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Province of St. Albert the Great, USA

A Reflection for the Feast of St. Albert the Great

My dear brothers, 

Our celebration for St. Albert begins with a reminder for our intellectual order, perhaps even an examination of conscience. The first antiphon of morning prayer reads, “One gains this sacred knowledge more by prayer and devotion than by study.” If it weren’t taken from Albert’s writing, one might wonder if this was an insult to the man we call “Great.” We celebrate a doctor of the Church, a man who inspired legends of alchemy, whose ability to grasp the intricacies of all reality was unrivaled, who had practical skills to match and, based on the success of his students, was even able to transmit his knowledge and love of wisdom. If the antiphons told us to compete with those accomplishments, I suspect I would vacillate between utter intimidation and prideful ambition. But that isn’t what is asked of us at all! We are reminded to pray, to seek the face of God. From a beginner in the spiritual life, that advice would seem like a mere platitude. When Albert the Great tells us to pray, it carries weight.

At the risk of setting up an obviously false dichotomy, why doesn’t Albert tell us to study? Why tell us that prayer is the way to sacred knowledge, to knowing God? I suspect we all know the answer already. We know how easy it is to forget God. One can read theology, prepare a homily, teach a lesson, put on a habit, read Catholic news, and recite the office without ever once gazing upon God. Staring at your phone and ignoring the people in the room is not a new phenomenon - humanity has a long history of distractions from God. Religious are no exception. We so often run in circles, talking about God without ever looking up to see. 

This is not to say we learn nothing in our studies. We learn a tremendous amount about God. Sometimes study even merges with prayer and the Word speaks. But knowing that God is merciful? That doesn’t come from thinking. You learn the mercy of God after a long, hard week when everything went wrong, you lost your temper, you hurt your brothers, you now feel like a failure, you sit down to scream in anger but then look up… and see Him on the Cross, the one who knows failure. The one who enters into our sinfulness to raise us up. The one whose love speaks in the silence, “Go back! Try again to love as I have loved you.” It is then that all the stories and ideas become real. It is then that you know the confounding mercy of God - so gentle and yet so demanding. 

Remembering God in prayer would be so much easier if it were always comforting. I’m sure we have all discovered that prayer is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it is a harsh mirror. You can only zone out during the intercessions so many times before coming to the realization, “I just don’t care about this.”  Prayers for the world, the Church, our brothers… they don’t mean enough to me to hold my attention. Dinner, in fact, means more to me right now. What choice do we have when that realization hits? Self-deception is always an option. It's quite easy to say to yourself, “I’ve just had a long day, that’s why I can’t focus. '' Another choice is to pray that dinner will indeed be delicious. As prayers go, it’s petty. It’s childish. But it’s also honest. “Your Father who sees in secret” already knows what you desire. I can sometimes imagine God chuckling when I finally get the courage to admit my selfishness. What father isn’t happy when his son finally wakes up and sees the truth? Yet here too the Paschal mystery breaks in. The mirror of petty prayer opens up the doors of humility. We die and rise a little more like God. 

If only the danger of prayer ended there! On the days when the desire for peace is real, when the laments of the psalms hit home and the horror of evil in the world actually matters - on those days - prayer can be an exercise in torture. Is it not enough that the world is full of sin? Must we also see it? Why can’t we have bliss in ignorance? What kind of God not only grants freedom, but also causes us to understand the cost? What kind of Providence is this? How can we not demand to know why God slaughters the fattened calf for the prodigal sons of our world? Who doesn’t, in some passing moments, want to tell God that He is wrong? He needs to take His bow back out of the sky and drown the evil forces of the world. Please God, just let us “good people” remain. Ah, once again, the cross! Again the silent Word speaks, “Everything I have is yours. But now we must rejoice” for “I make all things new.” Again that confounding mercy. 

Blessed are the days when prayer is actually thanksgiving: when ministry goes well, when everything could have gone wrong but didn’t, when for a fleeting moment the Glory of God broke through the face of the autumn leaves or the smile of a coworker.  How blessed the moments when you can see, despite your best efforts to the contrary, that grace prevailed and good things happened. Blessed is prayer that sees creation through the joy of the Father. Yes, light and darkness bless the Lord, absolutely yes! Blessed are the moments when we see clearly enough to ask, “Lord, fix the roots of my tree in heaven” so that we may love this beautiful world as God does. 

“Son, follow after wisdom and listen to the words of my mouth…” Brothers, my prayer for all of us today is that we may listen to St. Albert and follow him into Life. May St. Albert intercede for us and help us pray. May our study and ministry, our chores and our recreation, and yes, even the Hours be rich in prayer. May we all gaze upon God anew and help others learn to do the same.