Quote of the day, 25 January: Hermann Cohen

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 a Catholic.

Servant of God Hermann Cohen

Father Augustine-Mary of the Blessed Sacrament, O.C.D.
Servant of God Hermann Cohen
Letter to Chevalier Charles Asnarez
Excerpt from the story of Cohen’s conversion

The Servant of God’s biographer, Father Timothy Tierney, O.C.D. describes Cohen’s conversion as an example of “spiritual lightning striking” the heart and soul of the Jewish concert pianist and playboy who was a star in European society.

We see in the excerpt above, where Cohen describes his experience—much like Saint Paul describes his conversion in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles—that there seems to be no reasonable explanation for the sudden, profound change that takes place, only a supernatural one.

Father Tierney continues to search Cohen’s correspondence and shares excerpts from an early letter to another Jewish convert, Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, whose stunning conversion on 20 January 1842 in Rome’s Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte was well known (and at which altar St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe offered his first Mass).

Hermann Cohen writes to Ratisbonne:

At the moment of Benediction, I felt a very real emotion though I cannot describe it, as if I had no right to be taking part in the ceremony. The following Friday [when Cohen returned to visit the same church], the same thing happened.

I wished to see a priest to talk things over. This was amazing seeing I distrusted them. However, I didn’t meet one immediately, but eventually, I was introduced to a priest named Legrand. He listened with interest, calmed me, and told me to continue as I was doing. He told me to trust in Divine Providence who would show me what to do. At the end, he gave me the book, An Account of Christian Teaching.

I found this churchman good and kind and he certainly changed my opinion of priests, having only 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 Godnot himself.

So in this frame of mind, I left for Ems in Germany to give a concert. As soon as I arrived there, I sought out the parish priest of the little Catholic church, as I had a letter of introduction from Père Legrand.

The day after I arrived was a Sunday, but braving the ridicule of my friends, I went to Mass. Everything affected methe 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 lasting gratitude for your favours….

I felt then what Augustine must have felt in the garden of Cassiacum when he heard the famous words, “Take and read” … or what you yourself must have felt in St. Andrew’s church in Rome on January 20, 1842, when our Lady appeared to you [Cohen here mentions Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne’s miraculous conversion in the Church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte].

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 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 that 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 at Ems, I already felt I was a Christian, or at least as much a Christian as it is possible to be before being baptized.

Servant of God Hermann Cohen
Augustine-Mary of the Blessed Sacrament, O.C.D.

Letter to Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne

Tierney, T  2017,  A Life of Hermann Cohen: From Franz Liszt to John of the CrossBalboa Press,  Bloomington, IN

Featured image: The elevation of the Sacred Host during the Mass, a “consoling and unforgettable moment” for the Servant of God Hermann Cohen. Photo by Father Lawrence Lew, O.P. (Some rights reserved).

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