Stepping out of my car I’m instantly hit by the coolness and dampness of this place. It’s perpetually cool and damp in the Pacific Northwest, but in places like this—places presided over by stately evergreens and leafy deciduous trees—those conditions are more palpable.

I look around and sigh deeply, letting my shoulders sag. I’m not sure being here is a good idea. There is so much that needs to be done. So little time. But I need some quiet time to reflect, so I came to the quietest of places within the city limits of Portland.

As I walk forward, clicking the button on my keychain that locks my car with the characteristic chirping sound, I ponder how odd it is this place is even within the limits of a major metropolitan area. I hear the busy traffic of Sandy Blvd fade behind me as I enter deeper into the woodland. Above me and the asphalt of the parking area is the grayness of the sky through tree boughs. A fine mist collects on the shoulders of my polo shirt and my nose is inundated with the smells of fir needles and moist earth. When I close my eyes it isn’t hard to imagine walking through a lot in search of the perfect Christmas tree.

When I open my eyes, however, I’m passing a sign that says, “Welcome to The Grotto; A place of Solitude, Peace and Worship.” Shortly after that is a glass and stone gift shop. As a walk the length of windows that also double as walls, I barely notice the row upon row of shelves populated with porcelain angels, pewter saints, wooden crucifixes, and innumerable other trinkets appealing to Catholic sentiments. Instead, I’m distracted by my own reflection. A reflection of a man who has passed the youthful side of thirty. Who is pale, drawn, and looks as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders.

I look away.

I round the corner, enter the gift shop and approach the register while passing rows of revolving displays holding beautiful silver and gold necklaces that dangle crosses and Catholic medals of virtually every known saint. Classical music sweetly fills the air and flows down the aisles of post cards, paintings, and rosaries.

I hand the lady at the register some money, “One token, please.”

She makes me change and hands me a single brass colored coin with a simple, but forgettable shape. I exit the shop and resume further into the flora.

The trees here are bigger. The ferns and brush thicker. The concrete path leads me past statues of various saints positioned in the foliage. To my right a significant rock formation begins to take prominence, announcing that I’ve been at the base of a cliff all this time, masked by an army of trees. I’m reminded that during the holidays this place is hung from one end to the other with an amazing quantity of Christmas lights that make an already special setting absolutely surreal. A gurgling brook meanders it’s way down the rock face.

Finally I pass a large bronze statue of Jesus carrying his cross and enter an open area of the sanctuary. I’m in a plaza filled mostly with park benches facing to my right. I stand at the head of the benches and join them in facing the heart of the sanctuary. There are many people here, sitting at socially resectable distances from each other, and there are more people up the stone steps kneeling before the main attraction.

Here, under the open sky and drizzling rain, you can see the shear height of the rocky cliff that is the sister to Portland’s Rocky Butte—volcanic remnants encircled by urban civilization. The cliff face is resplendent with vines and emerald patches of moss. Recessed into it’s base is an indentation that cannot be called a cave, but rather a grotto. A stone formation that has been shaped by both nature and man, housing a stone pillar that holds a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà.

I take a deep breath as I absent-mindedly flip the brass token back and forth across the back of the fingers of my right hand. Whether you’re a believer or not, whether you believed Jesus and Mary even existed, you still can’t help but sympathize with the idea of woman who had watched her son tortured to death. No parent should outlive their child. An Italian artist captured that pain in the face of a statue that cradles the broken body of her son in her arms. I’m also reminded of the expression, ” ‘Mother’ is the name on the lips of God and children.”

Flanked on either side of the stone dais before the Grotto are little coverings for racks of votive candles—flickering reminders of some visitor’s pain. They cast a ghostly light as the shadows of a winter’s afternoon encroach.

Somewhere in the rocks, hidden speakers pour out Gregorian Chant, adding to the ambiance.

As moving as this scene is, it’s not my final destination. I flip my hand and snatch the token out of mid-air.

I move on.

To my left is another stone and glass gift shop, but this one is more stone than glass. Straight ahead is a granite edifice with a large glass stained window at its center depicting Jesus. On either corner of the edifice are crenelated alcoves housing saints whose identities I’m not certain. Beneath the stain glass is marble stone that has carvings of Biblical scenes, and below this are bronze double doors.

It is the entrance to the church, but again, this is not my final destination.

I turn to my right and nestled against the cliff face is what looks like a very tall, thin tower. I climb some stairs to a turn stile. I look at the coin in the palm of my hand and sigh deeply.

“I shouldn’t be here,” I mumble to myself. “I don’t have time for this.”

I insert the token into the slot and bump my way through the chrome colored angled bars. They rotate as I pass and I can hear the token drop inside the collection box, punctuating that payment had been made and there is no going back.

Moving around the tower I see an elevator door.

I push the single button and the sound of moving cables soon results in the doors opening.

Stepping inside I push the “2” button. The doors close and gravity shifts as I move skyward. For the third time since I parked my car I hear music. This time it’s classical muzak. During the 30 second journey, an automated woman’s voice gives a brief rundown of the different sights to see at The Grotto.

The elevator stops, as does the audio tour and muzak. The doors open to reveal more forest. A forest above a forest. A forest in the sky.

I step out onto a path and follow it to an intersection. To the right looks like a well manicured park. To my left is my destination. I follow this path to a wedge shaped building on the very edge of the cliff. Near it is a sign that reads:

“Marilyn Moyer Meditation Chapel

This chapel was built in the memory of Marilyn Moyer, opened on St. Patrick’s Day, 1991, and dedicated to the Blessed Mary, Mother of Jesus.

The sculpture of Madonna and Child celebrate the miracle of motherhood, and the never-ending love of a mother for her child.

Recognizing Marilyn Moyer’s life-long devotion to the Blessed Mother, this chapel will remain forever a place where all may come for peaceful meditation.

Marilyn Moyer 1924-1988”

This stone, metal, and glass building is actually the tip of it’s own tower, which itself is the vertical beam of a giant crucifix embedded in the cliff that can be seen from I-205 Southbound.

The path turns into a short causeway that crosses a gurgling combination fountain and moat. Silver light fixtures rising out of the water cast a glow on the path leading to double glass doors that open inwards into the Meditation Chapel.

Inside is an incredible sight. It has to be one of the more impressive sky-box views of the region. It is a wide-open room whose far side is a wall of paneled glass at least twenty feet tall. The remaining daylight fills the room with a soft glow, a contrast from the moodiness of the grotto below.

Walking past a semi-circle of worn, cushy leather lounge chairs that face the view, I approach the clear wall that leaves absolutely nothing between you and a hundred foot fall but faith in engineering. I’m not afraid of heights and I’ve been here before. It’s perfectly safe.

Leaning against one of the clear support vanes that are perpendicular to the panels, and run floor to ceiling every two feet or so across the entire curvature of the giant window, I take my umpteenth deep breath of the day. I look out upon the unique vista.

Just beneath me is the church. It’s grey granite walls, chimney, and tower are a mix of Old and New World. Beautiful in it’s simple functionality. The corners of the tower also have crenelated alcoves facing the cardinal directions, holding yet more saints. Past the church and the grounds of The Grotto is urban Portland. Ironically, this close to such a hallowed place, you can make out the flashing neon signs of adult shops.

There are a fair amount of trees in this part of the city, even outside the sanctuary. I-205 meanders her way North from here. The very same rush hour traffic that contributed to my deciding to stop here today can be seen jamming up the highway. Red tail lights flow like a river of lava.

On a clear day you can see the blown top of Mt. St. Helens. But most days, like today, the view is gray with a drizzly mist filling most of the horizon. It is even difficult to see the planes landing at Portland International Airport. Though the airport only seems like a stone’s throw away, on days like this you still need the planes’ lights to track their landing as they float in like lazy bumblebees.

As I take in the view I catch my reflection in the glass. I don’t look away this time. Well, not right away. I don’t like what I see. I’m beyond tired. I’m exhausted. I have bags under my eyes. My skin is very pale. My clothes look like I’ve slept in them, which isn’t far from the truth. The hours I’ve been putting in at work don’t allow much time at home to do laundry. Or make dinner. Or mow the lawn. Or clean house. Or… It gets too depressing to think about anymore.

Bottom line, my job is killing me. Very slowly, but killing me just the same. It has gotten to the point where no matter what I do, there is always more to do. I cab never catch up. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. I hate it, and it hates me. But a mortgage, an assortment of other debt, and a bad economy made it near impossible to leave.

I came to the sanctuary this evening despite a load of homework, not just to wait out the traffic, but to think. For inspiration. For hope. For answers. For prayer.

“God, please help me. Get me out of this mess.” Was the best prayer I could muster.

I feel nothing. No inspiration. What do I expect from a lame-ass prayer?

I close my eyes and slowly beat my head against the glass. After one last good thump I turn my head and smoosh my face into the glass. It is cool and feels good. I open my eyes and my heart skips a beat.

There in the center of the glass wall is a clear, person-sized capsule. Inside is a women holding a child.

I frown at the sight. How did I not notice her when I came in? I had completely forgotten about the wax statue that was the center piece of the Meditation Chapel. This was precisely the sort of thing that had been happening at work that was getting me into hot water with my employer. I was forgetting things. Crazy things. Like what day it was. Not even at work, but elsewhere as well. When shopping I had left my cart to get something off a shelf. When I resumed my shopping, it was probably a good five minutes before I realized I had grabbed somebody else’s cart and was pushing it around.

Exhaustion does that to you.

I walk over to the statue and scrutinize her closely. I’m not an expert on wax figures, but I have to say she is very well done. Very life like. Creepily so.

She is 5’5″, slim build, light complexion, and light hair. Probably not at all what the real Jewish Mary looked like. She does, however, have the simple, serene beauty one associates with Madonna art. She has a white over the shoulder robe and a blue head dress that is long enough to be used as the swaddling for an equally fair complected baby Jesus. What makes her so life-like, I decide, are her hands and bare feet. Mostly her feet. Simply because they are NOT perfect. She almost has bunions. Her toes are twisted ever-so imperfectly. Her hands have the same tell-tale signs of someone who works for a living. Hangnails, calluses. Baby Jesus’ feet are also wrinkled and his toes are curled in, like a real infant who has yet to learn how to walk. Somebody went through significant trouble to make these figures very real, or they were cast from actual people. They’re so real, I believe, the latter has to be the case. I bet you could lift fingerprints from them. The only thing I can’t figure is what kind of technique of wax-casting makes that possible. Briefly, I recall the old horror movie “House of Wax” where victims had wax poured over them. I shudder and move away from the all-too-real feet.

Sitting heavily in one of the cushy chairs, I decide to do some real praying. I don’t let the fact that I don’t have a rosary stop me. I use my fingers rather than beads to pray Hail Marys to focus while articulating in the back of my mind a more appropriate request to God to improve my predicament.

I get to about five Hail Marys when the day starts to catch up with me. My eye lids grow heavier. The cushy chair gets cushier. The serenity and quietness of the chapel begins to smother me with a loving blanket of peacefulness. Even the sound of air moving from the vents to heat the building is a soothing white-noise.

I sink further into the chair and my hands come to rest in my lap. I’ll just rest my eyes for a moment. No harm in that, right? I’ll resume my prayer in a moment.

My breathing becomes deep and rhythmic. Though my eyes are closed I’m perfectly awake. Peaceful, but awake. I can hear every little noise in the vicinity. I’ve become so attuned to my environment that the air rushing from the vents sounds like a roar, and I can actually make out traffic noise from far-off Sandy Blvd.

It is then I hear the gentle slap of bare feet approach me and I’m vaguely aware of the fact of somebody standing over me. Somebody must have entered the chapel without me realizing it. Or, more likely, I had another “episode” of forgetfulness and didn’t realize somebody had been there all along. They’re probably coming over to make sure I haven’t died. I imagine I look pretty sacked out in this chair.

I crack my eyes open to look at my visitor.

It is Mary from the capsule. She has stepped effortlessly through the glass case and approached me. She stands over me with a sweet smile, her eyes more alive than ever.

She gently puts her index finger to her smiling lips and says, “Shhhh…be patient.”

I smile back, feeling peaceful.

Then I sit straight up in the chair, “What the…!!”

I back pedal over the back of the chair and fall hard on the floor. Adrenaline is coursing through my body like fire. My heart is racing. I grab the chair and pull myself up just enough that my eyes and nose are poking over the back of the chair like Kilroy. My wide eyes dart back and forth.

Of course she is gone. Well, back in her capsule.

I had fallen asleep and dreamed it all.

Right?

My heart slows down, my nerves calm. I look long at the wax figure.

Dream or not, I got the message.

As it turns out, my visit to The Grotto wasn’t a complete waste of time after all.