I am not a religious man, but some things are 'spiritual' whether we like it or not.
This is not the story that’s told in the libraries of the Vatican. Nor is it the one they tell at the tourist office I’m about to bypass for you. It may not even be true, but it is the story that I have found in my heart to share with you today and I hope the message will be equal to any of the shortcomings of my telling it.
I’ll start in Germany in the 1890’s. A young Paul Dobberstein is less than a month from being ordained as a Catholic priest when he falls ill. He makes nothing of it and continues his daily routine until one morning he can’t even get out of bed.
A doctor confirmed it is pneumonia, which before the turn of the last century, was much more of a threat than it is today. With a wet winter coming on, in southern Germany, in a seminary famous mostly for its poverty, it was as close to a death sentence as anyone could get.
Brother Dobberstein, a tall thin boy who would never live to see himself as anything but, prayed his rosary and remembrances but in those dark days, and for the first time, his prayer included his own health.
By the time ordinations and assignments were handed out a gaunt young man stepped back from death’s door and took on the mantle of priesthood. From that day until his last he was as good a counselor, guide and friend as any man can be... but on that day, while still regaining his health, he prayed out his thanks and made a vow. Lord, the new priest prayed, Thank you for my life. Thank you for your love and for my chance to serve those who would follow you. I will build you a great temple, to the holy virgin, that will be a wonder to the world.
Sad as it is to say (and no matter how courageous our intentions), the world has its own ways and some promises, heartfelt though they may be, are impossible to keep.
I'll move on now to 1910 and Father Dobberstein has been called to a small town in Iowa. Most of the residents are German migrants and he proceeds to take up the duties as the head of the parish of Saints Peter & Paul in the desolate northwest corner of an unremarkable frontier state.
After opening a small Catholic school there (the first in the region) Dobberstein felt that he was getting into the swing of things and turned to a childhood interest in collecting rocks. Not very exciting for most folks but a very inexpensive hobby and, considering the shallow nature of the collection plate in West Bend (the town’s name referring to what the Des Moines river does near there) inexpensive was a very good thing.
Times were indeed lean and attempting a few homemade patches on his aging cathedral made him understand just how far his first hobby was from the study of architecture or the skill the of mason. If he was going to keep the roof from coming in, he’d need more help than the locals could generate.
After months of asking Diocese of Des Moines and finding their coffers also somewhat bare, he wrote to Rome. Telling the Holy Father of his plight, and recognizing at the same time that there were worse off, he mentioned his vow he made on his ordination day. 'How can I build the temple I pledged, when I cannot even keep the snow out of my church?'
Although it may sound unsympathetic, the only reply came from Des Moines, along with a reminder that the Pope did not need to be bothered by every parish problem half the world away.
The final decision of the Diocese was a note to Father Dobberstein indicating that the local craftspeople might be of more use than he was currently getting from them. The note simply reminded him that money was an intermediary step, something to be used, like a hammer, or a muscle. He must confine his repairs, his plans and his life to use: 'Only what God has provided.'
By the spring of 1912 the river’s annual vagaries had left him with a stagnating pond next his temple–which a patchwork of repairs held together. This was not the wondrous palace he had promised. It was a failing building and an empty lot perhaps unworthy of the support his community had invested. Behind the tiny rectory there was a small pile of collected stones half sorted by color and geological interest. Even his hobby had no structure or reason. Amid a cacophony of crickets and birds, a dejected young priest picked up a plain river-stone to launch pond-ward in disgust grumbling the refrain that was ruining his life: 'only what God has provided!'
At this moment, I am stopped in my story wondering what you are made of? Are you the thing that your heart tells you that you are... or are you that collection of water and calcium that logic knows you are? Are you the coalesced fog of a thousand dreams... or the biological output of a crude process that starts with unprotected sex?
I tell you that you are... all of that. And, what’s more, you are a stone–like the one in Dobberstein’s hand. You are the impossible answer to what came before the big bang and God’s raison d'être (not the other way around). You are only the partially-tapped tip of your potential iceberg and that which stands in your way is the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.
Fr. Dobberstein never threw that rock, for it was what God provided. From that day he began working, with no blueprint of any kind, on a tribute to his God, community and the faith that saved his life and made it worth living. For the next 42 years, he laid one stone on top of another, with the tiniest bit of invisibly placed concrete, to form what some actually call a miracle.
The Grotto Of The Redemption
stands in West Bend, Iowa. I have been there. I have marveled at its beauty and been dwarfed by its scale and achievement.
Using nothing but the rocks he collected and was given, and working through blistering Iowa winters; two world wars; the great depression; nine presidencies and nearly as many popes, Paul Dobberstein built a cathedral worthy to praise his God. Most of the stones are no bigger than your thumb but from them he has built the Stations of the Cross (each large enough for you to worship inside), a bed of limestone roses–even the tearful hill of Calvary. A giant marquee spells out the Sermon on the Mount, made in contrasting bits of copper ore, and it stands next to a pearly gate (of pearls, opals, and polished quartz) that marks the entrance to this city-blocked sized sample of paradise. All made with his own hand and only what God provided.
On July 24th 1954, after a long day in the sun fitting geodes into a wall called the View of Heaven, Father Paul put down his trowel and left to check his work against the original.
The population of West Bend hovers around a thousand and the value of the grotto, or I should say just the stones in it, is around five million dollars today. Not being Catholic, I'll not venture any guess on its value otherwise. The church is in good repair and they estimate they’ll see at least hundred thousand visitors a year from now on.
I first saw this incredible place at the age of nine... on the last vacation I got with both my parents. I have been back twice and vow that I will, someday, find a way to record an impression of it for you that captures the tiniest bit of it stunning power.
Until I do, I happily remain, a small, unremarkable stone.