The Student is the Teacher’s Masterpiece: St. Albert the Great and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

by | Nov 17, 2022 | Formation, Reflections

Teachers can’t expect to have a student as exceptional as St. Thomas Aquinas, but both Albertus Magnus and Mother Seton understood that every teacher can create “masterpieces” by forming students in Christ’s image.

Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s in Rome is widely considered his masterpiece; Dante’s is The Divine Comedy. Saint Albert the Great’s masterpiece is undoubtedly his student, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Albert left a legacy of written works and institutions in his long life, but like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, his greatest achievements are in the minds and souls he helped form as a teacher.

It would be hard to overstate the greatness of Albertus Magnus.

He is frequently mentioned by Dante, who adopted the saint’s doctrine of free will as his own, then placed both Albert and his fellow Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas among the great lovers of wisdom in his Paradisio.

Albertus Magnus lived a long life, from some time before 1200 to 1280. The date of his birth in Germany is uncertain though he was said to be over 80 when he died.

His contributions to Western intellectual life were immense. He was introduced to Aristotle’s writings in his youth at the University of Padua and entered the Dominicans in 1223. He was a star scholar at revered places of learning in Regensburg, Paris and Cologne.

Albert was a scientist, philosopher, theologian, spiritual writer, and diplomat. When he was briefly also a bishop —from 1260 to 1263 — Albert became known as “Boots the Bishop” because, in obedience to his Dominican vow of poverty, he chose to walk rather than travel by horse on his parish visits. Pope Urban IV reassigned him to assist in discussions regarding the eighth crusade.

He was a renowned scholar.

Albert wrote 38 volumes on a remarkable number of subjects. He wrote about friendship, love, logic, theology, justice, law, geography and astronomy. His empirical approach to science, based on observation and experiment, in the fields of zoology and botany, would have struck us as surprisingly modern.

St. Albert even wrote about music. He was fascinated by the mathematical proportions inherent in music, which he examined through plainchant. He regarded silence as an integral part of music.

His greatest contribution, however, was to be the first to comment on virtually all of the writings of Aristotle, introducing generations to the Greek philosopher. The most famous amongst them was St. Thomas Aquinas, who was to write the Summa Theologica, the most comprehensive assimilation of Aristotle’s thought into Christian theology.

Albert also studied Muslim Aristotelian scholars such as Averroes, and introduced the study of Aristotle into Dominican schools. As a Dominican provincial, he put a high value on teaching and helped establish a ratio studiorum, a program of studies, for the Dominicans. The school Albert established in Rome would become the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Legend says that Albertus passed the “Philosopher’s Stone” to St. Thomas Aquinas.

This false legend says that Albertus Magnus was an alchemist who, on his deathbed, bequeathed a mythical stone to St. Thomas. The story is not only silly, but Thomas died years before Albert.

Albert was known as “the last man to know everything there was to know,” and what’s certain is that he did pass his prodigious learning to his student. St. Thomas Aquinas’s work was called “miraculous” by Pope John XXII, who said, “By the use of his works a man could profit more in one year than if he studies the doctrine of others for his whole life.”

Thomas first studied under Albertus Magnus in Paris. When Albert was moved to a teaching post in Cologne, Aquinas followed him, refusing a post at Monte Cassino offered to him by Pope Innocent IV, preferring to stay with his teacher

Fellow students considered Thomas dull and slow, and called him “the dumb ox.” But St. Albert famously turned their ridicule around.

“You call him the dumb ox,” Albert quipped, “but in his teaching he will one day produce such a bellowing that it will be heard throughout the world.”

After Aquinas’ death, St. Albert defended his protégé when the Vatican questioned the orthodoxy of his works.

In one key respect, every teacher is like Albert the Great and every student is like Aquinas.

“Catholic education is above all a question of communicating Christ, of helping to form Christ in the lives of others,” St. John Paul II said.

Teachers can probably never expect to have a student as exceptional as “the Dumb Ox,”  but every teacher can create a “masterpiece” by forming a student in Christ’s image.

This is what Elizabeth Ann Seton tried to do with students rich and poor alike, male and female. Her inclusive approach to the education of the young was as innovative in her time as Albert’s insistence that a pagan philosopher could have great truths to impart to Christendom.

In Elizabeth’s care for the minds, hearts and souls of her students, she did not discriminate between children of the great or those of humble birth.

In an 1816 letter, she directed Jerome Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, to Jesus.

“It is a great pleasure to me to send you the Agnus Dei,” a devotional statuette. “I earnestly beg our Lord to preserve in you the graces he has so tenderly bestowed on you. Take care yourself not to lose them! Pray for me and I will for you.”

Likewise, she showed the same concern for a child of a much more humble family in an 1814 letter to her parents.

“I think you are too anxious for the fruit of your dear little tree, which is ripening very fast,” she wrote. “I see a heavenly simplicity and purity of mind preparing the way to the most blessed fruits of faith. But we must wait for these fruits; for, if there is a true danger for one of her turn, it would be to push her too fast, and force an exterior look without the interior spirit.”

Alma Mater

“Alma Mater,” the Latin phrase for “nourishing mother,” is an ancient homage to higher education where the nurturing of a young mind is recognized as an act of formation analogous to a loving mother’s care.

According to Pope Benedict XVI, Albert defined theology as “‘emotional knowledge,’ which points out to human beings their vocation to eternal joy, a joy that flows from full adherence to the truth.”

As a mother, Elizabeth Ann Seton lavished maternal care on all her students and Sisters.

In a letter to a former student near the end of her life, she wrote, “God bless you, my loved child. Remember Mother’s first and last lesson to you: seek God in all things.”

If Albert the Great is the father of education, Mother Seton is the original “alma mater.”

TOM HOOPESauthor most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.