A reader emailed me today to wish me a happy feast day. It is, after all, the commemoration day for Dymphna and for her confessor, old Saint Gerebemus, who was killed with her.
Most of our readers know I took the blog nic of Dymphna in honor of the saint of that name. Actually, I would’ve preferred to use “Saint Dymphna,” but someone had taken it.
A little background: I’d never heard of this particular saint before, and believe me I know dozens of obscure saints’ days from my parochial school education and the years in the orphanage. We were always celebrating the feast of some virgin or martyr – including the cool ones like St. Christopher, who sadly ended up on the trash heap when they started seriously culling the lists during post Vatican II.
I still like the idea of saints’ days. It gives you an appreciation that we are part of a larger tapestry, “a canopy woven by the ages.” And sometimes there is a synchronicity in their appearance in my life. For example, my first and second grade teacher in the orphanage, Sister Francis de Sales, was the substitute for my mother. I loved her dearly and she was kind to all of us, this very young nun fresh over from Ireland and probably suffering horribly in the Florida heat under that black wool habit of hers. Years later, I learned that de Sales was the patron saint of teachers (and of journalists, but never mind). Whatever the impetus, Sister Francis instilled in us a love of learning.
And then there is Dymphna. I’d never heard of her until several years ago when I ordered a book from ABE books — probably another copy of Hafiz since I tend to give his books away with great enthusiasm. At any rate, a bookmark came fluttering out from between the pages.
When I picked it up, there was Saint Dymphna, with the usual Catholic iconography designating her position as a virgin martyr (lilies). On the other side of the card was a prayer for those suffering from mental illness (I’d never known there was any saint dedicated to lunacy. If they’d let me pick, it would’ve been St. Anthony of the Desert. That guy had some amazing halllucinations). On an impulse I sent the card to a friend, a mathematician and programmer, who was in the throes of a manic episode of bi-polar disorder. She said later that her children loved the card and it helped them make sense of Mommy’s crazy times.
A few years later while visiting a doctor’s office, I recognized ol’ Dymphna standing still as a statue on his mantle. Startled, I asked where he’d gotten her. It turns out one of his patients had given him the statue and he rather liked her pink and blue outfit, so he kept her around. Later, I ordered one for myself and now she stands on top of a tall bookcase, her crown almost touching the ceiling. Obviously, in this image, she’s changed clothes.
When it came time to pick my blog nic, the Baron suggested Saint Dymphna. It fit somehow: a saint for a crazy Irish woman.
You can read the story of St. Dymphna here, on Neighborhood of God. Meanwhile, here is a prayer I wrote then, thinking of all the women I’d counseled who had suffered at the hands of those who claimed to love them:
Ah, girl, you who knew how to be still in the thin places,
To hide in trepidation, to weep scorching shame,
Please come to the aid of those who beseech the heavens
For surcease from their undeserved pain.
Stay the hand of their abusers and soften the hearts
Of those who proclaim to love them.
Grant great courage of heart to the children who call on you,
And firmness of purpose to the people who invoke your story.
With your lily, with that sword, and with the strength of your heel,
Vanquish the inner demons who haunt our days and dreams
Blocking the path to freedom.
What a fine prayer you have penned there Dymphna. I will keep in on my desk to beseech the blessed Saint on occassion. I enjoy your blog immensely.
I took a trip to “The Neighborhood of God”. Dympha’s story is inspiring and very modern:
“Dymphna was not a victim. She failed to achieve her freedom, but she never knuckled under and she refused to be cowed by a homicidally melancholic father. No, Dymphna is a victor. Her life is proof that there are worse things than dying. Her decision to leave an intolerable situation was wise. Her lack of cunning in using the gold coins which permitted her determined “lover” to find her is often repeated today when abused women run, only to be tracked down by their trail of credit card receipts.”
I will remember her for her many human attributes as well as her desire to be Godly.
Dymphna is saint of the insane because her father killed her for refusing to marry him…so theoretically she is also the patron of those sexually abused by relatives…
Your photo shows her in 18th century Irish dress, probably because she was Irish. However, her main claim to fame is that Gheel, or Geel, where she was killed later cared for the insane during the middle ages
boinky, there are several versions of Dymphna, all iconic in their depictions.
Gheel came to be an asylum for the insane because Dymphna was reputed to have died there. The first church was built prior to the Middle Ages, near the site where they found remains of her sarcophagus.
This patron saint business is a political one, so she’s got quite a list of responsibilities:
against sleepwalking; epilepsy; epileptics; family happiness; incest victims; insanity; loss of parents; martyrs; mental asylums; mental disorders; mental health caregivers; mental health professionals; mental hospitals; mental illness; mentally ill people; nervous disorders; neurological disorders; possessed people; princesses; psychiatrists; rape victims; runaways; sleepwalkers; therapists…
Now St. Valentine is also the patron saint of epileptics, but he also has in his group beekepers. Not sure how the beekeeper guild got in on that one.
The point being that there are many duties assigned to you should you aspire to sainthood. The afterlife will keep you very busy.
Not that Dymphna “aspired” to anything beyond freedom from her father. Sometimes we have sainthood thrust upon us.
Dymphna, Thank you for this story and your commitment.