Dominican friar, philosopher, scientist, bishop, saint
and Doctor of the Church
“The one who cleaves to God is indeed translated into the light, while the one who clings to the world is in the dark. So our supreme perfection in this life is to be so united to God that all our soul with all its faculties and powers are so gathered into the Lord God that we become one spirit with him, and remember nothing except God, aware of and recognizing nothing but God.”—Saint Albert the Great
Albert was born in Germany in 1206. His family home was a castle and he could afford the best education—even the new universities that were being opened throughout Europe. Albertus was interested in everything. He was fascinated by the relationship between faith and science. He studied astronomy and biology and loved logic and math. He pored over maps and hiked in the mountains to learn more about geography. He was the kind of student who challenged teachers to prepare lessons that satisfied his need to learn. When Albert graduated, he joined the Dominican order over his family’s objections.
This great student became an even greater teacher. He taught at the universities of Paris and Cologne. One of his most famous students was Thomas Aquinas, who was later canonized as a saint. We believe that Thomas’ study of philosophy with Albert helped prepare Thomas to write his famous theology books which are still studied today.
Albert also helped Thomas in another important way. Thomas was a large man and very shy. People called him a “dumb ox,” but Albert said that if Thomas was an ox, he was one whose bellow would be heard throughout the world. Albert helped Thomas to understand that God had given him the gift of intelligence he could use to help others know and love the Catholic faith. Albert built up Thomas’ self-confidence so that he could believe in his own talents.
The people of his time (priests, Church officials, professors, students, and even kings) gave Albert the nickname “the Great” (Magnus), a rare honor among the living. Albert was also referred to as a "doctor universalis," which refers to the extensive knowledge - today we would say encyclopedic, of this Dominican Friar; and “Doctor expertus” for the depth of his knowledge on single topics. An authority on the natural sciences, Albert carried out botanical, mineralogical, and metallurgical studies, becoming known for his systematic descriptions and alchemical experiments, such as the pure representation of arsenic. These achievements established him as one of the most important medieval natural scientists.
No other scholar of the 13th century surpassed Albert in the universality of interests, knowledge, and intellectual output. As a scientist, he strengthened the philosophical foundation of theology and advocated a philosophy independent of theology. As a theologian, he laid the foundations for reconciling Aristotelian philosophy with the Christian faith and illuminated pathways to God through self-awareness.
Albert was made a bishop in Germany, but he resigned after only a few years. He was an adviser to the pope but asked to return to science, to learning, and teaching. Albert died at the age of 74, leaving behind a treasury of 38 books and 70 treatises; about 22,000 printed pages, to help us better understand the world God created for us to care for and to use wisely.
Search “Albert the Great” on YouTube and enjoy one of his many books now in audio form.
The Saints of the church can teach and inspire us to seek a deeper relationship with God. Be inspired.
Learning and growing,
Father Bill Burk†