PILGRIMAGE: Muros, Spain—Using Low Tide by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Muros, Spain—Using Low Tide by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

The afternoon bus from A Coruña is weaving its way south down the ragged coast of northwestern Spain.  The scenery is a kaleidoscope of mountain slopes, evergreen groves, and stony seacoast.

Straight ahead spreads a broad, dark-blue bay, and beyond it soar high, brown mountains, clad to the waist in dark pine forests.  Each isolated house along the narrow road salutes us with a line of bright-colored laundry that flutters sideways in the strong sea wind.  Shrunken old ladies in black sit in a row, their backs against the wall of the village church, catching the late afternoon sun.  Here and there a stranded palm tree stands beside the road as if waiting for a ride from a friend.  On a headland to our right, a lighthouse pops out of a lush green meadow.  Just offshore, a black fishing boat beetles across the dark green sea.  A wide, silver beach peeks playfully from behind the tall straight trunks of a pine grove.

As we round a bend, the next panorama opens up in the distance: lofty, gray mountains dotted with greenery encircle a wide cove.  White, two-story buildings with red tile roofs are strung in a necklace that lies along the road, hugging the horseshoe of the harbor.  Their windows face the street and look across it to the waterfront and the bay.  Above the row of red roofs, other houses climb the steep granite slope.

Halfway around the horseshoe, the bus drops me off and continues on its way toward Orense.  I stand still for a moment to enjoy the smell of the cool sea air.  Seagulls skim and soar, scolding the bright-colored fishing boats that are resting at their docks.  The quiet, black water sloshes lazily against the rocks lining the shore.  This is Muros.  I’ve come here to visit the grandmother of two of my students.  I introduced myself to her by phone from Santiago de Compostela two days ago, and have now shown up to impose on her hospitality.

A friendly passerby points me in the right direction.  As it turns out, though, the street name I give her actually refers to a whole maze of lanes and pathways that crisscross the hillside farther along the curve of the bay.  To add to my confusion, house numbers seem to be assigned somewhat haphazardly, and I need the help of a second neighbor woman to locate my destination, which turns out to be high up on the steep slope.

At last I find myself saying hello to the grandmother: “¡Buenas tardes, Abuela!”  Her daughter, who is visiting from America, soon stops by to say hello and chat.  Grandma’s generous supper, combined with the salt air and the fatigue of the long bus ride, makes me ready for bed soon after we leave the table.  My room is upstairs, at the front of the house.  Its window faces the bay, though there’s nothing but inky darkness outside when I turn off the light.

The harsh cries of the seagulls wake me.  A dull, silver dawn is just starting to filter through the little window.  Impatient for my first look at the harbor from up here on the hillside I climb out of bed, put on my glasses, and shuffle sleepily across the room, noticing the tangy smell of the sea.  As I gently brush aside the white curtains I blink in disbelief.  The bay is gone!

At the bottom of the slope stretches more than half a mile of ugly mud and wet sand.  Far out from the shore a tractor and a dump truck slide noiselessly over the brown muck that was water last night.  Several men are working busily with rakes and shovels near the truck.

After breakfast I thank la Abuela and say good-bye for the day.  Gray rain clouds are gathering on the horizon as I start down the twisting lanes to inspect the disaster scene at the waterfront.  I reach the bottom of the hillside, cross the road, and sit down at the edge of the mud on a bench that last evening looked out over silky ripples.  And I start to reflect.

For me the “real” Muros is the picturesque one I saw yesterday: the beautiful bay full of sparkling waves lapping at the rocks along the beach front.  The bleak sight before me now is some sort of blunder: it’s supposed to be a glistening expanse of saltwater, not an unsightly wasteland of dark-brown muck strewn with small boats lying on their sides like dead birds.  This isn’t the way a fishing port is supposed to look.

The more I get used to the scene, however, the more I start to realize that there is nothing wrong with it at all: this is exactly what Muros is supposed to look like – when the tide is out!

My life, it occurs to me, is not so different.  It, too, has its high and low tides.  I usually see the good times, when life is a joy and the tide is full, as the way life is “supposed to be.”  The other times, when the tide is out, are simply unwanted interruptions.  I represent the periods of muck and suffering; I try to just ignore them until the tide rolls back in.

In a coastal town, though, high tide and low tide are two equally important realities.  It’s not that one or the other is the way the sea is supposed to be; each one offers its own opportunities.  Low tide is the time for clam diggers to go out to find clams, and for mussel farmers to harvest their shellfish from the wooden posts that stand in the sea bed near shore.

In the case of Muros, low tide means something else as well: the workers with their tractor and truck, I was told at breakfast, are removing the residue of an oil spill that fouled the coast years before.  They take advantage of low tide every day to drive out to the polluted part of the bay floor and clean it up some more.  Then, as the tide comes flooding back in, they beat a retreat and wait for the next low water.

Heavy clouds are now looming closer every minute – Galicia is famous for its rainy climate.  When they hear the word Gallego (a Galician), most Spaniards automatically picture someone carrying a furled umbrella, ready for the next shower.

Perhaps, I think, as I look out at the acres of mud flats stretching in front of me, we actually learn more about ourselves when the tide of our life is low than when it is high – because a lot more of the bay is exposed to view.  This is why Benedict insists that we admit our mistakes: because they help us recognize the important and undeniable fact that we’re imperfect.

Times of sadness, strain, disappointment, and tragedy let us see certain truths about ourselves that we’d never have noticed otherwise; things about us that need changing stand out especially starkly in the brown mud.  Low tide isn’t particularly pleasant or pretty, but it is wonderfully revealing.  It would be a shame to waste this precious time just hanging around waiting for the next high tide.

My supervision of the workmen comes to a sudden halt when a large, gray cloud starts to dump the first shower of the day.  I quickly unfold my little black umbrella and scurry toward a nearby coffee shop, leaving the low-tide laborers to their cleanup.


In the hunger, thirst, and wandering of the wilderness years, the Israelites learned who God was for them.  Think of some “low tide” experience such as a serious illness or the loss of a job.  What did it teach you about yourself and your relationship with God?

Just as the receding tide leaves the bed of the bay exposed to view, the fasting, prayer, reading, and other disciplines of Lent can help expose parts of your inner self that you might not ordinarily get to see – and it’s not always pretty.  Ask the Lord to help you to look at some things about yourself that may need attention.

Sacred Scripture (John 8:32)

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

Rule of Benedict (Chapter 4, “The Tools for Good Works,” vv. 42-43)

If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge.

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