Extracts from the sermons and writings of Fr Augustin-Marie of the Blessed Sacrament OCD (Hermann Cohen).
Many of Hermann Cohen’s sermons have been preserved and they help to give us an insight into his spirituality. Sermons of course are meant to be heard and they lose a lot of their impact when they are merely read. I will now include some extracts from his seremons,homilies and dedications.The first of these speaks of the love of Christ in accents which were perhaps more appropriate in the French style of his day:
“My God, is it possible to have lived without thinking of Jesus, without loving Jesus, without living for Jesus and in Jesus? Now that your grace has awakened me, now that my eyes have seen, my hands have touched, ears have heard, my heart has loved – yes, I love Jesus Christ.I shall take care not to hide it. I am in honour bound to proclaim it before the world. I love Jesus Christ – that’s the secret of my immense peace which has gone on increasing since the first moment I began to love. I love Jesus Christ – this is what I want to proclaim to the ends of the earth. I wish that the walls of this temple would expand to include the millions who live on the earth, so that my voice could reach and penetrate the depths of their hearts, making them vibrate in unison with mine, all responding together in one great hymn of joy and triumph, echoing from earth to heaven, ‘we too love Jesus Christ’….
Everyone wants happiness. but Jesus Christ who is the source of happiness is not loved. We seek pleasure and greatness but Jesus Christ our greatest joy and the splendour of the father is not loved. I want to make up to your unknown love. Yes, I want to punish my unfaithful and deceitful heart. Yes,heart of mine, if you have been foolish enough to prefer an empy love to the dove of charity, from now on you will find no more satisfaction on earth. I will deprive you of all consolation here below.
I will deprive you of the tenderness of a mother and of the blessing of a father.I shall tear you away from all who cherish you. I will consign you to solitude and there I willl purify you every moment of your life. You will no longer act except at the will of another. You will no longer enjoy the shared friendship and concern of others; you will become like ice or marble in regard to all that formerly pleased you. But, O sublime vengence, O generous exchange, O happy fault, all these privations will win for you in return a new love and a divine life…like the phoenix you will rise from the ashes, a pure flame will emerge within you, he will renew your youth like the wings of an eagle, and with those wings you will fly to undreamt of realms. You will rise above the clouds of faith and pierce them. You will ascend to a lofty region,to a supernatural world and there you will see what no eye has seen, you will hear what no ear has heard and you will feel what no one’s hands have ever touched, what the heart has never conceived. You will learn secrets which must remain hidden from the wise and prudent. You will be enkindled with a love for the beauty of all beauty that cannot fade, the light from light,true God from true God.You will love Jesus.”
This was really Hermann Cohen’s apologia for becoming a monk.
Hermann’s preaching emanated from one who was a ‘child of the prophets’. He particularly identified with Elijah, who ‘arose as a burning fire’ and to whom the Carmelite Order looks for inspiration.
Here is another remarkable sermon which Hermann preached in the church of St. Sulpice in Paris in the year 1854. It was his first public appearance in Paris since his conversion and a large crowd turned up to hear him. The Archbishop presided and one of his attendants, Henri Perreyre, himself an artist and musician and a professor at the Sorbonne, has left us a record of Hermann’s words.
“The fairest among the sons of men.”(PS.45)
My first thought as I appear in this Christian pulpit is to make amends for the bad example which I unhappily gave in this city in the past. You might well ask me,’what right have you 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 whom we love? You have so often dishonoured them in our sight, you who have kept bad company and behaved in an outrageous way, you whom we know to 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 that I have forfeited your good will. 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 my 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 here a sad chorus of sighs all around. I seem to hear 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 looked 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 the 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 friendships 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. 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 does’nt 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, I don’t believe in Jesus Christ’. I too, I 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.
The great St.Teresa sought in prayer the eternal light which illumined her. So, pray, ask and you will receive this intoxicating wine of immortality which flows from the winepress of prayer. Prayer imparts faith, sheds light through prayer which, united to faith, imparts peace, love, wisdom, light, freedom – all of which are contained in Jesus Christ. It is not possible for someone who does not love Jesus Christ to be happy.
This son of God who is God himself, in whom the father is well-pleased – and he has given him to us. So much did God love the world. In spite of him being the unspeakable happiness of the blessed, he descended from heaven out of love for mankind and became man. God made himself like us in order to make himself one with us for our salvation. It was for mankind alone that he led a life of privation and suffering and that he died in agony and finally rose again. He gave himself up for us – can you be surprised after that that there is a hell.
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 ancient 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. My courage rvived in the hope of finding a resting-place and a helping-hand. I dragged myself breathlessly through the brambles and through 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 mudsplattered 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 my 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 the blood was flowing. I looked at him and looked at myself and I 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 there and rays of light shone from his face. (Cfr.Apocalypse Ch.21 v 23)
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. (Cfr.John,Ch.13. and Song of Songs,Ch.5.)
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. The psalmist sings:
‘In peace in him I sleep and take my rest’.
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. (Cfr Gen.Ch.32.v 30) 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.”
Abbe Perreyve remarked that the impression made on his hearers was this: ‘It is something to have listened to a saint.’ When he had finished his sermon Hermann went to the great organ of St. Sulpice and played beautifully while the Archbishop gave benediction.
The next sermon is less personal and less autobiographical. It was preached in the church of St. Clothilde also in Paris. Hermann had shortly before met the Cure d’Ars and consulted him about founding a movement for thanksgiving.
“Many people in close contact with God in prayer have confided to me the complaints communicated to them by the Lord about the ingratitude of the world to the gifts he has given. Isn’t it because Adam neglected to thank God for the gift of his glorious creation and the many riches of body and mind with which he was endowed, that God withdrew his hand from him and allowed him to fall into sin?”
Hermann goes on to speak about love.
“The first degree is that of the heart.We must stamp on our heart the memory of the great mercies the Lord has shown us, a remembrance which will monitor our feelings and remove from us any temptation to ingratitude.
The second degree leads us to praise and glorify God for the good things we have received. In the royal prophet we find an abundance of canticles and songs of praise and jubilation. ‘Let all within me bless the Lord.’
And he goes on to invite the whole creation to join him in his song of praise – earth and sky, all living creatures, mountains, valleys – even the very elements themselves, – in a word he invites all that is in us and around us to praise and bless the Lord. The holy man Job blesses God in prosperity and in adversity and we also find that Tobit does not murmur against God when he becomes blind, but remains faithful to him, giving him thanks all the days of his life.
In the New Testament we find St. Lawrence giving thanks to God on his gridiron and St. Cyprian who, when he heard he was condemned to death said, ‘thanks be to God’.
The courageous virgin martyr Thecla kept saying, ‘let us give thanks to God’, while they were burning her sides with irons. And Mary, in her Magnificat, does she not furnish us with the most perfect model of praise? The ‘Te Deum’ is the most sublime expression on the lips of the human race. The Holy Spirit has certainly supplied us in Scripture with plenty of sacred texts which lift the heart and cause the tongue to sing about God’s gifts to us. ‘Come and listen and I will tell all who fear the Lord what has has done for me’. (Ps.23)
St.Augustine has these lovely words: ‘You are happy? Recognise your father who corrects. He instructs those to whom he will give an inheritance’. And yet our praise is not the highest form of thanks.It is through the divine Eucharist and through it alone, that you can rightly pay your debt of gratitude to God.
This is the third, the highest degree of thanksgiving which consists in adding to the gratitude of heart and tongue that of hand and arms, giving back something more than one has received. To give back merely what one has received is to give nothing. It is in the holy Eucharist that we find a surplus, something freely given, of which St.thomas speaks.That is why the holy Eucharist is the only thanksgiving offering worthy of God. I can show this in the first instance from the words of the Holy Spirit on the lips of the royal prophet:
‘What shall I render to the Lord for all he has given me? I will take the chalice of salvation’, he joyfully replies,the chalice of the Lord which is nothing else but the Eucharist. I can show it in the second place from the words of Jesus, when he instituted the testament of his love in the cenacle. When he gave his body and blood to the apostles and to us, he said, ‘do this in memory of me’, in other words, in memory of all I have done for you. The Lord in his mercy instituted a memorial of his gifts, giving himself as food to those who fear him. The sacrament of the altar has always been called the memorial, the resume of God’s gifts to us.
God knows the human heart, how soon it forgets and becomes ungrateful. Just as ingratitude has its source in forgetfulness of God, so gratitude is based on the memory of his goodness. God ordered the Israelites to keep a container filled with manna in the tabernacle, in memory of the gifts he showered on them when he fed them in the desert. Manna has always been regarded as an image of the Holy Eucharist. But the name of the true manna ,the lovely name ‘eucharist’ expresses in one word all the treasures of God’s goodness, literally in Greek, ‘thanksiving’. But since human thanksgiving is not enough,this treasure is called,’the divine Eucharist’, – the divine act of thanksgiving, infinite and inexhaustible, suitable for the greatness and goodness of God. O yes, I know it, o my God, when I offer you this host of praise and love, I hear again your father’s voice from heaven as Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan and you said, ‘this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased’. If then we offer him his well beloved son who became our heritage in the divine Eucharist, we render to the eternal father a thanksgiving which is infinite, agreeable, one which is worthy of him and thus supreme liturgical praise. This is what the church sums up and professes in that lovely song in the mass called the preface, the thanksgiving song of creation…The priest first lifts his voice and says, ‘lift up your hearts’, and when we have replied, ‘we have raised them up to the Lord’, implying that we are ready to praise and thank God for his goodness, he then says ‘it is good to give him thanks and praise’…and then he ends, ‘holy,holy, holy.’ In this way, brethren, we can give thanks to God our divine mediator, Jesus in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the altar, and without it we cannot give God the glory which is his due. Think of Blessed Henry Suso who felt himself to be the conductor of a choir, directing the song of all creation to the Lord. What a holy person! But it seems to me that it was not he who was conducting the concert – the true conductor was the sacred heart of Jesus in the holy Eucharist. It is from him that we must take the pitch – from his divine heart which beats the measure of our gratitude, whose adoration directs and leads our voices and our hearts in the songs of praise which we owe the most high, through Christ our Lord.”
Finally in his sermon as a practical step,Hermann proposed to found a movement for Thanksgiving. He went to Rome at the beginning of 1859 and asked Pope Pius IX for permission to found such a confraternity. This was officially launched in the Carmelite church at Lyons presided over by Cardinal de Bonald. The Pope further agreed that the movement should be elevated to an archconfraternity so that Hermann could found other such groups throughout France.