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Encountering Sainte Suzanne

During a month-long home exchange in Brittany, my husband Dan and I visited Combourg Castle, a feudal fortress. Dark and spooky, it was once the home of François-René Chateaubriand, one of France's most beloved, if gloomy, writers. Our guide read from the young Chateaubriand's account of meeting the ghost of a pirate, watching it fade until only its peg leg remained. She showed the shriveled mummy of a cat found during restoration of a tower wall where it had been buried alive a thousand years before to ward off evil spirits.

Afterward, the castle's moody ambiance haunted my dreams. The Frenchman's depression had triggered my own. Chateaubriand and I had both been raised in bleak homes. His fear of the guillotine reflected my family's ancestral dread of the Nazis, the pogroms, and myriad oppressions throughout history. All my life, I'd struggled to free myself from the effects of my extremely dysfunctional familyó debilitating fear, lack of confidence, and a discouraging sense that it was up to me to make everything right. By this time, I knew I'd made progress but still felt hopeless about ever escaping their influence.

The stirred-up emotions played themselves out as I slept. Frustration, dread... Inching my sister's car through a crowd who stubbornly refused to move out of the way. In the shotgun seat, stubborn and oblivious, she flirted recklessly.

And after a particularly bad night of almost no sleep, I dreamt of a ghost playing a typically haunting classical piece on my piano. Then a flashlight clattered down from the chimney into the fireplace, followed by a pair of reaching, grasping mechanical hands. I awoke screaming.

We'd planned a visit to Monetís house in Normandy, and I was hoping a change of scene would break the eerie spell. As I mapped the route, I noticed a town called Sainte Suzanne along the way. Being a Suzanne myself, though from a Jewish family in Philadelphia, I was intrigued. When we passed the highway sign announcing the town a Cité Mediéval, I told Dan I wanted to stop there on our return trip.

Monet's cheerful home and studio, curved bridges, the riot of color and fragrance in his manicured gardens, were enchanting. In the evening, we drank homemade cider and fed baguette crumbs to black swans in the courtyard pond at our farmhouse lodgings. Later, I had a richly woven dream: I was flying home from France, then suddenly, as if by teleportation, I was in a Manhattan apartment without luggage, purse or credit cards, panicking about how to get back to California. An interior voice told me not to worry, that I was whisked off the plane to shield me from something dangerous about to happen.

Although I didn't realize it at the time, that was my first encounter with the saint herself.

On the return drive to Brittany, Dan and I aimed for a picnic lunch in Sainte Suzanne. On joining the autoroute, we stopped at a rest area. While I used les toilettes, Dan browsed the boutique. This is a guy who can't tolerate more than five minutes in any store that doesn't sell hardware. But the language difference turned it into an adventure in culture. We'd whiled away almost an hour before he decided to buy himself a khaki fisherman's vest with a dozen pockets.

Within minutes of merging onto the highway, we were stopped dead in a traffic jam. The official autoroute radio station reported that only moments before, a tiny Renault had swerved out of control and hit a tanker truck. Both overturned and exploded. It was a hot Friday afternoon preceding the summer's biggest holiday weekend and the road to Brittany's beaches was now closed in both directions.

Sweltering and powerless, we read books, picnicked in the car instead of at Sainte Suzanne, and tried to maintain a sense of humor. Hours later, traffic began to crawl off the toll road at the nearest exit. Gendarmes, the French police, directed traffic through small villages and over narrow country roads to the next on-ramp. Every few miles, local samaritans offered free liter bottles of cold mineral water.

It was after six when we reached Sainte Suzanne, glowing in the golden light as though it was God's favorite place. Ancient buildings encircled a hilltop with a river at its feet. The cobbled streets were deserted, but the small tourist office was still open, as if they'd been waiting for us. The friendly women inside were delighted to learn that I shared the name of their town's patron saint. They showered me with photos and pamphlets. The museum was probably closed by then, they said, but the walk along the ramparts to the church was beautiful.

Like most French villages in summer, Sainte Suzanne was ablaze with flowers. Two chateaux lorded over timeworn stone houses. Religious icons peeked out of recesses in their walls. The surrounding countryside was studded with ancient standing stones, small farms and forests.

The museum's studded plank door gaped open. Dan and I poked our heads inside. It was shadowy and cool with thick dark beams propping up a low stone ceiling. No one was in sight.

As we debated if we should go in, a raspy female voice with a Brooklyn accent welcomed us. It was the curator, an expatriate American. She offered a quick outline of the town's history. I asked about Suzanne's saintly qualities. The director said something vague about her being the patron of engaged couples and flipped through a book to check. I was waiting, taking in the atmosphere, when I felt something brush my hair, my shoulder, then heard the gentle plop of it hitting the floor.

At my feet, in this medieval room with not a flower in sight, was a morning glory. I lifted the fragile blossom and tucked it behind my ear. My body quivered as if an electric current was rushing through it. It occurred to me that Sainte Suzanne was trying to get my attention, but I dismissed the idea as ridiculous.

Soon the curator shooed us out, pointing us in the direction of the church in the square at the top of the hill. The exterior of Sainte Suzanne's sanctuary was weathered and gray, but within, pristine white stone soared in the dim candlelight. In the alcove with Sainte Suzanne's statue, a prayer "for those without one of their own," was posted above the votives. Loosely translated, it said:

"Even though I don't know what to say,
and I don't know how to pray,
and I have so little time to spend in prayer,
I light this candle to leave part of myself with God,
who knows my joys and sorrows
and holds me in tenderness."

I dropped a few francs in the box, lit a candle and whispered the prayer, in the French. The tingling resumed. Behind the altar, three stained glass story-windows gleamed. Stepping closer to Sainte Suzanne's, I translated each caption, reflecting on her adventures. One scene in particular took my breath away. In it, Suzanne kneels at the feet of an angel, whose arm stretches out to ward off a Roman soldier. Framed by petal shapes reminiscent of a morning glory's, her image radiates faith.

I could use some of that, I thought. I focused my telephoto on just that section, praying for enough light to capture it, and snapped the picture. I was wandering around drinking it all in when Dan collected me for the ride home.

No Combourg ghosts haunted me that night.

Over coffee and croissants at the village cafe the next morning, we struggled to decipher a newspaper account about the collision on the autoroute, which had been much more tragic and dangerous than we knew. The car's occupants had died instantly as their vehicle burst into flames. The trucker was killed while he struggled in vain to prevent the fire from igniting his cargo of gasoline. Until the ensuing inferno had cooled sufficiently, fire crews could work only on keeping it away from a nearby natural gas storage facility.

I felt fortunate that we'd been far enough behind for safety. My next thought was that luck had nothing to do with it-- that Sainte Suzanne's spirit had safeguarded us even before we'd consciously made her acquaintance. That the mere intention of contacting her initiated a relationship, and my dream of being whisked off the endangered airplane was a metaphoric message, a preview of how she would keep us dawdling at the roadside boutique to protect us from the catastrophe. Another delicious vibration snaked through me, as if the metaphorical Uroboros serpent was climbing my spine, partnering with Sainte Suzanne to energize each chakra and set the very molecules of my body dancing.

On the next market day in Rennes, the nearest big city, we had the film from our Normandy excursion developed. Every photo I'd shot in the church was too dim to make out, except Sainte Suzanne and the angel. It was perfectly balanced, brilliant and crystalline. I propped it against my bedside lamp, asking for her help with the castle's disturbing apparitions.

The next dream I could remember was long and complicated. Meeting a childhood friend at a conference, telling her about France and Sainte Suzanne. Then driving in San Francisco, up a potholed, gravely street so steep pedestrians had to crawl and claw their way up. I turned a corner and found myself in a doctor's office trying to help a man find insulin for his dying daughter. Then a bomb threat, ambulances, an explosion... searching frantically for the medicine. While things fell apart, Sainte Suzanne was turning me away from the struggle, guiding me to healing.

Before leaving France, we spent a few days in Paris, where I dreamt of finding money, jewelry and chocolates, then driving a car precariously balanced atop a narrow wall. Next thing I knew, I was breastfeeding a baby I'd just borne, who was growing so fast I could see it. I felt like I'd been given a miracle. When I awoke, I considered trusting my intuition of a connection with Sainte Suzanne.

Back in the US, I searched for an "official" version of Sainte Suzanne's story. In my local library, I found Sainte Suzanne's entry in John Delaney's Dictionary of Saints. It said the Roman Emperor Diocletian wanted Suzanne to marry Maximianus Herculeus, his son-in-law and co-ruler. Her uncles, both Diocletian's courtiers, were dispatched to bring Suzanne to Rome for the marriage, but she refused to forsake her devotion to her vision of the sacred. Her faith was so compelling that her uncles abandoned their mission and converted to Christianity. Enraged, Diocletian ordered Suzanne and her entire family killed.

I wasn't crazy about the ending, but the part about sticking to your guns for what you feel is true inspired me. I was sitting on a stool in the aisle that housed the religion books, contemplating the parallels in my own life, and recalled that early in my relationship with Dan, a friend had told me of an Old Testament story called "Daniel and the Trial of Susanna." Close by were several Bibles, so I decided to look that one up too.

The story was actually from the Apocrypha, considered more mythical than the Bible. Susanna was a fabled beauty whose rich, wise husband was so esteemed by the Jews of Babylon that his spacious residence doubled as the courthouse. During court business, Susanna would retreat to her garden.

Two of the judges, obsessed with Susanna's charm, liked to spy on her. One day, they launched a blackmail plan. They said unless she had sex with them, they'd testify to seeing her in the garden fornicating shamelessly with a handsome young man, an offense punishable with death by stoning.

Susanna told them she preferred to trust God with her fate rather than appease their hypocrisy. She was brought to trial and found guilty, but a relative unknown named Daniel unexpectedly intervened. Although unacquainted with Susanna, he was moved by spirit to come to her defense. His argument for further investigation so impressed the officials that they authorized it. Daniel questioned each accuser separately and exposed contradictions in their testimony that destroyed their credibility. Susanna was freed. The charlatans themselves were executed for bearing false witness, and Daniel became the wise and holy prophet in the lion's den.

Susanna, Suzanne. Same name, same theme. I envisioned an ongoing archetype based on a series of women throughout time who risked their lives and sometimes lost them for what they believed, and who, for me, are symbolized in Sainte Suzanne. Though physical, she experienced Spirit directly. My encounter with her enabled me to sense her beside me, inside me, lending support, nurturance and purity of spirit. Like a beacon lighting the way to peace, her presence enlivens my faith in my own personal, conscious connection with the Eternal.

Suzanne Gold, "The Family Fixer," (Pacific Sun) writes a weekly column called "Everyday Wonders" for United Press International's Religion and Spirituality Forum. She is a spiritual counselor, teacher, award-winning author of "Daddy's Girls," and co-author of Being Yourself: Twenty-Four Ways to See the Light. Suzanne has studied spiritual methods from around the world, and has worked as a therapist in psychiatric and drug treatment centers, and co-founded a self-help group for women and an environmental grantmaking fund. For more information, go to http://www.SuzanneGold.com


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