Albert the Great

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Patron saint of scientists, Albert the Great (1200-1280), scholar, Dominican, bishop, and Doctor of the Church, was considered the most learned man of his century, with an encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything under the Sun, in an age when one could truly be a renaissance man before the inaccurately-named era of the same name.  His writings, which fill 38 volumes (!) include such topics as love, music, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, alchemy (the precursor to chemistry), zoology, physiology, phrenology (the precursor to neuroscience, for all its problems), justice, law (human, natural, eternal, divine), friendship and love.  He even wrote a very accurate and helpful treatise on falconry. No wonder he was given, even during his lifetime, the title of ‘the Great’, ‘Doctor Universalis’, or just ‘Expertus‘, the Expert.

Albert was the first to comment on the newly-rediscovered and translated works of Aristotle, which would shape the course of philosophy for centuries, into our own era (say what one likes of some of Aristotle’s conclusions, his principles still form the basis of all human reasoning). Albert also wrote much on what is now known as ‘science’, the empirical investigation of the world, and may be considered as one of its founders, centuries before Galileo.  Contrary to the myth that the scholastics uncritically accepted the opinions of authorities, here is Albert with a caution to all scientists, including modern ones, so given to an unbending ‘consensus’ on issues from climate change to evolution:

The aim of natural philosophy (science) is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature

Ah, yes, the seeking and contemplation of knowledge and truth, the true and essential purpose of Man.

Albert was appointed bishop of Cologne, which he fulfilled punctiliously for three years, refusing to own a horse, in accord with his Dominican vow of poverty, walking hundreds of miles across his vast diocese (he was called ‘boots the Bishop’) praying and thinking all the way.

One of his primary claims to Albert’s fame now is as teacher and promoter of his more famous disciple, Friar Thomas, who in some ways would end up surpassing the master. Thomas, a young Dominican from the noble Aquinas family in Italy, was large, quiet, and reflective, nicknamed the ‘dumb ox’ by his fellow students, who considered him slow. When Albert asked one of them to help poor Thomas on a difficult question, Thomas offered a solution to his stumbling would-be helper that was as good, if not better, than the teacher could have done.  It is reported that Albert then declared that they would all one day hear this ‘ox’ braying throughout the world, and so it has been.  The two became life-long friends and collaborators, and Albert wept at the sudden and unexpected death of Thomas, as the latter journeyed to the Council of Lyons in 1274.  Albert would go on to live into his 80’s, passing to his eternal reward after his full and active life six years later.

We should pray to Saint Albert, not least for scientists and a world so enraptured to their opinions, that all may seek the truth, and not strive to affirm their own biases and agendas, so that we may all live more fully here in the world, and the  path to heaven cleared for as many as will accept God’s grace and truth, which is the only thing that will set us free.

Saint Albert the Great, ora pro nobis!

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