It was another June not too long ago, and the world economy was friendlier to the American dollar. Marc and I were heading to France for two weeks in Paris as a celebration of his fiftieth birthday. Friends would join us for part of the time, but I had decided to spend a couple of days on my own outside the city in some setting conducive to retreat and recollection. It had been my dream to find a quiet Romanesque church in the countryside for my time of prayer. One website I consulted linked a Benedictine monastery in the Loire Valley with French poet Max Jacob, a Catholic convert from Judaism who had died in the internment camp in Drancy in 1944.
I could not have found a more fitting site than Abbaye de Fleury in the village of St.-Benoit-sur-Loire. The afternoon of my arrival I was able to pace up and down the sun-filled aisles with only the rarest of tourist visitors to interrupt the silence. There were tapers to light and occasional vases of garden flowers to enjoy throughout this abbey church, parts of which date as far back as the seventh century.
One day I ended up almost by chance at the tomb of Max Jacob in the village cemetery an hour’s walk from the abbey. It hadn’t been clear to me at first that planning such a visit would actually fit the nature of my days of retreat. After all, it was the abbey church itself that had been Max Jacob’s passion. I had come to understand what it would be like for someone to become attached to this place of prayer and to think of it as his own. Kneeling in a spot marked by a commemorative stone as Max Jacob’s favorite place of prayer, I had felt close to the spirit of this man.
One afternoon’s cooler weather, however, prompted a walk through the surrounding countryside. I was glad to see the basilica from various angles across the fields. The magic of its immensity rising above trees and green and gold expanses of Loire Valley growth was breathtaking. These walks, I realized as I followed the simple paths, were ones Max Jacob himself had regularly made. I did not expect that one of the collections of houses in the near distance surrounded the village cemetery in which he was buried. Locating his gravestone with little difficulty, I settled into a visit both unexpected and moving.
Sitting by his tomb, I sensed a friend was near. This friend, I began to feel, had called out somehow to me and brought me to this church and even to his tomb. I was able to talk to him there that afternoon and thank him for giving me this experience of a place of prayer so beautiful and majestic. I thanked him too for wanting me there. I realized how much I wanted him as an older brother, someone who would know what I was about in my life and in my prayer. I sensed that I would need someone to help me grow into an older man and into a prayerful man. I sensed that his own experiences of loneliness could prepare me to expect and accept them when they came.
Do we keep calling to people to be our friends even after we have died? I wonder.
It seemed so that day in St. Benoit-sur-Loire.
Photo of St.-Benoit-sur-Loire by antiguide