Legends of the Blessed Virgin – The Scholar’s Vision

Legends of the Blessed Virgin, by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy“Seat of Wisdom.”

The University of Padua, which had enjoyed a reputation for learning for thirty years, was amusing itself in 1220 with a little German scholar, who was that year the butt of his companions and victim of his masters. He came from the Danube, and his name was Albert de Groot. Born at Lawingen, a small town in Suabia, little known at the present day, he was of good origin. But he had neither pride nor vanity; and how could he, the poor, timid, dull, clumsy boy, without a word to say for himself, be vain? His appearance was so much against him, that his pitiless companions nicknamed him the ass. The Paduans italianized his name (joining his country to it) into Groto Tedesco, thence into Grotesco, Groteschino, and added many other epithets less flattering. To complete the ridiculous figure of the poor youth, though great by name, he was so small of stature, that, at fifteen years of age, he was not taller than a boy of ten. All these misfortunes combined, tended to render the life of the little scholar one, indeed, full of thorns. He felt, too, more sensibly his ill-treatment than might be supposed; and often would he have listened to the inspirations of despair, if his mind and heart had not been thoroughly impressed by a pious mother with an ardent piety, a deep humility, and a tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

Though he felt it hard to be called the ass, on account of his want of talents, bad memory, and other deficiencies, he still said to himself, sadly, that he, no doubt, merited the appellation; and that the learning, which he wished so ardently to possess, was not attainable by him. Having attended the lectures of the blessed Jourdain, of Saxony, who had just been elected general of the Dominicans, he was so moved and delighted by the sacred orator, that he was led to entertain a hope that God might call him into that holy order, if not to shine among the illustrious men who were its glory – however much he desired it – at least to save his soul in humbly following its rule. He accordingly petitioned to be admitted into the Dominican convent. His request was favourably received by the new general, who was his countryman; and he was admitted to the habit, and allowed to continue his studies.

Alas! he here also found trials he had hoped to escape. His dull mind was long in comprehending the different rules and customs of the house; and though there was more charity among the Dominican novices than the university students, he still felt that he was looked upon as the lowest in the house in point of intellect. His humble piety sustained him for some time; he did not easily lose courage; he always hoped that he should at some time overcome these obstacles, and break the shackles of his mind. He pronounced his vows, and became a monk; still he remained a dull scholar.

After two years’ patient labour, he began to lose confidence, and thought he had, perhaps, been deceived, or yielded to a sensation of pride in entering an order, whose mission it was to preach to the world, to carry the gospel to every people, and, consequently, to shine brightly, as well by its excellence in every science, as by its eminence in virtue. He considered within himself that he never should be able to attain to any powerful use of logic, or the command of language, and he said to himself, ” I am now vowed to God’s service; I know that He is good, that He will not require of me more than I am able to perform; He will not ask me, when I appear before Him, whether I have preached eloquently, but whether I have lived well; not whether I have been learned, but whether I have been innocent; not whether I have written fine works, but whether I have performed good actions. I know I am the most useless of his servants. But, blessed be his holy will! He wants not my aid! I might weakly plead the august cause of the holy Church, propagate the Catholic faith, or combat heresy. I forget that God rises up whom he pleases, that vanity must not tempt his wisdom, though he chose for the founders of His Church twelve poor fishermen. May His holy will be done! I will then depart from this holy house, which I should never have entered, and where I know that I am but a burthen. Like the solitaries, I will retire into the wilderness, and occupy myself with my own salvation only. God resists my aspirations for wisdom, but when I am alone with Him, He will not reject the love which I will unceasingly offer Him.”

As these feelings increased, the little monk thought that his imagination was brightening, and that his reasoning faculties were improving. He, however, rejected these thoughts as a temptation, and continued in his original resolution of leaving the monastery.

His timidity prevented him from communicating this project to any one; he fancied that they would receive it with raillery, as they did everything else which he uttered. His only confidant was the Blessed Virgin. He passed a novena before her altar. He implored her assistance, and begged her to obtain for him a knowledge of the holy will of God, to which he desired most ardently to conform.

On the evening of the day fixed upon for his departure, he prayed more fervently than ever. He waited till all the fathers had retired to rest; then, placing himself under the guidance of Mary, left his cell, and reached noiselessly the convent walls; and, planting a ladder against them, knelt for the last time, to pray God that the step he was about to take might not be displeasing to Him, assuring Him that although he was about to leave the holy house in which he had plighted his vows, his heart was still, and ever would be, devoted to His holy service.

As he was about to rise and mount the ladder, a most extraordinary spectacle, presented itself to his eyes. Was he dreaming? Or was some miraculous favour accorded him? This last is the opinion of the contemporary writers, who have recorded the fact. He saw, at a short distance before him, and about to approach him, four ladies of majestic appearance. A bright light surrounded them; their graceful dignity and mild demeanour inspired him at the same time with respect and confidence. The first two placed themselves at the foot of the ladder, as if to prevent his mounting. But they had no need of opposing him, for he had again fallen down on his knees, and prostrated himself before these celestial messengers, as he justly imagined them to be.

The third lady, approaching him mildly, asked him how he could thus despair in the task he had before him? and how he could bring himself to fly ignominiously, and expose himself to the great dangers which would surround him in the world. The scholar answered, without rising, and humbly exposed his incapacity for learning, which prevented him from carrying out his desires.

“The reason is, you seek from your weak human understanding the gifts which come from God alone. You have also, in the Queen of the Universe, a protectress who loves you, for she knows that you are her faithful servant. Never have you petitioned her for the gift of knowledge, as if you knew not that she is, as of all virtues, the seat of wisdom. She now comes to you in her goodness; ask what you want of her with confidence. We will aid you with our intercession.”

The delighted scholar, recognizing in the fourth lady the Blessed Virgin, whose sweet smile assuages all pains, was encouraged to ask her for the favour he had so much at heart. Hitherto he had prayed only for the graces which lead to salvation. He was now struck with the feeling that the only reason for his wishing for science was to consecrate it to the glory of God; and, therefore, relying on the favour of his sweet Patroness, he earnestly sought of her the gift of wisdom. “Wisdom is great and varied, my son,” replied the fourth Lady: “would you know everything, do you not remember our first father, who was offered unbounded knowledge by the fallen spirit?”

“Oh! no, most holy Virgin,” cried Albert, in alarm: “I ask only for such knowledge as it may please God to bestow on me. I regret the dangerous conceit of wishing to fathom the mysteries of heaven. I desire, with the bounds of faith, to possess the science of philosophy or of nature.

“Human science,” said the gracious lady, “is vain, and beset with dangers; you had better have asked for the gift of theology, which would have opened to your understanding so much of the sacred mysteries of faith as it is fitting for man to know. But your request shall not be denied. Only take care lest this philosophy you desire sow in you the seeds of pride. You will possess it for a long time; you will be tried by the great labours it will call forth from you, and by the hasty judgments men will pass upon you. Be faithful; suffer not your heart to be puffed up with knowledge; and I promise you that this science you ask shall be withdrawn from you on the day in which it is likely to become dangerous to you”

The apparition then disappeared.

Albert instantly felt himself another being, and remained an hour in prayer of thanksgiving; yet, fearing he had made a bad choice, he demanded, most fervently, the grace of humility – his safe guide and anchor.

He put down the ladder, and returned to his cell, but slept not.

Next day there was a general stupefaction in the classes. Albert was the theme of universal astonishment; a ready and subtle intelligence had eclipsed his dullness. Nothing stopped his progress; he overcame every difficulty. The most abstruse problems were to him as clear as day. All he heard and read became instantly fixed and arranged in his memory. In a year, he not only surpassed his fellow-students, but even confused his professors. Great was the general astonishment. It was said, that by some miracle the ass had been metamorphosed into a philosopher. Nor were they mistaken, though the humble scholar had kept the vision a secret confined to his own breast. In a short time he became Doctor of Philosophy, the teaching of which was confided to him. And so completely did he discharge this duty, that he obtained the name of “the philosopher,” as being alone worthy of that title.

And he worthily maintained his position of Christian philosopher; ever full of charity, a lover of his cell, inaccessible to the seductions of the world and its glories, dividing his loved solitude between meditation, prayer, and study, by which he advanced with giant strides along the paths of learning. He never left his monastery but to attend sermons. Those of Saint Anthony of Padua, who lived then, charmed and delighted him most. He studied the natural sciences, and found every object of creation a step in the ladder whereby his soul reached God. He swerved little from the routine he had set himself, and wandered not into the other paths of erudition. Still he sometimes visited the edifice which the Paduans still call Titus Levy’s house, and deciphered the inscriptions it contains.

When he had attained his thirtieth year, he had so universal a knowledge of everything connected with philosophy and natural science, that he could argue and discuss (according to the state of science at that period) on every subject of which a knowledge could possibly be obtained. The Dominican order considered fit to exhibit to the world this prodigy of learning formed within its cloisters. He was sent to Cologne to teach philosophy and divinity, for he studied the latter science with ardour, but with less success. At Cologne, Hildesheim, Fribourg, Ratesbon, and Strasbourg, he dazzled Germany with his talents; being, however, as much admired for his humility and modesty as for the wonderful depth of his knowledge and the immensity of his intellect. He always resided in the houses belonging to his order, and would always chose the meanest cell, and live the same as the lowest brother in the order.

Jourdain of Saxony dying in 1236, Albert was elected Vicar-General of the Order of Saint Dominic, the duties of which office he administered for two years with evident blessing; so that when the General Chapter assembled at Bologna, to elect a General, in 1238, they unanimously conferred that dignity on Albert; but he resisted the honour with such humble perseverance, that they gave way to his entreaties. Raymond, of Pennafort, who was then elected in his place, being absent at Barcelona, Albert hastened thither to place the seals of office in his hands, and then returned to his dear little cell at Cologne. There he again taught in the school; and such was his success, and the great number of eminent men who attended his lectures, that he was sent to Paris.

The University of Paris (called simply the school of Paris before the time of Saint Louis), said to have been founded by Charlemagne, had been reconstituted by Louis the Young, and encouraged by the many privileges of Philip Augustus. Men of the first talent eagerly sought its professorships. The scholars of the university were counted by thousands, and formed a large undisciplined body dispersed about the city, and often troublesome to the public peace. The kings considered it a duty to encourage learning, and Saint Louis, who then reigned, loved to see his people instructed and enlightened, well knowing that ignorance, and bad teaching, still more dangerous perhaps, are the great enemies of religion, morality, and also necessarily of the happiness of mankind.

As soon as the little monk of Cologne, whose small stature and modest bearing contrasted strongly with his immense learning, made his appearance in the schools, all Paris were enthusiastic in his praise. The wits called him Albert the Little, on account of his stature; while his friends named him Albert the Great, for his merit, little thinking that they only translated his name. The French people, who are not fond of two consonants, and who have changed for their convenience Alberic into Aubry, Albinus into Aubin, and of Clodoald and Theobald, make Cloud and Thibaut, paid no respect to the patronymic of Albert; with them he was plain “Master Aubert.”

So immense was the concourse of persons who crowded to hear the professor, that he was obliged to give his lectures in an open square, which has ever since retained his name. It is Place Maubert.

This took place in 1245, when Thomas Aquinas was the most distinguished of Albert’s scholars, and already showed marks of that astounding theological genius, which his master foresaw, and by which he attained to such a knowledge of divine truths, as to be justly regarded as one of the brightest lights of the Church.

On his return to Cologne, Albert was elected provincial of Germany, which office he held for three years, without suffering it to interfere with his public lectures.

About the same time he received a commission similar in its object to the society of the Holy Infancy, lately established by a saintly prelate. The Poles, who were then barbarians, had the horrid custom of putting deformed infants to death; they also killed such as were difficult to bring up, and even old people who were a burthen to their friends. The Holy See, ever alive to the calls of charity, charged Albert to go and endeavour to put a stop to these savage customs. He accomplished this difficult charge with great success. The Pope would have given him a bishopric as a mark of his gratitude, but he could not overcome the humble resistance of Albert. It was not till 1260, that he was obliged by his superiors to accept of the bishopric of Ratisbon. He administered this see for four years with great fervour, when he obtained permission from Urban IV to return to his little cell at Cologne, where he would never allow himself to be treated otherwise than as the least of the brothers. There he employed his time in study, lecturing, and expounding the scriptures.

Despite his love of retirement, his submission to the head of the Church caused him to take many long journeys. The objects of these were to preach the crusade through Germany; to assist and speak at the Council of Lyons, in 1274; and to take part in overcoming the difficulties of the Holy See.

His language was the universal theme of admiration; but never to the age of seventy-five years had he listened to the least whisper of vanity, when one day in his chair at Cologne, seeing his immense auditory electrified by his discourse, he raised his head with a feeling of self-satisfaction. She who had ever protected him came to his aid – he seemed to see her; and stopping suddenly in the midst of a fine period, left the pulpit without finishing it. He had lost his memory! The gift of knowledge left him at the moment when it was about to become a subject of vanity to him. He felt he had fallen into the state of dullness he was first in at Padua. He understood the warning, and instantly prepared for death, which he received most piously two years later, on the 15th of November, 1282. Saint Thomas Aquinas, his beloved disciple, had preceded him to his reward by eight years, eight months, and eight days.