The Grotto

NE 85th & Sandy

The Cult of Catholicism thing pretty much escaped me my whole life. I always feel out of the loop when people pin anything on their Roman Catholic upbringing--whether it's their aesthetics or their neuroses. When the church decided this month to select an ex-Hitler Youth (however reluctant) to be their figurehead, I couldn't help but marvel at their sheer ballsiness. And the whole communication thing with the white and black smoke was pretty awesome--where can you even buy white smoke?

With ex-Nazis and smoke signals in mind, I headed for the Grotto, Portland's Catholic shrine and botanical garden. In a nutshell, The Grotto is a beautiful, bluff-side park littered with religious sculptures. And oh yeah--it's a park where you're not supposed to throw Frisbees, bring dogs, or do Tai Chi. It's more of a contemplative garden where you're bombarded with some serious downer martyrdom imagery.

Three dollars buys a ride on a talking, 110-foot elevator to the Meditation Chapel and Peace Garden atop the overgrown basalt cliff. The Meditation Chapel is a glorious, if bizarre structure. Built from polished granite and glass walls, strong diagonals thrust outward to create a completely modern, convex picture window. Unfortunately, the view overlooks a nondescript residential area, the airport, and a Rodeway Inn. As impressive as the architecture is, the view is hardly sublime. In the center of this panoramic glass wall, a life-size mannequin of the Virgin Mary cradling a (Germanic?) blond baby J stands encased in a huge cylindrical tube of the beam-me-up-Scotty variety. The friction of the banal landscape below, the dramatic architecture, and the hokiness of the JC Penney virgin all conspire to make a funky friction worth the price of admission.

Certainly nobody can object to a Peace Garden, especially one that bears such a botanical resemblance to Laurelhurst Park. Their mission is a bit curious, though--to illustrate the 15 mysteries of the rosary through flora and landscape. This sounds like a great undertaking. Using flowers and trees to explain biblical mysteries? Unfortunately, The Grotto's landscape is the same throughout the 60-acre grounds, though it is dotted with heavy handed sculptures of James Caveziel doing some heavy-duty suffering, which puts a serious damper on the redwoods and purple flowers.