The Metamorphosis of Hermann Cohen - Owlcation - Education
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The Metamorphosis of Hermann Cohen

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Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

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.

Early Life

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.

Journeys

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.

Hermann’s Metamorphosis

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

Next Steps

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.

Notre Dame des Victoires in Paris

Notre Dame des Victoires in Paris

New Life

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 in his Carmelite habit

Hermann in his Carmelite habit

Renowned Preacher

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.”

Foundations

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.

Last Years

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

References

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

© 2018 Bede

Comments

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 29, 2018:

Clarification often helps to break down walls, Miebakagh. There are a good number of misunderstood Catholic doctrines, such as about the Saints, Mary, the Eucharist, etc. It’s a pity, because when understood clearly, they are beautiful. Perhaps someday I may write an article on this subject.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 28, 2018:

Hey, Bede, thanks for the clarification. This is why many evil things have been said against the Catholic profession. Now, I understand better being enlightened. Many thanks again.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 28, 2018:

Hi, Miebakagh thanks for the question. Patron saints fulfill various roles. Some serve as models or intercessors according to a specific profession, such as St. Joseph (carpenters) or St. Luke (physicians). Others struggled with certain compulsions during their earthly sojourn (to gambling, stealing, drinking, etc.) These latter do not patronize the very difficulty they overcame; rather, they help persons with these addictions to reform themselves.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 27, 2018:

Hey, Bede, I think as such a patron, he is not supporting gambling? But just perhaps he was once a gambler? Now, the real question is this: should a person was once a thief, and later converted to the Christian faith. He became venerable and submit to monkhood. Can such be canonized a patron of thieves?

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 27, 2018:

That’s a good question, but more likely, it’s the latter choice. Sure, there’s a patron saint for probably every category. Anyway, I just checked, the patron saint for gamblers is St. Cajetan, also known as St. Cayetano. There’s always room for an extra one, though.

I don’t know of a special novena to Ven. Hermann, but you can make it simple, “Come on, Venerable Hermann, help with this concern, that it may end happily.” I’ll start praying it tonight for 9 days, no problem.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2018:

Ha...ha that is funny...a patron saint for gamblers...do you think he will help them win or make them stop? Anyway, thank yoy so much for praying for my intention. I hope he will be beatified. Is there a special novena to him?

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 27, 2018:

Hi Mary, I’m glad to have introduced Hermann to you. I will also pray to him concerning your prayer intention. He deserves to be better known. Let’s pray that his cause for beatification proceeds, as he would be a good patron saint for gamblers and musicians, etc.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 27, 2018:

That’s a good thought, Miebakagh. Yes, I believe God must be very patient as He sees his children caught up in trivial things. He waits and waits, and is overjoyed at our return to His embrace. I feel like Hermann must have loved God like the woman who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears. Thank you for commenting.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 27, 2018:

Hi Linda, I’m glad that you found the article interesting. For over a week, I watched the chrysalis of the previously mentioned butterfly take shape. It’s the first time I’ve seen such a thing in real life. It went from bright green to black, and then it emerged. Hermann’s life seemed to follow a similar pattern. Thanks for the comment.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2018:

This is interesting. I haven't heard of this saint before and I am glad for the introduction. I will now start praying to him for a very special intention.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 26, 2018:

Hey, Bede, this is a happy moment! I like it. Every one including me and you have to be reconciled to God before home going. It is the best experience one has to get in the world. Thank you.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 26, 2018:

This is an interesting story, Bede. I like the comparison of Hermann Cohen's metamorphosis to the life of the monarch butterfly very much.

Bede (author) from Minnesota on September 26, 2018:

Thanks Miebakagh, I appreciate your comment. I could not include everything of interest in this article, but since you mention Hermann’s mother, there is a remarkable event concerning her. Hermann had been preaching a retreat when he learned of her death. He was saddened that he couldn’t be there and more especially, that she died without the sacraments, etc.

Hermann expressed his worries to the St. John Vianney, a holy priest from that time. St. John told him to continue to hope; one day he would receive a letter on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that would comfort him. Sure enough, on Dec. 8, Hermann received a letter from a priest saying that his mother was reconciled to God on her deathbed.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 25, 2018:

Hello, Bede, this is commendable. Most men from rich and influential families or parents will easily be bent to the dictates of the mother. But here is a man who made up his mind and follow the convictions of the heart, and then received a mothers blessing. Herman Cohen is indeed a divine character. Thank you for sharing.