The Spirituality of Fr. Harold F. Cohen, S.J.:
To the Father, Through the Son, In the Spirit
by Al Mansfield
Holy Spirit Novena, Our Lady of the Lake Church
Mandeville, Louisiana, May 25, 2001
Thank you for inviting me to be a speaker at the 19th annual Holy Spirit Novena. Patti is on a missionary trip to Malta and Luxembourg. Patti and I were the very first speakers at the very first Holy Spirit Novena back in 1983, so we feel a certain bond with it and with all of you. I want to dedicate this talk in a special way to the memory of Fr. Harold F. Cohen, S.J. and I want to talk about The Spirituality of Fr. Cohen.
I first met Fr. Cohen in April 1969 in the public cafeteria of the South Dining Hall at the University of Notre Dame. It was the Third National Catholic Pentecostal Convention. He had been baptized in the Spirit about two weeks at that time; I was a real veteran…I had been baptized in the Spirit six months before he was. (And I never let him forget it!). In August of 1970, he asked me to work with him in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of New Orleans. I asked him one question: “Do you think this is God’s will?” He said, “Yes, I think it is.” From that day on, I committed myself to a relationship with him which lasted until the day the Lord called him home on January 16, 2001.
In the course of our friendship and working relationship, which spanned over 30 years, I had the opportunity to get an insight into his spirituality, his life with the Lord. I would like to share some of that with you tonight.
I would characterize his spirituality this way: to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, with Our Lady, asking the intercession of the saints (and he had his favorites).
TO THE FATHER
When I first started to work with Fr. Cohen in the early seventies, I would characterize his spirituality as very much oriented toward God the Father. He would contrast the orientation of the Eastern Christians (to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit) with the more common orientation of Western Christians (to the Father, to the Son, to the Spirit).
You may be tempted to ask, as I was at times, what’s the big deal? But it was a “big deal” to Fr. Cohen. God the Father assumed a primary role in his spiritual orientation. Just as Jesus was constantly directed toward the Father, so was Harold Cohen, Jr. Harold himself said that he thought part of the reason for this was the tremendous relationship he had with his own earthly father, Harold Cohen, Sr.
Harold Sr. was a movie salesman (for RKO, I think) back in the heyday of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Harold Sr. enjoyed good times, people and parties. Harold Jr. used to tend bar at these parties at home. But the relationship between father and son was easy, free, open, accepting and loving. When Fr. Cohen would reminisce about his relationship with his earthly father (one of great love and confidence) you could readily see how it would be easy for him to have the same relationship with his Heavenly Father. In this respect, he was similar to St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Fr. Cohen was fond of quoting some Old Testament scriptures concerning God’s love: First from Jeremiah 31:3: “I have loved you with an everlasting love, so I am constant in my affection for you.” And from Isaiah 54:10: “Though the mountains leave their place and the hills be shaken, my love shall never leave you nor my covenant of peace be shaken, says the Lord who has mercy on you.”
Father Cohen liked to talk about falling back into the arms of God, our loving Father, in utter trust and abandonment. He compared this to a game he used to play with small children called “Courage Camille.” The object was to get the child to close his or her eyes and fall backward into the arms of the person behind, in this case Fr. Cohen. (See the picture on page 35 of the 2001 Conference booklet.) He said that the first few times, the kids would look around or brace with the other foot. But as trust increased, they would fall back in complete confidence that they would be caught before hitting the floor. I had the opportunity to watch Harold demonstrate this with our own kids and others as well, and it really worked that way. He drew an analogy to our own relationship with God the Father. He said the Father’s word to us is “Courage Camille” …let go of your cares and concerns, fall back into My loving arms with trust and confidence, and I will catch you.
One of Fr. Cohen’s nicknames from childhood was “Abie.” This was a reference to his last name of Cohen which is Jewish (actually the name Cohen means “priest” in Hebrew). I never called him Abie but many people, especially his fellow Jesuits, did. At any rate, Harold loved to speak about Abraham, our “father in faith.” He would often preach on God calling Abraham to “go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Just as Abraham had to leave his familiar surroundings and go forth in absolute trust and confidence in the call of God the Father, so should we.
Of course, the call of Moses was similar in that he too had to go forth from the land where he was dwelling back to Egypt in order to lead the Hebrews through the desert to the promised land. The common denominator in all these lessons, examples, analogies and Old Testament figures is…faith…faith in a loving Father who calls us out of our comfort zone but who is utterly worthy of our faith, trust and confidence.
This fits in with another great theme of Fr. Cohen’s spirituality, which is, the Word of God-Holy Scripture. He truly loved God’s Word and, like the prophets of old, devoured it and digested it so he could speak it. Some of my most treasured memories are discussions we would have about various Scripture passages and seeing his eyes light up when he would read his favorites. (He had a special love for the Gospel of John.) One time we were discussing why some Catholic Charismatics did not grow spiritually as rapidly as others. Someone mentioned that it was because those who grew were deep into Scripture; whereas the shallow and immature Christians were not. Harold told me about some friends in the French Quarter who had a courtyard with one scrawny tree right in the middle. It was a puny, small and barren tree until one year it grew, blossomed and became huge and strong. The family said that the roots had finally hit a water vein deep underground. Harold compared that underground water vein to Holy Scripture. If we read it, we grow; if we don’t, we won’t.
Harold was a man of great faith. He lived a life of faith and constantly nourished his faith by reading, memorizing and repeating the word of faith. He had Scriptures posted around his room:
“With God, all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:26; Mk. 10:27; Lk. 18:27)
“All things are possible to those who have faith.” (Mk. 9:23)
“Did I not tell you that if you would only believe, you would see the glory of God?” (Jn. 11:40)
“Amen, Amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me, will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones that these, because I am going to the Father.” (Jn.14:12)
But he too, like all of us, had times when he was tempted to discouragement. One of those times was after his heart bypass surgery in April 1997. I went to visit him in the hospital afterward and he handed me the Scriptures. “Read,” he said. “What do you want me to read?” He said, “read passages on faith.” And I did, for quite a while as he just listened. He needed to have his faith built up and strengthened. In this he was an example for all of us when we are tempted to be discouraged and weak in faith.
THROUGH THE SON
What always impressed me so much about Fr. Cohen was his insistence on the absolute centrality of Jesus, true God and true Man, the one Mediator between God and man. Fr. Cohen was fond of quoting passages like Colossians 1:15-19.
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Hebrews 1:3 was another favorite:
“He (Jesus) reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”
And the prologue of the Gospel of John 1:1-5 and 14:
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness had not overcome it.”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…”
Father Cohen loved the Life in the Spirit Seminars with its basic gospel message of conversion and faith in Christ leading to prayer to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. He especially loved the diagram known as “The Three Circles” and used it often in sermons and teaching. Imagine three circles drawn on a blackboard with a cross outside one, just inside another, and in the center of the third. The circles represent people’s lives and the cross, the place of Jesus in their lives. For some, Jesus is completely outside their lives. For others, Jesus is inside their lives but not at the center. He is only one of many interests, but not the primary one. The goal, of course, is the third circle, where Jesus is at the very center of our lives – the Lord and King – and ruler of our lives.
It is impossible to talk about Jesus in the spiritual life of Fr. Cohen without talking about Devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Devotion to the Divine Mercy. From the time I first met him I knew of Fr. Cohen’s special love and devotion to the Sacred Heart. This was somewhat to be expected because ever since Claude de la Colombiere, S.J. served as confessor to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque, the Jesuits have had a special role in the spread of the Sacred Heart devotion. Fr. Cohen consecrated himself and his entire ministry to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Fr. Cohen was introduced to the Divine Mercy devotion in the late eighties through Fr. George Kosicki, CSB, his close friend of many years. Fr. Cohen quickly made it his own and was a tireless promoter of this devotion: The Image, Chaplet, the Feast of Mercy.
He was forever handing out prayer cards with the Divine Mercy image and taking time to explain them, as those of us who traveled with him can well attest. He was indeed a true Apostle of Divine Mercy, not only because he preached it but, more importantly, because he lived it and practiced it. He ministered the Divine Mercy in the Heart of Jesus so lovingly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. How many times have I and countless others heard him say, “And now, dear brother (or sister), trusting completely in the infinite Mercy of God, make a good Act of Contrition.”
Fr. Cohen had a great love for and identification with Jesus in his passion and death. Quite often in personal conversation, it seemed that Fr. Cohen shared about Jesus in His passion, suffering and crucifixion. He was especially devoted to Jesus in His agony in the garden. He often said that in moments of intense inner suffering, he would tell Jesus as he knelt in the garden, “Move over, Jesus, and make room for me to kneel beside you.” Harold made his own Jesus’ prayer in the garden. “Abba Father. All things are possible to you. Let this cup pass away from me. Yet not my will but your will be done” (Mk. 14:36). Harold also loved the last words of Jesus on the cross and made them his own in perfect surrender; “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Harold was inspired and captivated by the Shroud of Turin. He studied it and loved to teach about it. He devoted several of his Closer Walk television programs to the Shroud. He found meditation on the record of suffering in the Shroud to be a tremendous aid to faith, love and prayer. He said it brought the Incarnation home in a very powerful and real way.
This section on Christ would not be complete unless something were said about Harold’s intense love and fervor for the Holy Eucharist. He loved the Mass so much that even in the last week of his life, his greatest hunger was for the Eucharist and his greatest disappointment was to miss Mass. His greatest loss, by far, was not being able to celebrate Mass.
Fr. Cohen had a very special love for the Jesus the Blessed Sacrament exposed. He constantly encouraged 24-hour Exposition and, whenever he could, he desired to pray before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament Exposed. He called it receiving “radiation therapy” from the Divine rays of love and mercy.
I connect the place of Jesus in Fr. Cohen’s life with the virtue of love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Jesus is God’s love made flesh and blood poured out for us, just as in the Eucharist His love is made flesh and blood is poured out for us also. Harold Cohen understood this and returned love for love.
IN THE SPIRIT
Fr. Harold Cohen was a man of the Holy Spirit. He loved the Holy Spirit. He sought the Holy Spirit. Some of his favorite Scripture texts were those in the Old Testament which promised and foreshadowed the gift of the Holy Spirit. He told us that the Hebrew word ruah means breath, wind and spirit as when the ruah of God swept over the chaos at creation in Genesis 1:3. He was fond of the passages in Ezekiel 36 which promised a new spirit and new heart to God’s people. And he loved the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37 with the spirit coming into the Dry Bones and bringing them to life. How well we remember his teaching on Ezekiel 47 on the water flowing from the Temple – a symbol of the Holy Spirit. He encouraged us to plunge into the water of the Spirit – not ankle-deep, knee-deep or waist-deep – but all the way over our heads.
He loved the New Testament passages on the Holy Spirit too, especially in John’s Gospel. In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” And in John 3:34, “He does not ration the gift of the Spirit.” In John 4, he promised the Women at the Well “living water welling up to eternal life.” He especially loved John 7:37-39, “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, ‘If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his heart shall flow rivers of living waters.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
And when Jesus was crucified, he handed over the spirit. Fr. Cohen would constantly point to the piercing of Jesus’ heart with the lance which caused blood and water to pour out – the water, of course, symbolic of the Holy Spirit. (Jn 19:31-37).
But for Fr. Cohen, the promise of the Spirit was not just an empty abstract promise, but one he expected to be fulfilled. When he got the chance, on April 7, 1969, he asked for the grace of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. As the young man from Fordham University prayed over him, Fr. Cohen felt only “stupid” as he said in his testimony, but what a difference it made! It totally revolutionized his life and ministry.
In looking for a practical example of the Baptism in the Spirit, he hit upon his famous “chocolate milk” analogy. You take a glass of milk and pour chocolate syrup into it. The syrup sinks to the bottom. You have to take a spoon and stir it up in order to have the syrup permeate the milk. Fr. Cohen compared the Holy Spirit to the chocolate syrup. The Spirit is in us by virtue of Baptism, Confirmation and the other sacraments, but all too often our lives do not reflect His presence. Just like the chocolate syrup, Fr. Cohen would say, the Holy Spirit needs to be stirred up. When we do that in faith, we have a new reality.
Fr. Cohen was fascinated by the charismatic gifts of the Spirit mentioned especially in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. I remember many conversations when we would talk about the various gifts, what they were, and how much we needed them. I think it is safe to say that Fr. Cohen experienced charisms that he was not aware of. That is to say, others could see his gifts much more clearly than he could. He was very humble and easily awed by the gifts in others. In fact, he confided to me on numerous occasions that he was tempted to be discouraged because he did not feel that he had the gifts or ministries that others exercised, especially in healing. The fact is, however, that he prayed with many people who reported that they experienced dramatic healings physically, spiritually and emotionally. I can give personal eyewitness testimony that he very effectively prayed for deliverance from the power of evil. My own sense however, is that he was most powerfully used in preaching and teaching the Word of God, also in counseling and discernment of spirits, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
He certainly manifested the fruit of the Holy Spirit in his life and ministry, especially that of love, joy and peace. Fr. Cohen gave an overwhelming witness, however, to the theological virtue of Hope. He was a man of hope in all circumstances because he knew in whom he had believed. He knew we could always hope in God because we can never exhaust Him. He loved to repeat a story that his mother had told him. When Harold was a baby, his first word was not Mama or Daddy, but “MORE.” At that time, it was for more grits. But later, it was a cry for more of God’s grace, power, and love, more of the working of God’s Spirit in his life. He got more and more but the more he received, the more he wanted, so he kept asking for more. I know he would cry out to us tonight to do the same.
WITH OUR LADY
No talk on the spirituality of Fr. Cohen would be complete without mentioning Our Blessed Lady, whom he loved so much. Fr. Cohen preached and practiced consecration or total entrustment to Our Lady. Although the better-known prayer of consecration is that of St. Louis de Montfort, the one Fr. Cohen preferred and used most often is attributed to St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit. It is found on page three of the conference booklet. (Let’s pray it together.)
“O my Queen, O my Mother, I give myself entirely to thee, and in order to prove myself devoted to thee, I consecrate to thee this day my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my heart, my entire being without reserve. Since therefore I am thine, O good Mother, preserve me and defend me as thy property and possession. Amen.”
THE DREAM TEAM
Who were Fr. Cohen’s favorite saints? He used to speak often of his “dream team” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Faustina. He had their first-class relics (which I am blessed to have now) and valued them highly. Fr. Cohen’s middle name was Francis and he had a great love for St. Francis of Assisi. In many ways his personality reminded us of Francis of Assisi, with his simple, childlike faith and love for nature and for poverty. Also, a very special favorite of his was Blessed Miguel Pro, the Jesuit priest martyred in Mexico in the twenties. I think it’s safe to say that hearing about Miguel Pro’s life and martyrdom had a tremendous, life-changing effect on Harold Cohen and perhaps accounted for his vocation to be a Jesuit priest.
What final words would Fr. Cohen leave with us tonight? I think, based on over 30 years of listening to him, that they would be words of joy, praise, and thanksgiving.
He would say, from Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (RSV).
He would quote to us from Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (RSV).
And he would share a passage which he and I shared with each other a lot, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (RSV). And finally he would end with that famous hymn of praise in Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” ALLELUIA! GLORY TO GOD!