Just four hours from my home in southeastern Washington is the Grotto in Portland, Ore. On the outskirts of Portland, the Grotto is a treasure easily overlooked by drivers hurrying past on nearby highways.
Veiled by tall evergreens, the beautiful sanctuary, with its expansive prayer gardens, outdoor Stations of the Cross, lovely chapels and monastery, operated by the Servites, is nearly invisible from the street. The Servite order was founded in 1233 and is one of the Church’s original five mendicant orders (the others being the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians).
The Grotto’s history hints at the miraculous: With his mother near death after the birth of his sister, a little boy prayed for Mary’s intercession, promising to someday do a great work for the Church if his mother recovered, which she did.
The boy, Ambrose Mayer, never forgot his promise. He grew up to become a Servite priest, and when a parcel of forested land was up for sale, Father Mayer envisioned its potential, bidding all he had to obtain it. His small bid was accepted, and his vision became reality. The project received the apostolic blessing of Pope Pius XI in 1923 and was designated the National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother in 1983.
While planning my trip, an email from Human Life International (HLI) provided heavenly affirmation of my chosen destination. HLI’s pilgrimages in defense of human life began in 2012. The pilgrim icon image, a reproduction of the Black Madonna, known formally as Our Lady of Czestochowa, journeyed across Russia, Europe and the Atlantic and spent nearly a year crossing America to reach the Pacific. The schedule included a stop at the Grotto on July 22. Our Lady would be there to meet me.
The pilgrim image is a copy of an ancient icon that legend claims was written by St. Luke on a cedar tabletop from the household of the Holy Family. Many miracles have been attributed to this image; the most well-known is the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when prayers of the Rosary were answered with a Christian naval victory over the Ottoman Empire. An attempt to plunder the icon left the face of the Virgin scarred and the sword-wielding plunderer dead. The Black Madonna is the beloved patroness of Poland, where the original icon resides.
Early on July 22, I set out for Portland with my friend Margaret. Dedicating our pilgrimage to our Sorrowful Mother — whose feast day is Sept. 15 — we prayed along with a CD of the “Seven Sorrows Rosary,” recorded by Immaculée Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. In her book Our Lady of Kibeho, Ilibagiza tells about the apparitions of Our Lady in that tiny African village, urging conversion of the heart, requesting renewed devotion to her Seven Sorrows and warning of impending bloodshed if intertribal hatred did not cease.
Ilibagiza describes her father’s pilgrimage to Kibeho: hacking through brush, wading deep rivers and sleeping in the open jungle while leopards prowled nearby. Arriving in Kibeho, aching from their long trek, the pilgrims were present during Our Lady’s apparition. A sunlit rain shower refreshed the crowd, healing all the pains of the journey.
Ultimately, however, few Rwandans heeded Our Lady’s warnings, and hatred flared into the terrible genocide of 1994. Ilibagiza has since worked tirelessly to spread the messages of Kibeho to a world deeply in need of conversion and prayer. “If you believe she [the Blessed Mother] has appeared anywhere … listen to her,” she has said.
Arriving at the Grotto, we prayed before the outdoor altar, with its beautiful marble Pietà, before boarding the elevator to the upper gardens. In the cliff-top meditation chapel, a bronze Pietà stands before a dramatic backdrop of floor-to-ceiling windows, with sweeping views of the Columbia River and the surrounding city. We walked the many pathways of the upper gardens, past plaques and hand-carved wooden scenes marking the sorrows and joys of Mary and Joseph. A brief sunlit shower suddenly fell, bringing a healing balm for the tired spirits of urban pilgrims that day.
Returning to the chapel on the lower level to await the scheduled Mass, we watched as the Black Madonna icon was carried reverently into the sanctuary. We drew closer, gazing on a face that seemed wounded by sin, the gashes of that ancient attack seared onto her cheek, a hint of tears in her sorrowful and loving eyes.
During the priest’s homily, he spoke of visiting Russia, where the use of abortion as birth control has left countless women grieving multiple abortions. Often, women would reach out to touch the icon, he told us, spontaneously confessing their abortions.
His words had me sensing Mary’s profound grief at the death of Jesus that encompasses all maternal loss, and these women instinctively entrusted her with their hidden grief. I thought that her heart, pierced by sorrow, resembles that of her Son, Jesus. She shares his desire that not one of us be lost. She leads her lost children back to Jesus.
It made me think of those who suffer spiritual poverty in the United States, inflicted by the culture of death. My own heart, deeply scarred by the sorrow of abortion, has been redeemed by Jesus Christ on the cross with the help of Our Lady. The despairing act of abortion — the rejection of God’s greatest gift, our own children — is truly evidence of the lack of love in our world. Abortion leaves deep sorrow and regret, but with Jesus and Mary, repentance and healing is possible.
Looking upon the image of the Black Madonna and recalling the urgent warnings of Our Lady of Kibeho, the sadness on the lovely chiseled face of Michelangelo’s Pietà and the tears of the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the cross, they all blended into one image: Mary, Mother of God and mother of all people, who loves us so deeply that she weeps at our pain, and her tears fall like healing rain.
I thanked God for my pilgrimage, as grace-filled as one to a distant land, because this beloved Mother and her Son, Jesus, are with us always and forever, here and everywhere.
Nancy Murray writes from Richland, Washington.