LIFE OF HERMANN COHEN
My first investigations into to the live of Hermann Cohen left me disappointed. The reason was that for half his life he lived a life of depravity and all the articles I read gave three quarters of their content to the depravity and only a quarter to his eventual saintly life. But my son, who seems able to obtain exactly what I need, came across a book where the tables are turned and 80% is what we are looking for.
Of course we can’t ignore the years of depravity; they make Hermann’s conversion that much more remarkable. But a precise of his early years is all that will be necessary before embarking on the story of his later spiritual life.
At the request of his superiors during his novitiate year Hermann wrote a document called ‘Confessions’. Only small parts of this document survive and in the early part of this talk quotes will be made from them. Later on the book contains comments made by Hermann himself and made by others. In the printed form of this talk these will be in italics.
HERMANN’S EARLY LIFE.
He was born in November 1821 to David and Rosalie Cohen. His father was an influential banker who had four children, three boys and a girl. They were Jews but not Orthodox though they claimed to have descended from the High Priest Aaron of the priestly tribe of Levi. In that capacity they had some influence in the Synagogue and Hermann could remember his father laying his hands in blessing on the people from the steps of the sanctuary.
From an early age Hermann’s expectation in the Synagogue was never fulfilled. When the Levites mounted the steps of the sanctuary, drew the curtain and opened the door Hermann was expecting more than just a parchment to be revealed. Was this the spark which later led to his life of sanctity?
He and his elder brother went to the best college where, as Jews, they were vilified. This was a shock to Hermann but he tried to prove himself by hard study. Hermann said:
With regard to Latin, French and other subjects that they taught us, it was the same with all of them, like another Jacob I stole the birthright from my brother and drew to myself the rewards and praise and knew so well how to dominate, that my poor brother must have suffered very much because of me.
Hermann’s great intellectual gifts were overshadowed by his musical talent. At the age of four and a half he wished to play the piano like his elder brother. He soon surpassed him and at six years of age could play the tunes of all the operas then in vogue! He started to improvise, an astonishing inspiration in a child of such tender years and one which impressed the most advanced musicians. So it was that Hermann, against his father’s wishes and still a child, was launched on his musical career.
He started to compose and that along with his piano playing led his mother to adulation and overindulgence. He was put in the tuition of a professor of music who had excellent music talents but loose morals which Hermann copied. Of himself Hermann says:
I was the tyrant of the family, spoiled and pampered. Everyone had to kow-tow to my whims; “Be silent Hermann is sleeping. Be silent Hermann is studying. Be silent Hermann is composing”. He admits that at that time he was vain, greedy and had no moral character.
HERMANN IN PARIS
The situation was made worse by his mother taking him to Paris to further his musical career. At the age of only 12 he arrived in the big city where at that time there were many famous composers: Chopin, Zimmerman and Liszt. Eventually he was introduced to Franz Liszt who initially said he was too busy to take on this young man. But once he heard him play he was convinced that here was a young man with talent and not only became his teacher but they also became firm friends.
He followed Liszt to all society functions staying out late and ignoring his mother’s anxiety. Hermann says:
I was spoilt in the salons with its secular society. I was fed with all their ideas: atheism, socialism, anarchy, terrorism, abolition of marriage, and communism. All this I put into my 14 year old head.
Add to the above the temptation in the salons of gambling to which Hermann became addicted and which blighted his life almost driving him to suicide.
Amongst the people he met was the writer Amantine Dupin otherwise known as George Sand. Of his friendship with her and Liszt Hermann says:
It enhanced my own reputation that I was known to be a friend of George Sand and Franz Liszt. It even provoked jealousy that I had access to such people.
HERMANN IN SWTTZERLAND
In 1836 Liszt left his wife and eloped to Switzerland with a Countess (he later returned to the church). This was a great blow to Hermann who idolized Liszt. After three months he left Paris to join his friend. Mrs Cohen, loyal as ever to her son, packed up and went with him also taking her daughter with her.
But this did not please the Countess who wanted Liszt to herself and she contrived everything possible to get rid of Hermann. Such was Liszt’s devotion to Hermann that it took three years for the Countess’s plan to work. Eventually she convinced Liszt that Hermann had stolen 1500 francs from him. This was never to proved to be any more than a ploy on behalf of the Countess. But it worked and a sad Hermann had to return to Paris. There he continued his gambling and wrote of himself:
When I say that all young people lived like me I don’t exaggerate. They looked for pleasure everywhere and wanted the resources to buy it. They never thought of God, only of themselves and their desire to pile up things and their only moral guidelines were human respect, and a desire to keep on the right side of the law.
However, something was stirring in Hermann’s soul. His mood swung up and down, and his heart always ruled his head if he made a decision at all. He had a deep distrust of the clergy. At twenty-seven years of age he hardly retained any of his religious leanings. But he was profoundly moved by organ music and treasured a bible with Liszt had given him.
This stirring in his soul led him to visit churches. On one occasion he was seen in the church of the Madeline where he stayed for two hours. At that time he wrote to a lady friend; ‘My life is no longer my own. My trust in God is growing, in whom I find support’. Hermann writes:
Yes, I already knew Jesus Christ, I saw him, I felt him, felt his touch on every page I read, in every hymn I sang and in every Catholic service I attended. I understood that I must break the chains that bound me and walk towards him but I was unable to do so. I made resolutions in the morning which were gone in the evening. I resisted temptation in the evening only to give way by the morning.
At that time a visitor to Hermann’s room found it a very simple one. It contained only an iron bedstead, a trunk, a piano, a crucifix, a little statue of Our Lady and two pictures, one of St Teresa of Avila and one of St Augustine. His style of dress was also austere. This is not what one would expect of ‘a boy of the town’.
Hermann did not consciously want to become a Catholic – that came dramatically. Hermann told a friend about the change that had come over him:
It happened in the month of May last year 1847. Mary’s month was celebrated with great pomp at the Church of St Valere (which has since been demolished).Various choirs were playing music and singing which drew people in. The organiser of the music asked me if I would stand in for him and direct the choirs. I agreed and went to take my place purely from my interest in music and a desire to do the job well. During the ceremony nothing affected me much, but at the moment of Benediction, though I was not kneeling like 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. When I returned the following Friday the same thing happened and I thought of becoming Catholic. A few days late I was passing the same church of St. Valere when the bell was ringing for Mass. I went in and attended Mass with devotion and stayed on for several more Masses, not
understanding what was holding me there. Even when I came home that evening I was drawn to return. Again the church bell was ringing and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. As soon as I saw it I felt drawn to the altar rail and knelt down. I bowed my had at the moment of Benediction and afterwards I felt a new peace in my heart. I came home and went to bed and felt the same thing in my dreams. From then on I was anxious to attend Mass often which I did at St. Valere and always with an inner joy.
This was an altogether unusual spiritual experience for Hermann. As he attended these religious services he felt an inner trembling and only the presence of other people around him prevented him from shedding tears.
Now a note of own. During the years when I have been writing reports of pilgrimages and talks for the good Carmelite Sisters at Kirk Edge two names have kept appearing over and over. They appear again in the story of Hermann Cohen. These names are Theodore and Alphones Ratisbone. They were French Jews who had both converted to the Catholic church and had become priests. Their names appear in the story of Hermann. The book does not state how Hermann got to know them but as they appear so frequently in much of what I read I suspect the Holy Spirit kept them informed when their help was needed!
Disturbed by what was happening to him Hermann wrote to Fr. Alphonse Ratisbone.
I was advised by a friend to see a priest. This was amazing for me to do as I distrusted them. However I eventually I was introduced to Fr. Legrand who listened with interest, calmed me down and told me to continue as I was doing. He told me to trust in divine providence who would show me what to do. I found this churchman good and kind and he certainly changed my opinion of priests, only having known them in the pages of novels where they threatened excommunication and hell fire. Now I had met a learned man, humble, kind and open-minded, looking to God – not himself. So in this frame of mind I left for Germany to give a concert. The day I arrived was a Sunday, but braving the ridicule of my friends, I went to Mass. Everything affected me – the hymns and prayers and God’s invisible presence. I was very moved and felt the Lord was touching me. When the priest raised the host my tears began to flow. It was a consoling and unforgettable moment. Lord
you were there with me filling me with your divine gifts. I really prayed to you, all-powerful and all-merciful God and this memory of your beauty would be impressed on my inner being, proof against all attack, together with a lasting gratitude for your favours. And while the tears flowed a deep sorrow for my past welled up. I immediately wanted to confess everything to the Lord, all the sins of my life. There they were all before me, countless and despicable and deserving God’s punishment. 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, and overlook my sins and accept my sorrow. I knew he would forgive me recognising my resolve to love him above all things from now on. By the time I left the church I already felt I was a Christian, or at least as much a Christian as it is possible to be before being baptised!
Hermann attributed the grace of his conversion to Our Lady and he was devoted to her. He started a serious study of the teachings of the Church. He recited morning and evening payers, practiced meditation and devotional exercises.
When he got back to Paris he went to see Fr. Legrand, who knowing of Hermann’s past life had been suspicious of his resolve. Now he was impressed and felt that God was at work. Hermann embarked on a course of instruction and longed for a full communion with the Church and especially to be able to receive the Eucharist. Fr. Legrand introduced Herman to Fr. Alphones’s brother Fr. Theodore Ratisbone who shared a similar background to Hermann. The two Fr. Ratisbone’s had begun a movement to convert Jewish girls which was growing into The Institute of Our Lady of Sion.
Hermann attended the reception of some Jewish converts at the Parish house of the Sisters of Sion and he wished that his own reception would take place there. The date was set for 28th August 1847, which is the feast of St Augustine who he took as his patron. Hermann writes:
On Saturday 28th August, at thee o’clock, the chapel of Our Lady of Sion was brightly lit by candles and the altar adorned with fresh flowers. The chapel bells were ringing, there was a full congregation, and the choir consisted of young girls wearing white veils singing beautifully and accompanied by the organ.
The priest was pouring the holy water with triple gestures over my forehead and proclaiming solemnly that he baptised me in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit At that moment I was deeply moved and I can only describe it like an electric shock. My eyes were closed but I had an inner vision as if the Holy Spirit, to seal his promise, took me by the hand and revealed to my gaze, rapt in ecstasy, while directed above, that which no finite being can ever understand – the infinite.
A gentle warmth penetrated me and in spite of the brilliant light which radiated from all sides, my gaze never tired of plunging into the rays of light……for deep within there was an even brighter light and there stood a glorious throne and seated on the throne was Our Lord Jesus Christ, beautiful with eternal youth, with his beloved mother on his right and around his feet a host of saints clothed in the brightest colours of the rainbow. The saints were prostrated at the foot of the throne in adoration and yet at the same time they looked towards me and smiled kindly. Heaven and its inhabitants seemed to rejoice at my baptism as though the poor soul of a redeemed sinner weighed in the balance of eternity. How can I be so foolish to try to describe what I saw. Indeed I should tear up this paper on which I have written, because it doesn’t contain a single image remotely approaching what I have seen! Yes, I have seen the abode of the Church Triumphant.
No, it was not a vision, it was an apparition. God permitted that I though unworthy be given, by grace that is nameless, to conceive, to see in an instant what I hardly dare to remember! (This experience of Hermann at his baptism seems to be a genuine mystical experience as described by St. Teresa in her writings).
A few weeks after his baptism Hermann wrote:
From that day on every step that I have taken to follow Christ (and I have still a long way to go, although looking back I have made great strides) has been due to her who is the mother of us all, this compassionate and holy Virgin, the refuge of sinners, whom I have prayed earnestly to every day, asking her to intercede for me with her divine son, Our Lord and Saviour.
Hermann can be credited with founding the Movement for Nocturnal Adoration. In November 1848 he had been in the chapel of the Carmelite Sisters in Paris where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and some women were present. Eventually one of the Sisters came to lock the door and politely asked him to leave. He enquired why the women were allowed to remain and the Sister told him that they would be praying all night. Later, in conversation with his confessor, he learnt that some time between 1846 and 1847 some young women had asked the Mother Prioress if they could meet in the chapel to adore the Blessed Sacrament. They saw their prayer vigils as an answer to the problems of the times. Hermann was encouraged by his confessor to find men who would like to share this work with him. An initial meeting of men to discuss the proposal took place in Hermann’s room and so the Association of Nocturnal Adorers was formed having its first meeting on the 6th December
1848 in the Church of Our Lady of Victories. Three years later Hermann wrote:
In order to contemplate you as fully as we desire, daylight hours fly by too quickly. I called together some like minded Christians and we went along to spend nights in your churches……. a priest directed us……..and the dawn fond us still kneeling before you.
In writing the story of Hermann Cohen famous names keep occurring. (I will bring attention to them as the story unfolds). We have already heard of the two Ratisbone Brother Priests but now we have the name of St Therese of Lisieux. On the 13th May 1883 she had been cured during a novena of Masses being offered at that same Church of Our Lady of Victories where Hermann had formed the Nocturnal Adoration. .She and her father called there to thank Our Lady. It was because of that connection with St Therese that in 1927 Pope Pius XI raised the church to the rank of Basilica. In connection with Nocturnal Adoration another famous name appears – that of the Charles de Foucauld the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus who became a martyr of the Church when he was shot by Arab rebels. He admired Herman’s hymns and took part in Eucharistic Adoration organised by one of Hermann’s original companions. Their meetings took place in a wooden chapel where
eventually the Sacre-Coeur was built on Montmartre in Paris.
HERMANN CLEARS HIS DEBTS AND CHOOSES HIS VOCATION
Hermann had resolved to become a priest but before he could that he had to clear his outstanding gambling debts. It took him two years of giving private music lessons and piano concerts for him to achieve that aim. Prior to his final concert he had to practice from morning to night to prepare for it. According to an eyewitness the concert was an ‘immense success’ and the hall was filled with ‘thunderous applause’. Hermann’s relief was immense when he concluded the final show he exclaimed:
I have finished forever with the world! With what joy after my last note did I bid it farewell!
During that time he lived in modest quarters and spent hours in prayer with men who shared his enthusiasm. Also at that time we have another name which we will recognize – that of Frederick Ozanam the founder of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. For a while Hermann worked with him helping the poor. He found that work a great inspiration during his time of preparation to join a religious order.
Hermann’s initial thought was to join the Carmelites but for reasons not stated in the book priests who were advising him discouraged him and suggested the Benedictines. But such a vocation did not materialise. Then he met the founder of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers, Julien Eymard, (another famous name) who renewed his interest in joining the Carmelites. To help him in his decision he went on retreat and it was there that he discovered the writings of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila which prompted him, through his desire to give himself completely to God in a relationship of prayer, to join the Carmelites.
The book then says that ‘by chance, soon after he had finished the retreat, he met a Carmelite of the priory of Agen which is in the South of France’. That this meeting took place on a street in Paris is enough to tell us that it was not ‘a chance meeting’ but arranged by the Holy Spirit!
HE JOINS CARMEL
So it was that on the 19th July , the feast of Elijah, in the year 1850, that Hermann arrived at the Carmelite house of Agen which is high on a wooded hill overlooking the town. At first the Carmelite superior refused Hermann’s application and wanted him to wait a longer period since his conversion. But at that time there was a General Convocation of Carmelites in Rome. Hermann’s case was put to them and having considered the matter they gave him the go-ahead.
His novitiate took place in Bordeaux where he was given the name ‘Brother Augustine-Mary of the Blessed Sacrament’. Novitiate life must have been a strict regime for Hermann. During his earlier life he had been in the habit of taking snuff and smoking tobacco. These he certainly would have forfeited in the Novitiate!
During his novitiate year Hermann’s mother came to see him. She was very perturbed to witness the kind of life her son had chosen. It was naturally traumatic for her as a Jew to see him with sandals and tonsured. She exerted every pressure on him to leave the order but to no avail. He made his first profession on the feast of the Holy Rosary 7th October 1850.
FR, HERMANN THE WANDERING JEW
After completing his novitiate in Bordeaux Hermann returned to his Carmelite house in Agen where he was Ordained on the 19th April 1851. He was thirty years old.. But any idea of a normal life of a Carmelite was not to be. He was soon recognised as an excellent preacher which meant that he was always on the move. Also his ability to organise or restore new Carmelite Houses was also acknowledged and even before his ordination he was sent to Carcassonne to restore a Carmelite House which had been closed in the Revolution of 1789.
Following his ordination he was entrusted with a busy apostolate of travelling and preaching. He called himself ‘The Wandering Jew’ and if asked where he lived he would reply “In a railway carriage!” He preached all over the South of France and during his travels he met Maximin the young boy visionary of La Salette (a visionary at that time famous indeed).
Also during his travels he once again met Fr. Julien Eymard (later canonised) who told Hermann of his plans to devote himself to the work of Perpetual Adoration. But Hermann and Fr. Julien differed in their approach. Hermann favoured men only Adoration whereas Fr. Julien favoured mixed men and women. They fell out over this and were never reconciled. It led to the formation of three different Eucharistic movements; The Nocturnal Adoration, the Adoration of Repentance and The Religious of the Blessed Sacrament.
About this time Hermann visited the Carmelite House of Tours. At that time the body of Sr. Mary St Peter would not have been transferred from the cemetery to the Carmel but he would surely have known about her and her amazing spiritual life.
SEVERAL OF FR HERMANN’S FAMILY CONVERT TO THE RC CHURCH
Hermann’s example was having an effect on his family and in 1856 he went to Paris to secretly baptise his schoolboy nephew George. This was kept a secret from the boy’s father, Hermann’s brother. But when the boy refused to join his father in a Jewish prayer the secret was out. His father was furious and put the boy in a non-Catholic school under a false name refusing to divulge to anyone where the boy was. He was even kept from his mother. After a few months the father relented and the boy went home. Soon afterwards Hermann’s elder brother, Albert, converted and two of his daughters later became nuns.
More amazing is the story of the death Hermann’s mother. Hermann was preaching in Lyons when he heard of her death. It had been a disappointment to him that his mother had not embraced the Catholic faith. He wrote:
We must hope that at the last moment something happened between herself and God of which we know nothing.
He told the Cure of d’Ars (another famous name!) about his anxiety, and the latter reassured Herman; ‘Hope, continue to hope’. He also said ‘One day on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, you will receive a letter which will give you a great consolation’. In fact a few years later, on the 8th December a Jesuit priest gave Hermann a letter which contained a private revelation that on her death-bed his mother had accepted Christ.
HIS MANY SKILLS.
Hermann continued to excel as a preacher and he preached in nearly all the towns in the South of France and his preaching always made an impact. There are several references to such visits in the newspapers of the time. At Lyons for instance on one occasion he had a congregation of 3,000 people. In 1854 he received a request from the General of the Order to go to Belgium where he preached for several weeks. He was encouraged to maintain his ability to write music. He wrote forty motets in honour of the Eucharist, thirty were in French and ten in Latin. He also wrote a Latin Mass which was described as follows:
This musical work, executed in 1856 in this town (Bordeaux) is remarkable for its pure melody under an impression of great simplicity. It is easy to memorise and the solos are beautiful. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei, are two striking pieces and are indeed inspired (The book states that an Audio Tape of this Mass performed by the Carmelite Choir, Kensington is available).
He also had an ability as yet not mentioned, of designing churches and Carmelite Houses. This happened in a small parish near Lourdes where Hermann both designed the church and laid the foundation stone. He was also involved in restoring the Carmelites to Lyon. They had flourished there for a hundred years before being driven out by the revolution of 1789. The Superior of the Daughters of Charity was instrumental in the return of the Carmelites. In 1855 Hermann came to preach and funds were promised. Some unexpected opposition from a government official was soon overcome. On the 8th September, Our Lady’s Birthday, which was also the twelfth anniversary of Hermann’s first Holy Communion the Church was consecrated. In the following May the house was allowed to inaugurate a novitiate and Hermann became the first prior of the restored Carmel at Lyon. This led to many unusual conversions in Hermann’s apostolate, among them a lady who went to hear the
former pianist out of curiosity and abandoned her scepticism as a result. There was also a well known violinist who was dying, and although he refused to see any other priest he agreed to see Hermann just to talk about music! He became reconciled to the Church!
THE DESERT HOUSE AND LOURDES
Hermann had studied the contemplative origins of the Carmelite order and learnt of the traditions of ‘desert houses’ begun by the first hermits on Mount Carmel. He found a suitable place in the Pyrenees for such a hermitage and in 1857 he wrote:
I can’t tell you how much I long for such solitude. I am colleting funds to pay off the debts here at Lyons and then I shall make my way there.
Hermann found Fr. Dominic, the Superior General, sympathetic to the idea of a mountain retreat. He was himself ready to abandon everything and even resign as general to join Hermann. Later Hermann was to spend two years there before his death.
A description of the site explains its suitability for contemplation:
Here one can only see the sky and wooded area, and one hears only the murmur of a stream flowing under the trees nearby. Imagine a chain of wooded hills stretching from north to south about thirty five kilometres long and four to six kilometres wide. There are tranquil valleys lying between the hills, evergreen and dotted with clusters of oak trees.
At the time when Hermann was choosing the site a young girl, Bernadette, was prevailing on her parents to allow her to make her first Holy Communion. Hermann could not foresee that later, not far away at the grotto, which with binoculars it would have been possible to see from his contemplative site, he would have the privilege of meeting Bernadette.
While Hermann was working on his Desert Site he was visited by a priest friend who had been to Lourdes and heard all that was happening. By this time the visions had stopped and the civil authorities had built barricades in front of the grotto. The friend believed in the visions and Hermann shared that belief. This led to Hermann being the first religious priest to lead a pilgrimage to the grotto. He and his colleague had received reluctant permission from the mayor of Lourdes to visit the grotto which they were allowed to do provided it was before dawn. He also visited the next day and report from the local official tells of that visit:
Early this morning there was a lot of agitation at the grotto caused by Fr. Hermann and Dr Dozous who left the town and went to the grotto and there surrounded by a curious crowd who had come with the Carmelite Fr Hermann, they sang the Magnificat and another psalm so loudly that his voice could be heard a long way away.
The same day Hermann had a long talk with Bernadette. Due to all the questioning she had been subjected to by priests she was not too keen on meeting them but she had an attraction to Carmel and spent a long time talking to this Carmelite priest. In fact Bernadette would have liked to be a Carmelite but was advised that her health would not be strong enough for a life in Carmel.
Years later a friend sent Bernadette a picture of Hermann and she wrote:
I cannot tell you how happy I was to see the portrait of Fr. Hermann.
On his part Hermann never forgot Bernadette and he wrote:
I was so pleased to hear that young Bernadette is as good and humble as ever - and later he wrote; - I am very delighted to that she has become a religious – she will be protected from many dangers.
FR. HERMANN IN ENGLAND
In June 1862 Hermann went to Rome to attend the canonisation of Japanese martyrs. He had been to Rome many times before and on occasions had being received in private audience with the Holy Father. On this occasion present in Rome was Cardinal Wiseman the Archbishop of Westminster who wanted the Carmelite order restored to England and asked the Holy Father to send Hermann to carry out the task. For reasons which the book does not explain the Superior General of the Carmelite Order was opposed to this but the needs of the English mission were prominent in the Holy Father’s thoughts and he received Hermann in private audience and said:
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.
But why was Hermann chosen for this task? Possibly due to the fact that he had been very successful in restoring or starting new Carmels in France but also because during his years as a concert pianist he had played in England and had learnt the language.
So Hermann left Paris in the 5th August 1862 with only the price of a travel ticket and 180 Francs but with a determination to restore the order to England. He was given temporary accommodation in the Convent of the Assumption Sisters in Kensington Square. He was remembered from his concert pianist days and many people wished to see him and he also received invitations to preach. He was soon joined by other Carmelites from France. The sisters gave them the use of a small house which belonged to them and there on the 16th October, the feast of St Teresa of Avila, the Carmelite Order was restored in London. Fr Hermann sang the Mass in the presence of Cardinal Wiseman as well as two future cardinals – Manning and Howard. Hermann wrote:
Mary Immaculate gave the holy scapular to St. Simon Stock in a place quite near to London (Aylesford). Since that time she has taken possession of England in a very real way.
Hermann discovered a large German Community in Brighton and visited them. At the end of Lent in 1863 many became Catholics. He called them ‘his little diocese’. He was kept busy preaching and did so in English, French and German also hearing confessions in all three languages. Cardinal Wiseman gave Hermann the task of spiritual director to the clergy and engaged him for their retreats. Then the Cardinal, aware of Hermann’s Eucharistic devotion, put him in charge of Eucharistic work in London. Hermann remarked:
Anything to do with the Blessed Sacrament is dear to me. The Cardinal knows my
preferences very well.
On the 6th August 1863 the first anniversary of his arrival in London he launched the Nocturnal Adoration Movement a group of men spending their first night in adoration in the chapel of his Carmelite house. He insisted that the community led by example. They would recite the long office of matins and lauds at midnight and then two friars would remain at the foot of the altar until 5.00a.m. This devotion became a stimulus to religious vocation.
It soon became a priority to obtain a larger house and it came about in an unusual way. A house which had at one time belonged to Sir Isaac Newton was owned by a Mr Bird who was not favourably disposed to Catholics. Hermann entrusted St Joseph with the task of obtaining the property and went to speak to Mr Bird only to find that he would not sell to Catholics but was prepared to rent the house. So on the Feast of St Teresa of Avila they moved into their ‘rented priory’. The following year in a speech at a General Assembly on the Continent Hermann remarking on the situation in England and said:
But in England, for the past three hundred years the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament has been a special object of outrage and blasphemy.
The speech was published and reached the English Times newspaper. As expected Hermann’s words did not endear him to his host country who complained, but they had the exact opposite affect on Mr Bird! The fact that his tenants were being maligned led him to sell the property to Hermann! Doesn’t St Joseph work in wonderful ways? Hermann wrote to a friend:
We must now build a church in the garden. Have a word in St Joseph’s ear. Why not? He has already built several.
St Joseph did oblige and on the 16th July 1865 Cardinal Manning, successor to Cardinal Wiseman, laid the foundation stone. The church was designed by the famous Edward Pugin and it was completed within year. For the solemn opening Hermann had the precious relics of St Simon Stock brought from Bordeaux. Of the occasion Hermann wrote to his sister:
Our celebrations to mark the inauguration were splendid, consoling and well attended. We have a beautiful church an excellent organ and many debts! However those are St Joseph’s affair. (I like Hermann’s great Faith in dealing with debts!)
There is every reason to believe that Hermann would have kept up his musical skill and it is recorded that a piano presented to him by the famous piano maker, Erard, is still at the Kensington priory.
During this time he preached in Waterford in Ireland and in St Teresa’s Carmelite Church in Dublin as well as visiting Scotland and as far-a-field as Prussia.
Up to that time the Carmelites were not allowed to exercise their ministry in public. But that changed when Hermann was summoned to Newgate prison to give spiritual assistance to eight Catholic sailors, one Spanish and the others Philippino. They had been convicted of piracy and murder. Five of them were sentenced to death. Prior to their execution a member of the Community frequently visited them and all but one were reconciled to God. On the day of the execution Hermann and two colleagues were allowed to accompany them to the place of execution (previously not allowed). Hermann was amazed that there was no anti-catholic feeling from the crowd. The Times paper reported ‘three Roman Catholic priests, tonsured and wearing stoles round their necks, mounted the scaffold and attended the condemned’.
The account of Hermann’s time in England would not be complete without mentioning his part in bringing the Carmelite Sisters to London. He had suggested it to Cardinal Wiseman who agreed but died before it could be put into effect. Cardinal Manning went ahead with the project with the modification that the sisters should be under his jurisdiction. Hermann sought the cooperation of the Carmel of Lyons and it was agreed that a Mother Teresa and four sisters would set up a Carmelite Community. They arrived in London on the 23rd December and were given accommodation in a convent near Hermann’s Carmelite priory. After several moves they finished up in Bridge Lane Golders Green where they are to this day.
In October 1865 when Hermann’s term as Prior at Kensington expired he set off for France and visited the novitiate of the Little Sisters of the Poor where the foundress Jeanne Jugan resided (now Blessed Jean and to be canonised on October 11th 2009).
During 1866 and 1868 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and made a last visit to England. He was in Berlin when he was told that he could return to his beloved Pyrenees Desert Hermitage.
FR. HERMANN CONFESSOR AND CONFIDANT
Before we follow Hermann to his Desert House let us take a closer look at his many skills and the affect they had.
When preaching in Geneva he mentioned that in the town of Wildbad where his father lived the Catholics had no church of their own and had to share with the Protestants. A lady in the congregation took up the challenge and some time later Hermann received a letter from the grateful pastor to tell him that the church was in the process of being built.
Some witnesses said that Hermann had a great charm and even fascination which explains the influence he had over them.
Regarding Faith he said:
You cannot be mistaken when you obey in faith him whom Jesus has inspired to help you and to save your soul as well as his own (he was referring to himself). So do what I say and you will have peace of soul . Obedience is without sin.
Regarding prayer he said:
The way of prayer infallibly leads to perfection; it is in prayers that we lean to detach ourselves from the world and to live here below as exiles longing for our homeland.
The important thing is not to encourage in ourselves a desire for worldly living. That is what prayer day by day does – it kindles in the heart a desire for Jesus alone. An excessive taste for material things is not compatible with possessing the God of love. The God of love is a jealous God who wishes to dwell alone in the heart so as to be loved, experienced and desired for himself.
The reason why our master does not always allow us to hear his voice is because he wishes to be sought after There is nothing he wants more than someone who has been attracted like the Magdalen and questions the whole of creation saying: ‘where is my God’. Another reason is that we are kept humble. If we always enjoyed consolation we would surely swell with pride.
On the subject of death he said:
As for death, it will come to you at a time God wishes. That will mark our deliverance and an end of our faults. That will be the moment we see Jesus, the moment in which we lose ourselves in his divine heart.
You must try to maintain a deep peace in your soul. Do not allow yourself to be troubled, the world cannot give peace. Jesus the lamb of God has come so that we can have it abundantly. However, we shall only have perfect peace in heaven.
THE DESERT HERMITAGE AND LOURDES
With permission of the Superior Hermann is allowed to return to his Pyrenees hermitage. He wrote to his nephew:
My Dear George, Today I say goodbye to you until next Lent, because Our Lord is calling me to solitude. For a long time Fr. Provincial has promised me this favour. In the desert there is no correspondence and no visits, even those from close relatives and friends. I am looking forward to my stay there as in the antechamber of heaven.
As he approached the hermitage bells rang out to greet him, candles were lit and the Veni Creator was sung. As Hermann prostrated himself in the middle of the choir the ritual question was asked:
What have you come to do in the desert?
Fr. Hermann replied:
I am searching for Jesus. Since my conversion I have not looked for anything else, or wanted anything else but him. I have looked for him among the great and the little, always trying to make him known and loved. And I have not found him anywhere. I have only succeeded in making him known and loved by a very few people, compared to what I would have wished. That is why you see me here today among you, with my wish to be one of you. I hope you will help me by your prayers and example to find at last him whom my soul loves.
The Carmelite desert is constructed like a Carthusian monastery. It was designed for twenty people. The main building consisted of a church, a sacristy and a chapter room. There were twenty separate apartments, each containing four rooms and a garden which made up the dwelling area for each hermit. All these buildings open on to a cloister. Of the four rooms one is an oratory and one a workshop. Silence is strictly observed in the desert and it is not permitted to break it except speak to the superior. Night office was recited in the church from midnight until 2.00a.m. that being part of the eight hours in all of liturgical praise.
Fr. Hermann’s stay in the hermitage commenced in May but in November he was having trouble with his eyes. This was a bad omen. Good health was necessary for life in the desert house and especially so in the Pyrenees with the onset of winter. At this turn of events Hermann looked with confidence to Our Lady of Lourdes. For nearly ten years healings were being reported from the grotto. This is how Hermann reported his visit:
I have received a fresh token of Our Lady’s tender love for her children, and I am really happy to tell you about it. Since last year my sight was growing weak due to fatigue. I spent the last six months in that lovely solitude in the Carmel desert. There I had an unexpected attack of aphthalmia and was advised to go to Bordeaux to consult an eye specialist. The specialist found my eyes to be in a bad state – it was a complicated case. I was told that inflation was inevitable and I needed an operation. When I left Bordeaux I had to wear dark glasses – any light was unbearable, even a candle. Someone suggested that I make a Novena to Our Lady of Lourdes. I recalled that it was twenty-two years since Our Lady had obtained for me from the Lord of the Eucharist, a cure far more important than that of my eyes. The novena began on the 24th October the feast of St Raphael who had cured Tobiah of his blindness. I bathed my eyes every day in water brought
from the grotto. On the sixth day of the novena I walked to Lourdes. By this time my eyes were feeling better and I had used nothing but Lourdes water. The last day of the novena was All Saints day. As I arrived at the grotto the pain had gone and I was able to look at the sun or at gas light without any discomfort. I am completely cured.
Medical science confirmed Hermann’s conviction that he was miraculously cured at Lourdes. Here is what the Doctor said:
Among the events which took place between 1868 and 1871, four have caught my attention particularly. One of the first cures to be published in the Annals of Lourdes is that of Fr. Hermann Cohen. Quite ill he went to Bordeaux to consult a well-known specialist who formally diagnosed the presence of glaucoma and proposed the excision of the iris .On his return from Bordeaux the illness deteriorated every day. 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 do not know how to contest or interpret this happening
Following his miraculous cure he returned to Lourdes to offer a Mass of thanksgiving. The annals of Lourdes mention this private ceremony:
There were only a few people there. Very few in the town knew that Fr. Hermann was there. But he wished to express his very deep gratitude. ‘That shall I render to the Lord’ he asked, and then invited the people to help him pay his debt. He was very emotional and did not try to hide it. He expressed it eloquently making us share his gratitude with him. He was like one of the people Our Lord cured and went out among the crowd singing his praises..
FR. HERMANN MOVES TO SPANDAU. Spandau was a garrison town with many barracks. Not to be confused with the notorious prison which was not built until 1876.
In July 1870 war broke out between France and Germany. This put Hermann in an
unenviable position. By birth he was German but France was his adopted country. He was forced to flee towards Switzerland . At Grenoble he was physically attacked and taken for a spy. From there he went to Montreux. Whilst there he was asked by the Bishop of Geneva to care for the spiritual needs of the refugees who were fleeing from both the Germans and the revolutionaries.
Later he was summoned to Berlin and that time he said:
“Germany will be my grave”.
When he arrived in Germany he was given the chaplaincy of Spandua fourteen
miles from the capital. He wrote to his sister:
I am at Spandau where you made your first communion in the sacristy. I vest in this sacristy every day to say Mass and to preach to the French prisoners. I have been appointed chaplain to the five thousand three hundred prisoners of war here. About five hundred of them are ill with typhus and dysentery. About four hundred attend Mass every day and I preach to them. Then I visit the hospital to minister to the sick and in the afternoon I visit the barracks to see those who are well. I pray earnestly for their conversion – many of the healthy have not been to confession yet.
FR. HERMANN’S DEATH.
From all that has happened since he joined the church one could expect it to be 50 years sine his conversion¬. In fact it is only 25 years. He never spared himself and that is borne out by the fact that he contracted smallpox while anointing two of its victims.
In a fragment of a letter which he writes either to his mother or brother George on the 11th December, twenty days before his death he writes:
Let us love Jesus more every day!
An unworthy sinner who wishes to be converted to the new year that is beginning. Amen.
On the 9th January, after her had contracted smallpox a Capuchin, Fr. de la Billerie tells us:
On Friday 13th Fr. Hermann was ill. We went to his room and his eldest brother Albert had come from Montreux. Fr. Hermann was being looked after by a Sister of Charity. “Well Father” Fr, Hermann said, ‘I have smallpox and I shall be in bed for three or four weeks. I shall be unhappy if the work I have begun is not continued”.
On the 15th January he got worse and after a seizure, the parish priest of Spandau decided to give him the last rites. Fr, Hermann accepted them with joy and peace which impressed everyone present. He survived till 10.00 o’clock on the 20th January when he asked the nursing sister to join him in singing the Salve Regina. They started singing together but at the end the sister was singing alone. Fr. Hermann had gone to his eternal reward.
He was buried according to his wishes in the cathedral of St Hedwig in Berlin (which had been founded by the Carmelites). After the war his remains, together with others who had been buried in the bombed cathedral, were re-interred in the city municipal cemetery in East Berlin.
AN EXTRACT FROM A SERMON BY FR. AUGUSTINE HERMAN
This sermon was preached in the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris in 1854. It was his first public appearance in Paris since his conversion and a large crowd turned up to hear him:
My first thought as I appear in this Christian pulpit is to make amends for the bad example which I unhappily gave you in the past. You might well ask me, “what right have to preach to me, to exhort me to virtue and goodness, to teach me the truths of the faith, to speak to us of Jesus and Mary who we love? You have so dishonoured them in our sight, you who have kept bad company and behaved in an outrageous way you whom we know have swallowed every false theory and so often insulted us with your conduct”. Yes, my brethren, I confess that I have sinned against heaven and against you. I admit that I have deserved to be unpopular with you and I have forfeited your goodwill. I come to you brethren, clothed in a robe of penance and committed to a strict Order, barefooted and wearing a tonsure. Mary obtained for me from the God of the Eucharist, a cure infinitely more important to me than that of my bodily eyes, that is freedom from blindness. It was the
month of Mary and they were singing hymns. Mary, the mother of Jesus revealed the Eucharist to me. I knew Jesus, I knew God. Soon I became a Christian, I asked for baptism and before long the holy water was flowing over me. At that moment all the many sins of my twenty five years were wiped out. Brethren, God pardoned me, Mary pardoned me will you not pardon me too?
I have travelled throughout the world. I have loved the world. I have learnt one thing about the world - you don’t find happiness there. And you, brethren, have you found it, can you say you are happy, do you not want anything? It seems to me I can hear a sad chorus of sighs all around. I seem to her the unanimous cry of suffering humanity.
‘Happiness where are you? Tell me where you are hidden and I will search for you, hold you and possess you’. I have searched for happiness. I have searched in cities and crossed the seas to find it. I have searched for happiness among the beauties of nature; I have sought it in elegant life of salons, in the giddy pleasures of balls and banquets. I have sought it through the accumulation of money, in the excitement of gambling, in the hazards of adventure and in trying to satisfy my burning ambitions. I have looked for it in the renown of the artist, in the friendship of famous people and in all the pleasures of sense and spirit. Finally I looked for it in the fidelity of a friend, that incessant dream of every heart (a possible reference to Franz Liszt). This happiness, dear God, was there anywhere I failed to seek it? How can one explain this mystery to oneself? For human beings are made for happiness. The mystery is that most people don’t know
in what happiness consists. They look for it where it doesn’t exist. Well then, listen. I have found happiness, I possess it, I enjoy it so fully that I am able to say with the great apostle, ‘I am overflowing with joy’. My heart brims over with happiness, and I cannot contain it within me. I wanted to leave my solitude in order to come and find you and tell you, I am overflowing with joy. Yes, I am so happy that I come to offer it to you, I come to entreat you to share with me this overflowing happiness. But you object, ‘we don’t believe in Jesus Christ’.
I too, did not believe, and that is precisely why I was unhappy. Faith shows us happiness in God and in Jesus Christ his son. It is a mystery which pride cannot grasp. But to find Jesus Christ one must watch and pray. Scripture says, ‘happy is the man who watches at the doors day and night’, that is to say who watches at the door of his heart to find Jesus Christ.
(He uses an allegory to explain his conversion). One stormy night I found myself lost in a range of steep mountains surrounded on all sides by frightful precipices. The thunder rolled and the wind raged uprooting trees. I was thrown down with great violence. Suddenly in the side of a neighbouring mountain, a flash of lightning revealed to me a little golden door in a granite hollow (he is referring to the tabernacle). My courage revived in the hope of finding a resting-place and a helping- hand. I dragged myself breathlessly through the brambles and through the water all dishevelled, until I reached the little door on which I began to knock asking for help.
As soon as I knocked the door opened and a young man, clothed in majesty and with graciousness on his lips appeared on the threshold and introduced me to his mysterious abode. Immediately the sound of the storm abated and I was restored to peace. An unseen hand removed my mud-splattered cloak and plunged me in a refreshing bath where I found strength and health. This bath, not only removed every stain of the journey, but also healed my wounds, filling veins with new life. He renewed the joy of my youth. The perfume he emitted was so exquisite that I wished to know where it came from.
Think of my amazement to see beside me the handsome young man who had opened the door to me. He held out his hands and in each there was a deep wound from which blood was flowing. I looked at him and looked at myself and saw that I was bathed in this young man’s blood. This blood filled me with such inner strength that I felt ready to face a thousand storms even worse than the one I have just described. And I was even more surprised when his blood, far from making me turn red, made me strikingly white instead, whiter indeed than snow. Gratitude and love began to stir in my heart, I was hungry, I was thirsty – the fatigue and struggles of my journey had drained me, but he made me sit down to a banquet, in a brightly lit festive hall – though I could see no lamps there. The young man himself was the lamp and rays of light shone from his face.
I was hungry, I was thirsty. He gave me bread and said to me, ‘eat this’. He offered me a cup saying to me ‘drink this’. He blessed the bread then held the cup to the wound in his side and it was at once filled with a marvellous wine. When I had eaten and drunk I understood that this was no ordinary food, but nourishment which transformed me and gave me a deep joy. I looked at the handsome young man and saw him dwelling in me and being adored by angels. Then the young man spoke to me. His words were like heavenly music, delighting me and causing me to shed tears of love and joy. And then he drew me to himself, embraced me and held me to his heart, caressing me and soothing me gently with the melody which fell from his lips. I lay my head on his breast and my happiness was so great that my spirit fainted.
I slept on the heart of my loving friend. It was no ordinary sleep, but one filled with an immense sense of peace which the young man induced in me after the storm.
I slept a long time and I had a dream of heaven during my sleep. O dream of love, I wish I were able to express it. Then he touched my eyes and I awoke at once filled with inexpressible love. Bowing down I thanked him for his welcome and he said to me, ‘if you wish you can stay here every day. Each day I will bathe you in my blood. I will warm you in my heart, I will enfold you with my light and I will make you sit down to my table. If you leave me, watch out, for the storm will quickly begin again’. ‘Let others’, I said, ’fight the storm and wade through the mud on the road, but for me, since you will keep me here, I wish to live here, here I wish to die’ Yes, every day I will drink from the torrent of life which flows from your open side. But tell me your name so that I can bless you with the angels. He replied ‘my name is love, my name is Eucharist, my name is Jesus’.
Let us then love Jesus Christ, for there is only one happiness, to love Jesus Christ and to be loved by him.
The Story of Hermann Cohen OCD by Tadgh Tierney OCD
Hermann Cohen, Carmelite. Elias Friedman OCD
The Spiritual Journey of Hermann Cohen.