Pilgrimage. The Holy Land. A Hajj. Rome. Mexico City. Guadalupe.
Carmel, California. Gethsemane, Kentucky. St. Augustine, Florida.
Well, yes. Pilgrims come to Alabama. And not just Hank Williams pilgrims or Selma pilgrims.
Those Catholic pilgrims? They come ,quite often, to near where I live – just a couple of miles from my house. They come to the studios of EWTN in Irondale, Alabama.
And then they go the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, about 40 minutes north.
And the most venerable of all, Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman, on the property of St. Bernard’s Abbey, just a few miles away from Hanceville.
Most often, they do all three in the same trip – the same pilgrimage journey. Let’s follow them.
EWTN – the closest to me, a network on which I’ve appeared – is really of interest only to devotees of the network, quite honestly. The pagan Vulcan is more redolent of history, local and otherwise. Oh, it’s certainly interesting to see the satellite dishes of a global network plopped down in a woodsy suburb of north Alabama, but as I said, if you’re not interested in EWTN…you won’t be interested in seeing EWTN. It’s not architecturally intriguing, and there’s just not a whole lot to see: the studio – essentially one huge room with various sets stacked up and a control room, a gift shop, an outdoor devotional garden, and..those satellite dishes.
So let’s move on up north.
Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN, doesn’t live here in Irondale/Birmingham, and hasn’t for years. Her order’s monastery and the Shrine are on a broad expanse of property north of here, deep in the country, isolated and apart.
(These photos are from my son’s school field trip there last spring.)
You can see what it’s like. A church and piazza clearly meant to evoke an Italian – even Assisi vibe. I’ve been there three times, and it’s always been this empty.
Across the piazza is a castle-like gift shop and meeting room, complete with armored saints.
Also on the property is a grotto…
…and an enclosed nativity and a planned “Eucharistic Center,” not yet complete, as I understand it.
You are not allowed to photograph the interior of the church, in respect to the Blessed Sacrament in repose and in order not to disturb those at prayer. If you ever watch a Mass broadcast from there you can see it, though. There’s quite a bit of gold. It’s …gold. Really gold.
It’s a sort of interesting place. Interesting mostly because it is this quite expansive and elaborate Catholic establishment in the middle of rural Alabama. So it’s surprising that way. And it’s (truly) impressive because it is the fruit of one woman’s response to God’s call, the expression of her vision. It’s quiet and still, which is a feature, not a bug for those seeking quietness and stillness, of course. But to me – and this is just to me - the stillness is unlike the stillness I have experienced at other monasteries, and it’s not a stillness that draws me. Hard to explain.
So let’s move on:
Just up the road you’ll find something similar, but quite different. Another religious had another vision, and also spent years bringing it to life:
It’s on the campus of St. Bernard’s Benedictine Abbey, which is also a prep school (grades 7-12). Maybe you’ve seen the billboards for the Grotto up and down I-65?
We’ve been there before, but this past Sunday the boys and I headed up to check out their Bloomin’ Festival, which was your typical.. festival, complete with craft booths and funnel cakes, on a lovely campus – again, a large Catholic establishment plunked down in the middle of Alabama. This one for a while, thought – the monks have been here since the late 19th century.
(And note that up until a couple of years ago, this county was dry. Now, dry counties are not unknown in Alabama, but I’ve always wondered if this particular county’s stubbornness on this score functioned as a rebuke of sorts to the presence of German Catholic monks in their midst.)
The Grotto is wacky and amazing and in the end, quite moving. It’s the lifelong work of Brother Joseph Zoettl, who took whatever he had – and whatever he was sent by donors – and reconstructed Great Catholic Sites from around the world, from Rome to Carmel to Lourdes.
I love it. Because I love passion and creativity and what to the world seems like uselessness. If it is useless to the world, it is, most probably, quite useful to God.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. Hundreds, and maybe thousands of people wandered the grounds. They ate funnel cakes. They tested out rocking chairs and tasted fudge.
They wandered into the Abbey church, eyeing, in mild confusion and suspicion, a cabinet of relics, monks’ stalls, and a seemingly random 13th century mother cradling her dead Son.
Or perhaps not so randomly. Only each individual life will tell.
I love Ave Maria Grotto, because it’s warm and expressive of the riotous, surprising nature of life on earth. It engages me and challenges me to look at the found objects of my life in a new way, presenting all of it to God: me in the midst of found objects and in time that is fleeting, and to respond: Deo Gratias. Now. What can I make of it that says “thank you?”