With all the talk (both positive and negative) about the movie “Eat, Pray, Love” I figured I’d share with you a spiritual experience I had years ago. Before I tell you about that, I must say that, as usual, I liked the book better than the movie. It seems that people either love it or hate it – there’s no in between. But when it comes to spirituality, there’s lots of “in between.” There are people who are avid church-goers, there are those who don’t believe in God or a Higher Power, and then there are those in between who don’t participate in organized religion, but are still spiritual beings. That said, I find that just being surrounded by nature can be a very moving and spiritual experience. I can’t begin to tell you how spiritually emotional it was for me to sit at the edge of the Grand Canyon and feel the enormity of a Higher Power. That’s also how I felt when I visited the Ave Maria Grotto at St. Bernard Abbey; near Cullman, Alabama. (Photo: The Ave Maria Grotto Miniatures)
I was doing a story on the tourist attraction for CNN, but little did I know I’d be affected for the rest of my life by this story. As I walked through the grotto, I felt like I was in a land of elves or fairies. But each “neighborhood” was actually a miniature version of a well-known spiritual edifice, or a scene from the Holy Bible. In fact, the monks of St. Bernard Abbey call it “Sermons in Stone.” But the most amazing part was finding out that these miniature monuments were all made by hand by Brother Joseph Zoetl, O.S.B. – a monk in the original group that came over from Germany to found the Benedictine college and monastery of St. Bernard Abbey in 1892.
Brother Joseph started working on Ave Maria Grotto in 1932, and it was opened to the public in 1934. During his regular duties as a monk, Brother Joseph was maimed in a severe accident, while trying to hoist a heavy bell into the belfry. His injuries caused him to develop a hunchback that caused him pain for the rest of his life, but you’d never know it from his beautiful creations. They speak of peace instead of pain. Some of the most impressive scenes were of The Holy Land, Noah’s Ark, The Great Wall of China, Rome’s coliseums and churches, and the World Peace Church in Hiroshima, Japan. And they were all made with whatever materials Brother Joseph had available: clay, twigs, broken glass, plumbing fixtures, broken marble, etc. It got to the point where people who had visited or heard about Ave Maria Grotto started mailing Brother Joseph items to help him continue his work, including: glass beads, marbles, costume jewelry, ash trays, and broken tile. It personified the quote, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Over the course of 40 years, Brother Joseph patiently built 125 scenes until age 80. He died three years later in 1961 – the year I was born. But his spirit lives on through his “Sermons in Stone” or “Jerusalem in Miniature.” You don’t have to consider yourself to be a “religious” person to appreciate this sacred place. In fact, about 90 percent of visitors are non-Catholic, and many are non-Christian. But representatives of the Abbey say every person who visits say it was an “immensely spiritual experience.” That’s what it was for me. There were moments when I sat in front of scenes and wept. It wasn’t because the scenes were biblical but because a quiet man, living with the pain of a hunchback, could still find love in his heart to create such beauty to inspire humanity.
If someone like Brother Joseph could create such a masterpiece with a physical challenge, what’s to stop any of us from using what we have right here and now to bring love and beauty to this world? It’s something to think about when you go through life’s challenges. For more information, visit: www.avemariagrotto.com. I’d love to hear stories of spiritual inspiration from your own travels, so send them in to help inspire others. And remember: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness” — Mark Twain.
Kalin Thomas is Women at Forty’s Travel & Leisure Editor. She is also Senior Writer/Photographer for SoulOfAmerica. Before starting her own multimedia company, Kalin spent 17 years at CNN where she won several awards for her work as producer/correspondent for CNN’s weekly travel program, CNN TravelNow. She is currently writing a book about her travels. For more information on Kalin, visit www.seetheworldproductions.com.