Tuesday, November 15, 2011

St. Albert and Alchemy

One of the mottoes of the Order of Preachers is Veritas, or Truth. St. Albert the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, exemplifies that Dominican search for Truth. There is a plethora of subjects, one could focus on, when posting about Albert Magnus, e.i., theology, chemistry, teacher of St. Thomas Aquinas, translator of Aristotle, medicine, botany, geography, astrology, general science, philosophy, and really so-so much more. He was the quintessential searcher for the truth.
But what interests me is his work with "alchemy." I had associated the word alchemy with magic. But that's not accurate. Alchemy is embryonic chemistry. By this I mean that it was chemistry before chemistry was organized into a separate science. In the early stage of alchemy, the experiments alchemists conducted were probably medicines. Some of which worked better than others. I can readily see where the term "charlatans" could probably have readily been applied to some alchemists. But alchemy continued.

Alchemists seemed to be interested in making precious metals by mixing common ingredients together. Trying to make gold and silver was one objective. There were other aspects of alchemy. Making an elixir to prolong life was another objective of many alchemists. Combine the ideas of making precious metals to prolonging life and you give rise to the notion of the "philosopher's stone." Legend has it that Albert found it. What he probably found was that it was not physical, but a spiritual concept: eternal life, living in sacramental grace, etc. At a time when the typical medieval scientist regularly resorted to magical incantations, St. Albert’s investigations were based on observation and analysis. His writings give some of the earliest evidence of the scientific method: the use of controls in experiments, verification of results by careful repetition, and conclusions drawn from sound hypotheses.

Albert constantly taught the connection between faith and reason. Each is incomplete without the other.

It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another. The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths. (Pope Benedict XVI)

Part of alchemy was philosophical. To Albert and others like minded, this meant spiritual. The search to heal and prolong life was the human desire for God. Searching for the philosopher's stone was the search for eternity--the search for God. Experimenting with common substances to make precious metals was an analogy of transmutation of the soul. Albert constantly strived to comprehend the good in the world around him. His influence was great; hence his name "Magnus."

Alchemy may have morphed into Chemistry, but Albert morphed into sainthood. Albert teaches us to trust in God. May all your work glorify him.

h/t to the Nashville Dominicans

No comments: