The Perfect Sinner: In the 1940s, the Small Community of Saint-Benoit-Sur-Loire near Orleans Had Some Thirteen Hundred Inhabitants. It Was the Site of a Celebrated Abbey Church Whose Fortunes Had Changed with the History of France

By Bordwell, Harold | Commonweal, February 27, 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Perfect Sinner: In the 1940s, the Small Community of Saint-Benoit-Sur-Loire near Orleans Had Some Thirteen Hundred Inhabitants. It Was the Site of a Celebrated Abbey Church Whose Fortunes Had Changed with the History of France


Bordwell, Harold, Commonweal


The year 1789 had not been a happy one for the ten monks living there then. All left after the French Revolution, and the abbey stayed empty until 1865, when monks from a neighboring town came to revive it. In 1901 antireligious laws in France chased all but one caretaker monk away, and it wasn't until 1944 that the abbey once again became a religious community of Benedictines. By then, France had been under German occupation for almost four years and those who lived in Saint-Benoit were under the eye of the police and the Gestapo.

The poet and painter Max Jacob first came to Saint-Benoit in 1921, and stayed there off and on until 1937, when he settled down permanently, living the life of a monk (early daily Mass, stations of the Cross, evening prayer in the basilica) and working as a church guide. It was a very different life from his days in Paris, where his writings and gouache paintings led to friendships with Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Guillaume Apollinaire, among others. In his journals, Julian Green remembers how Max Jacob used to haunt the Cafe Select by night, and then the next morning hurry down the boulevard to Notre-Dame-des-Champs to confess his sins, with the priests hiding behind the church columns but knowing that one of them would eventually have to listen to the same sins they all knew by heart. Green calls Max Jacob the perfect sinner because he was truly sorry for his sins, which didn't prevent him from starting all over again the next day.

Max Jacob chose Saint-Benoit to escape his disorderly and worldly life--he was homosexual, he took drugs, he liked to play the clown--and, as his biographer Beatrice Mousli notes, to be nearer to God and away from the temptations that he could never resist in Paris. In the town he became well known as "a picturesque old man" who was probably "a little touched," a town doctor wrote. Max Jacob didn't seem to mind. In a letter to a childhood friend, he wrote, "I lead a hermit's life here: my days are very full, work, religious services, a little reading and sometimes (rarely) painting." He would probably have continued living in this way were it not for the fact that, though a convert to Catholicism in 1915, he was a Jew in the eyes of the Germans, who made him wear a yellow star.

As early as 1940, a Gestapo officer confronted him about his Jewishness, then again in 1941, and finally, on February 24, 1944, a black Citroen braked sharply in front of the place where he was living.

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The Perfect Sinner: In the 1940s, the Small Community of Saint-Benoit-Sur-Loire near Orleans Had Some Thirteen Hundred Inhabitants. It Was the Site of a Celebrated Abbey Church Whose Fortunes Had Changed with the History of France
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