Portland’s Grotto And Other Holy Sites

“Remember, remember the sacredness of things, running streams and dwellings,

the young within the nest, a hearth for a sacred fire, the holy flame.”

Omaha Indian Chant.

There is an experience that some call deep travel. I prefer to think of it as a journey taken by the soul. This is a term representing a moment in which one leaves the stresses of life far behind. This incredible feeling is often triggered by beauty. Like a firefly taking wing and vanishing into the darkness of night, when it occurs, worries about our jobs, fears for the future of our loved ones, and concerns about the state of the world suddenly disappear. Quiet pervades our thoughts. The chatter of our mind is no longer in control. We stare in awe at the world in which we live.

Sites which trigger journeys of the soul can be found all over the world. They need not be in great museums like the Louvre or ancient cities like Athens and Rome. A moment which takes your breath away can occur at your favorite fishing hole. It can happen in  your backyard while you are watching a flock of geese flying south for the  winter.

The journey may be planned, or it can take place spontaneously. It happens with perfect timing, as if someone is watching over us, telling us to pause and slow down. It is a reaction brought about by the beauty of planet Earth. It begins with a sudden feeling, deep and sublime. That emotion brings with it a sense of joy. Without warning, we feel that we are standing on ground that is, in some way, holy.

In these special moments an intricate dance between two partners, our spirit and our need for transcendence, occurs.  Sometimes, they take place when we are observing  magnificent architecture or masterpieces of art. One cannot help but be uplifted when gazing up at Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. It is simply our natural response to beauty. At the completion of this experience, one is left feeling refreshed and hopeful for the future. This was exactly what I felt when I visited Portland, Oregon’s enchanting world of The Grotto, The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother.


Portland Grotto: The Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother

Portland Grotto: The Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother



Portland’s Grotto: The Marguerite M. Casey Peace Garden


Portland’s Grotto: Its History

The story of this shrine begins at the end of the 19th Century, when a young boy learned that his mother was near death after giving birth. In tears, the child ran to the little parish church where he and his family worshiped in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. There, the terrified boy prayed to the Virgin Mary, beseeching her for his mother’s return to health. Then, he made a promise that one day, if his mother’s life was spared, he would undertake a great task in remembrance of the Virgin’s compassion. Both, the boy’s mother and his baby sister, survived. The Grotto, The Sanctuary Of Our Sorrowful Mother, is the fulfillment of the pact that the child, Ambrose Mayer, made to save his dying mother.

Ambrose grew up to became a member of the Servites, a Catholic order dedicated to the devotion of the Virgin Mary. Originating in Florence, Italy in the 13th Century, the Servites’ vows include poverty, chastity, and obedience. The order is especially dedicated to acknowledging the sorrow that Mary felt at the crucifixion of her son, Jesus of Nazareth. Today, the order can be found in Europe, Africa, Australia, India, the Philippines, and the Americas.

In 1916, the young friar was sent by the Servites to the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon. With his limited funds, Mayer made the initial payment on a plot of land located along the banks of the Columbia River. It was there, he decided, that his promise to the Virgin would be fulfilled. Like a master weaver, Mayer would intertwine the massive untamed forest of America’s  Pacific Northwest with symbolic representations of his faith. Those symbols would be designed to express Mary’s sorrow.

With the support of the diocese, Mayer’s dream became a reality. Patiently, throughout the years, he and others created his masterpiece. Today, it is a work of art to which the world’s most beautiful tapestries cannot compare. The background for his weaving was the hundreds of shades of green from the forest. Oregon’s pride, the largest temperate rainforest on earth, is home to Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Big-Leaf Maple trees, each with its own unique shade of green. Beneath the canopy, mosses and emerald fern carpet the ground, and fallen logs, covered in lichen, provide security for communities of small mammals and insects. The Oregon rainforest is home to the Roosevelt elk, the cougar, and the black bear.

Into this setting, Mayer added the blue-greens of the ocean and the deep bronze and golden hues of the rising moon and the setting sun. Year after year. his tapestry grew deeper and richer, with the colors taking on a new life as the story of the sorrowful mother unfolded. Even with its theme of sorrow, The Grotto is a place of pure joy. Thus, today visitors from all over the earth delight in the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother.



Portland’s Grotto: Bronze Plaque Depicting the Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious, and Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary



Portland’s Grotto: The Marguerite M. Casey Peace Garden


Portland’s Grotto: Remembering Mary, the Sorrowful Mother 

The first thing to catch one’s attention upon entering this site is Our Lady’s Grotto. This unusual altar, carved into a solid basalt cliff, provides the foundation over which a white marble replica of the Pietà, Michelangelo’s masterpiece which hangs in  St. Peter’s Basilica, is placed. At the  top of the overhanging cliff, a bronze statue of the Virgin looks down protectively over her sanctuary. This icon was blessed by Pope Pius XI in 1934, in celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Servite Order.

However, as one with a deep affinity to nature, I found the tranquility of the Marguerite M. Casey Peace Garden to be the most inviting. There, a small gurgling stream ripples over pebbles, symbolizing redemption of the world. Twenty bronze plaques, strategically placed within this natural setting, depict the mysteries of the rosary. The garden is filled with fresh blooming flowers and bushes of every imaginable shape, size, and color. Beneath the garden’s evergreen trees, one cannot help experiencing a sense of peace.

Saint Anne’s Chapel and St. Mary’s Chapel welcome worshipers, and wanderers find solace in the garden’s meditative labyrinth. More than one hundred statues and shrines rest along forest pathways. Especially welcoming is the bronze sculpture of Saint Francis of Assisi, who “saw the hand of God in everything.” Built on two levels, Portland’s Grotto welcomes all faiths and nationalities. It is not necessary to accept the doctrines of Catholicism in order to fall deeply in love with Portland’s rare treasure. The sanctuary contains shrines from Lithuania, Poland, and the Philippines.

The Grotto receives more than 250,000 visitors each year. Special events throughout the year include:

  • Outdoor Mother’s Day Mass,
  • Holy Week and Easter in the Grotto,
  • The Blessing of the Animals,
  • St. Anne’s Summer Twilight Retreat, and
  • The Christmas Festival of Lights.

Visiting Portland’s Grotto was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had in all my wanderings.  I found it to be enchanting and uplifting.  It instilled in me a sense of wonder.



The Grotto: The Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother



Portland’s Grotto: Representation of Christ Bearing His Burden – the Cross


Deep (Soul) Travel

Often deep travel occurs when one least expects it. A fisherman may be casting his rod in Montana’s Bitterroot Lake, in search of trout. Then, suddenly he pauses to look up. The splendor of the mountains overwhelms him. A hiker may be standing on the shores of Alaska’s Baranov Island in the Alexander Archipelago when the sunlight casts its gleam on the waves. A feeling of complete contentment overcomes her senses. Soul travel leaves one with an unexpected emotion of purest bliss. For a while, the mind is cleansed of its worries, fears, and life’s tiring trivia.

When that happens, a state very similar to meditation begins. In a sense, we suddenly become children again. The air smells cleaner,  and the colors strangely seem more vibrant and bold. We move closer to our true nature, the one that we somehow lost track of among the high-rises, freeways, and the concrete jungles of our cities.

A wanderer like myself might climb a mountainside, as I did in Nepal. Peeking into the tiny, dark cave, where long ago an ancient Buddhist monk spent his life in utter solitude, moved me tears. Those tears were not of sorrow. They were simply a reaction to a story, the depths to which one man had gone in order to fulfill his destiny. Within the dark stone walls, where I could not even stand upright, the flame of a small lighted candle flickered softly. I imagined the holy man saying to me, ““No matter your destination, you are always standing on holy ground.” Although just a spider filled void in a mountain to some, for me the site resonated with deep yearnings to draw closer to the world of spirit.

As we see, soul travel requires two things. The first is a natural setting, unspoiled by man, or a place or thing filled with beauty. The second, a person who has quietened his or her mind of the constant chatter of our thoughts. The music of the leaves fluttering in the breeze, the newly born birds chirping hungrily in their nests, or the scent of the ocean can inspire soul travel.

Echoes of deep travel resound in some the world’s greatest literature. One of my favorites, filled with words of elegance and grace, was written by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes.


The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


Shrine of Saint Theresa: Patron Saint of Alaska

Americans need not travel to foreign lands to experience the pleasure of deep travel. One of the places which instills a sense of the peace in me is located just outside Alaska’s capital city. A part of the Catholic Diocese of Juneau, it is home to a tiny chapel on a bluff jutting out into the Lynn Canal.  Here, one can discover the delights of expanded awareness, creative energy, and deep relaxation.

Dedicated to the patron saint of Alaska, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the chapel is sheltered within the Tongass National Forest. Throughout the centuries, this rain forest has consistently been inhabited by the First Nations’ people, the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Home to Alaska’s bald eagles, moose, wolves, black-tailed deer, and both brown and black bears, the Tongass is the largest national forest in America. For those who seek solitude, it is the ideal setting.

Here, one can wander the concentric circles of the prayer walk while listening to the waves of the surf crash far below. He or she can walk along the rugged coastline and, hopefully, spot a humpback whale or a Steller sea lion in the distance. Visitors can also kneel in prayer or simply meditate in the chapel which was built in the 1930’s. The Stations of the Cross, scenes which symbolize the passion, death, and resurrection of the Christ, rest beneath tall, majestic conifers. As with Portland’s Grotto, people of all beliefs are welcomed to this sanctuary.


Shrine of St. Theresa in Juneau, Alaska

Shrine of St. Theresa in Juneau, Alaska


Grounds of Shrine of St. Therese, Juneau, Alaska

Grounds of Shrine of St. Therese, Juneau, Alaska


Sometimes, our lives demand so much of us that we lose touch with who we really are. We forget that we live on a planet floating in the ether, where complex cosmic laws and intricate physical properties miraculously ensure our ability to survive. We ignore the fact that even the slightest alteration of the earth’s properties would make life on this planet impossible. Deep travel reminds us that we are not here by accident.

I often recall a phrase from Ken Wilbur’s “Eye of Spirit.”  I read it many years ago, and it has always stayed in my memories. For me, its meaning is simple. When the artificiality of our existence is stripped from us, we move far beyond our illusions. That perfectly describes deep travel.

“You will arise as the earth itself, and glorify all its blessed inhabitants, and you will arise as the sun itself, radiant to infinity, and much too obvious to see, and in that one taste of primordial purity, with no beginning and no end, with no entrance and no exit, with no birth and no death, it all comes radically to be; and the sound of a singing waterfall, somewhere in the distance, is all that is left to tell the tale late on this crystal cold night, bathed so beautifully in the lunar light, just so and again, just so.” 


Suggested Resources:

The Grotto

Our Sorrowful Mother Ministry

History of the Servite Order

Shrine of St. Theresa, Patron Saint of Alaska

The Story of St. Theresa’s Life

Alaska Wilderness League

Tongass National Forest

How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies