Category Archives: Albert the Great

Nov 15 – St Albert the Great, OP, (1200-1280 AD) – Bishop, Scientist, Doctor of the Church, Doctor Universalis, Doctor Expertus


-by Charlie McKinney, adapted from the above

“Thorough Theologian

Albert’s greatest love of all was his love for God.

Albert so loved the natural sciences, waxing eloquent in his writings on everything from flowers to insects to fish to the squirrelly daily habits of the squirrels, because they all in small, diverse ways reflected the unspeakable, simple goodness and majesty of the Creator, from whom all creation flows. Albert knew so well how God speaks to us through creation, but he also knew that God has spoken to us directly too, in His revelation, and most directly of all through the words and the deeds of His Son incarnate.

Albert’s love for God is seen in his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, of Church history, of the liturgy, and of the Eucharist. Albert left extensive commentaries on the Scriptures, among the most prominent being his Commentary on Saint Luke’s Gospel. He wrote beautifully about the Eucharist and offered practical advice on mastering the art of prayer to express our love for God.

Perhaps Albert’s most significant purely spiritual work, De Adherendo Deo (On Cleaving to God), is one that he might have not written in its entirety. The beautifully simple, although profoundly moving book, which has been called a worthy companion to Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, is about “cleaving freely, confidently, nakedly, and firmly to God alone . . . since the goal of Christian perfection is the love by which we cleave to God.”

Charging Champion

The virtue of fortitude comes from the Latin fortis, “strength.” Saints Albert and Thomas would write a great deal about the nature of virtues, including fortitude, and Albert clearly not only knew of this spiritual strength but did not shy away from living it.

Fortitude employs the irascible appetite and can raise our ire to fight back to defend the good, even when this means facing difficult obstacles. We saw that Albert was happy bravely to champion the cause of the rights of the Dominicans and Franciscans when challenged by the secular professors of the University of Paris. We saw too a flicker of Albertian ire when he railed at those even within his order who tried to squelch the study of philosophy. Perhaps the most poignant and powerful example of Albertian fortitude, though, is how he defended his own greatest student not long after that student’s death.

On March 7, 1277, three years to the day after the death of Thomas Aquinas, Bishop Steven Tempier of Paris, having solicited input from various theologians, produced 218 propositions that were said to be contrary to the Catholic Faith. Among that list, sixteen propositions were clearly compatible with the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Some reports indicate that the elderly Albert traveled the three hundred miles to Paris on foot to meet Tempier’s challenge and champion his brilliant student’s thought. He began his speech to the learned professors by stating, “What glory it is for one who is living to be praised by those who are dead.” He went on to portray Saint Thomas as the one who truly lived, while his accusers of unorthodoxy were covered in shades of death through their ignorance and ill will. He defended the orthodoxy of Thomas’s writings, along with Thomas’s personal sanctity, offering to defend them both before an assemblage of competent men. He returned to Cologne and poured over Thomas’s writings, declaring to an assemblage of Dominicans that Thomas’s works were so masterful that he had “labored for all to the end of the world, and that henceforth all others would work in vain.”

Of course, the writings of Saint Thomas did not put an end to works in theology but would stimulate an endless stream of new work inspired by his brilliance as the Dominican Order and countless popes across the centuries have sung the praises for his works of theology. Thomas’s philosophical and theological sons and daughters would come to be called Thomists, and Albert himself is the first and the foremost among them.

Cherished Child

For many decades Albert the Great shone as one of the brightest lights in one of the greatest of centuries. His learning was unequalled, and he was known far and wide as a man who could get things done. The bark of his preaching and teaching had inflamed the hearts of countless students, friars, nuns, and parishioners who had heard and seen him. Recall, though, the legend that Blessed Mary had foretold that at the end of his days he would be bereft of his vast knowledge. A poignant tale records that Archbishop Sigfried had come to the Dominican convent to visit the elderly Albert one day and, knocking at the door of his cell, called out, “Albert, are you there?” The venerable master did not open the door, but merely answered: “Albert is no longer here; he was here once upon a time.”

It is said that the greatest encyclopedic mind of the century, the medieval memory master, began to lose his memory in the last weeks of his life. He retained the ability to say Mass, as he had done for so many years, but he removed himself ever more from the world, content to pray in his garden and his cell. The boots that had taken him all across Europe carried him daily to the site he had selected as the resting place of his body, as he prayerfully and peacefully prepared for the inevitable day of his death. His spirit strove solely to cleave closer to God.

In the twilight hours of November 15, 1280, clothed in the habit of the Order of Preachers, seated in a large wooden chair in his cell and surrounded by his brother friars in Christ, Saint Albert whispered that it had been a good thing to be a Dominican, and then, like a cherished child, his soul left to meet his heavenly Father and Mother.”

Love,
Matthew

Nov 15 – Albertus Magnus

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-by Br Oliver James Keenan O.P., English Province

“St Albert is said to have been one of the last people to have known everything that was known in his day. That might be an exaggeration, but it’s certain that his interests and publications spanned every discipline of his time: from a best-selling work on rocks (de mineralibus), through to geometry, astronomy, friendship, law, love, language, not to mention extensive commentaries on the scriptures, it’s certainly fair to say Albert was universally learned.

Albert was one of the first to comment on virtually all of Aristotle’s works — then ’new learning’, freshly mediated in Latin translation — an endeavour that drew him into intellectual dialogue with Muslim scholars such as Avicenna and Averroes, as well as the Christian tradition in which he was firmly rooted. And whilst it was Albert’s student Thomas Aquinas that most successfully integrated Aristotle — navigating the challenges that Aristotelian thought posed to the Christian — with the traditional theology of Augustine, Albert’s efforts are by no means feeble, and Aquinas holds his teacher in evident esteem. Aquinas pre-deceased Albert in 1274. Albert, who was first to recognise Aquinas’s great gift to the Church, was moved to tears. Although we can’t be certain, he may well have travelled to Paris to defend his student’s teachings against charges of heresy (thankfully those allegations have long since been refuted).

Albert, however, was no mere commentator. He was a speculative thinker who predicted the contents of several of Aristotle’s lost (and now re-discovered) works with some accuracy. He corrected some of Aristotle’s thought and strengthened his arguments where he thought appropriated. Nor was he simply an ‘Aristotelian’: he rejected Aristotle’s thought when it seemed ludicrous, because Albert was, first and foremost, a Christian, a believer in the gospel. And it was not in-spite of his faith that Albert was a philosopher-scientist, but because of it: Albert somebody who sought to make sense of the world in faith, and as such he stands as an example of how scientific enquiry can be sanctified by the life of grace and virtue.

But as impressive as the breadth and depth of Albert’s voluminous intellectual works are, the most remarkable thing as far as I’m concerned is that he found time to write them at all. His life was neither dull nor quiet; he certainly cannot be accused of being an ivory tower academic. German born, he had already begun his university education in the so-called liberal arts at an Italian school, where he met the Blessed Jordan of Saxony, successor to St Dominic as Master of the Order. Although some (relatively late) sources recount a meeting between the Blessed Virgin Mary and Albert, it’s clear that Jordan’s example and preaching played a key role in attracting Albert the Order. And once he had joined, Albert’s life was notably busy: years of formation and study were followed by heavy burdens of pastoral care and teaching (he was 43 when appointed to a Professorship at Paris), as well as administrative duties and, eventually, appointment as a Bishop in his native land. As Bishop, a role he seems never to have particularly relished, he was nicknamed the “tied-shoe” because he maintained the Friars’ practice of travelling everywhere on foot, refusing the use of a horse. He was, by all accounts, assiduous in his duties as bishop, particularly noted for his austere lifestyle and attentiveness to the needs of the poor, he radically curbed spending in the diocese and committed himself, as any good Dominican, to preaching the gospel. Though he retained some episcopal priveliges for life (he was particularly keen to keep his personal library, something I have no trouble identifying with), it was with some relief that Albert put aside the duties of his Bishopric and returned to the life of a brother.

But it was on the long journeys of his apostolic life as an itinerant friar and bishop that Albert’s research interests as a natural scientist seem to have flourished. He trudged around with an enquiring mind. He thought that the earth must be spherical, since he observed that the first thing of a ship to emerge over the horizon of the ocean is the tip of its mast. Safely on dry land, he collected specimens of wildlife that he encountered, becoming one of the first in the West to categorise the natural order according to a taxonomy of species and genus. Having heard (and disbelieved) the rumour, from Aristotle’s work on animals, that ostriches ate metals and were particularly fond of the precious varieties, he carried a lump of iron with him to test out the theory. Eventually his suspicion was proved correct: the ostriches he encountered refused the metal and seemed confused by the bishop’s actions. One may have tried to bite him. But this was no reductive experimental science. For Albert the whole world could be seen as one unity under the creator God, and the quest to penetrate its mysteries more deeply was not an indulgence of curiositas, but a loving communion with the God who bestows on us the faculty of intellect and the desire for truth. All things, then, were, for Albert, subordinate to God’s knowledge, revealed in Christ, as is evident from his great works of mystical theology, in which he ascends beyond the knowledge of all created things to be encountered by the creator, to know God and love him, who has first known and loved us into existence.

The centuries may not have been kind to Albert’s intellectual legacy: although widely respected, he is undeservedly neglected by many undergraduate philosophical curricula today. But unlike many of his medieval contemporaries, we retain a good sense of his personality and the brothers still smile fondly at the memory of his holy eccentricities. We only once read of a Prior having to curtail Albert’s experimental practices. In Cologne he was exploring the effects of alcohol on cold-blooded creatures and fed some of the brothers’ beer to a snake. Unfortunately, although amusingly, the snake escaped as was found disorientated and fractious in the cloister, much to the consternation of the graver fathers. Albert having already observed man’s apparently natural aversion to serpents — and I think I can sense a wry smile at this point — notes that the snake went floppy when under the influence. Perhaps wisely, the Prior of the day intervened to the keep the peace, and it seems Albert was advised not to allow anything else to escape from his growing menagerie.

With God’s help and some prayers, I hope I can imitate Albert’s cheerful fidelity to the Lord and his faithful unrelenting obedience to his superiors, though I feel no need to repeat this particular experiment, nor do I feel my vocation lies in experimental science. (Albert wouldn’t mind this — in his more abstract philosophy he argued it was reasonable to believe such things on testimony). But it is a joy to be one of Albert’s brothers, to belong an Order that, in 800 years of grace, has seen so many characters, not to mention drunken snakes and more. Somehow, in the mystery of providence, we are each of us called to write our own line, to make our own unique contribution, but when in God’s good time the story of the Order of Preachers comes to be concluded, few lines will be as sparkling and fondly remembered as Albert’s.”

Love,
Matthew

Nov 15 – St Albert the Great, OP – Doctor of the Church, Doctor Universalis, “The Teacher of Everything”

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– by Br Humbert Kilanowski, OP, (Br. Humbert Kilanowski entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He earned a doctorate in mathematics from The Ohio State University and did his undergraduate studies at Case Western Reserve University.)

“Before I entered the Dominican Order, I taught an introductory statistics class at a small college founded by Dominican Sisters in my hometown. Since the school was too small to have distinct departments for each scientific field, all of them, including mathematics, were housed in St. Albert Hall, a building named for today’s patron saint. A fitting attribution—for the thirteenth-century German Dominican friar was an expert not only in philosophy and theology, but also in several natural sciences: constructing an early greenhouse, discovering the chemical element arsenic, and developing experimental methods that would later become standard in modern science. For his integration of scientific domains and the newly-rediscovered philosophy of Aristotle with the study of divine revelation in theology, Saint Albert the Great is fittingly honored as the Doctor Universalis, the “teacher of everything.”

In today’s academic climate, however, a “teacher of everything” is hard to find. Departments and disciplines have become so specialized that lectures given on one topic are often barely understood by others in the same department, and whole conferences and journals are devoted to the narrowest of subfields. In learning to be an expert in one area, other fields are ignored, to the point that scholars in the sciences can deem theological claims to be either over their heads or not worth their attention. Without a unifying vision of all knowledge, one may even reach the conclusion that science and theology contradict each other, as seen in the debates between random evolution and intelligent design, for example. How can a seeker of truth resolve this dilemma?

One scholar, the evolutionary biologist and agnostic Stephen Jay Gould (d. 2002), proposed a solution: that of “non-overlapping magisteria.” In this model, which he described in a 1997 article, both science and religion have separate domains over which each has competency, and neither one impinges on the other. As he writes:

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). To cite the arch clichés, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

The separation of domains of teaching authority, or “magisteria” as Gould appropriates the word, seems attractive; Christians believe that God created the human race directly in His image and likeness on theological grounds, for example, and biologists hold that humanity came to be through a long evolutionary process of many random mutations on scientific grounds. The dignity of the human race as being in the image of God is primarily a moral statement, while the origin of the species is a theory based on empirical data, and the two explanations seem to fall into disparate domains.

Yet, the various magisteria do, in fact, inevitably overlap. Another evolutionary biologist, the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, replies:

It is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.

In other words, if God is held to be the Creator of the universe, then He has a direct effect on all that exists (namely, He bestows existence on it), and everything studied in science, or art, or history, can be considered in relation to God. While Dawkins’ analysis limps in asserting that claims of existence are scientific, for many things exist that are not subject to natural science, he properly identifies that theology does exert an influence on science.

To investigate how these bodies of knowledge overlap and interact with each other, it helps to examine the work of St. Albert’s most prominent student, St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. He explains that theology “has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences, but only to judge of them” (ST, I, 1, 6, ad 1), and that it “can in a sense depend upon the philosophical sciences, not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer” (ST, I, 1, 5, ad 2). To continue with the example, theology tells biology that it cannot exclude divine activity in forming the human race (especially with regard to the immaterial soul by which we reason and choose freely), while biology provides the details of how the human body was formed from the earth. Both fields, taken together, give a fuller and more robust understanding of what is to be known. By considering the relationship of theology to the other sciences, we can see how each field of study aims at the same truth according to its own method.

In this, we should follow the example of St. Albert the Great, who saw in everything that he studied the God who made it and to whom it is ultimately ordered. Surely, as Pope Leo XIII remarked, “Truth cannot contradict truth”; hence, let us join the “teacher of everything” by allowing everything we study to lead us to the contemplation of God, the Supreme Truth.”

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“I adore You, O Precious Blood of Jesus, flower of creation, fruit of virginity, ineffable instrument of the Holy Spirit, and I rejoice at the thought that You came from the drop of virginal blood on which eternal Love impressed its movement; You were assumed by the Word and deified in His person.

I am overcome with emotion when I think of Your passing from the Blessed Virgin’s heart into the heart of the Word, and, being vivified by the breath of the Divinity, becoming adorable because You became the Blood of God.

I adore You enclosed in the veins of Jesus, preserved in His humanity like the manna in the golden urn, the memorial of the eternal Redemption which He accomplished during the days of His earthly life.

I adore You, Blood of the new, eternal Testament, flowing from the veins of Jesus in Gethsemane, from the flesh torn by scourges in the Praetorium, from His pierced hands and feet and from His opened side on Golgotha. I adore You in the Sacraments, in the Eucharist, where I know You are substantially present….

I place my trust in You, O adorable Blood, our Redemption, our regeneration. Fall, drop by drop, into the hearts that have wandered from You and soften their hardness.

O adorable Blood of Jesus, wash our stains, save us from the anger of the avenging angel. Irrigate the Church; make her fruitful with Apostles and miracle-workers, enrich her with souls that are holy, pure and radiant with divine beauty.  Amen.”
-St Albert the Great, OP

Love,
Matthew

Nov 15 – St Albert the Great, O.P., (1206-1280), Doctor of the Church, Patron of Scientists & Engineers

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Kelly, Mara, and I have found our new parish home in St Albert the Great, O.P. of Sun Prairie, WI, stalberts.org; sister parish of Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary Parish also in Sun Prairie.  We have hopes Mara may attend Sacred Hearts School.  The fact I am a professional applied scientist and a former Dominican novice is not lost on me in this serendipitous coincidence.  The Midwestern Province of the Order of Preachers is dedicated to St Albert the Great, O.P.  We are happy and St Albert’s is a happy place of fellow pilgrims.

He was known as the “teacher of everything there is to know,” was a scientist long before the age of science, became the teacher and mentor of that other remarkable mind of his time, St. Thomas Aquinas.  St. Albert the Great was born in Lauingen on the Danube, near Ulm, Germany; his father was a military lord in the army of Emperor Frederick II. As a young man Albert studied at the University of Padua and there fell under the spell of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, the Dominican who made the rounds of the universities of Europe drawing the best young men of the universities into the Dominicans.

After several teaching assignments in his order, he came in 1241 to the University of Paris, where he lectured in theology. While teaching in Paris, he was assigned by his order in 1248 to set up a house of studies for the order in Cologne. In Paris, he had gathered around him a small band of budding theologians, the chief of whom was Thomas Aquinas, who accompanied him to Cologne and became his greatest pupil.

In 1260, he was appointed bishop of Regensberg; when he resigned after three years, he was called to be an adviser to the pope and was sent on several diplomatic missions. In his latter years, he resided in Cologne, took part in the Council of Lyons in 1274, and in his old age traveled to Paris to defend the teaching of his student Thomas Aquinas.

It was in Cologne that his reputation as a scientist grew. He carried on experiments in chemistry and physics in his makeshift laboratory and built up a collection of plants, insects, and chemical compounds that gave substance to his reputation. When Cologne decided to build a new cathedral, he was consulted about the design. He was friend and adviser to popes, bishops, kings, and statesmen and made his own unique contribution to the learning of his age.

He died a very old man in Cologne on November 15,1280, and is buried in St. Andrea’s Church in that city. He was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI. His writings are remarkable for their exact scientific knowledge, and for that reason he has been made the patron saint of scientists.

St. Albert the Great, O.P., was convinced that all creation spoke of God and that the tiniest piece of scientific knowledge told us something about Him. Besides the Bible, God has given us the book of creation revealing His wisdom and power. In creation, Albert saw directly and undeniably the hand of God and His love of mankind.

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-Roman sarcophagus containing the relics of Albertus Magnus in the crypt of St. Andreas church in Cologne, Germany

“It is by the path of love, which is charity, that God draws near to man, and man to God. But where charity is not found, God cannot dwell. If, then, we possess charity, we possess God, for “God is Charity” (1 John 4:8)
-Saint Albert the Great

“Do this in remembrance of me.” Two things should be noted here. The first is the command that we should use this sacrament, which is indicated when Jesus says, “Do this.” The second is that this sacrament commemorates the Lord’s going to death for our sake.

This sacrament is profitable because it grants remission of sins; it is most useful because it bestows the fullness of grace on us in this life. “The Father of spirits instructs us in what is useful for our sanctification.” And his sanctification is in Christ’s sacrifice, that is, when He offers Himself in this sacrament to the Father for our redemption to us for our use.

Christ could not have commanded anything more beneficial, for this sacrament is the Fruit of the Tree of Life. Anyone who receives this sacrament with the devotion of sincere faith will never taste death. “It is a Tree of Life for those who grasp it, and blessed is he who holds it fast. The man who feeds on Me shall live on account of Me.”

Nor could He have commanded anything more lovable, for this sacrament produces love and union. It is characteristic of the greatest love to give itself as food. “Had not the men of my text exclaimed: Who will feed us with his flesh to satisfy our hunger? as if to say: I have loved them and they have loved Me so much that I desire to be within them, and they wish to receive Me so that they may become My members. There is no more intimate or more natural means for them to be united to Me, and I to them.Nor could He have commanded anything which is more like eternal life. Eternal life flows from this sacrament because God with all sweetness pours Himself out upon the blessed.” – from a commentary by Saint Albert the Great on the Gospel of Luke

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Prayer to St Albert the Great, O.P.

Dear scientist and Doctor of the Church, natural science and sacred science were for you the same Truth.  For you, and for all Catholic scientists, these are never in opposition, but always in harmony – one beckoning deeper understanding of the other, drawing humankind more deeply into the infinitely knowable mystery of the Creator and His Word.

Though you had an encyclopedic knowledge, it never made you proud, for you regarded it as a gift of God. Inspire scientists, theoretical and applied, to use their gifts well in studying the wonders of creation, thus bettering the lot of the human race and rendering greater glory to God. Amen.

Love,
Matthew