PILGRIMAGE: Padua, Italy—Leading One Life by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Padua, Italy—Leading One Life by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

I’m on a walking tour of Padua, following the free map provided by the Tourist Office.  I started at the railroad station (the first stop on the map) and have been following the red line painted on the sidewalk.  It has already led past ancient Roman walls, down busy streets and across wide piazzas, passing the great brown basilica of “If Santo,” Saint Anthony of Padua, wonder-worker and finder of lost articles, and has started to circle back after reaching the Benedictine monastery with its immense church dedicated to Santa Giustina, the patron saint of the city.

My own patron saint, Albert the Great, was a Dominican scholar.  His tremendous breadth of knowledge in physical sciences, philosophy, and theology earned him the title of Doctor Universalis, “Universal Doctor.”  I have walked in his footsteps a couple of times already in my European travels.  In Paris, I strolled down the quiet street named after him: rue du Maître Albert, “Master Albert Street,” on the Left Bank.  It was near there that he studied and taught from 1241 to 1248.  In Cologne, I stayed for a few days with the Dominican Friars at Sankt Andreas Kirche, the lovely Romanesque church where Albert’s body lies in a plain stone sarcophagus in the crypt.  On today’s day-trip from Venice, I hope to meet up with the great Doctor of the Church once again, this time at the University of Padua.

The university is a large blue “56” printed over a busy shopping street near the center of my map.  I follow the red line toward the spot, watching for my patron’s footprints.

The official date of the founding of the great school is 1222.  The very next summer, Jordan of Saxony, the successor of Saint Dominic as master general of the Dominicans, came to Padua in hopes of attracting candidates to the new Order of Preachers.  Among his ten recruits, he wrote, were “two sons of two great German lords, one has resigned rich benefices and is truly noble in mind and body.”  Tradition has it that the second young man was the future Albertus Magnus, Saint Albert the Great.

For its first three hundred years, the university didn’t even have its own buildings, so I’m not likely to find any places where young Albert actually studied.  What I do find this afternoon are plenty of worn-out four-story buildings with modern shops on the street level.  I cross avenues filled with noisy noonday traffic and stroll along crowded sidewalks.  The red line takes me past computer stores, leather boutiques, trattorias, florists, and booksellers to the spot shown on my map.  But I still don’t see any university.  There is, however, a marker that brags that Professor Galileo Galilei perfected the telescope while teaching here between 1592 and 1608.

I remember being fascinated as a college student by the life of a philosopher who taught in the University of Padua at about the same time as Galileo.  He had the unforgettable name of Professor Pietro Pomponazzi..  What was even more impressive than his name was his double life.  A devout, practicing Roman Catholic, he would go to church and worship God, then walk to the university and teach his students that the truths of philosophy and logic completely contradict those of faith.  He taught that according to philosophy the soul cannot be immortal, but that according to theology it is.  He saw no problem in holding both teachings as true.

My philosophical musings are rudely interrupted by the screech of brakes and the ill-tempered blast of a horn.  I’ve just stepped off the curb and am blinking stupidly at the red Ferrari that has almost hit me.  The driver screams at me in loud Italian and roars off flourishing some quaint hand gesture that undoubtedly dates back to the days of the obscene Emperor Caligula.

Professor Pomponazzi led two separate lives.  First, he was a loyal Roman Catholic, holding to the beliefs and practices of the church.  Second, he was a philosopher, following the strict demands of reason and the laws of evidence, the conclusions of which were often at odds with the teachings of his faith.  He somehow managed to hold that both contradictory sets of beliefs were true – he simply kept them entirely separated from one another in his mind.

It’s interesting that the Oration for the Mass on the feast of Albert the Great notes that the saint was known for his “talent of combining human wisdom and divine faith.”  Unlike Pomponazzi, Albert did not lead two lives.  He saw everything he did, whether in biology, chemistry, or philosophy, as somehow infused with the holy, with the presence of God.

Finding no trace of anything that looks like a school building, I take it on faith that I’m standing right in the middle of the famous university where Albert studied and Pietro Pomponazzi taught.  I decide to keep following the faithful red line back to the railroad station.

In a slightly different way from my professor friend, many modern Christians see themselves as leading two lives.  First, there is the life that has to do with God, angels, Heaven, and hell.  This is called “religion.”  At most, it demands an hour on Sunday, the avoidance of gross sins, and intellectual agreement with a set of doctrines.  Second, and far more important, there is the life that deals with everyday concerns such as earning a living, making the car payments, changing diapers, and keeping the house clean.  This is called “real life.”  Since many Christians can see little or no connection between their religious beliefs and the practicalities of their “real” life, they lead two distinct lives that at times are even opposed to each other.

Saint Benedict sees no opposition between the “holy” and the “Earthly.”  The abbot, for example, who is the spiritual head and teacher of the monastery, also has the down-to-Earth tasks of making sure the bell gets rung on time, assigning the daily work to the brethren, and keeping an inventory of the monastery’s tools and clothing.  The “cellarer,” on the other hand, who has the very practical charge of distributing to the monks all the various material necessities, is to do so with the same compassion and concern for everyone’s spiritual well-being as the abbot: he should be “like a father to the whole community.”  If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.”  This monk who is in charge of the store room “must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests, and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the Day of Judgment.”  So, is his a secular job or a spiritual one?

Saint Albert had the same insight that Benedict had: it is in such so-called “secular” things that we are most likely to meet God.  A young mother’s spirituality revolves around feeling and caring for her child.  A middle-aged man who is considering changing careers suddenly learns what it means to trust in God’s goodness.  His insecure work situation certainly involves weighing such factors as salary and job satisfaction, but it is also the place where he is going to meet – right now – the God who loves him and watches over him.

Every Christian is called to experience God’s unconditional love working itself out in everyday events.  For the young mother, for the fellow afraid of changing careers, for all of us, it’s never a question of “prayer life” versus “real life.”  Saints don’t lead two lives, but one.  It is in our everyday experiences that we learn to grow in trust, to risk loving others, and to be compassionate to people in need.  We can accept these opportunities or not, but we cannot say that they have nothing to do with our spiritual life.

The train station looms up ahead.  The red line has brought me back to my starting point after a pleasant day in the company of an unlikely group: Saint Anthony and his lost articles, Galileo and his telescope, Albert the Great and his books, and Pietro Pomponazzi, the man who led two lives.


Lent makes us aware of our faults and our need for penance, but it also helps us to see that God is already present to help and save us.  So, it would be appropriate during this season to make a list of places or activities in your life where you might not usually think of encountering God.  Then reflect on each place or activity individually and ask the Lord to show you how the Divine is present for you even there.  Think of practical things that might help you to be aware of God’s presence in the kitchen, in the car, or at the office.


Sacred Scripture (Romans 10:6-8)

But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into Heaven?”(that is, to bring Christ down) or, “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does it say?  The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.”


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 31, “Qualifications of the Monastery Cellarer,” vv. 6-9)

The monastery cellarer should not annoy the brothers.  If any brother happens to make an unreasonable demand of him, he should not reject him with disdain and cause him distress, but reasonably and humbly deny the improper request.  He must show every care and concern for the sick, children, guests, and the poor, knowing for certain that he will be held accountable for all of them on the Day of Judgment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: