Hermann Cohen OCD
Prayer for the Beatification of Fr. Herman Cohen
Fr. Augustine-Marie of the Blessed Sacrament
Fr. James of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, OCD
Ed. The following article has been taken from an unpublished manuscript, Reflections of a Hebrew Catholic, by Elias Friedman, OCD. © Association of Hebrew Catholics. All Rights Reserved. . Reproduction is permitted for personal use only.
Hermann Cohen, Carmelite (1821-1870)
by Elias Friedman, OCD
About a year ago, our Postulator-General paid us a visit. He was in the Holy Land to participate in the celebrations in honor of Maryam Buwardi, foundress of the Carmel of Bethlehem, the first Palestinian Arab to be beatified in modern times. Fr. Simeon is Spanish, high-colored and powerfully built. He knew Mount Carmel well, since he had been a student in the International College of Philosophy there during the 1930s. We have a register of students for that time with a passport-photo of Fr. Simeon as a young man. Sitting beside him in the refectory, I felt more acutely than ever the extent of my languors.
Fr. Simeon brings to our rather sleepy community something of the excitement of living in the spiritual capital of the Christian world. This time he spoke of the difficulties he was experiencing in advancing the cause of the Maryam Buwardi; he then went on to mention other files which as Postulator-General of the Order he was dealing with. He announced with pride that the report of the theologians on the writings of Edith Stein had been presented to the Holy See for approval. Sister Elizabeth of the Trinity, of the Carmel of Dijon, would be beatified in November. He remarked casually, that the cause of Hermann Cohen had been opened and the file placed in his hands for investigation on behalf of the Order. When I inquired how the matter was proceeding he seemed to sigh, not for any doubt about the virtues of the candidate, but because of the vastness of the field which he was now called upon to investigate. Hermann Cohen was the Arturo Rubenstein of his day, if one may make the comparison. As an internationally applauded concert-pianist, Hermann Cohen had come in contact with a phalanx of people from crowned heads to undistinguished, if respectable teachers of languages, some of whom he had abandoned without paying his fees.
Speaking humbly, it comes to me that I have trodden my path under the shadow of Fr. Hermann. Shortly after my baptism in Cape Town (August 5, 1943), I received Holy Communion the next day at the Dominican school of the Sisters in Wynberg, Cape. They loaned me a life of Hermann Cohen to read. It was if my memory serves me, of the same edition which I am using now to prepare the present chapter of my recollections. The book and The Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, were my earliest contacts with the Carmelite Order. Not long afterwards, I felt urged inwardly to begin the study of French. In 1946, I was in Kensington, in lodgings only a stone’s throw away from the Carmelite Church founded by Fr. Hermann. At first I attended Sunday Mass at the chapel of the Assumptionists Sisters nearby, where I remember people pointing out the window at the entrance to the church, of the room where Fr. Hermann had stayed. It was in Kensington that I received my Carmelite vocation and my vocation for the Holy Land. In 1948, I was sent to the Carmelite province of the south of France, of which Fr. Hermann had be the co-founder with the Fr. Dominic. In 1954, I was in Lyons, where the Fathers had a residence in Fourviére, the quarter in which Fr. Hermann had fixed his residence. Indeed, he had restored the Carmelites to Lyons from where they had been driven away at the time of the French Revolution. The Carmelite Cloistered Nuns at Fourvière, for whom I said Mass from time to time, showed me proudly, a white cape of Fr. Hermann, which they conserved as a relic. I can only hope and pray that he remain by my side, as a sort of guardian angel, while I deploy my activity in Israel.
Hermann Cohen was born in Hamburg, on the 10 November 1821, into a large Jewish family, distinguished for its wealth and commercial success. His father, David Abraham and his mother, Rosalie, had joined the Reform Synagogue. Though in no way pious, the parents taught the child to say his prayers and saw to it that he learned Hebrew. At college he was taught biblical history, but not religion. Young Hermann was a gifted student who romped home with all the prizes. At the early age of four and a half, he discovered the piano and by twelve, he was an accomplished performer.
Taken to Paris by his ambitious mother, he became the pupil of Franz Lizt, who presented him to the notorious Georges Sand, who used to call him her “little Puzzi” and opened for him the entrée to the highest circles in Europe. Hermann followed Lizt to Geneva, where, despite his youth, he was appointed professor at the Conservatoire of Music. Together with a singer named Mario, he began a hectic career as an internationally acclaimed concert-pianist, plunging into a life of dissolution and gambling, the outcome of which was a pile of debts, unpaid, and a growing disgust with the life he was leading.
In 1847, he happened to be in Paris when a friend of his, the Prince of Moscow, begged him to take his place as conductor of a choir in a church which was situated conveniently near his rooms. Let us leave it to Hermann Cohen to express in his own words what happened during the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. “My mind” he wrote, “found itself perturbed, so to speak, and withdrawn from the agitation of the world, penetrated by something totally unknown to it previously. I was constrained to bow, against my will without a doubt. The following day, I had the same experience and, suddenly, the thought touched me to become a Catholic”. A friend, the Duchess of Rauzan, in whom he confided, introduced him to the Abbé Legrand, who instructed him and baptized him on the 28 August 1847. He received the names, Marie-Augustin-Henri. The baptism took place in the Chapel of Our Lady of Zion, in the presence of its founder, Fr. Theodor Ratisbonne and many Hebrew Catholics. On the 3 December 1847, he was confirmed by Msgr. Affre, saintly Archbishop of Paris, soon to fall a martyr to charity in the revolution of 1848. Impressed by the transformation wrought in the soul of the young musician, the Baroness de Saint-Vigor returned to the practice of her religion, the first of a legion of souls Fr. Hermann was to lead to the faith.
No sooner confirmed, than Hermann Cohen set out to encourage the Nocturnal Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the mystery which had brought him to the faith. The call to Carmel followed. By 19 July, 1848, he was in Le Broussey (near Bordeaux) for his novitiate. Being a neophyte was an impediment to his reception, but one which he overcame by a personal visit to Rome.
Hermann Cohen received the habit of the Order on the 6 October 1849 which happens to be the date on which I took the habit in Loughrea, County Galway, Eire, in 1947. The regime in the novitiate in Le Broussey was harsh. When I arrived at Tarascon in 1948 for my studies at”Petit Castelet”, then college of the Carmelite Fathers, I met Bro. Pierre-Marie, later to be appointed Prior at Le Broussey. I learned from him, how he had to jump around in his cell at night in order to warm his frozen extremities so he could go to sleep. Much of that regime was still in force at “Petit Castelet” where I stayed for five years, suffering intensely from nasal allergy of the severest kind. The Superiors thought that religious life could go on unchanged in spite of the change of mentality wrought by the war. It was an error; but one which could not be imputed to them. Fr. Marie-Eugene, a Carmelite of the province of Aquitaine, and a major Superior of the Order at that time was aware of the need for radical change in the structure of the religious life; but the Vatican Council II had to take place, about twenty years later before any fundamental changes could be introduced. Fr. Marie-Eugene himself founded a Secular Institute, Notre Dame de la Vie, which proved to be a remarkable success as a form of religious life, far, far different from what I experienced of the old order. His cause for canonization has been introduced.
Hermann Cohen must have experienced the severity of life in the novitiate of Broussey, but his main complaint was the call to renounce smoking and the drinking of coffee. The doctors advised that he be allowed to take snuff. The young Israelite friar emitted his solemn vows on the 7 October 1850 at Le Broussey, which is also the date of my solemn vows emitted at “Petit Castelet”, 78 October 1952. After obtaining a partial exemption from studies, Hermann was ordained priest on the 20 April 1851.
The newly-ordained priest launched himself into a life-long ministry of preaching, which was to lead him to all the capitals of Europe. In France, he became the right-hand man of Fr. Dominic, a Spaniard, who restored the Carmelites to France. Fr. Hermann took an active part in the foundation of several monasteries in the south of France. So great was his reputation that Cardinal Wiseman invited him to restore the Carmelites to England from where they had been driven out at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Pius IX blessed him in parting with the words: “My son, I give you my blessing and send you to convert England as one of my predecessors blessed and sent Saint Augustin”.
Fr. Hermann arrived in London with seven pounds in his pocket and a great confidence in Providence. Wonderfully enough, his own brother, Albert, who had become a Catholic made over to him a large sum of money with which to begin the foundation. The initial residence was opened with a procession in honor of the Blessed Virgin, “the first act of public veneration received by Our Blessed Lady in England for three centuries”. His activities in England in no way curtailed his visits to the Continent where he continued to preach. “Where do you reside?” he was once asked. “In a railway train”, was his wry answer.
In 1867, he withdrew to the hermitage of Tarasteix in the French Alps, which he had founded. Eye trouble set in; the specialist discovered signs of pressure on the optic nerve and diagnosed glaucoma. Instead of the operation which the doctors recommended, Fr. Hermann went on pilgrimage to Lourdes, where he bathed his eyes in water from the grotto. Relief was instantaneous. A few days later, Fr. Hermann was able to announce, “I am radically cured”. The cure of Fr. Hermann is one of the best attested cures of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Called to take up the post of Master of Novices at Le Broussey, Fr. Cohen left Tarasteix in 1869. The next year the Franco-Prussian war broke out and German citizens were expelled from France. Though he received authorization to remain, Fr. Hermann opted to leave for Switzerland on account of the hostile sentiments of the French people towards the Germans. There, he was asked to be chaplain to French prisoners in Germany. About 5,300 of these were grouped in the most miserable conditions in Spandau (near Berlin), 300 being sick with smallpox. The new chaplain set to work, distributing relief supplies and providing spiritual services. Five hundred prisoners attended his Mass daily and confessions were numerous.
Fr. Hermann contracted the disease from two prisoners who were dying from smallpox, the virus penetrating through a wound in his hand. He died after receiving the Last Sacraments, on the 19 January, 1870, eve of the Apparition of Our Lady of Zion to Alphonse Ratisbonne (1842) and he was buried in the Church of St. Hedwige, Berlin.
A fellow Carmelite gave the following testimony to his pious Brother: “It is my belief that he possessed every virtue in a sublime even heroic degree”.
Charles Sylvain, his biographer, gave his own nuanced assessment:,
“His conversion was nothing less than a transformation and yet it is evident that the man was subdued not dead; nature at times claimed its rights and the impetuosity of an ardent character was frequently aroused. The memory of past pleasures and applause still recurred to his imagination, but we have seen how invariably he struggled against these temptations and how we went on from victory to victory, ever advancing with giant strides in the way of Christian perfection and afterwards in the perfection of monastic life. His faith overcame all obstacles, overthrew every impediment and trampled on false shame. The hope of future blessedness gave him courage to value at their true worth all worldly honors, pleasures and possessions and he left them all so that he might here below have for his own, Jesus, whose love filled his soul”.
Fr. Hermann was candid about himself. “When you knew me” he said to one of his friends after his conversion, “I was a prey to every sort of intemperate pleasure-seeking, irregularity and excess”. He recognized that after baptism he remained eager, domineering and inclined to exaggeration, but little by little his character was modified and transformed by divine grace. Gentleness and kindly indulgence took the place of eagerness and severity. As his biographer observed: “He concurred generously and constantly with the action of divine grace until the hour when God, finding him purified and sanctified according to his will called his faithful servant to his reward”.
Of himself Fr. Hermann said:
“I have a certain power of initiative, a certain vigor in overcoming obstacles, in short, the requisites, aided by divine grace, for the organization of works; then, scarcely are they set on foot, than Our Lord sends me away to a distance from them. ‘Leave to others’ he seems to say to me ‘the care of their development, the pleasure of gathering in their fruit; you, leave Lyons, Bagnères, London and set yourself to some new task’. And thus you see how, in spite of my conversion, I am always the Wandering Jew”.
“I am detached from everything, even from my own works and I daily tell Our Lord that I am completely indifferent either to their success or their ruin. I put all into his hands and have regard only to his good pleasure”.
Fr. Hermann loved his friends in Christ. “I find pious attachments of long standing very consoling to me. Long live old friends!”. They responded to his affection. “I loved Hermann with all my heart” wrote Louis Veuillot, one of the most distinguished laymen in the Church of that time, on hearing of the démise of the saintly Carmelite. “I loved and admired him. He was full of simplicity and candor, humility and the love of all that is good … Each time we parted he left me with the remembrance of some new evidence of his virtue”.
In the foregoing lines, we have tried to summarize the life and apostolate of Fr. Hermann Cohen, then to invite Hebrew Catholics to study them. Catholics have the tendency to imagine that Libermann or Hermann Cohen are so many flashes in the pan that add up to nothing significant. Our task is to correct what we believe to be a false impression. They are a foretaste of what Israel will one day contribute to the Church as a people.