Who is St. Albert the Great? An Interview with Sr. Albert Marie; Scholar, Doctor, and Dominican Sister.

When the early Church Fathers wrote on Christ and the Church, they typically focused on the intellect.  St. Albert the Great, an early Dominican and teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, followed this vein in his own writings; however, he often included the heart aspect as well. In De Corporis Domine, he approached the Blessed Sacrament both mentally and emotionally.  Sister Albert Marie tackled the tedious translation from Latin to English of this great work, and she gives a glimpse into the beauties contained therein on the Eucharist.

Sr. John Dominic:

Sister Albert Marie, one of the sisters in our community, has done something extraordinary for theology, making the writings of her patron, St. Albert the Great, accessible to those of us who may not have the talent of understanding Latin or the ability to translate it. Before we dive into your book, could you talk about your vocation, your background, and why you took St. Albert the Great as your patron because I think that shaped everything you were thinking about as you’re writing this?

Sr. Albert Marie:

I entered the community out of college, and I’d heard about St. Albert, and I’ve read some of St. Thomas’s theology but didn’t really have a connection with him until I entered. I knew that the patron I wanted for my name would be a Dominican, someone who’d lived that Dominican tradition. I had a lot of respect for the interest in philosophy and theology that was part of the Dominican tradition. St. Albert was second generation Dominican. He entered the order after Dominic had died, so they didn’t overlap, but before St. Thomas Aquinas, and he was helpful in teaching Thomas and shaping the Dominican academic heroism of teaching and studying theology and philosophy. When I was reading the life of St. Albert, he was interesting because while his greatest contributions are in theology and philosophy, he was also interested in science, astronomy, the world around him and had this global sense that everything in the world is from God and connects to God. One of the quotes of his that I came across was, “All of creation is theology because the heavens declare the glory of God.” He’s quoting Psalm 19 there, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” That was a song that was dear to me because I grew up in Canada on a farm, and part of how I learned to pray was spending time outside. It was very silent in the fields. It was a good place for contemplation if you went for a walk, seeing how beautiful it was. I remember as a teenager thinking I need some words from scripture to help me pray. I got the Bible and was going through the Psalms because I knew that was a good place to look for prayers. That was a Psalm I stopped at: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the firmament show forth the work of your hands.” That was my favorite Psalm, and to see St. Albert also devotionally loving and quoting that song clinched the decision that he was the one who would be a good patron. 

Sr. John Dominic:

We know that St. Thomas is looked at as the patron of Catholic education, but everything we see in St. Thomas Aquinas, he learned from his teacher who is his mentor. What I love with Albert is that you have a patron saint of science or math because with the Dominican, the care is in this truth and we’re not just philosophy and theology, which are essential, but as you said, all the other sciences. Was there anything in particular that he had a love for and sought the truth? Was there anything that you know from studying and having a connection about his life that you’ve read?

Sr. Albert Marie:

He studies everything. Apparently, he studies spiders and how they make their webs, and one life of his mentioned that he was studying the nervous system and the skeletal system and noticed the importance of the spine and the head and as a foundation of the study of the nervous system. Apparently, he predicted that if you went to the North Pole or the South Pole, animals would be white because of that camouflage with the snow. There’s a lot of interesting things, but I haven’t had a chance to explore them that much.

Sr. John Dominic:

That’s the contemplation and recognizing the beauty of all that God has created. We understand this in philosophy and theology that God created all of those for us and for us to be able to give praise and worship to Him. What led you to do this work? Could give us some background on the title and what you did to accomplish taking the writings of Saint Albert the Great and translating them for us?

Sr. Albert Marie:

This work started as a dissertation project at Ave Maria University. I was studying down there, and one of the professors, Father Matthew Lamb, emphasizes that theology is a tradition in which you have wisdom passed on from those who came before. One of the possibilities for a dissertation project was doing a translation and also analyzing the theology. The translation is a research piece and then there is some substantial theological analysis for the original contribution piece. I thought, “If I’m going to spend a couple years focusing on one author or one work, I’d like to get to know Saint Albert the Great more.” He writes in Latin, which is a language that I studied as an undergraduate. I was looking through the works of St. Albert. He wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages, and a very, very small percentage of his works are in English. Most of them are in Latin because they’ve been studied somewhat, but a couple of generations ago everyone studying at that level knew that, so I searched through and I picked this particular one. I translated his De Corporis DomineOn the Body of the Lord, partly because it’s a Eucharistic work. As a member of our community, the Eucharist is very easy to love and be connected to. It was written near the end of Albert’s life, so probably the 1270s. His life spans the 1200s, but he dies in the 1280s. It’s mixed in style. It has some very academic, scholastic parts, but it also has some meditational, beautiful parts that are more like the monastic theology of Saint Bernard or the generations before. It had more beauty of language than some of his other works, and I knew that if I was going to spend a couple years working on a piece, I wanted something that would be beautiful as well as interesting.

Sr. John Dominic welcomed scholar, writer, doctor and Dominican Sister, Sr. Albert Marie to talk about St. Albert the Great.

Sr. John Dominic:

Here you are. You have your patron saint that you’ve studied; you’re reading the writings that have not been translated. It had to have been an amazing spiritual experience during that time to all of a sudden come across something. What was that like for you?

Sr. Albert Marie:

It was a mixture. There’s moments where you’re thinking, “What’s this word doing here? What’s it for out of this sentence?” Then you step back and look at the ideas, and there are moments where it was very beautiful, like where he talks about the light of the Lord shining on you in the Eucharist. It definitely informed my meditations during that year.

Sr. John Dominic:

I love that. The light of the Lord shining on you.

Sr. Albert Marie:

Eucharistic adoration is just starting at this time. 1215 is when you have the elevation of the host starting. He’s a little platonic. He has a strong sense of, “God is the first source of all goodness and it’s overflowing or shining.” He’s always using that language of water or light coming down from the Lord to us. For him, the Eucharist is the most important moment in which we come in contact with that light, joy, and power from the Lord. There are parts of it that are beautiful to read in adoration because he has this sense of flowing down from God to us. Even though he’s not having those hours of adoration the same way that we do with the host exposed, that idea is in there. He does talk about attending mass when the host is held up and looking at that and that being a moment of prayer and desire to receive the Lord.

Sr. John Dominic:

What I’m hearing you describing in this is that his writing is not strictly academic writing but also meditative, so it feeds both your mind and your heart.

Sr. Albert Marie:

Some sections are meditations, and he’ll quote St. Bernard’s beautiful language and then take off with it. Then there’s other places where he’s much more, “Okay. Should someone in this state receive the Eucharist? Why or why not, etc?”

Sr. John Dominic:

A little more dogmatic doctrine conventional teaching.

Sr. Albert Marie:

Both of those are in there. He used six names for the Eucharist: grace, gift, food, communion, sacrifice, and sacrament. It was interesting why those six names. Eucharist is not one of them. Other things that you might’ve thought would be body and blood. Those words are used in that work, but it seems like those are all words used for the Eucharist that come from the liturgy. Albert, near the end of his life, was called upon to be a bishop for a few years. That affected his theology a little bit. Some people think it was that pastoral forming of the priests of his diocese and that focus on the liturgy that made him choose those six for this work.

Sr. John Dominic:

Especially because, if you think about it, these would be understanding you received the grace, God’s life. It’s a gift. You’re going to be nourished by Him in communion. Can you see why there would be a logic to the choice? Did that come clear to you as you were translating?

Sr. Albert Marie:

There is a sense of God being first and every good thing comes from Him. Grace is something freely given from God in the sense of coming from Him and blessing us. Gift is similar, but focusing more on what’s given. There’s a beautiful section in there where he talks about how the gift is given individually to each one what they need. He compares it to the matter in the Old Testament where each one gathered manna, and they had exactly what they needed. Then food, of course, He’s given us food and then communion as a result of that. We receive Him. We’re fed, and then we’re in union with Him and with others. Sacrifice and sacrament are more technical. He wants to connect it back to the Old Testament sacrifices. Under sacrament, he goes through a lot of the classic, medieval questions. How do we understand Christ’s presence? How do we understand the appearances he accidents at the bread and wine? He goes through technical questions at the end. He’s not always reflecting the current practice of the Church. What do you do if a priest dies during mass? Also, he has some speculation about when we start going to these arctic regions, it’s going to be too cold to have wine. How are we going to handle that? He doesn’t always have the answer that the Church decided on, but it’s fascinating to see his reasoning trying to figure it out. Maybe we won’t be able to bring wine, but we’ll just consecrate the host. No, that’s not right, but he’s trying to figure it out. He’s putting ideas forward. Let’s think about how we’re going to bring it everywhere as we continue to go.

Sr. John Dominic:

I love that idea of the spirit. One thing we see with the Dominican charism is that there’s always this spirit of going out and teaching and preaching or reaching to evangelize. A lot of times you see writings now of some Dominicans, and they’ll say the evangelization is not new. Evangelization is something we’ve done since the founding of the Dominicans because we’re always teaching and preaching and out there. Can you see any influence or not [from St. Thomas’ writings] or have you ever thought about it in that way?

Sr. Albert Marie:

There’s definitely some influence in that whole medieval scholastic tradition. There are certain questions treated in the Summa. Some of them you see treated here, but it’s not just because Albert thought of that and then Thomas treated it. There’s places where you definitely see Thomas going further. How do we add adjectives? How do we particularly describe the exact way Christ is present? Thomas is a little bit more hands-on with that. Albert focuses on how God is given to us to nourish us. Wherever you see the appearances of bread and wine, Christ is there as spiritual food. He jumps right into the purpose but doesn’t do the metaphysics in as much detail. You see Aquinas going further, and yet Albert’s right. Christ is present in every fragment of the Eucharist because every fragment of the Eucharist signifies spiritual food. What is signified in the sacrament is truly there; therefore, Christ is truly there. We take that idea for food all the way through, and he expands that idea more than Aquinas does.

Sr. John Dominic:

This is such a wonderful gift that you’ve given to the Church and anyone wanting to study and dive into a deeper understanding of his mind and thought. We have On the Body of the Lordon our website with the Dominican Sisters. It was actually published by Catholic University of America, correct? Can you tell a little bit about the series this is a part of?

Sr. Albert Marie:

Catholic University of American has a series going through the Fathers of the Church in translation, and they’ve been doing this series for decades. It’s a well-known series, and they have a medieval section. It was wonderful to work with them because first of all, if you’re in that series, people will know about the work because whatever library has that series gets it, but also their editors were wonderful to work with. We were back and forth, and they went through with a fine-tooth comb. It helped my style. I was so grateful.

Sr. John Dominic:

How long did this take you?

Sr. Albert Marie:

The dissertation translation was over two years while I was doing coursework and comps, but then it was another year-and-a-half making it fit their format and polishing it up. Because this work’s Latin hasn’t been done in a critical edition yet, I had to search for a lot of the sources myself. That was as much time as the translation, tracing all of the Church Fathers he quotes.

Sr. John Dominic:

Sometimes we see this and think this could have been too much of a scholarly book; however, I think what you said at the beginning shapes who he is and shaped his contemplation, his writings, and this teaching. He saw the beauty of God’s creation in God’s goodness, and that comes from the contemplative part that you experienced in your youth. I’m sure it nurtures your vocation to religious life, finding the scripture to pray, and a part of who you are. It could feed other people’s own meditation and time of prayer before our Lord. Have you encountered anyone who’s read it or used it as part of any classes that you’re aware of?

Sr. Albert Marie:

I’ve used pieces of it in some of my own teachings, and I know at least one professor at Boston College used it with some of his graduate students. They had a reading seminar and were really interested in it. It’s a beautiful work because sometimes Dominican theology is thought to belong to the head, and this is a work that the heart is also very prominent in. That heart is in Aquinas and the more academic works, but it’s not as much on the surface. This is a work where Albert clearly wants you to realize that this is beautiful and lovable and moving, as well as understandable and wise and intelligible, which is partly why the work is as long as it is. It’s 400-some pages, and if he stuck to the facts, it would be shorter, but he tries to show you how they’re beautiful and uses beautiful language at certain parts. He’s clearly trying to move the heart, trying to give an example, the priest preaching. It isn’t preached as a sermon. You have to expand it and show the beauty, and he draws in the Old Testament in places and gives analogies as well. There’s a place where he’ll say there’s an exchange in the Eucharist, and you have divine exchanges. In the Incarnation, God becomes man, so we can unite it to God. Aquinas applies it to the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, you have this divine exchange, and Albert paints a picture that it’s like a ship, and you put your sadness and your sorrow and your tiredness [in it.] He paints an empathetic picture of human life. He had some hard days because he’s writing from his heart here.

Sr. Albert Marie receiving her Doctorate in Moral Theology.

Sr. John Dominic:

This is so wonderful. I’ve heard about it and read through parts of it myself, so it’s funny that we have this form to actually sit down and have a conversation with it. To the people that are listening, don’t be afraid of the size of it or that there’s Latin on the front of it, and think, “Oh, this is part of a medieval series.” What Sister has beautifully expressed to us is that this saint, St. Albert the Great, a great Dominican, speaks to our mind and our hearts, that leads us to our relationship, our love of our Lord and the Blessed Sacrament in the Eucharist and the themes and names that he had given, as we said earlier, grace, gift, food, communion, sacrifice, and sacrament. That’s so much part of our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Sister, is there anything you want to conclude with here to encourage anyone who’s listening to not be afraid to crack it open?

Sr. Albert Marie:

In addition, it’s neat to have in your hands and read the work of someone who wrote in the 1270s, hundreds of years ago, who shares that same faith. There’s pieces in it where you’re receiving the Lord. Connecting back to so many years of Christian tradition can be a very beautiful experience.

Sr. John Dominic:

Thank you, Sister Albert Marie. I’m sure this is not going to be the only contribution that you give to us in theology and the many students that you continue to touch. Our community is grateful for your gifts and how generously and humbly you share this with all of us. If you enjoyed this episode of Mind and Heart, I encourage you to follow us as we’ve got more to share with you from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.


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