"Jerusalem in Miniature"
When I first stumbled upon the Ave Maria Grotto, a vast collection of miniature religious sculptures in Cullman, Alabama, I almost dismissed it as mere Southern kitsch. The "Jerusalem in Miniature," however, deserves a closer look. So if you’re driving down I-65 on a Sunday afternoon, take an hour to enjoy this thoughtful and contemplative collection.
Created by Brother Joseph Zoetl, a monk at the Benedictine St. Bernard Abbey, the Ave Maria Grotto (literally, Hail Mary Cave) consists of a landscaped hillside of 125 small stone and cement structures. Zoetl, originally from Bavaria, Germany, spent more than 45 years fashioning miniature versions of Spanish missions, German castles, South African shrines, and even a Statue of Liberty.
Humility and Hubris
Although this historic site is best known for an impressive shrine to Mary, my two personal favorites are the Tower of Thanks and the Tower of Babel. They stand near the beginning and near the end of the path through the hillside, respectively, and provide an interesting juxtaposition on your journey.
The biblical story of the Tower of Babel, of course, recounts the attempt of humans to build a tower to the heavens. To punish humans’ hubris, the biblical God confused their language and scattered them across the Earth.
The Tower of Thanks, on the other hand, makes an incredible subtle statement of humility. Zoetl built it in gratitude for all of the support he received throughout years of building his sculptures.
No matter your degree of spirituality or secularity, in an age when all things can be (and often are) miniaturized, there’s still something profoundly meaningful in Zoetl’s work.