I never quite know where or when the call for the next pilgrimage will come. My latest call came from a place not usually associated with the sacred, The Wall Street Journal. In the afternoon I get a cup of coffee and sit down to catch up on the day’s news. In the personal section there is a monthly column called “Dream Spaces”. The writer was talking about going to a place called the Ave Marie Grotto. The story peaked my interest and I looked it up and realized it was in the neighboring state of Alabama. A few days later my friend Val was talking about her upcoming college tour with her son to Alabama and had some time between appointments. I suggested she look to see how close the Grotto was to her route. Within an hour not only was she going to visit the Grotto but I was too. The hotel was booked and two weeks later I was headed to Alabama on a mini pilgrimage.
Spring had arrived during the night and the pure white pear trees, purple redbuds and the daffodils made the drive a delight of its own. The spring colors were extra vivid against the background of bares limbs and brown grass. I took my time and stopped at my favorite used bookstore. I had found some old cassette tapes in my closet and used this delightful archaic technology to listen to Alan Watts tell stories of the Zen masters. The new spring day and Zen, what a perfect combination.
Ave Marie Grotto is located in Cullman, Alabama, in the northern part of the state on the grounds of St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery. The Grotto is a four acre park of over 120 miniature buildings, reproductions of some of the most sacred places on earth. It was built by Brother Joseph Zoettl, at first as a hobby but then as a true devotion. Brother Joseph was born in Bavaria in 1878 but came to Alabama as a young man to fulfill his dream of being a Benedictine. An injury kept him from becoming a priest so he was assigned to work in the boiler room. He started to collect rocks and used them to make miniature buildings of Jerusalem. Working only from photographs, Brother Joseph started making elaborate scale reproductions and shrines. The monastery moved the buildings to a nearby abandoned quarry and built a large grotto for a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Children from around the world started to send Brother Joseph objects to include in his creations: marbles, shells, rocks, glass, china.
The next day was glorious and we had the Grotto to ourselves. The meandering path wound down beside delightful buildings including a fairy house for Hansel and Gretel until I arrived at the hillside of pure enchantment. First, there are the missions of California and then a few steps later you are in Rome, on the other side of the Grotto you walk through Jerusalem. After that, I headed to Lourdes and the tower of Babel and then Fatima. The tiny spring flowers were blooming amongst the tiny buildings and the azalea bushes provided a flaming backdrop. The grotto’s resident cat was taking her morning nap near the statue of Brother Joseph. I had to walk through the park a second time to just begin to take in the magic of this holy place.
Brother Joseph was a tiny man who left a large spiritual legacy. Everyday he tended the boiler and built his dream: stone and shell, found objects and imagination. He left a legacy of pure devotion, a perfect dream space to enter the timeless. When he died he only had one possession, the autobiography of Therese of Lisieux, his spiritual inspiration. She said “May you trust God, that you are exactly where you are meant to be”. No doubt Brother Joseph lived the life he was meant to live, and one early spring morning I was where I was meant, to be inspired by his love and devotion.