Espíritu de Generosidad

December 2006

The abiding aspect of the holiday season, beyond the hustle and bustle of buying presents, is the hospitality you share with your family, friends and strangers. What most faiths hold in common is an affirmation of our capacity for generosity, even in times of turmoil and war - whether it be in Bethlehem many centuries ago or in the Amish town which sustained such loss this fall.

One example of this goodness and hospitality that has affected me deeply is the life of Don Ignacio Millán, whom I met in 1973. He was a frail ascetic Spanish nobleman born in the 19th century. It was hard to tell an exact age when looking into the face of one who had endured first the religious persecution of the 1920s; then the hunger and devastation of the Spanish Civil War, where almost one third of the male population was slain; and finally the deprivation of World War II and its aftermath of political and economic isolation. 

I first met Don Ignacio at his bedside in Villa Ballena - the House of the Whale. I was with my good friend Pedro Diaz, and we were looking for a site to hold weekend retreats which I led as a Navy chaplain stationed at the naval base in Rota. I first met Pedro at a Spanish class he was teaching on the Base. He was a warm and expansive man with a great love for Americans. 

Villa Ballena was an unpretentious but elegant retreat house located on the beach of Chipiona. At that time it was a modest fishing village. As we stepped to the door of Don Ignacio's dwelling, we could hear the waves lapping around the pre-Christian light house, which was just a few yards away. I could even see the surf swelling over the remnants of Phoenician stone fish traps near its base.

Bundled up for the chilling winds, Pedro and I rapped on the glass pane of the front door of the villa. A widow, dressed in traditional black, came to the door and, when we told her our mission, led us to a bedroom at the end of the main tile-clad corridor. 

The frail figure of Don Ignacio, suffering from influenza, rose from his sick bed and bowed graciously. "You are especially welcome," he said humbly, "I will forever be grateful for the Americans who brought food to our little town of Chipiona when we were hungry." 

After we described the purpose of our visit, Don Ignacio, without hesitation offered me Villa Ballena as the site for Credo Weekends. He said that all he wanted was $1 per person for the four day retreat! As he bid us goodbye, he said "I am honored to have an opportunity to give back what we have received."

The Villa has an interesting history. As was the custom for all young men of means, Don Ignacio and his brother were privileged to attend the month-long Ejercicio Spiritual - the Spiritual Exercises of Ignacio de Loyola. The Millán brothers were so moved by the experience that they vowed to extend the blessing they had received to the less fortunate fishermen of the town. Sparing no expense, Don Ignacio joined with his brother, an architect, to build Villa Bellena. 

It was a splendid retreat house, clad in Moorish tiles, built to nourish the souls of Don Ignacio's humble neighbors, including their children whom he welcomed to enjoy the beach in the summer. Over the years the structure became a haven for many spiritual seekers and a place of refuge for Christians persecuted by the anti-clerical regime that governed Spain in the 1920s. 

As he welcomed the American sailors and marines and members of their families into his house during the ensuing months, Don Ignacio could see his dream fulfilled in yet another way. Once more he was helping common sea-faring people in their search for the love of God and new life. 

Two widows, Rosario and Catalina, prepared simple and hearty meals for the sailors, and Don Ignacio wearing a vest and black bow tie, typical of local waiters, served the sailors elegantly. Sometimes between meals, the aged gentleman would slip out to drive to Seville 70 miles away, where he would visit the elderly folks who lived in another structure he and his brother had built to serve their less fortunate neighbors. Of course, many of the residents were younger than he.

Don Ignacio insisted upon only one thing: that each of his Navy guest's names would be entered in a ledger that listed all those who went on a retreat at Villa Ballena over the years. At the end of each retreat, after they had rolled up their sleeping bags to prepare for their return to the base, each sailor and marine would pause by a small table where frail Don Ignacio sat with his timeworn register. With a sense of deep satisfaction evident to all, the holy man entered their names alongside the hundreds of Spaniards who had come before.

Once he told me how impressed he was that the American young people showed such seriousness during the retreat, wistfully observing that this was not always the case with modern Spanish youth. As we walked along the beach one day I asked Don Ignacio whether he had ever been married. He looked into my face with a twinkle in his eyes and answered, "Who would ever want to marry me? I give away all that I have." 

Indeed, this was so, for as the years passed by, he even offered to give me Villa Ballena as a permanent residence for ministry to the Naval Base. Tempting as the offer was, I was not at a point in my journey where I could consider such a radical move. 

A few years later I tried to contact to Don Ignacio in Sevilla. I received the following handwritten note, "I write you to communicate with all regrets and deep feelings that unfortunately, and surely because God wanted him by His side, seven months ago, the good and saintly Don Ignacio died. He has left a trail of good deeds behind that all of us will never forget. He was a man of exemplary conduct, sharing, humble, charitable, diligent, generous, modest, virtuous. If you knew him I suppose it is unnecessary to continue listing his praises. The general opinion was that he was a saint."

A few years later Don Ignacio's gracious structure, Villa Ballena, fell to the wrecker's ball in order to make room for another anonymous beachfront condominium. I returned 18 years later with my son Jonathan and could not find a trace.

But does that really matter? Thirty years later the light of Don Ignacio's generosity and humility abides with me, and with many of the sailors and marines who had the privilege of knowing him. Don Ignacio's life is a reminder that the acts of kindness and generosity you express toward others during this holiday season have a life of their own. You make it a better place for all of us.

My family and I wish you a warm and satisfying Holiday Season with those whom you love.

Felices Fiestas,