About a year ago, I received a phone call from one of my former students, Kelsey Mattick, with a request I often receive as a priest: “Would you be available to officiate my wedding?”
These requests are both an honor and difficult to receive. They are an honor because they communicate that I have made a significant impact in someone’s life as a priest. They are also difficult because the schedule often leads me to decline these requests.
Kelsey and Sri’s request would have been ripe for a rejection since it was in Portland, Oregon and I live in Menomonie, Wisconsin. Thankfully, I looked at my calendar and was able to not only say “yes” to officiating the wedding but was able to schedule two weeks of vacation in the Portland area!
Last week, I offered a journal reflection about my trip to the Redwood Trail at the Hoyt Arboretum. This week, I want to reflect upon a beautiful grotto that combines the natural beauty of the redwoods with the supernatural beauty of a place of prayer and reflection: The Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother.
Truth be told, I didn’t know that the Grotto existed before arriving in Portland. Some of Kelsey’s family encouraged me to visit the Grotto. Once I did, I was in awe of how the Servite Order that stewards this land has created a truly sacred space while also demonstrating a respect and care for the environment where the Grotto resides. The central sacred image at the Sanctuary is Michelangelo’s Pieta, replicated in beautiful and powerful ways. The central natural image of the Sanctuary is its breathtaking beauty through trees, flowers, and paths, creating a serenity that makes it easy for pilgrims to enter into a state of prayer.
The first striking feature of the Grotto is its designation as a “Sanctuary” in contrast to being designated a “Shrine.” For some, this distinction might simply sound like semantics, but in the context of my vacation, it took on deep significance. To call something a “Sanctuary” indicates an intentional space in which the things within the Sanctuary are to be protected and shown reverence. Much has been made in the news about “Sanctuary Cities” where undocumented immigrants can find safe haven. It is important that we remember that the use of the word “Sanctuary” in this context gives voice to the human dignity that all people possess and is to be upheld regardless of their background, gender, country of origin, or state of life.
Sanctuary in the context of nature indicates an unusually beautiful and pristine treasure of our common home that needs protection. In the United States, the National Park system was born because of this sentiment, seeing within our natural world extraordinary places that thin the veil between this world and God. When applying this understanding to a place like the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother, we can find a threefold connection of the word “Sanctuary,” giving clear voice to protecting the natural environment the Grotto resides in, the inherent dignity of the people who visit the Grotto, and the presence of Christ in the Sacraments celebrated on these holy grounds – In particular, Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
At the heart of this Sanctuary is the mystery of the Sacramental life of the Church: Natural gifts given to us by God are made holy so that we may be made holy through the reception of these sacred gifts. Though we do not use this language in the west, this Sacramental worldview reminds me of the Christian East where the natural world is viewed as the “Sacrament of Creation.” As I have shared with you in the past, this worldview sees harm done to creation not only as a natural ethic, but also as an act of desecrating that which God has created. Therefore, the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother is a true Sanctuary of land, people, and the Sacraments that God uses to renew all of creation.
A place like the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother reminds me of Pope Francis’ writings on Integral Ecology (the interconnected relationship of all of creation, including the human person) and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s writings on Human Ecology (the more we support human dignity, the more we will naturally help the care of our common home). My recurring thought as I walked through the Sanctuary was, “If there ever was a place for someone to reflect on the ethical, moral, and sacramental dimensions of creation in light of their Catholic faith, the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother is the place!”
While experiencing the Grotto, I was reminded of Romano Guardini’s work, Letters from Lake Como. This text is frequently cited by Pope Francis in his Encyclical Laudato Si’ and is a collection of reflections on what happened to the habitat of Lake Como, Italy as it went from a pristine environment that people enjoyed to the “vacation destination of the elite,” marked by the manipulation of the coastlines to build multi-million dollar homes for the wealthy and powerful.
Guardini draws upon this experience to set a sturdy ethic in regard to the relationship between humanity and creation. Guardini argues that our right relationship with creation should be like a person in a sailboat, riding the waters to a particular destination while also respecting the natural currents and waves of the waters traversed. This analogy emphasizes a respectful relationship between creation and humanity, just as the accomplished sailor develops a respectful relationship with the waters they sail.
At the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother, this relationship set out by Guardini is on full display. At no point did I find myself feeling like those who developed the Sanctuary were trying to overpower the lands with the construction of the Grotto Church, paths, and physical structures meant for pilgrims. Rather, one can easily see that attention was given to respecting the natural contours of the environment to develop the physical structures in relationship with the natural structures. It is done in such a beautiful way that the natural beauty accentuates the buildings in the Sanctuary and the buildings invite you to discover the natural beauty around you. In short, the Sanctuary of the Sorrowful Mother emerges as a beautiful symbol of stewardship in the best sense of the word.
Spiritual Exercise: Do you see creation as something to dominate and manipulate or is creation something to be stewarded and protected? Pray with that question this week, get out into the beauty of creation, and see in this natural world the fingerprints of the supernatural, experiencing peace through the awe-inspiring beauty of our common home.