Before time began, before the creation of the world, there was a conversation in Heaven. It was a conversation about your soul, your soul wasn’t even created yet, but already your soul was known and loved. And the conversation went like this:
The Heavenly Father said to His Heavenly Son, “For that soul and for that soul’s salvation can you go down from Heaven and be made man?”
And the Heavenly Son, the Divine Word answered, “I can!”
The Heavenly Father continued, “Can you live a life of 33 years, toiling and teaching, and giving that soul all the Divine means necessary for that soul’s salvation, and then to end that life of hardship and suffering by a death of pain and shame?”
And the Heavenly Son replied, “I can!”
The Heavenly Father goes on, “Can you perpetuate (prolong) that incarnation and sacrifice even to the end of time; hiding yourself under the form of bread in order to meet that soul on her entrance into real life (on his entrance into real life), to be that soul’s companion, to be that soul’s refuge, to be that soul’s food all the days of her pilgrimage (all the days of his pilgrimage)?”
And the Heavenly Son replied, “I can!”
The Heavenly Father went on saying, “And when, my Heavenly Son and lover of that soul, can you still love that soul when your friendship, your advances, and your sacrifice are met with coldness, waywardness, and indifference, can you still love that soul?”
And the Heavenly Son replied emphatically, “I can!”
I have a story of one such soul. A soul who was once cold, wayward, and indifferent, yet a soul still loved by Heaven. His name was Hermann Cohen. He was born in Germany in 1821, his parents were Jewish and they owned a successful bakery. At a very early age Hermann was found to have an extraordinary talent for the piano. When he was 11 his mom moved with him to Paris so he could study with an expert. By age 12 he was traveling across Europe giving sold out concerts. He was a prodigy, however, this fame and fortune was detrimental to his character. Hermann was a tyrant; he later described himself as mean, disrespectful, arrogant, greedy, and vain.
On tour nothing stopped this teenager from living out every whim and pleasure imaginable. He even developed the vice of gambling, losing money faster than he made it. He remained immersed in this lifestyle until the age of 26 when his life was radically changed. Asked by a friend to be a substitute choir director for benediction at a local Catholic Church, and despite being Jewish and hardly holding any religious leanings at the time, he needed the money and so he agreed. Throughout all the music, prayer, and litanies, he was very unmoved, that is, 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 to bless them. At that 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 the same church one week later for another benediction service. At the same exact moment, when the golden object was raised to bless the people, he was again inwardly unsettled but, this time; tears began to pour down his face.
Hermann found himself being drawn to this church almost every day, often arriving either at the time of Mass or for benediction. 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 who introduced him 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.
He later wrote of the experience saying, “When the priest raised the host, my tears began to flow. It was a consoling and unforgettable moment. 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. I knew he would forgive me recognizing my resolve to love him above all things from now on.
A few months later Hermann was baptized, a few months after that he made his First Holy Communion and was confirmed. 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. And so for the next two years, he was teaching and performing concerts to earn money and in his spare time he prayed. After finally paying off his debts he also came to the realization that not only was God calling him to be a priest, but also to become a Carmelite.
For the next 20 years Fr. Hermann spent his time restoring Carmelite houses, preaching missions, and establishing chapels for Eucharistic adoration. He died at the age of 50 while serving as a chaplain during the Franco-Prussian war. He had contracted tuberculosis. Fr. Hermann’s life was filled with many blessings, his failing eyesight from glaucoma was healed at Lourdes, he was friends with many of the saints of his time, and thousands were converted by his preaching. And all of this began, all of this good began with Fr. Hermann’s encounter with Jesus in the elevated Eucharistic Host at Benediction. His soul was shaken at the sight of the elevated Host.
Peter, James, and John had the same experience when they encountered Jesus elevated before them at his transfiguration. They were shaken at the sight. They experienced our Lord’s glorified humanity, his divinized humanity. They saw the future. And it changed them, just as Fr. Hermann was changed with his encounter with Jesus in the elevated Host.
That glory of God witnessed by Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration and that glory of God felt by Fr. Hermann at the elevation of the Eucharist is what awaits us. Our life as Christians is about deification, becoming conformed to the Divine Nature of God. The early Church Fathers would say, “God became man that man might become God.” Becoming like God is what awaits us.
At the beginning we heard a series of Heavenly questions. And each time our Lord answered, “I can!” Our Lord, the lover of your soul, now asks you, “Can you for the sake of your salvation cooperate with me, resolving to avoid everything that would imperil the great work we have undertaken, avoiding sin, infidelities, and anything that would obstruct My grace? Can you, with the eye of faith, see Me in My suffering Members, the poor, the sick, the outcast, the unprotected, the little helpless children, and serve them? Can you come after me by taking up your cross daily?”
With our eyes fixed on the transfiguration, with our eyes fixed on the Eucharist, with our eyes fixed on being made like God, may our answer be, “In union with your Lord, I can!” “In union with your Lord, I can!”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher Ankley