St. Albert the Great (1207-1280)

Today in Cologne, the spires of a building begun seven centuries ago still point to heaven. It is only a legend that credits the design of this cathedral to St. Albert the Great. But it is so typical of his own life, pointing all beauty to heaven, that it is a legend very easy to believe. Albert whom 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.

Albert was born in Lauingen, in Swabia, around 1207. His 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. Sent for further studies to the University of Padua, which was queen of the natural sciences, as Paris was of theology, and Bologna of law, Albert delved happily into new fields of science. He found many new things at Padua, but his greatest find was a fellow German, Jordan of Saxony, who captured his heart for the new Order of Friars Preachers. He was received into the Order, probably in 1223.

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 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 years it is equally certain that Albert was a devout client of Our Lady and a master scientist.

Albert had an enquiring mind. 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. He wrote on botany, astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, geography, 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. He taught at both Cologne and Paris, where he had the happiness of seeing a quiet student from the Kingdom of Sicily rise like a brilliant star that would outshine all others. What must it have been to watch the mind of Thomas Aquinas develop and unfold to the wisdom of time and eternity, and to help him open the doors to profound truth?

The man for this work would need great humility and great sanctity, and these Albert had. Albert was bishop of Ratisbon for two years, but resigned in order to return to the classroom. He outlived his beloved pupil by several years, and, in extreme old age, he walked halfway across Europe to defend a thesis of Thomas’ that was challenged.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic’s Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)