Meet the Friars — The Feast of St. Albert the Great
November 15, 2014
Today is a special day for Dominicans: the Feast of St. Albert the Great. St. Albert is probably best known for teaching the doctor communis, St. Thomas Aquinas, whom he reportedly referred to as “the flower and glory of the world.” Yet St. Albert was no mean philosopher and theologian himself, receiving the title doctor universalis, the Universal Doctor, largely due to his voracious intellect and wide-ranging writings. Unsurprisingly, the Province of St. Joseph has a number of friars who call St. Albert their patron. The youngest of this group is Br. Albert Dempsey, OP, a first year student brother at the House of Studies in Washington, DC. Another is Fr. Albert Trudel, OP, who serves as Registrar at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception alongside teachings courses in Latin and communications. Br. Albert and Fr. Albert shared some thoughts on St. Albert and his relevance for today: What drew you to St. Albert? Br. Albert: I was drawn to St. Albert by his reputation as a natural scientist, managing to combine critical inquiry into natural phenomena with a life of sanctity. Such a harmony between scientific research and the Christian life seems particularly needed today. It helped that St. Albert’s scientific efforts were particularly concentrated on living things, my own field of study in college. Fr. Albert: I was drawn to St. Albert by an accident of personal history: when I went to the novitiate, I did not intend to take a religious name, but the enthusiasm of the other brothers influenced me, and I thought that taking a religious name might underscore the new life I found in the Dominican Order. I was told that I could not take any variety of “St. Thomas” for my religious name, so I opted for St. Thomas’ teacher. While I certainly revered St. Albert (for more than instructing St. Thomas) before I took his name, I only learned later just how appropriate, and how “Great” St. Albert was. How has St. Albert been an inspiration to you in your Dominican life? Br. Albert: St. Albert has inspired me by his humility, zeal for religious observance, love for the brethren, and commitment to teaching. As provincial of Germany, he charitably exhorted the friars toward stricter observance while refusing many of the comforts afforded by his position. Later, as bishop of Regensburg, he continued his practice of humbly walking, rather than riding, around his diocese. However, I am most inspired by his willingness to retire as bishop (after having restored order to a scandalous diocese) in order to return to living with the brethren and teach. Until stricken with dementia late in life, he continued teaching in Dominican priories and visited numerous convents and monasteries of the order. Fr. Albert: St. Albert has inspired me to continue to learn as much as possible in as many varied fields as possible. His dedication to the pursuit of truth in all fields of rational inquiry manifests a confidence in the compatibility of science and reason, and in the way the study of truth leads to the one who is Truth. His humility in the face of the greater fame of his pupil also impressed me. Is there anything you wish people knew about St. Albert? Br. Albert: When most people are asked about St. Albert, most — if they have even heard of him — will remark that he was St. Thomas Aquinas’ teacher. A rare few will note that he was responsible for the works of Aristotle being accepted in scholastic thought. While both are true, St. Albert did much more. Although St. Albert followed the text of Aristotle’s writings closely in his commentaries, he was far from an uncritical commentator: he abridged, supplemented, and even contradicted. In fact, in his writings on the Animals, St. Albert offers an account of what I think is the first recorded “scientific experiment” testing a hypothesis: having read Aristotle’s claim that ostriches bury their heads in the ground because they eat metal, St. Albert found an ostrich and attempted to feed it some lumps of iron to see if Aristotle was right (the ostrich refused to eat them). Moreover, St. Albert was not merely a philosopher or natural scientist: he also wrote theological and mystical treatises and served as a peacemaker for his beloved city of Cologne on several occasions. Fr. Albert: I wish people (myself included) knew more about his intellectual life than “he was a great scientist.” No major intellectual biography of St. Albert has been written in or translated into English to compare with Fr. Torrell’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, and few people realize the incredible breadth and depth of his study. Only a few pious works spuriously attributed to him have been translated into English, while his commentary on the Mass (De mysterio missae), on the Eucharist (De corpore domini), and on Pseudo-Dionysius’ works, all rich repositories of his spiritual teaching and very influential for the Rhineland mystics, remain untranslated [the Albert-Magnus-Institut is working on it!]. Why is St. Albert important today? Br. Albert: St. Albert is important because he proved with his life that it is possible to be a critical natural scientist while still believing in God. Moreover, his approach to the sciences, one of combining Aristotle’s scientific principles with up-to-date knowledge and methods, is needed to counterbalance the modern, myopic tendency towards materialism and viewing the various sub-divisions of science (and of human inquiry, in general) as distinct. Fr. Albert: St. Albert the Great is extremely important in an age which imagines that faith and science are utterly distinct. St. Albert has the potential to influence the conversation between theology and science, or at least to provide an example of the ways these disciplines are united and should converse with one another.