On November 15th, we celebrate the Feast of a Dominican saint who deserves to be better known in modern times: St. Albert of Cologne (d. 1280), also known as St. Albert the Great. Today, St. Albert is most known as the teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology and philosophy would eventually eclipse his teacher’s in importance. In his own day, however, St. Albert was known for his breadth and depth of knowledge in virtually every field of study. His collected works span thirty-eight volumes. He was a thirteenth-century scientist, developing an understanding of the natural world from his own observations gathered during his many travels on foot. His studies included physics, astronomy, zoology, botany, geology, anatomy, mineralogy, mathematics, logic, theology, philosophy, architecture, music, and poetry. He was a Renaissance man a century before the Renaissance. He served at various times as a theology lecturer in the universities of Paris and Cologne, itinerant preacher, provincial of the Dominican province in Germany, papal legate, and Bishop of Regensburg.
Some of his insights seem well before his time. For example, he noticed that animals farther north tend to be paler, providing camouflage in snowy climates, and remarked that if there were bears at the North Pole, they would be white. Also, it was widely thought at the time, that while the North Pole was expected to be exceedingly cold, the South Pole would conversely be exceedingly hot. As a side note, that this conversation even occurred shows that medieval people did not commonly think the world was flat. St. Albert, in his studies of climates, figured out that this was not correct and that both the North and South Poles would have to be cold, with a warm region in between.
St. Albert’s mystical theology, primarily described in his commentaries on Pseudo-Dionysius, is perfectly suited for scientist-theologians. This is because his vision of the spiritual life is centered on the role of the mind in seeking after God. When interpreting Dionysius, St. Albert realized that in considering the Goodness of God, our first understanding of goodness comes from our understanding of created things, which, insofar as they are good, resemble the perfect goodness of God. If we are to learn everything we can about God, we must do so by analogy with created things. Thus, we must know as much as possible about the goodness, truth, and beauty of created things, the study of which is fueled by a healthy curiosity about nature.
One of the things I find most impressive about St. Albert is that despite all of his accomplishments, encyclopedic knowledge, prestigious positions, and reputation (his own contemporaries labeled him “the Great”), he was known to be exceedingly humble throughout his life. This was due to his ardent love for Truth. In his continual striving for and embrace of truth, he knew who he was and that his many gifts were in fact gifts from above, and so all credit was due to God. In this and other ways, he can serve as a model for scientists, theologians, and, well, everybody else.
On this feast of St. Albert, let us pray that we may grow closer to God through the gifts of the world he has given us. May the intercession and example of St. Albert the Great show our world and our culture the hand of God working in every moment of our lives.
-Br. Paschal Strader, O.P.
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