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Magnus, Albertus

Category: Religious

Albertus Magnus by Fra Angelico

Albertus Magnus, (before 1200 – November 15, 1280), also known as Albert the Great and Albert of Cologne, was a Catholic saint, a German Dominican friar and a Catholic bishop.  He was also a philosopher, theologian and an alchemist.


Given the attitude of the Catholic Church to alchemy and the ‘magic arts’, Albert was running a great risk in practising and writing about alchemy. 

He was a spiritual alchemist, not a chemical one, which made his practise that much more risky.  Because of the secrecy needed, there is now a great deal of discussion amongst academics, about which of the many alchemical texts attributed to him, are indeed his.  The Secreta Alberti or the Experimenta Alberti, are now regarded as being falsely attributed to Albertus.  Quite understandably “in his authentic writings he had little to say on the subject”.  But alchemical references are there if you look, in the same heavily coded symbolism used by all alchemists of the day. 

Albertus Magnus, Androgyny and fingerpointing

For example, in his commentary, De mineralibus, he refers to the ‘power of stones’.  There are works such as Metals and Materials; the Origin of Metals; and a Concordance which is a collection of Observations on the philosopher's stone; collected under the name of Theatrum Chemicum.

Reading the attempts by current materialistic academics to make sense of this body of work, is both comical and depressing.  For example, in his Little Book of Alchemy, Albert said that alchemic gold and iron lack the properties of natural gold and iron, and I quote now from an academic  “alchemical iron not being magnetic and alchemical gold turning to powder after several ignitions”.  Needless to say, gold and iron are symbolic not chemical.


It appears, however, that as an alchemist, he was supremely successful and was ‘said to have discovered the philosopher's stone’.  If we had some more positive confirmation of this, he would have been classified as a mystic, but we have very little, apart from the simple paper On the Union with God, which in effect describes the last stage of the spiritual path.   But, Albert does not specifically confirm he discovered the stone in his writings, only that he witnessed the creation of gold by "transmutation."


Albert was deeply interested in astrology, which in the Middle Ages was not only viewed with less suspicion in the Catholic church than alchemy, but in some parts of the Church, actively supported.

It was believed that correspondence exists between heaven and earth and thus the celestial bodies [Intelligences] follow patterns and cycles analogous to those on earth. With this worldview, it seemed reasonable to assert that astrology could be used to predict the probable future of a human being. Albert made this a central component of his philosophical system, arguing that an understanding of the celestial influences affecting us could help us to live our lives more ‘productively’. 

In effect, we would be able to fulfil our destiny.


The most comprehensive statement of his astrological beliefs is to be found in a work he authored around 1260, now known as the Speculum astronomiae. However, details of these beliefs can be found in almost everything he wrote, from his early De natura boni to his last work, the Summa theologiae.

Astrology and alchemy were very closely aligned in the Middle Ages as both were spiritual and not physical in emphasis. 

As a consequence of his astrological beliefs, he naturally rejected the idea of the "music of the spheres" being related to the movement of the [physical] astronomical bodies, but he did not reject the idea of songlines and wrote extensively on proportions in music, and on the three different subjective levels on which plainchant could work on the human soul: purging of the impure; illumination leading to contemplation; and nourishing perfection through contemplation. Of particular interest to 20th-century music theorists, is the attention he paid to silence as an integral part of music and spiritual experience.


AST07. Woodcut from Nativity Calendar of
Leonhard Reymann, 1515

Albert's writings collected in 1899 went to thirty-eight volumes. They cover topics such as logic, theology, botany, geography, astronomy, astrology, mineralogy, alchemy, zoology, physiology, phrenology, justice, law, friendship, and love. He interpreted and systematized the whole of Aristotle's works, gleaned from the Latin translations and notes of the Arabian commentators, unfortunately he did so in accordance with Church doctrine, which makes the end result somewhat distorted.  But he benefited from his studies of Aristotle which informed the way he tackled his other work.  In De Mineralibus , for example, Albert states that,
 "The aim of natural philosophy (science) is not simply to accept the statements of others, but to investigate the causes that are at work in nature."

Thus Albert recognised and used the equivalent of the cause effect principle and also recognised the value of observation using experiments as well as investigation.  But it appears that what he discovered did not tie in with established doctrine and dogma and many of the results of his investigations or experiments were never published. Albert also kept silent about many issues, because he both feared persecution, but also recognised that his theories would be too advanced for the time in which he was living.


So despite his prolific output, there are few of his works that adequately reflect his actual knowledge and findings.  The main works for which he is now known include the following:

  • On the Causes of the Properties of the Elements, - translation of Liber de causis proprietatum elementorum]
  • Questions concerning Aristotle's on Animals, - translation of Quaestiones super De animalibus]
  • The Cardinal Virtues: Aquinas, Albert, and Philip the Chancellortranslation of Summa de bono.  Albert devoted the last tractatus of De Bono to a theory of justice and natural law.
  • The Commentary of Albertus Magnus on Book 1 of Euclid's Elements of Geometry, - translation of Priumus Euclidis cum commento Alberti
  • On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica  - translation of De animalibus
  • Speculum Astronomiae
  • On Union with God, translated by a Benedictine of Princethorpe Priory, translation of De adherendo Deo]


Albert was probably born in Bavaria, but was educated at the University of Padua, where he received instruction in Aristotle's writings.   Albert was the first to comment on virtually all of the writings of Aristotle. The study of Aristotle also brought him to study and comment on the teachings of Muslim academics, notably Avicenna and Averroes.

AST02. Woodcut of Ezekiel's vision from the Bear Bible
16th Century

He appears to have had a vision which shook him sufficiently to convince him to enter Holy Orders. And around 1223, he became a member of the Dominican Order, against the wishes of his family, and studied theology.  He taught for several years in Cologne, Regensburg, Freiburg, Strasbourg, and Hildesheim. He then taught theology at the University of Paris as a full-time professor, holding the seat of the Chair of Theology at the College of St. James. During this time Thomas Aquinas began to study under Albertus.

In 1254 Albert was made provincial of the Dominican Order. During his tenure he publicly defended the Dominicans against attacks by the secular and regular faculty of the University of Paris.  In 1259, Albert took part in the General Chapter of the Dominicans which established a program of studies for the Dominicans that featured the study of philosophy as an innovation for those not sufficiently trained to study theology. In 1260, Pope Alexander IV made him bishop of Regensburg, an office from which he resigned after three years.

In 1263, Pope Urban IV relieved him of the duties of bishop and asked him to act as a mediator- a peacemaker. In Cologne he is not only known for being the founder of Germany's oldest university there, but also for "the big verdict" of 1258, which brought an end to the conflict between the citizens of Cologne and the archbishop. Among the last of his labours was the defense of the orthodoxy of his former pupil, Thomas Aquinas, whose death in 1274 grieved Albert.  After suffering a collapse of health in 1278, he died on November 15, 1280, in the Dominican convent in Cologne, Germany.

Friendship, love of his fellow man, ideals and ethics took precedence and governed the life of Albertus Magnus. Albert, quoting Cicero, once said "friendship is nothing other than the harmony between things divine and human, with goodwill and love”.  To him this harmony or consensiom, was a movement within the human spirit. The only aim in life was that of authentic and unqualified good (honestum) and friendship rooted in unqualified goodness (amicitia honesti; amicitia quae fundatur super honestum).


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