If there is anyone who spent his life in eager pursuit of that question, it is our Dominican brother, St. Albert the Great (c. 1203-1280), whose feast we celebrate today. From an early age, Albert possessed an unbounded curiosity in the world and a deep love of learning. After completing his studies at the University of Padua, Our Lady drew him to the Order through the preaching of Bl. Jordan of Saxony.
Albert’s prodigious talents were to be used in the service of the Gospel as a friar preacher. Those talents were used extensively, both in teaching and research. His expertise in biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography, metaphysics, and mathematics mark him as the first and greatest of natural scientists. As a Master of Sacred Theology, St. Albert was also very learned in biblical studies and theology. Beyond his intellectual gifts, he proved to be an able administrator and peacemaker, serving as provincial of Germany, and then, briefly, as bishop of Ratisbon.
One of St. Albert’s greatest legacies was his faithful mentorship of his star pupil, a certain Tomasso d’Aquino. When his fellow students labeled Tomasso’s reserved nature as “slowness,” and nicknamed him "Dumb Ox," Master Albert retorted famously with, “We call him a ‘dumb ox’ but the time will come when he will make such a bellowing in his teaching that it will sound the whole world!” And, indeed, that’s just what happened, for we have been blessed to hear Tomasso’s, that is, St. Thomas Aquinas,’ “bellowings” throughout the centuries.
St. Albert’s zest for knowledge, was not about power or control (and its attendant abuses) but about awe and wonder in the face of God’s creation. He believed that wonder should be all-inclusive, remarking that we should even wonder at the most “dingy and ignoble animal…for we ought to look at the forms of animals and rejoice in…Him who made them, because the artistry of the Maker is revealed in the way He works.” That must explain why Albert had a pet snake!
In an age where faith and science are perversely seen in opposition to each other, St. Albert is a marvelous model. He is a scientist who realized that all his study and knowledge, his search for truth, was meant to not only reach a deeper knowledge and love of God, Truth Himself, but also to share that knowledge with others, bringing glory to God and happiness to all people.
So, “what’s it all about, Albert?” I think St. Albert would respond loudly, “It’s all about God!” for “the whole world is theology for us because the heavens proclaim the glory of God.”
(Postscript: Several years ago one of our Dominican friars, a scientist and admirer of St. Albert, confided in me the hopes that Albert would be declared patron saint of the internet. Who better than the “Doctor Universalis,” a very dynamic human “search engine” to watch over and guide “surfers” and content providers? Though he hasn't been chosen yet, St. Albert the Great makes a very fitting Dominican patron of the Internet!)