Albert the Great's Insights in to the Eucharist and Beauty

Albert the Great's Insights in to the Eucharist and Beauty

Guest Post by Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski

Last weekend, over 800 scholars and students gathered at the University of Notre Dame for the 17th annual Ethics and Culture Conference. The Conference theme this year was, “You are Beauty.” From Ave Maria University’s theology department, Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O. P. spoke on “The Eucharist as a Locus of Beauty in Albert the Great’s de corpore Domini.”

Here is an abstract of the paper: 

The theological writings of St. Albert Great, especially the treatise de corpore Domine, show sensitivity to the Eucharist as a locus of beauty. In Albert’s writings, the beauty which the Eucharist brings to mankind is metaphysically grounded but blossoms into human experience, ultimately shaping Albert’s own artistic imagination. 

For Albert, the Eucharist draws its beauty from the Trinity, revealing the love of God poured into the world through the Incarnation. By healing those who receive it, the Eucharist makes their lives beautiful through restoring them to wholeness. 

Yet, as a sacrament, the Eucharist has a type of beauty which is fully accessible only to those who believe. It takes faith to “read” the beauty of the meaning expressed by the sacramental signs of bread and wine in their symbolic and historical dimensions. It takes openness to grace for the heart to be moved by closeness of Christ, who lovingly gives his body in the sacrament. Thus, in this case, the ability to achieve aesthetic experience is closely tied to conversion of heart. 

Finally, for Albert, the Eucharist becomes an inspiration for the artistic imagination. He understands the Eucharist to be a key to many Biblical images of beauty as the prophetic inspiration behind them. The Eucharist also becomes a muse for him as he works to express the beauty of Eucharistic experience through the best of his own poetic prose.  

Thus Albert’s Eucharistic theology raises interesting questions of the relationship between knowledge, faith and aesthetic experience. Albert writes about a supernatural beauty, yet one which really can touch human experience and be written about in human language. As a result, an analysis of his approach suggests various levels of beauty: those accessible through the senses and reason alone (the beauty of his language), those accessible only through the eyes of faith (a recognition of the beauty of God’s gift in the Eucharist), and that available through mystical experiential awareness (the “taste” of the sweetness of charity). Because Albert is speaking about sacramental experience, none of these levels leave behind the sensible and historic, but point to varying ways in which the sensible can act as a window to the experience of the reality underlying it.

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