Province of St. Albert the Great, USA

St. Albert the Great: Artist of the Possible

With a name like Zühlke you’d think I’d have an affinity for all things Prussian. So, you may be shocked to hear that I have mixed feelings about Otto von Bismarck, Minister-President of the Kingdom of Prussia, and mastermind of the unification of Germany during the last half of the 19th C. No friend of the Roman Catholic Church, Bismarck waged a Kulturkampf against the Church to restrict its influence in German society: regulating Catholic clergy, seizing Catholic educational institutions, and generally secularizing German politics. The nationalist fervor required to achieve this and the resulting centralization of power surely set the stage for the two World Wars to come.

Yet Bismarck himself was also admirable in some ways. He is the origin of a favorite quote of mine, “Politics is the art of the possible.” A devout Lutheran, he is also known for the following quote related to politics: “A statesman… must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events; then leap up and grasp the hem of his garment.” Though he might be criticized for some of his machinations, he was enough of a Christian to understand that Catholics made better friends than the secularists and socialists pushing anti-religious political agendas in the newly unified German Empire, encouraging him to make peace with Pope Leo XIII and discarding much of the Kulturkampf legislation as a result. Bismarck remained a practical man, open to what he could discern of God’s will and following it by knowing the possible and acting on it.

We might wonder what the patron of our Province, St. Albert the Great, would have thought of his fellow German. Perhaps he would have nodded his head: “Yes, life is about the possible, and we are to discern the possible in the ‘steps of God’ and follow where they lead by grasping on to Him.” Albert himself would be challenged to respond to “the possible” throughout his entire life as son of St. Dominic. The Order of Preachers was a wild explosion of possibilities: a new itinerant and mendicant manner of life; a universal mission of contemplative action (preaching, teaching, evangelization); a mixed life of active contemplation (prayer, study, community) according to the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order; and all at a time when new sources of knowledge were flooding into an increasingly prosperous and unified Western Europe. Oh the possibilities! Is there any limit?

But as I get to know Albert better, I increasingly have the impression of a very practical man, a realist: prayerful, joyful, active, creative, experimental, devotional, faithful, obedient, but a realist in all things. He was an “Artist of the Possible,” committed to discerning what can be, with all the limitations such implies, in order to embrace what really is: what is given by God as the context within which to pursue the mission of the salvation of souls. This is surely reflected in his interest in the natural world, the “Book of Nature,” having a dignity and integrity of its own, whose workings and works glorify the God who is its Author. The first to engage in a comprehensive commentary on all of Aristotle’s natural philosophical works, Albert also pursued his own investigations of the natural world, experimentally or through consultation. He didn’t hesitate to critique some of Aristotle’s conclusions based on what he had personally discovered, in turn contributing his own work towards a significant expansion of medieval knowledge of nature. His love of reality demanded an ability to critique and improve upon what was received so that others might better embrace God’s reality in their own lives.

As an “Artist of the Possible,” Albert’s practicality and realism were always at work in determining how he served Order, Church, and society. His commentaries on Aristotle were done at the behest of his own brothers desiring to know what Aristotle had to say about God’s Creation. As Albert Judy related last year in his reflection, St. Albert pursued this work on the side while organizing a studium in Cologne and acting as Provincial of Teutonia, each a titanic response to the requests of his brothers. Later he would be asked by the wider Church to reform the diocese of Regensburg as bishop then preach a new crusade in Germany. He embraced both these tasks with exceptional competence and passion. As a Dominican, Albert took as “possible” what was demanded by the concrete needs of the Order and the Church, answering these needs as the call of God.

Albert’s practical realism would take a harsher turn towards the end of his life, however, demanding of him a humble acceptance of the narrowing of the possible. He travelled to Paris while it was still possible to encourage its bishop to avoid anything in the Condemnations of 1277 that would impact his beloved student, Thomas. Having failed in this task he became increasingly reclusive and disengaged, apparently slowly declining in his mental faculties. “Albert was once here, but his is here no longer,” said the Archbishop of Cologne after visiting him. Yet perhaps Albert’s turning inwards was not merely a sign of decline but of a humble turning upwards towards God in preparation for being stripped permanently of the possibilities of worldly life. “You can’t take it with you”: no matter how Great you are the possibility of death will become a certainty.

As a Province under the patronage of St. Albert the Great, the “Artist of the Possible” provides us with a model for how to pursue our life and work today. Albert teaches us that our charism of study requires that we wield the best of our intellectual resources to discern reality as given by God, with all its possibilities and limitations, illuminating this reality with the gospel of Christ and preaching it with a beauty of thought that attracts others into this reality. Our effectiveness in this mission is determined by what is possible and further constrained by the actual needs of Church and world. Having better recognized our limitations in recent years, we’ve made tough decisions as a Province to reprioritize our commitments, letting go of certain avenues of ministry to reinvest in others. But we’ve also answered unexpected calls from the Order to take on a new missionary commitment in Puerto Rico. All this seems in accord with the practicality and obedience of Albert. Finally, failure and decline will come at times, and Albert models for us a peaceful acceptance of these realities, embracing them as avenues through which to reencounter the one Reality who gives and takes away in accord with his Providence. St. Albert, pray for us, that we may be “Artists of the Possible” with you.

Brian John Zuelke, O.P.
St. Albert the Great Priory
November 15, 2021