Prologue: Exit 308
We’d taken the Cullman exit off of the 65 many times, always for a singular purpose: to consume an artisanal work prepared by members of a religious sect. Pickles. More specifically, the spicy garlic Amish pickles sold at Smith Farms (also sold at the creepy Pioneer Village on the way to Troy).
This time, to celebrate our nation’s independence, we decided to consume a different kind of religious craftsmanship: the Ave Maria Grotto. If you’ve never heard of the Grotto, you’ve probably never browsed many state tourism brochures. Sure, it’s not a site that our PR experts market as heavily as, say, the Rosa Parks museum. And it’s not a privately owned advertising juggernaut like De Soto Caverns. But still, it’s something unique to our state that has always struck us as not to be missed. We have a bit of an Alabama “bucket list,” you see – things we’ve agreed that we’d see or do together before one or both of us left the state.
If our skin was a different color, not too long ago we’d have been made to leave Cullman before the sun went down. In any case, we left long before dusk. On arrival, it was clear that despite the optimistic two-day itinerary suggested by the folks at the Grotto, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in downtown Cullman. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend? To get some pre-Grotto energy, we ate at a place called “All Steak.” Sure, they didn’t serve only steak. And probably they didn’t serve all of the steak (though we didn’t see anyone try to push them in this direction). But other things distinguish the spot. Mostly, the sheer volume of extra food we did not order that came with our meal. It started with cornbread and rolls. We take a bread course for granted, like chips and salsa at a “Mexican” restaurant. But it’s still, technically, food that you do not order.
What happened next was entirely outside of our range of shared experience. Our waiter, who had to be reminded by a peer that he was legally prohibited from serving us beer on Sundays in Cullman, deposited plates in front of each of us that contained a substance so foreign to us that our facial expressions must have conveyed a particularly unusual horrified bemusement – the kind you might expect to emote when confronted by, say, a lizard dressed as Bette Midler or a Groupon for a deeply discounted jalapeno-flavored lubricant.
“What is this?” We asked.
“Congealed salad,” he replied. Perhaps seeing that this answer was unsatisfactory, or at least incomplete, he explained that this was given to every guest, free of charge. We nodded an uncertain assent.
Your first kiss; the death of a parent; being lost in a foreign country. These are things that are nearly impossible to describe. We could plausibly add our congealed salad to this list of rarities. It was sort of pinkish-orange. It was vaguely square. Of its own volition, it appeared to liquify over a relatively short amount of time. It may have contained some kind of ground nuts and fruit. When poked, it retained coherence. We politely took a few bites. It was citrus by way of carpet freshener.
At the end of the meal, we were delivered slices of pie and two of the restaurant’s “famous orange rolls.” A total of seven different extra and unordered food items. We marveled at the economy that allowed the All-Steak to lavish so many complimentary calories on its guests. We enjoyed our veggie plates and left an extra large tip.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the Catholic Church had a monopoly on Christianity. Sure, they had some hard times with multiple feuding popes and what not, but they were basically the only game in town until they overreached and Martin Luther showed up to make with the schism already. Schism after schism has left us with a rich array of Protestantisms, from the basically-Catholic C of E/Episcopalian variants to the God’s mouth-to-my-ear DIY experiments of the Pentacostals and, yes, the Baptists. Of course, all manner of rituals and beliefs separate these, but one is mediation. Who, if anyone, gets to mediate your relationship with the sacred? With the profane? With society? Are you a free agent, constrained, or somewhere in between?
Modernity doesn’t concern itself particularly with these questions, although they define every part of our experience from the mundane (“Do you want fries with that?”) to the profound (“Can I make the world better?”). In the American South, the question of mediation is especially poignant. When people talk about the particularly prickly attitudes of Southerners, what’s really under the glass is this people’s relative lack of mediation, the way their resistance stems from the sense that their hands are, if not directly on the levers of power, at least proximate enough to compel movement as they wish. Alienation happens when this power feels stripped away (see also: Trump), even if it never really existed in the first place.
Luther’s aftershocks still reverberate in the Deep South. Here, people still resist the idea of mediation. Why should any person, let alone any institution, stand between themselves and their God, much less their community? And others exploit that, as they can, for power and money (as far as those are separable), and other pleasures even more perverse. They want to watch Southerners in their designated holding area, pacing their oddly shaped cages, engaging in practices that others find alien and frightening – in short, a particular version of Orientalism. Some come to watch and wonder, to buy the goods on offer, to tell their friends back home that they survived a kind of Freedom Ride. Others want to see the oddities. They make Butch Anthony possible; they take friends from NYU and Columbia to see the Cross Garden and its promises of hellfire. In this way, enduring brunch stories are secured and passed forward for generations (or at least another round of mimosas).
The monastic experience is particularly far from most of us, North or South. We think of monks and nuns as hangovers from the distant past, their decision for a cloistered life as something ancient and constrained. Or else we valorize it, this idea of people who are so much better than us that they choose beer, or preserves, or prayer, or anything at all, really, except for the pleasures of the flesh that consume us. We forget that once monasteries existed essentially to serve two purposes. First, to get rid of inconvenient non-heir male children; and second, to create prayer buffer zones so that the rest of us might be able to have a resort or two before we went to hell. During the Crusades, wealthy families could have a kind of draft deferment by donating to cloisters in lieu of marching to Jerusalem, or Constantinople, or even the south of France.
And the nunneries? Arguably, a convent was your best bet if born a woman for much of the last 2,000 years. At least you’d probably not be raped; at least they’d probably teach you to read; at least you’d not die in childbirth. Convents have died off in recent memory. Literally. Fewer women want to marry Jesus, as they’ve just got the option to be not married at all (much less the option not to bear children). Meanwhile, nuns have become somewhat notorious for being politically active.
Here in Cullman (or, more precisely, Hanceville), the nuns are also known for political activism – just in their own way. While cloisters in California and Great Britain have chained themselves to fences arguing against nuclear weapons and climate change, Alabama’s nuns have taken a slightly different focus. They became globally notorious for the especially venomous opinions of one Mother Angelica, whose sisters assembled the Church’s most obvious and suspect tenets into a global media tapestry that resisted picking and re-weaving past her recent death. We did not visit the convent.
Instead we entered through the gift shop at St. Bernard Abbey. This is a Benedictine Order monastery, and if you’re confused about what that means, consider that the previous pope was keen enough on their core ideas to take their patron saint for his pope-name. Tickets for the grotto were $7 each. We were advised by the cashier to “enjoy our walk.”
Some background is in order here. Once upon a time, the French settled what became Louisiana. They built North America’s first cathedral in Mobile. They even had to import wives. Some immigrants came. They were Catholic. They had spiritual needs. In the 1890s, the Benedictines sent some folks to make a new monastery in what would become Cullman. The larger mission to convert the heathens and give succor, etc., was well under way.
And then something strange happened. In the early part of the new century, a brother joined the monastery from Europe by way of a few places elsewhere in the so-called “New World.” Brother Joseph Zoetti had been moved around, an immigrant with little English, to eventually take control of the electrical facilities at the Cullman monastery. What did he think of this strange place where the summers suffocated and incomprehensible insects took root in your small parts at odd hours? Did the other monks make fun of him for not speaking the language well? Was he already a touch afflicted with the need to see beyond liturgy, to the more demanding and tactile components of lived religion? Had he grappled with the limits of doctrine? Had he seen these limits as opportunities to be glazed and sparkled? Was he simply enamored of concrete and its ability to be shaped into anything God might command?
There is a movie about this in the gift shop. It cost $20. Because this was beyond our price point, we may never know. There are some clips from the film online. In one of them, beloved Alabama historian Wayne Flynt talks eloquently about how God does not see time; about how Joseph’s efforts transcended time and space in ways that followed a divine, rather than human, sense of the possible. We’d not seen this clip before we took the tour, but we’d seen a few others and had come to expect a set of eloquently crafted miniatures – faith embodied in the reflection of the human world, set meditatively among the trees and stones. We readied ourselves for the transcendent and stepped into the Alabama summer.
It is important to be honest about what you will see on the path. Do not expect, as we did, shockingly ornate craftsmanship. Or do, but don’t expect that it will conform to your particular ideas of “ornate” or “craftsmanship.” Do not expect to be transported to Rome, to Jerusalem, to Spain. Do expect to marvel. Do not be disappointed when this marveling takes you in unexpected directions. Remember, as you struggle, that to be human is to desire. Recall, if you can, the Buddha’s great insight that desire is suffering. We struggle against want, but in the end it pulls all but a few of us down, again and again, until we stay on the wheel forever or else push past it and therefore past the constraints of mortality. The ancient Zen stories make no sense. They are not meant to, at least not in the way that we conventionally understand meaning. But we are built to seek meaning, which makes encountering something like the Grotto especially hard.
An admission: We desired the Grotto in a particular way. Which is to say that we understood its meaning in a particular way. What is meaning if not the creation and reflection of desire? We entered with the subject position of art consumer; of tourists accustomed to navigating the irreducible distance between viewer and viewed. We wanted it, even if we didn’t admit as much to ourselves, to take our breath away. We wanted to be transported. We wanted to feel like Alabama was better than they say, better than we sometimes think in our low moments. We wanted the claims to be true, that there was this magnificent jewel in Northern Alabama, that believing required seeing.
The path leads you through a “self guided tour.” The path goes one way, although of course it is always possible to backtrack. Nobody does. There is a moral here if you look hard enough. It is lost on the bored children pretending to appreciate frayed and weather-worn models from another age. There is a brochure, which mostly repeats the content of the small plaques that accompany the exhibits. Mostly the plaques supercede the brochure. Mostly you wish to possess neither the plaque nor the brochure. Information can destroy beauty in an especially faithless manner foretold by a hundred erased Catholic mystic martyrs. The Grotto provides no exception to this rule.
But first. But first you begin at Bethlehem, a cage built around a conventional manger scene. You peer through the bars. You notice that the letters above have been decorated with colored glass. This is a taste of what is to come.
After the much-attended birth of Jesus, the exhibits begin in earnest. They are placed up and down a winding path, some set aside on their own, others clustered together. They are not arranged chronologically in terms of human time or time of construction (fitting, as these things have little to do with divine time). It turns out that the exhibits have been moved – that this is not their original location, that they may not have always been surrounded by manicured gardens and staffed by people who remove fallen pinecones and stray leaves.
The miniatures come in two kinds. The first kind aspires to representation, to verisimilitude. You may never see St. Peter’s or the Coliseum, but you can see them here – a kind of artifice that feels ancient enough to pre-date not just photography but the printing press. When you consider that the other people on the path may never themselves see these wonders in person, but may think they have via the magic of the Internet, you may feel a unique brand of sadness. You consider the plaster, the concrete, the fragile construction of the cheap-looking models, and they make you sad. Not because of any intrinsic inadequacies, but because of the failures of representation itself, the tragedy of desire and its failed collision with the human experience. You admire the water features. You pause to see if a frog is real or a statue.
To understand the Grotto, you’ve got to interrogate your idea of what it means to be “real.” Representation is the most baseline manifestation of the idea of the real, and there’s no question but that all of the miniatures represent something. Some have “real life” correspondents. Others seem to draw purely from Brother Zoetti’s head. There is the fictional Crucifixion Tower. There are the Hanging Gardens. Then there are the Biblical images – the Ark, for example, an especially poignant and lovable display in light of Kentucky’s new multi-million dollar boondoggle.
Yes, yes, but what are they like? How can we be 2600 words into this blog post and not know yet what the sculptures are like? Reader, you should know that they are not nearly as magnificent as you may have been led to believe. Full stop. There is no point in pulling punches on this matter. As you wander on the path, you get the feeling that Brother Joseph was the kind of person who scavenged broken shards of plates out of the trash; who hoarded bags of marbles; who begged pieces of tile from construction sites. How you react to this will define, in a very fundamental way, who you are.
Consider that the sculptures themselves are not exactly high art. Which is to say, more precisely, that they are mostly composed of concrete globs with various bits attached. Depending on the artist’s stated goal, some of these attachments represent the familiar (e.g., The Leaning Tower of Pisa). Others are more abstract (e.g. The Temple of the Fairies). While all tend to include some element of sparkle, there is a sense among the more imaginative works that the artist felt free to merge a set of sea shells, a few globs of cement and a set of marbles together for effect. Overall, many of the works contain less artistic innovation than grade school enthusiasm.
It hurts your heart to say it this way, but really, there is a sense where the rows of shells, with concrete, with embedded marbles feel more manic than inspired, and more sad than depressive, and in any case less impressive than you’d thought, so it’s best to move along. They are displayed individually, or else in groups (even though the grouping is suspect along lines of time and place, as Flynt points out). Sometimes they are crammed up on a hill, with manicured gardens between. Other times, you’re left to consider their meaning alone. There are no individual pieces that induce a “wow” reaction. This is important to know, if you decide to go. The propaganda materials for the site make it seem like you will be absolutely blown away. You will. Just not in the way you thought you’d be.
Art and religion have much in common. In the first place, they are relational. For beauty to exist, there must be something beautiful. Belief cannot be described without something in which faith is instilled. Our paths, all “self-guided,” diverge as we age. Some of us calcify and describe this as commitment. Some of us haven’t thought that much about it. Some of us reach wildly about as death feels more near, as beauty feels far away and faith ever further. Still others are called, evidently, to glue things to other things in an attempt to reconcile the dark distances between love, highest purpose and creed.
There is a way to tell the history of the church that is a story of struggle against the strange and unknowable. The core texts are declared and collected, the others shunned or called things like “apocryphae.” Persistent oddities are brought in and made dicta – God is three but also one; bread is body; wine is blood but also not wine at all but something considerably less heady. Pieces of saints – robes, bones, hands – are preserved for worship and wonder across the world. Our own stories aren’t so different. We push away what doesn’t fit into our theories of the world, or else we seek to contain and categorize the inconvenient and wild, the odd and disturbing. We organize ourselves against death, we imbue the objects around us with meanings that are often inscrutable to others. Whether we believe or not, we still feel doctrine’s push and pull. Slowly, it will bring pieces of us out to sea no matter how we twist and turn.
If you leave the Grotto trying to understand why Brother Zoetti made these objects, you are doing it wrong. If you leave without curiosity, or feeling like you’ve wasted $7, you are also doing it wrong. There is no right approach along the path; there are only shells, and glass shards, and broken plates, and marbles, and elaborate hillsides where the probable nestles next to the improbable.
Epilogue: The Gift Shop
Afterward, your body sweltering from the heat, your mind spinning from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of mysticism and the concrete (also the actual concrete), you have the opportunity to purchase many God-themed items. These include an improbably large variety of Catholic tchotchkes: crucifixes, anglo-Jesus portraits, spreadable monastic preserves, golf balls, childrens’ books, rosaries, license plate covers declaring that GOD is your CO-PILOT, and – oddly – sports cards. Which are “pay as you wish” to benefit mission trips. If this does not strike you as incongruous, having stared too long at “HANSEL AND GRETEL VISIT THE CASTLE OF THE FAIRIES,” you have no soul.