Growing up Catholic in the 1950s and 60s in the city of Portland, Oregon, we were blessed with two strikingly Catholic sites. The first was the Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, popularly called “the Grotto,” run by Catholic friars, the Servants of Mary, usually known as the Servite Order. Their shrine in Portland is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of “Our Lady of Sorrows,” with its principle feast day being September 15th each year.
I call the Grotto “the first” of two strikingly Catholic sites in Portland, because it was and remains such a well known place in Portland, located close to the airport, and a popular destination for Catholics and not, who for whatever reason, are in or come to, “the City of Roses,” which is Portland’s nickname. I grew up just a couple of miles away from the Grotto. It was an easy bus ride from my home. One could also walk there in half an hour or so.
Established in 1924, the Grotto attracts some three hundred thousand people every year. Visitors can walk the tranquil wooded grounds, pray in the main church and several smaller chapels, admire manicured flower gardens and enjoy vistas of Portland and nearby Washington State. Especially popular before and after Christmas is the Grotto’s “Festival of Lights,” something that began after my time in Portland, but a huge draw to the sanctuary grounds during the winter.
Catholics of Portland were proud of the Grotto and its presence in what I later learned was and is a fairly “non-Catholic” and largely “un-churched” city of Portland and state of Oregon. Portland is a Roman Catholic Archdiocese, indicating a certain status for Catholic faithful, who nonetheless are a large minority of the population. This has somewhat changed in the past fifty years with an influx of Hispanic and Southeast Asians coming to Portland and the surrounding area.
The Grotto has always been a “place apart,” for prayer and reflection, attending Mass and purchasing religious goods in the gift shop, but also a spot where people of other religions or no particular faith could and can come to enjoy the beauty of nature in this sanctuary.
In recent years, visiting a fairly famous Catholic shrine in the eastern United States, I immediately thought, “Oh, this place doesn’t have the draw and infrastructure of the Grotto in Portland.” I say this not to belittle any shrine, but to indicate what I took for granted growing up, but now realize is the obvious draw of Portland’s Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother.
The second strikingly Catholic site in my home town, also close to where I grew up and near the Grotto, was the Monastery of the Precious Blood, a contemplative community of enclosed Catholic nuns who had come from Canada to Portland in 1891.
They lived a life of prayer and work in an impressive and several-storied Mission/Spanish Revival building completed in 1923, located in a fairly quiet suburban neighborhood in Southeast Portland, surrounded by private homes and near the Catholic parish of the Ascension of the Lord.
Though only a couple of miles from my home, some of my cousins lived a few blocks from the Precious Blood Monastery. Sadly, the monastery was closed in 1991, exactly one hundred years after its founding, due to dwindling numbers, but the building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was beautifully restored and retrofitted for a privately owned health care facility, called Saint Andrew’s Memory Care, for people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
As I grew up and the nuns were still present at the Precious Blood Monastery, my mom used to point out as we passed close by on our way to our cousins or to our grandparents in Oregon City, that the nuns had frosted glass, at least on their bedroom windows, to block out distractions and provide a focus for a life of hidden prayer and sacrifice.
At the time the idea sounded a bit preposterous to my mind, but gradually the notion made some sense and became a kind of “contemplative catalyst” or a “prophetic witness” for my own perceived call to a more contemplative form of Benedictine monastic life which I pursued in northern New Mexico at the age of twenty-four in 1977, forty years ago.
Why am I mentioning all that here and now, many years later and living in the middle of the bustling, though very Catholic city of Rome? Because, like the Grotto and the Precious Blood Monastery of Portland, Oregon, we here at Sant’Ambrogio and many other religious sites in the city of Rome, hopefully bear witness to the deeper realities of life, the presence and action of God in our world, in the midst of a frenetic, secularized and at times hostile environment.
Furthermore, and almost amusing, most of the windows at Sant’Ambrogio, at least in our bedrooms, have frosted glass! Perhaps that is what indirectly inspired this essay. The idea of frosted glass here, I presume, was for a modicum of privacy as most of the bedrooms directly face the adjacent building, actually the rest of a monastery of nuns who used to be here until early 1800s.
The Italian government now owns the entire building and we are permitted to use a portion and for the moment no one occupies the adjacent space. Nonetheless, the windows remain frosted and I can’t help but call to mind what the nuns of the Precious Blood Monastery, practically in my neighborhood, had those many years ago. Here we can easily open the frosted windows for a view of the interior cloister garden of this property and the sky above the building.
Like monasteries and sanctuaries everywhere, we monks at Sant’Ambrogio value a certain degree of solitude and silence, yet with openness to the presence and needs of people “in the world.” In these times of the “information highway,” the most hidden of monasteries can still be known, and even “virtually visited,” but of course that cannot replace an onsite look at one or more of these sacred spaces.
Last September I brought a group of pilgrims to Portland to see the Grotto as well as the former Precious Blood Monastery. We were also able to visit the Trappist monks and the Benedictine abbey, both outside of Portland, though in different directions. All of these places are near and dear to me, worth sharing, and our little pilgrimage group seemed to deeply appreciate each place as well.
I can’t help but sense the power of the Good News of the Catholic faith present in our world, so engulfed as we are in the “bad news” of each day. Sad as all that is, we must never lose sight of the bigger picture and the goodness of so many in the world today, striving to do God’s will and work in the world.