Saints of the Day – Albert the Great

detail from 'Saint Albert the Great' by Tommaso da Modena, 1352, Chapter House, San Niccolò, Treviso, ItalyArticle

(also known as Albertus Magnus)

Born in Lauingen, Swabia, Germany, c.1207; died in Cologne, 1280; beatified in 1622; canonized and named a doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius XI.

Among Christians there often arises a dispute regarding the relative merits of science and theology, of intellectual versus spiritual understanding. Some say that the two are irreconcilable, forgetting that, according to the technical definition, myths (such as the Creation Story) offer more than simply a surface explanation of the mechanics of science. Studying the life of Saint Albert the Great should put aside these disputes. Today in Cologne, the spires of a building began seven centuries earlier still point to heaven. It is only a legend that credits the design of the cathedral to Saint Albert the Great. But it is so typical of his own life, pointing all beauty to heaven, that it is a legend that is very easy to believe. Albert, who even secular history calls “the Great,” spent his life in teaching that science and faith have no quarrel, and that all earthly loveliness and order can be traced directly to God.

Early Life

Albert was born in a castle in the diocese of Bavaria, the eldest son of the count of Bollstaedt. Albert was of small stature, but strongly built, having gigantic shoulders and a mole on one eyelid. Albert’s keen observation, which was later to show itself in his scientific works, had its initial training in the woods near his father’s castle, where he and his brother Henry – who also became a Dominican – hunted with hawks and hounds, and became experts in falconry. Their first education was at home under private tutors.

That both his brother Henry and his sister also became Dominicans attests to the piety of his family.

In 1222, at the age of 16, he was sent to study law at the famous university of Padua (some say Bologna) under the supervision of his uncle who was a canon there. He proved to be an outstanding student, and a brilliant future lay before him in a well-paid career. But God had other plans for Saint Albert.

The Call

Here in Italy Albert met Jordan of Saxony, a fellow-countryman and the second master-general of the Dominican Order following the death of Saint Dominic on August 4, 1221. Jordan’s enormous charisma earned him the nickname ‘Siren of the Schools’ as he travelled from place to place seeking recruits for the young order. Albert was greatly affected by what he heard, and vowed to become a Dominican.

He wavered, though, both because he doubted whether he could persevere and because his uncle opposed him. On the false pretext that travel helps form the character of a youth, his uncle took him on a trip to Venice, and at the same time obtained from the pope an annulment of the vow that he thought so rash. But what can a man, even a priest, do against the will of God?

On their return Albert went to the University of Padua, where he encountered the crisis of his life when he heard another sermon by Blessed Jordan. The preacher spoke of those young men who wavered between certainty and doubt, who hesitated because they feared they might not persevere, when in reality they ought to offer themselves entirely to God and trust in him.

Albert was astonished at what he heard. Going after Blessed Jordan he said, “Master, who has laid bear my heart to you?” Blessed Jordan comforted him, explaining that he had not been addressing any particular individual, but all alike who might be so affected, yet no doubt this was a message of God to him personally; transfixed by these words, he immediately offered himself. He was received into the Order, probably in 1223, and completed his theological studies.

A legend is told of this period which serves to bring out both the greatness of Albert’s science and his love for Our Lady. Albert, it is related, had not worn the white habit for long when it became plain to him that he was no match for the mental wizards with whom he was studying. Anything concrete, which he could take apart and study, he could understand, but the abstract sciences were too much for him.

He decided to run away from it all; planning a quiet departure, he carefully laid a ladder against the wall and waited for his opportunity. As he was kneeling for one last Hail Mary before he should go over the wall, Our Lady appeared to him. She reproached him gently for his forgetfulness of her – why had he not remembered to ask her for what he wanted? Then she gave him the gift of science he so much desired, and disappeared. Whatever the truth behind the legend – and it has survived, almost unchanged, through the many years – it is equally certain that Albert was a devout client of Our Lady and a master scientist.

Teaching

Albert was ordained a priest in 1228. He was then sent to teach in Cologne, where his critical lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard made his name; he afterward came to be known as the greatest German scholar of the Middle Ages. Later he taught in Hildesheim, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Regensburg (Ratisbon) for two years, Strasbourg and again in Cologne. He traveled from one place to another on foot, preaching, praying, and observing. His mind was receptive, daring, modern, and picked up an extraordinary amount of information. From the first his great erudition had been recognized, to say nothing of his deep piety and humility.

Albert rejected nothing of value that his age could offer him, doing so not out of a superficial syncretism, which would try to please everybody, but out of his concern not to lose anything that might be an element of the truth.

From 1240 to 1248 Albert was at the monastery of Saint-Jacques in Paris; Place Maubert and Rue Maitre-Albert in the Latin Quarter evoke his memory, while the Rue du Fouarre recalls the crowd of students who gathered round his pulpit, seated on their small bundles of straw.

It was in Paris that he had the happiness of seeing a quiet student from the Kingdom of Sicily rise like a brilliant star that would outshine all the others. What must it have been like to watch the mind of Saint Thonas Aquinas develop and unfold to the wisdom of time and eternity, and to help him open the doors to profound truth?

Albert was one of the first to recognize, cultivate, and proclaim the brilliance of his good friend and student Saint Thomas Aquinas. It takes a man of great humility and great sanctity to see and cultivate the potential for it in others, and these Albert had.

Albert took Thomas under his wing, assigned him a room adjoining his own, and for nearly five years was his inseparable companion. They studied together in both Paris, where Albert taught and earned his doctorate in theology in 1244-45, and in Cologne. He helped adapt the Scholastic method, which applied Aristotelian methods to revealed doctrine, an approach that was further developed by Saint Thomas.

In 1248 Albert again moved to University of Cologne, where he served as regent of the new studia generalia until 1254, when he was elected provincial of the Teutonia, a vast Dominican province including Alsace, Belgium, and Germany as far as the frontiers of Poland and Hungary. He personally visited all the monasteries in his province, convened chapters, imposed penances, ensured that observances were respected, and, above all, preached by his own example.

In 1256 Albert went to Rome, where he defended the mendicant orders against William of Saint Armour (who was condemned later in the year by Pope Alexander IV). Then he served for a time as the personal theologian to the pope and professor of Holy Scripture. By 1257, when a general chapter was held in Florence, Albert had completed his mandate and gladly resigned his provincialatae to return to his studies and his pulpit in Cologne. But, unfortunately for him and for his pupils, not for very long.

During his short return to study, together with Thomas Aquinas and Peter of Tarentais, Albert drew up a new curriculum of study for the Dominicans (1259).

As Bishop

The time for study was interrupted too soon, when on January 5, 1260, Pope Alexander IV appointed Albert bishop of Regensburg (Ratisbon) against his wishes and, though the master general tried the stop the appointment, very reluctantly Albert was obliged to accept. Vigorous reforms were needed in Regensburg and Albert was the man for the job.

The new bishop used his authority with severity against those who were injuring the Church in her temporal possessions. He cleaned up the administration, ordered economies, put the debts in order, solicited generous gifts, and restored deteriorating buildings. By his own example he showed his priests a life of purity, strict poverty, harsh penance, and piety; he helped greatly to restore to fervor a diocese in disorder. He dealt severely with his clergy, condemning their concubinage, idleness and simony.

As for his episcopal robes, he just settled for a pair of stout shoes, which he needed for his long journeys on foot. The people were astonished and called him “the bishop in clogs,” or simply, “Clodhopper.” Saint Clodhopper for God, forever in the march along the paths of the Gospel!

The clergy resented his simplicity and rejected his reforms, and the avaricious nobles refused to return the Church’s property. Once the worst problems were corrected, Albert clearly recognized that he could serve God better from a pulpit. Albert felt called back to his life’s work of teaching and the restoration of theology.

After two years as bishop, he journeyed to Rome and asked to be relieved of the office. The petition was granted, but he was appointed to preach the crusade in the German-speaking countries, a work he continued for several years with a companion preacher, the Franciscan Berthold of Ratisbon, going as far as Lithuania. These labors ended with the death of Pope Urban IV. And Albert returned to Wurzburg (where he lived for three years), Strasbourg, and once more to Cologne in 1270 to teach again under the obedience of the Dominican Order.

Old Age

For the last dozen years of his life he taught theology in Cologne, with a break in 1274 to take an active part in the general council of Lyons, working for the reunion of the Greek and Roman Churches. Albert’s sadness at the failure of the council was surpassed by the death of Thomas Aquinas, age 49, on the road from Rome to the council in the little monastery of Hautecombe. He died calmly while making a commentary on the Song of Songs. Thomas’s last wish, as he told the monks attending him, was to eat a good French herring. Such is the simplicity of saints.

Albert wept bitterly that the ‘glory and ornament of the world’ had gone. He outlived his beloved pupil by several years, and, in extreme old age, he walked halfway across Europe to defend a thesis of Thomas’s that was challenged. He fiercely and brilliantly defended Saint Thomas and his position against Bishop Stephen Tempier of Paris and a group of theologians at the university there in 1277.

On his return to the monastery at Cologne, Albert ceased teaching forever and retired permanently to his cell. He had kept the innocence and freshness of his faith, and prayed like a child. He love the Virgin Mary with tenderly, and wrote one of his most beautiful theological treatises in her praise. For the last two years of his life, Albert suffered from increasing memory loss and ill health, which led to his death in Cologne on November 15, 1280. Saint Albert is enshrined in the church of Saint Andreas in Cologne.

Works

Albert had an enquiring mind, ranking beside Roger Bacon as one of the first and greatest natural scientists. He was an experimenter and a classifier at a time when all experimental knowledge was under suspicion. There was not a field in which he did not at least try his hand, and his keenness of mind and precision of detail make his remarks valuable, even though, because he lacked facts which we now have, his conclusions were incomplete. It is difficult to estimate his vast erudition, the acuteness of mind and keenness of intellect of this learned and saintly man. In philosophy his work exhibited the highest achievement of human reason when thrown on its own resources.

The whole realm of nature and grace are covered by his encyclopedic knowledge; he wrote even more than Saint Thomas Aquinas himself. Some of his works still remain in manuscript unpublished and as many as seventy others have been lost. His printed works fill 38 quarto volumes and deal with all branches of learning. Among his works are Summa theologie, De unitate intellectus contra Averren, De vegetabilibus, and Summa de creaturis.

He stands out in particular for his recognition of the autonomy of human reason in its own sphere, of the validity of knowledge gained from sensory experience, and of the value of Aristotle’s philosophy in systematizing theology. Aquinas perfected the synthesis now known as the Scholastic method.

At the time of his scientific investigations, the field was almost exclusively in the hands of the Arabian philosophers – inheritors of the work of Avicenna and Averroes – who had drawn a great part of their errors from faulty interpretation of Aristotle. Since Aristotle, who must be regarded as the greatest comprehensive genius of any age, no other had written on the subject (as far as known), until Albert the Great.

During the intervening millennia between Aristotle and Albert, there had been a void; after his time three hundred years passed before botany was taken seriously. Albert commenced by making a catalogue of all the trees, plants, and herbs known in his own time. His minute observations on their forms and variations show an exquisite sense of their floral beauty, which he attributed to God. He was acquainted with the sleep of plants, with the periodic opening and closing of flowers, with the diminution of sap during evaporation from the cuticle of the leaf, and with the influence of the distribution of bundles of vessels on the foliar indentations. And this is only the beginning of his observations.

In addition to botany, he wrote in similar detail on astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, metaphysics, ethics, scripture, geography, geology (one of his treatises proved the earth to be spherical), logic, mathematics, theology, and meteorology; he made maps and charts and experimented with plants; he studied chemical reactions; designed instruments to help with navigation; and he made detailed studies of birds and animals. His brilliance and erudition caused him to be called the “Universal Doctor” by his contemporaries.

Albert’s admiration for Arabic learning and culture caused suspicion in some quarters. His and Thomas Aquinas’s adaptation of Aristotelian principles to systematic theology and their attempts to reconcile Aristotelianism to Christianity caused bitter opposition among many of their fellow theologians. Conservatives condemned these dangerous innovations as being tainted with heresy since they came from pagan Greek, Islamic, and Jewish thinkers.

Saint Albert knew that studying the minute beauty and perfection of creation gives us reason to glorify God. The universe is full of mystery; the intellect of man has only touched its outer fringe. Had the students of natural science proceeded along the lines Albert had laid down, the wrong road taken for three centuries might have been avoided.

In the modern mechanistic view, God is excluded, but Albert saw the whole universe as the work of God’s hand. I’ve stressed Albert’s erudition, but his whole life was absorbed in God; the Master of the Universe developed in him a greatest also of soul. He found God everywhere and in all things and always saw some good in others and in their books. His work was to sift out the good and to reserve it for Christ.

True greatness of soul is not content with merely observing the good, but passes on its revelation to others, thus revealing the noble disposition towards magnanimity. His task was to demonstrate the harmony between natural truth and divine revelation and to give this abundantly to others.

Saint Albert was canonized by being enrolled among the doctors of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1931. He was also named patron saint of students of the natural sciences, for he had, said the pope, ‘that rare and divine gift, scientific instinct, in the highest degree . . .; he is exactly the saint whose example ought to inspire the present age’ (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Dorcy, Encyclopedia, Murray, White, Wilms).

Faith and Science

The opposition between science and faith is only apparent. It originates either in the error of scientists who forward unprovable hypotheses as undoubted facts – the theory of evolution, for instance – or in the mistakes of theologians who would give their private, false opinions as gospel truths. If both would remain within the confines of their own science, no opposition would be possible.

Saint Albert insisted that ‘purely from reason no one can attain to knowledge of the Trinity, the Incarnation of Jesus and the Resurrection.’

But, in fact reason and faith are helpful to each other. Reason gives faith a solid foundation, so that we are not asked to give blind assent to truths we cannot know. It also furnishes us with strong extrinsic proof of the contents of divine revelation. Faith, on the other hand, “furnishes facts to the other sciences,” Cardinal Newman says, “which these sciences, left to themselves, would never reach, and it invalidates apparent facts, which left to themselves, they would imagine.”

Science deals only with secondary causes; when it questions why things happen it ceases to be science and becomes philosophy, but religion interests itself with the Primary Cause of all things.

We are surrounded by the mystery of the universe; it is in no way peculiar to religion. Science may make continual progress and tell us of countless new and marvelous things, but the why and the wherefore of them are altogether beyond its scope. There are mysteries in God’s world, both of nature and of grace.

The First Vatican Council teaches us, “The Church therefore, far from hindering the pursuit of the arts and sciences, fosters and promotes them in many ways. Nor does she prevent sciences, each in its own sphere, from making use of their own principles and methods. Yet, while acknowledging the freedom due to them, she tries to preserve them from falling into error contrary to divine doctrine, and from overstepping their own boundaries and throwing into confusion matters that belong to the domain of faith” (Decree 16.12.41).

Saint Albert is represented in art as a Dominican with a doctor’s cap and a book. Sometimes he is shown (1) lecturing from a pulpit; (2) with Saint Thomas Aquinas; or (3) as a Dominican bishop with pen and book (Roeder).

Patron of all natural sciences, scientists, and students of science (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 11 August 2020. Web. 27 November 2020. <>