I just returned from my mini-vacation; everything went well. I got to see a play (a Neil Simon comedy) performed by a local amateur troupe, had dinner with friends and relatives, and drank adult beverages at a honky-tonk while listening to live music.
It wasn’t the same without my wife — those were Dymphna’s friends and relatives, too, and it was a place we had visited together numerous times in the past. Still, it made for a break from rattling around by myself in this empty house.
Below is this week’s installment of Dymphna’s Greatest Hits. As far as I know, this is the first time she told the story of St. Dymphna. It was originally published at The Neighborhood of God, and not at Gates of Vienna.
Dymphna, Patron Saint of the Insane
First published October 25, 2005
This essay is dedicated to Erico.
The saints’ stories were among my favorites growing up. I don’t mean the anemic virgins-and-martyrs-eaten-by-lions books, illustrated with men and women lifting their eyes heavenwards as the lions stalked them in the background, waiting for the blessing of the food before they ate it. Nor did St. Sebastian, his body full of arrows, hold my attention, other than a brief look — “yikes” — and turn the page, please.
There were lots of men and women who were canonized for more mundane reasons than dying for their faith and it was their stories which attracted me. In my house, being full as it was of expatriate Dubliners, St. Patrick had pride of place. My mother never quite got over the fact that while New York City and Savannah had large parades on his feast day, the rest of the country used it as an excuse to drink green beer. In Ireland, on St. Patrick’s Day, in serious honor to his name, the bars were all closed and the churches were open.
Alongside St. Patrick there was St. Bridgid. Early on, the Catholic Church had a rough gender equality; frequently a male saint had a companion female saint. They usually knew one another. To my mind, some of them probably got up to a little hanky-panky: the intensity of the holy can do that. One thinks of Heloise and Abelard, those star-crossed lovers who veered from the paths of holiness, dropping off into the ravines of fleshly distractions. In Spain, St. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross were friends. He was the more mystic of the two; she was the reformer.
The thing is, the desire for union with God and the desire for union with another human being arise from the same root — the urge for transcendence, for flight from our solitary experience, for immortality. Given our differing temperaments, predilections, and experiences we can diverge in many ways from the usual paths of what the Church used to term “vocation.” The idea was not that we chose what we would do with our lives; instead we were to listen to that small inner voice in order to be given our marching orders. Within evangelical circles, I believe the term “calling” refers particularly to some kind of ministry. Back in the old pre-Vatican II days, it meant that you were supposed to have divine assistance in trying to figure out what you were going to do with this, your one and only life. Some of those choices were limited; now there are almost no limits at all and young people freeze in the quandary of too much choice and too little direction. Saint Dymphna’s situation was familiar: her “vocation” was not what she chose but rather what was forced upon her by circumstance.
But before we consider her story, let’s discuss its veracity. The oral tradition surrounding Saint Dymphna probably points to a real person, given some of the artifacts. In Roman Catholic terms, the relics of Dymphna are considered “first class” relics. But that’s hardly important here since we are talking about a mythos which likely formed around an all-too-familiar story, a situation which repeated itself through the generations in many areas of Europe (the story is too old to call these “countries” in the modern sense). There are similarly named women with comparable stories in Ireland and in Germany.
Since we can’t know for sure, and since there seem to be physical remnants of someone in a final resting place, I choose to envision Dymphna as real. For lack of a better term, call her my transitional object. But that’s my meaning: you can read her story and decide its significance for yourself. I am merely the teller of the tale. Since there are variations in the stories, I have chosen to present the dominant narrative while appropriating elements from various accounts.
Dymphna was born in the 7th century (a contemporary of Mohammed, though as far from Allah’s servant as one can be and still exist on the same planet). She was the daughter of an Irish chieftain father, Damon, and an unnamed Christian mother. At least this is how most stories present her parentage. Since Patrick knew intimately the clan system in Ireland his strategy was to convert all the chieftains first, knowing the rest would follow (a good strategy. It worked with Constantinople). Thus, it’s likely Damon was in fact a Christian, though this takes some of the luster off the shamrock. To get around the problem of his obviously murderous tendencies, he is often portrayed as a pagan rather than a Christian. Hagiography is not history.