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The Reluctant Adventurer: The Grotto

Friday, September 12, 2014



Photo credit: Doug Kerr on Flickr. CC license. Image cropped. 

Sometimes you don’t choose your adventure, an adventure chooses you.

I didn’t grow up Catholic, and from what I hear from my friends who did, I missed out on a lot of really good, strange stuff. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the strangeness of The Grotto.

It’s near the Cully neighborhood where I live, and my friend Allie and I were walking one afternoon and realized fairly quickly that Cully (near Sandy and 82nd) isn’t the most picturesque of walking spots. Additionally, I’d left my gold lamé stretch pants at home, so we weren’t really dressed properly for a walk on 82nd anyway. She suggested that we walk to the Grotto.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that we happened upon it.

What you'll find when you happen upon it is "The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother," a 62-acre botanical garden that was created as a shrine to the Virgin Mary.

Stations of the Cross

Just to your right as you leave the parking lot, you can tour the lower level gardens and view the 14 Stations of the Cross in bronze relief. For those of us who aren’t Catholic, these are…pretty. Depressing.

Pretty depressing.

According to the guidebook, viewing this series that depicts Jesus carrying the cross to his crucifixion is a source of “comfort, guidance and inspiration” for many. I would personally find it difficult to find comfort in these images, but I am a total wuss. So your results may vary.

When you first walk in to the lower level, you come upon the most dramatic of all features at the Grotto - a carved-out shrine in the side of a stunning rock face with a marble replica of Michelangelo's Pieta (Mary cradling Jesus' body after the crucifixion) inside.

Surrounded on either side are two altars filled with lit votives with intentions written on them that range from the heartbreaking ("We miss you, Dad. Please come home. We forgive you,") to the mundane-yet-still-prayer-worthy ("Please help me pass French.") Just standing in front of the honest-to-goodness majesty of the Grotto (made all the more dramatic because it's about 100 feet off 84th and Sandy) and reading these stories is enough to make your trip worth it, but there's SO much more.

Upper gardens

Stop at the gift shop on your way in and purchase a $4 token so you can ride the elevator to the top of a cliff (again, this is RIGHT OFF SANDY. WTF?) to see the upper gardens. 

Follow the path as you exit the elevator and the first statue you come upon is St. Jude Thaddeus, patron saint of desperate cases. My layman’s understanding of the saints is that you call on different ones for different purposes, but that most people have one in particular that they relate to or call upon for help more often than others. (There are Patron Saints for a host of professions, including bankers, beekeepers, road workers, librarians, hatters, prison guards, and my favorite - Those Named Jason.) 

The lost cause thing felt like my jam, so I chose Thaddeus.

The garden was built as a place for quiet contemplation, and it is absolutely lovely and perfect for that, as long as there isn’t a passel of tourists on the path with you. For this reason, I’d recommend touring early in the morning on a weekday if you can. It was difficult for me to quietly contemplate anything with an 8-year-old kid punching his sister repeatedly. In front of the saints.

What was he thinking?

Marble panels

The path on the upper garden is bedecked with marble panels depicting Joseph’s joys and sorrows, my favorite being “Joseph is perturbed at the motherhood of the Virgin Mary.” Perturbed. Perturbed seems to be the most massive understatement one could make about the pregnancy of one’s virgin wife. This goes against everything I’ve heard about the Catholic Church being prone to the dramatic. 

Just two panels later, Joseph shows his “…delight when the holy name of Jesus is given to the infant.” If you look at the photos, you’ll notice that Joseph isn’t really one to wear his emotions on his sleeve. Or his face. Perturbitude and delight are pretty much identical. 

The things you absolutely shouldn’t miss on the top level: 

The statue of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and the environment. In bronze, it depicts him with a little sheep and a dog and it will break your ever-loving heart.

St. Anne’s Chapel – built in 1934, this teeny tiny one-room chapel that looks to be about 10 feet by 10 feet is the most adorable freaking little chapel you’ve ever seen. Filled with fairly random paintings of the Virgin Mary and plastic flowers, it’s where I found Bro. Alexis, who strangely isn’t wearing a backwards baseball cap.

Meditation Chapel

And the most amazing thing at the Grotto for me, by a long shot, is the Meditation Chapel, or what my friend Allie referred to as “Jesus Spaceship.” Located past the elevator on your way back down, it was built in 1991 at the edge of the cliff, but looks like something right out of Battlestar Gallactica. Futuristic reflecting pools lead you down a pathway to two glass doors, and when you open them, all you see is a giant bronze replica of the Pieta (yes, another one), and a 25-foot tall wall of glass looking out over SE Portland. There are four chairs that look a lot like Lay-Z-Boy recliners from the '80s lined up, facing out the windows and you’re invited to sit and meditate for as long as you like.

Go on the right day, and a real live nun might be sitting next to you. 

It’s strangely beautiful and surreal and unlike anything else you’ve seen all day at the Grotto, but then pretty much nothing you see there is like anything else. The mix of styles and eras of the art and architecture will make your head spin, but that only adds to its charm. 

Even for us heathens, The Grotto is an absolutely lovely place to quietly contemplate our future trip to hell to burn for all eternity. Thanks, Catholics!

Recommended for: People who enjoy gardens, religious statues made of wood,  bronze and marble, shrines, caves, tiny chapels and Jesus Spaceships.

Not recommended for: People who hate God.

The Grotto:  NE 85th and Sandy Boulevard. Thegrotto.org Phone: 503-254-7371

Courtenay Hameister is the Head Writer and Co-Producer of Live Wire Radio, a syndicated radio variety show distributed by Public Radio International. She is currently working on a book that will be released through Audible.com in 2015. Follow Courtenay on Twitter at @wisenheimer

Homepage photo credit: Doug Kerr on Flickr. CC license. Image cropped. 


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