A few weeks ago, I stumbled across the conversion story of Venerable Hermann Cohen (also known as Father Augustine Marie of the Blessed Sacrament) and was deeply moved. Never having heard of this man before, I have not been able to stop thinking about him since. If you are struggling with sin, his remarkable story will give you hope. If you have a deep love for the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament, this will intensify because of his experiences. If you are searching for happiness yet feel unsatisfied, his story will remind you that unless you look for happiness in Christ, you will never find what you are looking for. The incredible life of Venerable Hermann Cohen demonstrates the transformative power of God’s grace if only we will open our hearts and cooperate with it.
Hermann the Prodigy
Hermann Cohen was born in 1821 in Germany to David Abraham, a wealthy baker, and Rosalie Benjamin. Raised Jewish, his family attended a Reformed synagogue and, when very young, Herman recalled being in awe during Jewish liturgies. However, this did not last and by the age of ten, he had fallen away from faith and religion in general. Pampered by his mother, he described how he was “the tyrant of the family” and was disrespectful, arrogant, greedy and vain. He also had friends that were a bad influence on him and he wrote how he “learned when 12 years old many things, the knowledge of which was well-nigh fatal to my soul.”
At the age of four, he had started taking piano lessons with his older brother, and it quickly became evident that he was an extraordinary talent. Quickly outshining his brother, by the age of six he was able to play various operas and even improvise. As he continued studying the piano, by the age of eleven his teacher told his parents he was a genius and his mother embarked on finding him training with an expert in Paris.
Fame and Fortune
In Paris, Franz Liszt, one of the world’s best pianists, heard Hermann play and, immediately impressed, took him as his student. By the age of 12, Hermann was performing concerts across Paris, even playing for royalty. He became an instant star. Everyone was charmed by this young handsome prodigy, including newspapers. But the fame and fortune were detrimental to his character as he became only more capricious, unkind and arrogant. Introduced to countless celebrities who were awed by his talent, they became his ticket into any of the salons in Europe despite his age. With these connections and his wealth, nothing stopped this young teenager from living out every whim and pleasure imaginable as he traveled across Europe. In addition to his detestable behavior, he had also become caught up in a disastrous vice – the thrill of gambling – and usually found himself losing money faster than he made it.
An Encounter with Christ
He remained immersed in this lifestyle until May 1847 when his life changed radically. Asked by a friend to be a substitute choir director for a benediction service at a local Catholic Church, despite being Jewish and hardly holding any religious leanings at the time, he needed the money so agreed. Throughout the service, he was unmoved until the moment of benediction. Unaware of the meaning of what he witnessed, he saw the people kneel as the priest elevated the golden object (the as if to bless the people. At this moment, something deep within Hermann stirred him to the core. Even after leaving the church, he could not shake the disturbance that had arisen in his soul. He returned to this church one week later for another benediction service. At the same moment, he was again inwardly unsettled but, this time, tears suddenly poured down his face.
He found himself being drawn to the church almost daily, often arriving either at the time of Mass or a benediction service. In the presence of the consecrated host, he would find himself trembling yet filled with a mysterious sense of inner peace and joy. He finally told a friend about these experiences and was then introduced to a Catholic priest. He was advised to pray and trust in God’s providence. Not long after this, he went to Mass in a small German parish before playing a concert and, throughout the entire Liturgy, he was moved by every aspect of it – the hymns, the prayers, the readings.
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 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 of 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 recognizing 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 baptized!
Hermann’s Entry into the Church
Hermann prayed regularly, especially before the Blessed Sacrament, continued to meet with a priest and studied the faith. He was also devoted to the Blessed Mother as he attributed the grace of his conversion to her intercession. He became only more convicted and deeply longed to receive the Eucharist. On August 28, 1847, the feast of St. Augustine, he was baptized and entered the Church. As the water was poured over his head and he heard his Christian name – Augustine Marie Henri – he recalled:
I received such a sudden and powerful jolt from God, that I can only compare it to an electric shock. My bodily eyes closed but in that same instant my spiritual eyes were opened to the light of the supernatural and Divine. I felt as though I were in an ecstasy of love…
Within the next few months, he would receive the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Confirmation and, during this time, he also discerned a vocation to the priesthood. However, before he could make any commitments to the religious life, he had to pay off the large debts he had incurred from gambling. For the next two years, he was teaching and performing concerts to earn money and spent most of his spare time in prayer. He finally paid his debts and also came to the realization that not only was God calling him to be a priest, but also to enter the Discalced Carmelites.
Called to Be a Carmelite Priest
In 1850, now formally in the Carmelite Order, he was given the name Brother Augustine Marie of the Blessed Sacrament. Soon after, he was ordained to the diaconate, and he wrote about the powerful moment of his ordination:
Jesus has raised me to the rank of deacon. When I think about this, I shake with emotion. On the feast of the Epiphany, during evening devotions, I carried Him for the first time in my unworthy hands. How I trembled when I placed the Lord of the universe upon the altar…O God of Love!
In 1851, he was ordained a priest. Though he desired the reclusive life, his superiors sent him across Europe because he had a gift for preaching and he was very successful with restoring Carmelite houses (including the Order in England where it had been banned since the Reformation). He was also known for his love for the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament, often establishing nocturnal adoration in the many places he traveled. He was a priest for almost twenty years and then, in 1870, was asked to serve as a chaplain during the Franco-Prussian war. He was initially sent to Switzerland to serve the refugees but then, in October of that same year, he was sent to Germany to be a chaplain in the battlegrounds. Knowing the dangers of this post, he predicted this would be his last assignment yet gladly accepted it. He worked among thousands of prisoners of war, caring for them, hearing confessions and administering the other Sacraments. Sadly, he contracted smallpox at the end of this year, dying within a few weeks on January 20, 1871.
During his life, God blessed him in many ways including giving him opportunities to meet many future Saints and Blesseds in the Church. He knew Bernadette Soubirous from Lourdes (now Saint), Peter Julian Eymard (now Saint) – the founder of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, the visionary Maximin Giraud, the Jewish converts Fathers Theodore and Alphonse Ratisbone, Frederick Ozanam (now Blessed) – the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Jeanne Jugan (now Saint) – the founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the “Cures d’Ars” Father John Vianney (now Saint).
Another incredible gift was granted to him by God related to his mother. After her death, Father Cohen prayed endlessly for her salvation, always concerned since, as far as he knew, she had remained angry he had become not only Catholic but also a Carmelite priest. The answer to his prayers came in the form of a letter from a stranger, the reception of which Father Vianney foretold six years in advance. In a fascinating way, God revealed to Father Cohen the encounter his mother had with Jesus Christ moments before her death, revealing her conversion and giving him great consolation.
He received another blessing from God in 1868, when he became one of the first recorded miracles at Lourdes. He had been diagnosed with glaucoma and was losing his eyesight rapidly. Doctors told him the only option was to have surgery, but, having heard of the many miracles, he went to Lourdes and prayed a novena. Beginning on the feast of St. Raphael (whom Scripture tells helped cure the blindness of Tobit), Father Cohen prayed and bathed his eyes in the water from the grotto daily. After completing the novena, his eyesight was restored. Medical investigations confirmed there was no explanation for the cure and the name of Father Hermann Cohen is one of the first listed in the Annals of Lourdes (the list of the known miracles).
The Transformative Power of Grace
The radical conversion of Hermann Cohen demonstrates the power of grace at work in him and this becomes even more evident when you read his sermons. One example is the sermon given in 1854, when Father Cohen made his first public appearance in Paris, celebrating Mass and standing before many who had known the nefarious Hermann of years past. He began with these words:
Dear brothers! The first thing I should do on entering Christ’s pulpit here is to beg forgiveness for all the evil that I had the misfortune to commit in this city. By what right—you may well ask me—do you come here to talk to us and urge us to pursue virtue and piety? By what right do you seek to elucidate the great truths of the Faith and speak on the subject of love, of Jesus and Mary, whom many times you profaned to our face. We saw you in the company of public sinners. The plaything of every possible erroneous teaching, you did evil things in public and insulted us with your shameful conduct. Thou wast wholly born in sins, and dost thou teach us? Yes, my brothers, I confess that I have sinned before Heaven and you….I have no right to your favor. I am ready, brothers, to beg your forgiveness both publicly and solemnly, to kneel, candle in hand, at the gates of the church with a rope around my neck, and beg the mercy and prayers of all those who enter. I come here covered in a penitential habit, for I belong to a strict religious order. My head is shaved and my feet are bare. When once I entered a certain church I was only a Jew! That was in the month of May, and there was the singing of hymns. Mary, the Mother of Jesus, revealed to me the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. I saw her, I saw Jesus, and soon I became a Christian! I asked for Holy Baptism. Holy water was poured over my head and, at that moment, all my sins, the terrible transgressions of twenty-five years of sinful living, were washed away. God forgave me! At that moment my soul was made clean and innocent! My brothers, God has forgiven me. Mary has forgiven me! Do you also forgive me?
He also spoke about happiness in his sermons, emphasizing how, throughout his life, he had desired true happiness but never found it until, by God’s grace, he had finally discovered it in Christ and the Eucharist. On one occasion he said:
I have passed through this world. I have seen this world. I have loved this world. And the world has taught me but one thing: that happiness is nowhere to be found in it! Happiness! To find it, I have traveled to cities and kingdoms. I have crossed the seas….I sought it in wealth, in the fever of the gaming table, the fantasy of romantic literature, in real-life adventures, and the gratification of wild ambition. I sought happiness in artistic fame, in the acquaintance of celebrities, in all the pleasures of the mind and senses. Finally, I sought it in the fidelity and truth of friendship. My God! Where have I not sought this happiness—this yearning of every day and every heart! And you, my brothers, have you found it? Are you happy? Is there nothing you lack?…I suspect that from your hearts there also bursts forth the common cry of suffering humanity: ‘O happiness, happiness, where are you? Tell me where you are hiding!’ How is one to explain this puzzle? Is humanity not created for happiness? And yet most people have a mistaken notion of its nature and seek it where it is not to be found. Listen to me! I have found this happiness! I possess it and delight in it utterly! I can shout out with the Apostle: My joy knows no bounds! Yes, I am so happy that I beg and entreat you to share this surfeit of happiness with me! And this is what it consists in: God alone can slake this thirst of the human heart….Jesus Christ has been given to us, but in order to find Him, we must watch and pray. Jesus Christ is in the Holy Eucharist. This Eucharist is life and happiness itself!
In our culture today where the emphasis is placed on materialism and consumerism while minimizing God and the transcendent, the story of Father Cohen needs to be heard. As he discovered, there is no true happiness without God and searching elsewhere will be fruitless. His love for the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament is inspiring, as we all should more often imitate him in recognizing this truly tremendous gift from God. Father Cohen also gives all of us sinners hope – if we open our hearts to repentance and to God’s grace, we can be transformed into men and women of heroic virtue.
Venerable Hermann Cohen (Father Augustine Marie of the Blessed Sacrament) – pray for us!