preacher throughout Europe. “It is something to have listened to a saint,” notes Abbé Perreyve after hearing one of his sermons.
The following video features an Ave Maria composed by J.S. Bach and Charles Gounod, a contemporary of Hermann.
Despite his busy schedule, he continued to develop his musical talents. In all, he composed five volumes of sacred music before his death. While his music was extremely popular in his day, modern assessments vary, from “sentimental,” to “well written and quite beautiful.”
Hermann was instrumental in reviving the Carmelite Order in France, where he started foundations in Bagnères de Bigorre, Lyon, and Tarasteix, a desert house near Lourdes. His work came to the attention of Cardinal Wiseman, the chief Catholic bishop of England. Before long, the Pope requested that Hermann revive the Carmelites in England.
I bless you my son, and I am sending you to England, as in the seventh century one of my predecessors blessed and sent the monk Augustine, the first apostle of that country.— Pope Pius IX to Hermann
Thus in 1862, with only £7 (about ₤550 in modern currency), Hermann re-established the Carmelites in Kensington, London. The priory flourished under his leadership, reviving practices such as processions, which had been gone since Tudor times. He had a beautiful church constructed by the famous architect, Augustus Pugin. When his term as Prior ended in 1865, he returned to France.
By nature, Hermann was expansive and energetic, yet he relished moments of contemplative quiet. After so many years of preaching and administrative tasks, he sought to join the desert house that he himself founded in Tarasteix. A desert house is a monastery where friars may retire for a period to live the contemplative life.
In 1868, Hermann finally took up the quiet life for which he so thirsted. Indeed, his prayer life flourished like a summer garden. “He had some ecstasies during his two years in the Holy Desert” observes the Prior, Fr. Nicomède, “which took place during his prayer which was normally very intense.” Unfortunately, Hermann’s eyesight was rapidly failing from glaucoma. The doctor recommended surgery as the only option. However, Hermann sought a different treatment.
Tarasteix is very near to Lourdes, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. As many people were experiencing cures at the grotto waters, Hermann hoped in a miracle. He made a pilgrimage there, preceded by nine days of prayer. After bathing his eyes in the water, his eyesight was instantly restored.
We are not accustomed to cures as complete and instantaneous as this. They are quite outside the rules and traditions of our art. For my own part, I don’t know how to contest or interpret this happening.— Dr. George Boissarie, regarding Hermann’s cure
As much as Hermann wanted to return to the desert house, circumstances prevented it. War broke out between Germany and France in 1870. Hermann learned of 5000 French prisoners living in pitiable conditions near Berlin and resolved to come to their assistance. Here, he worked tirelessly: hearing confessions, visiting the sick, saying Mass, and assisting the dying. His health began to deteriorate in this situation, and he came down with smallpox. After a ten-day struggle, he died on January 19, 1871, aged 49.
The transformation of self-centered Puzzi to self-giving Fr. Augustin is something to behold. No longer held by a heap of fetters, he fluttered about, free as a butterfly. “He possessed all the virtues to a high and even heroic degree,” observed one of his confreres. Nonetheless, it must not have been easy. How many quiet hours of inward dying did experience as he transitioned into his new existence? Yet, one must also feel that as his new wings developed, his former life as a caterpillar held little attraction. Whatever short-lived fame he may have gained as a musician cannot compare to his name living forever as a saint of God.
The Story of Hermann Cohen, OCD, From Franz Liszt to John of the Cross, by Tadgh Tierney, OCD, The Teresian Press
An article on Hermann from the Association of Hebrew Catholics
Additional biographical facts
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Bede