Blason  Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

France


[Cette lettre en français]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
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August 28, 2001
Saint Augustine


Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

To suffering humanity's unanimous cry, «Where are you, happiness?» a famous preacher responded, «I have searched for happiness in the fashionable life, in the giddiness of balls and parties; I have searched for it in the possession of gold, in the emotions of gambling, in the close friendship of famous men, in all the pleasures of the mind and the senses... The majority of men are deceived as to the very nature of happiness, and they look for it where it is not to be found... They love happiness, and Jesus Christ, the only happiness possible, is not loved... O my God, is it possible that Love is not loved? Why? Because it is not known. People study everything except Him... All of you who listen to me, must it then be a Jew who comes to beg Christians to adore Jesus Christ?... But, you will say, 'I don't believe in Jesus Christ.' And I used not to believe either, and that's exactly why I was unhappy!»

This preacher was named Hermann Cohen, and he was born in Hamburg on November 10, 1821. His family held a distinguished rank among the twenty thousand some Jews in the city. Growing up, little Hermann was devout. He loved to sing the canticles and the Psalms in German. Instinctually, he was not comfortable in a secularized society, rather preferring the mystery surrounding the venerable rites still observed, for example, the reading of the Bible in Hebrew on a roll of parchment wrapped in magnificent fabric.

Hermann and his older brother, Albert, were sent to a Protestant school. The fact that they belonged to the Jewish community attracted many sarcastic remarks. But, endowed with a superior intelligence, Hermann soon placed himself at the head of his class, well-regarded by his teachers and his fellow students. However, his intellectual resources were far inferior to his prodigious gift for music. Intoxicated from his earliest years by the success as a pianist that he achieved in Hamburg, his ambition was unlimited. At first hesitant, his parents, preoccupied by serious reversals of fortune, let him pursue his interest in the life of an artist.

He soon left for Paris, where he became the favorite student of the virtuoso Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The success of the 13-year-old prodigy dazzled the worldly circles in Paris. Seduced by the revolutionary utopias of the era, Hermann soon became one of the most zealous propagandists for the abolition of marriage, for terror, for the distribution of property, for unbridled pleasure, etc. George Sand took him under her wing, and suggested to him the venom of her worst novels.

Suddenly, Liszt ran away to Switzerland with Countess Marie d'Agoult. Hermann decided to follow his teacher. He was on close terms with this false household and found «sublime» the so-called courage of this woman «who, to follow her passion, left everything, her home, her mother, her husband, her children.» Already, he dreamed of the day when he himself might inspire a passion capable of breaking down so many obstacles. Upon his return to Paris, he let himself be overcome by his passion for gambling, and accumulated debts. His music lessons earned him some money which did not pay his debts, but rather, fed his pleasures. «My life,» he wrote, «was at that time a complete abandonment to all my whims and indulgences. Was I happier for it? No, my God! The thirst for happiness which was devouring me was not quenched in the least.»—«All the young people of my acquaintance lived like me, looking for pleasure everywhere it was offered, arduously desiring riches, so as to be able to pursue all their inclinations, to satisfy all their whims. As for thoughts of God, they never entered into their minds.»

God's anguish

Nevertheless, as a son of Israel, he carried within him the anguish of God. But he felt this anguish with his lively artistic sensibilities, which won out over reason. At that time—he would later write—«I was unbelievably successful in everything I did—the Saint Germain district embraced me... All the seductions of the world seized my spirit... However, in this existence, so worthy of envy in the opinion of so many people, I did not have time to think, and I was, in fact, always anxious.» As a matter of fact, he was the slave of his evil passions: «Oh, the horrible slavery! I too have felt it—I was gagged, enchained by these fetters of slavery!... I understood that I had to break these fetters... and I couldn't.»

So that's where he was, at age 26, when one Friday in May 1847, the prince of the Moskova asked him if he might replace him at the head of an amateur choir, for the solemnities of the month of Mary in the Sainte-Valère Church in Paris. «I accepted, solely inspired by my love of music and the pleasure of offering assistance. When the moment of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament arrived, I felt an indescribable agitation. I was, in spite of my own will, led to bend towards the ground. Coming back the following Friday, I was overawed in the same manner, and I suddenly had the idea to become Catholic.»

Feeling an attraction which always led him to this church, he had the opportunity, shortly thereafter, to attend Mass numerous times, with an interior joy which absorbed all his faculties. To try to comprehend the mystery he detected in himself, he contacted a Catholic priest, Father Legrand. The latter listened to him with kindness and gentleness. His reception «suddenly made fall one of the prejudices most firmly and deeply rooted in my mind: I was afraid of priests!... I knew them only by reading novels which presented them to us as intolerant men, constantly making threats of excommunication... And I found myself in the presence of a learned man, modest, good, open, expecting everything from God and nothing from himself!»

An unfamiliar calm

The following August 8, while he was in Ems, Germany to give a concert, he attended Sunday Mass in the little Catholic church in the city. At the moment of the elevation of the Sacred Host, he could not contain a flood of tears. «Spontaneously, as if by intuition, I began to make a general confession to God of all the enormous sins committed since my childhood. I saw them there, piled up before me by the thousands, hideous, repulsive... And yet, I also felt an unfamiliar calm which spread its balm on my soul, that the God of mercy would forgive me these, that He would take pity on my sincere contrition, on my bitter sorrow... Yes, I felt that He would give me grace and that He would accept in expiation my firm resolution to love Him above everything else and to convert to Him from then on. When I left this church in Ems, I was already a Christian in my heart...»

Thinking that he owed his «Eucharistic conversion» to the Blessed Virgin Mary, he decided to honor Her with especial veneration. Upon his return to Paris, he placed himself under the direction of Father Legrand. The latter made a particular effort to discern if this were a case of a flash in the pan, or a profound change of life. He then put Hermann in contact with Father Theodore Ratisbonne, a converted Jew, dedicated to the work of the apostolate to the Jews. It was in Our Lady of Zion, this program's chapel, that Hermann received Baptism, on August 28, 1847, the feast of Saint Augustine, whom he had chosen as his patron saint. On September 8, he made his First Communion; soon, he received Communion daily.

«Leave your toys behind!»

Hermann immediately wished to bid farewell to the world and enter a monastery: «to devote myself exclusively to the service of the Lord»; but he had a pile of debts to pay, which would take him two years. One afternoon in November 1848, he entered the Carmelite chapel on Rue Denfert-Rochereau in Paris. The Blessed Sacrament was there exposed for the night before some adorers. The idea came to him there to establish «an association whose aim would be the exposition and nocturnal adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, in reparation for the insults made against It.» Born on November 22, 1848, with the approval of the Vicar General of Paris, the members of the men's association of nocturnal adoration met for the first time the night of December 6-7, in the church of Our Lady of Victories, in filial union with Pope Pius IX, who had taken refuge in Gaeta. In his happiness, Hermann turned to his friends of yesterday: «Come then to this heavenly Banquet, which has been prepared by the Eternal Wisdom. Come, leave behind your toys, your illusions... Ask Jesus to give you the white robe of forgiveness, and with a new heart, with a pure heart, drink from the clear fountain of His Love.» Little by little, the association spread throughout the world. It still exists today.

After paying his debts, Hermann was free. The grace of God drew him to the order of Carmel. From his Baptism, he had expressed the desire to receive the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Between Ascension and Pentecost 1849, during a retreat, he read the life of Saint John of the Cross. This discovery was to set his intentions irrevocably. On July 16, 1849, the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, he bid his family farewell and went to the monastery in Agen, then to the one in Broussey, close to Bordeaux, where the novitiate was situated. One month later, he wrote to his mother, «The religious order I have entered originated among the Jews, 930 years before Jesus Christ. The Prophet Elijah of the Old Testament founded it on Mount Carmel, in Palestine. It is an order of real Jews, of children of the Prophets who waited for the Messiah, who believed in Him when He came. They have survived to our time, living in the same manner, with the same bodily deprivations and the same spiritual joys that were there about 2,800 years ago. They still bear today the name of the Order of Mount Carmel. Among these religious, those stemming from the reform by Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross are a separate group, called the Discalced Carmelites... This is the branch I belong to... Why follow this life? To imitate the life Jesus led when He came to save men, through suffering, obedience, humiliations, poverty, the cross... This is the life I have chosen.»

On October 6, 1849, Hermann received the habit, under the name of Brother Augustine Mary of the Most Blessed Sacrament. The rule in the novitiate was harsh. Brother Augustine Mary generously devoted himself to it. His greatest sacrifice was to gradually deprive himself of smoking and drinking coffee. On seeing and hearing him, one was led to think he was by nature the most gentle, the most calm, the most likable of men. And yet sometimes, even when he wore a smile on his lips, his blood boiled with anger. He also was inclined to make fun of others, owing to a keen sense of what was the least bit ridiculous; but no one seemed to suspect it, for during recreation, he was full of cheer and goodwill towards his brothers, gladly having Jesus as the topic of his conversations. He made his profession on October 7, 1850, and, on Holy Saturday, 1851, he was ordained a priest. In these blessed days, he prayed intensely for his family's conversion. His prayer was not in vain, for several members of his family, including his sister, would embrace the Catholic faith.

Starting in June 1852, Father Augustine Mary was sent to preach in various cities, notably Lyon, Marseilles, Paris, Liège, Berlin, Geneva... His words, inflamed by the love of God, converted souls and drew them to the confessional, to fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Eucharist. Some asked to be baptized; others entered religious orders.

«We are like lepers»

In Paris, this is how he began his homily: «My brothers, my first act when appearing in this Christian pulpit must be the making of amends for the scandals that I previously made the mistake of committing in this city. What right, you could tell me, do you have to preach, you whom we have seen dragging yourself around in the mud of an immodest immorality, and openly professing every kind of error? Yes, my brothers, I confess that I have sinned against Heaven and against you... Also, I have come to you covered in a penitential habit... The Mother of Jesus revealed the Eucharist to me, I met Jesus, I met my God and soon I became Christian. I requested holy Baptism, and the holy water flowed on me. Instantly, all my sins, these horrible sins of twenty-five years of crime, were wiped away. And my soul immediately became pure and innocent. God, my brothers, has forgiven me.... Do you not forgive me as well?» Many people, including some of his former companions in debauchery, touched by this speech, were converted.

In all his sermons, Father Augustine Mary manifested his love for the Eucharist. This love inspired him to create a new movement. On his way through Ars, he confided to the pastor, Saint John Vianney: «Father, have you ever noticed that people are more concerned with asking the Lord for blessings than with thanking Him for those they have already received from Him?»—«Yes, we are like the lepers who go away cured, without thanking the Lord.»— «Couldn't someone found a group whose purpose would be to render constant thanksgiving to God for the flood of blessings that He pours out on the world?»—«Yes, you are right. Do that: God will bless you.»

Three levels

In a homily, he developed his thoughts on thanksgiving: «The first level is that of the heart. We must engrave there the memory of the great mercies which the Lord has spent on us. The second level prompts us to praise, to exalt, to celebrate the good received.» Liturgical prayer, particularly the Psalter and the Te Deum, is the best source for thanksgiving, for «the Holy Spirit Himself is its author.» But «it is by means of the Divine Eucharist and by It alone that we can fulfill our debt of gratitude to God in a fitting manner. Here is the third and highest level of thanksgiving... O my God, when I offer You this Host of praise and love, You make us hear again this fatherly voice from highest Heaven, which descended on Jesus: 'You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased' (Mk 1:11).

The practical conclusion was the founding in Lyon, in 1859, with Pope Pius IX's encouragement, of a confraternity of thanksgiving intended to «render thanks to the Eternal for His gifts, especially for that which is God's Gift par excellence, the Eucharist; to compensate for the tremendous ingratitude of many, who forget their duty to thank God; to thank the Lord for those who do not thank Him.»

In keeping with the Carmelite ideal, Father Augustine Mary longed for the profound solitude of the desert, so as to devote himself even more to prayer. «The most important thing,» he had the habit of saying, «is not to acquire a taste for the things of the world; the effect of daily prayer is precisely to disillusion us as to the attractiveness of all these things, and to arouse in us the desire for Jesus alone. The God of Love is jealous—He wishes to reign alone, to be loved, tasted, desired.» Having discovered close to Tarasteix, 20 kilometers from Lourdes, a large piece of land buried in the woods, he bought it and had individual hermitages built there. In fact, he made little use of them, for, at Cardinal Wiseman's request, the Pope looked to him to restore the Carmelite order in England: «I send you,» he told him, «to convert England, as one of my predecessors sent the monk Augustine.» No convent had reappeared in this country since the schism of Henry VIII (1491-1547). On October 15, 1863, the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, Father Augustine Mary temporarily moved several Carmelite monks from France into a little house in London. After his sermons, many Anglicans expressed their desire to enter the Catholic Church. In 1863, for the first time in three centuries, an English novice took the holy habit of the Carmelites. In September 1864, approximately two years after Father Augustine Mary's arrival in England, seven houses of adoration were fully operational, two of which were in London.

In 1868, Father Augustine Mary finally obtained permission from his superiors to join the «Saint Elijah Desert» in Tarasteix. However, he was struck by a new trial: an illness in his eyes which was so serious that he needed an operation. Placing his confidence in the Virgin of Lourdes, he made a novena in the grotto of the apparitions, washing his eyes every day at the miraculous spring. On the ninth day, he experienced a sudden and complete cure—it was an obvious miracle. Hermann Cohen was the first Jew miraculously cured at Lourdes. He returned to Tarasteix, where he much hoped to settle down permanently. But the hour of his retreat into the desert was not to come. In May 1870, having been appointed primary counselor for the Superior Provincial and Novice Master for three years, he left for Broussey. On July 19th of that same year, France declared war on Prussia. One month later, the disaster at Sedan brought with it the fall of the Napoleonic government. The French were seized with anti-Prussian and anti-religious hatred.

The popular Discalced Carmelite, revered and loved in all of France, was «hounded from city to city for the fact that he was both a monk and German.» He went to Grenoble, where his fiery words had formerly won him crowds. He was taken for a spy... and narrowly escaped death. Finally, he arrived safe and sound in Geneva, where the bishop entrusted him with the care of a group of women and elderly persons, numbering five or six hundred, deprived of all religious support, who had fled France.

But on November 24, 1870, at the request of the Bishop of Geneva, he left for Berlin and obtained authorization to serve as a chaplain at Spandau, 14 kilometers from the capital, where more than five thousand French prisoners lacked clothing, food, and above all, spiritual assistance. Many were seriously ill... He quickly won the hearts of these prisoners. If he looked foremost after their suffering souls, his charity was spent comforting their poor bodies. He succeeded in having crates of clothing sent to them, so that they might withstand the frigid Prussian cold in the dead of winter. He also obtained additional essential foodstuffs. Every day he celebrated Mass and preached before many hundreds of soldiers. Because of his limitless goodness, many came to him for confession. One month after his arrival, 300 soldiers were receiving Holy Communion... But under such conditions, Father Augustine Mary's already delicate health worsened.

A mortal risk

On January 9, 1871, he administered Extreme Unction to two prisoners who had been stricken with smallpox. As the spatula which was used to anoint the dying with holy oil was missing at the moment and as the urgency was apparent, Father did not hesitate to perform the unctions with his own hand, in spite of a scratch on his finger, thereby risking his life for the eternal salvation of these two sheep. In fact, he contracted the disease. On January 15, his condition having worsened, he in turn received the last sacraments, then sang the Te Deum and the Salve Regina in a firm voice. He then recited the De profundis. The next day, when he was told that the end was near, an indescribable joy appeared on his face. The evening of January 19, he made his confession peacefully, and received Holy Communion. «Now, O my God,» he said, «I place my soul into Your hands.» These were his last words. His calm breathing continued until around 10 o'clock the next morning, when, as the nun who sat up with him sang the Salve Regina at his request, he gently expired.

Father Augustine Mary of the Most Blessed Sacrament was the champion of the Eucharist. May we imitate him by fervently loving the Eucharistic Jesus, as the Holy Father encourages us to do: «The Church and the world have a great need of Eucharistic worship. Jesus waits for us in this sacrament of love. Let us be generous with our time in going to meet Him in adoration and in contemplation that is full of faith and ready to make reparation for the great faults and crimes of the world. May our adoration never cease» (John Paul II, letter Dominicæ cenæ, February 14, 1980).

We pray for all your intentions, and especially for your deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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