St. Albert the Great

For the past eight days we have been praying a novena to St. Albert, and our prayer has said, “…God endowed you with wisdom and understanding.” These words can be somewhat deceptive, because the popular notion of “wisdom” and “understanding” equates them with a high IQ. Our faith, by contrast, tells us that wisdom and understanding are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Neither has anything to do with being smart, but each has a lot to do with making us great. And because each of us has received these gifts, each of us shares St. Albert’s vocation to greatness, at least potentially.

St. Albert introduced the West to the world view we call Western Civilization. He wrote on astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, economic, ethics, geography, logic, mathematics, metaphysics, meteorology, politics, rhetoric, Scripture, and theology. I gather that his hypothesis on the mating habits of birds has been disproved, but Fr. Sergius says that his description of an apple is still the standard quoted in botany textbooks.

A couple of years ago we heard four homilies on this evening’s gospel in as many days. Fr. Vincent remarked that the gospel parable is not a lesson in personal finance, but a metaphor for our lives and how we spend them. And Br. Peter remarked that it doesn’t make much difference whether we’re talking about our finances or our spiritual development; if we’re going to see any growth, we must be willing to take risks.

Which is precisely the challenge Albert was willing to embrace. “Our intention,” he said, “is to make all the aforesaid parts of knowledge intelligible to the Latins.” He is famous for studying Aristotle, but the risk was studying Aristotle through his Arab commentators. Whether this is enough to make Albert “great” may be debated, I suppose, but it certainly goes a long way toward making him wise – at least if we listen to St. James this evening, who tells us that wisdom “is lenient, rich in sympathy, [and] impartial.”

These are qualities we find recommended in the book of Sirach, written by a Jew living among the Greeks. He had every reason to fear that his faith would be compromised and diluted. But instead of turning within, defensively, he urged his listeners to grow in their faith by seeking wisdom wherever it could be found.

Once again, St. James tells us, “If one of you is wise, show this in practice through a humility filled with good sense.” 

Practical good sense, coupled with humility, and leavened – not by indifference, but by tolerance. As we make our pilgrimage through this 21st Century, it may come as a blow to our arrogance that we have not invented cultural diversity; we are merely the latest to discover its worth. Albert the Great preached its virtues 700 years ago, and the author of the book of Sirach proclaimed its value 1300 years before him. But this is no more than what we might read in a newspaper advice column, so it cannot be the understanding and wisdom we have been praying for these last eight days. 

One modern spiritual writer has called the Gift of Wisdom “the greatest gift.” It is the intellect guided directly by the Holy Spirit to gain entry into the very life of God. This is what St. Paul revels in when he cries out, in his Letter to the Romans, “O the depths of the riches of the…knowledge of God” (Romans 11:33). It is given to us at Baptism.

Our theology teaches us that the gift of understanding allows us to grasp more fully the truths we profess by faith. As Albert discovered, the human mind is altogether fascinating. But the human intellect is limited, and no matter how brilliant we are, we will, eventually, come to the end of our intellectual powers. This is the case with anything we choose to study. “Consequently,” St. Thomas writes, “man needs a supernatural light: and this supernatural light which is bestowed on man is called the gift of understanding.”

Ultimately, what made St. Albert great were probably his generosity and his humility. Remember his remark, “Our intention is to make all the aforesaid parts of knowledge intelligible to the Latins.” This is a splendid illustration of the maxim that teaches us gifts are never given just to enrich the individual who receives them; rather, they are given to enrich the entire Church. 

Our wisdom and understanding immeasurably increase our love for God, and our awareness of God’s love for us, but these gifts do not – cannot – end with this awareness. At breakfast this morning Br. Thomas Aquinas told me that Saint Albert wrote a commentary on the Virtuous Wife in the Book of Proverbs. He compared her to the Church, and said that her blood, which nourishes the infant in her womb, is like the ministry of preaching. The prayer we’ve offered these past eight days has asked our patron to cultivate in us the gifts of wisdom and understanding so that we may share in his love of truth and “preach it in the spirit of our holy Father, Dominic.”

If we don’t share these gifts by the preaching of our lives, two things will happen, neither of them pleasant to contemplate. The first is that the world will be deprived of the gift we’ve been given – and given to share. The second, and this hits far closer to home, is that is that if we’re not willing to risk embracing our preaching ministry – in whatever form it takes – we will have absolutely no claim on our Master’s joy.

--by Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

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© St. Albert's Priory, 2014