Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Dymphna, Patron Saint of the Insane

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.

The tragedy opens when Dymphna is an adolescent. Her mother dies, leaving behind a deeply grieving widower and his daughter. The solution for his bereavement, suggested by his councilors, is to find a replacement for dead wife. The king agrees to this advice and begins the search for a successor to his wife.

He had only two stipulations: the candidate must be nobly born and she must resemble his dead wife. Having lived among Celts all my life, I don’t find the latter requirement to be very difficult — there can be a sameness running through some of us — but it was a problem for the chieftain . After searching the kingdom — and several other clans, who knows? — no woman was presented who qualified on both counts. The king (King, Chieftain, it’s all the same. Ask an Irishman and he’ll tell you he’s “Irish all the way back to the Kings”) grew ever more melancholy until (as you guessed) his eye fell upon his daughter. She fit both requirements: she was both nobly born and she was, most unfortunately for her, the spitting image of her mother. Problem solved. Damon would marry his child.

Dymphna, let us say, demurred. Her immediate response? Probably “Yecch!” or its Gaelic equivalent. The notion of marrying one’s own father may be a genetically hard-wired disinclination; it may be that and an admixture of social conditioning about what one does or does not do with one's elders. Whatever the reason, Dymphna declined. She declined repeatedly. When push came to shove, Dymphna did the intelligent and courageous thing: she left for parts unknown. Even though her flight failed to save her, I’ll explain later why it was a smart move, however flawed it may have been in its execution.

It was also a good strategy to take others with her. There is a safety in numbers when you are fleeing someone dangerous. This is not universally true, of course, but to this day it remains a good idea to move en tourage, especially if those around you are devoted to your safety. Dymphna took her elderly confessor, Gerebemus — and some versions claim she also fled with the court jester and his wife. This strikes me as an anachronism. Did Irish chieftains maintain court jesters in the 6th century? Given what we know about the temperament of Irish chieftains, a jester in his court would seem to be an occupation with a short shelf life. And if this couple did go along we hear nothing further of them once Ireland has been left behind.

When they come aground, Dymphna and Gerebemus are in Antwerp. They move on from there to the town of Gheel, or Geel, some twenty-five miles away. Once there, Dymphna set up some kind of hermitage for herself and for Gerebemus. A Catholic church was already in existence so Dymphna’s arrival would not have been untoward. A devout, wealthy woman could well have been a welcome addition in a small town.

In short order, Dymphna was reputed to have healing powers. Being a foreigner, this power would more likely be conferred upon her than it would have been to someone known to the inhabitants from childhood. And her resources, which enabled her to purchase the poultices and powders for healing, would have added to her reputation for curing the sick. However, it was the use of her wealth which allowed her father to track her down. Sending out his minions to trace the path of the gold coins used along her route of escape — his gold coins -- it wasn’t difficult to find an errant daughter. In short order, the Irish chieftain faced his prey.

Once more Dymphna was given her choice: marriage to her father or death. Gerebemus, her old confessor, attempted to ward off the King. He was summarily executed. Dymphna was adamant: she wouldn’t marry her father and she was going to remain where she was. Her father beheaded Dymphna then and there and returned to Ireland, leaving his daughter’s body and that of Gerebemus where they lay.

One account I read a few years ago (and cannot find) said that the townspeople were so remorseful at having failed to protect Dymphna, and felt so keenly their loss, that they entombed the bodies together and built a shrine in their memory. As it goes in these stories, accounts of miraculous cures began to accumulate, enough of them over a long enough period of time that eventually a church was built in Dymphna’s honor and her remains were placed there (those of Gerebemus were by most accounts removed to Kanten, though Sonsbeck, Germany claims his relics, except for his head, which supposedly remains with Dymphna in Gheel). The church burned in 1489 and was rebuilt in 1532. It still stands.

At some point, probably in the 17th century, an asylum was established in Gheel, no doubt partly based on the fact that the shrine to Saint Dymphna was alleged to have cured people with epilepsy and emotional ailments. Like Dymphna herself, though, this hospital was no ordinary venture. When patients arrive in Gheel, they are institutionalized for observation and then gradually released into the community to live and work among the townspeople. This unique (and I use the word advisedly since I know of no other such arrangement between consensual reality and lunacy) seems to have great efficacy.

Other countries have come to study the Gheel model. Whether it translates to anywhere else is questionable, however. Remember that Gheel’s original response, all those centuries ago, was one of remorse for having failed to protect a young girl from a horrible death at the hands of her father. In our “so-sorry” culture, where the rush to forgive the tyrant while the victims lie bleeding, such a transplant is probably not possible.

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.


Notes:

There are no links in this essay. Saint Dymphna’s life is available in many forms on the web. Choose your own version or cobble together pieces of the traditions available to make a story to your liking.

There are a number of icons available, including the statue I use to represent my blog nic. I don’t particularly like this statue because the depiction, besides being saccharine, is not Celtic; it’s American Catholic kitsch. Dymphna, to my mind’s eye, is a sturdy lass of medium height and build with flashing green eyes and an untidy mane of dark hair. The blond ectomorph of this statue is definitely not Celtic (at least before the Danes invaded Ireland). On the other hand, this version has Dymphna holding the sword, symbol of martyrdom, and you can see the serpent crushed under her foot — a symbol for the vanquishment of evil, and so I like to think, of emotional suffering also. Iconography has rules, and the portrayal of saints in sculpture or painting follows protocols. Virgins are shown holding lilies; Dymphna, given what we can see of her temperament, has been dubbed “The Fire Lily.”

When we are rich, I plan to commission someone to portray Dymphna as I imagine her. Fortunately, there are still iconographers out there; the art hasn’t died out completely. In a subsequent essay, look for more information on this.

Dymphna’s Feast Day is May 15th, as is her confessor's, Saint Gerebemus. He is the patron saint for those who suffer from gout. Her flower is the Welsh poppy.

Bollandists are modern day hagiographers. They do interesting work on old texts.

Gheel, or Geel, is still there. So is the asylum. So are the lunatics.

Obviously, Saint Dymphna of Ireland, lately of Gheel, is one of the patron saints of abused children and of the mentally ill, of which she can be numbered among the former and her father among the latter. As I’ve said elsewhere, my diagnosis for him —though it appears in no manuals of such — is homicidal melancholia. Many abusive spouses suffer from this disorder.

Prayer to Saint Dymphna

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.

15 Comments:

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dymphna, there's a darker image of St. Dymphna with her sword here:

http://www.orgsites.com/wa/liswrightivec/

Just scroll down when you get there.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

 
At 7:19 PM, Blogger American Crusader said...

Truth is that I read more about something I would normally care less about, but found it quite interesting. It must have been your writing style which has a pleasant flow. I understood the point you were making about her not being a victim, but that's on a higher unearthly realm. Having your head cut and running away from your crazed father who wants to marry you (not in that order) definitely qualifies you for victim status.

 
At 7:27 PM, Blogger airforcewife said...

See, that's an interesting patron saint... Although I have to wonder if by "jester" they meant "bard", of which Ireland has a rich and long history.

My eldest's patron saint is Teresa of Avila and it fits very well.

However, my parents had the bad sense to try to instill certain values in me with my patron saint(s) - Ruth and Anne the mother of Mary. I am nothing like either of them and I certainly don't get along with my mother-in-law.

A very interesting story, one that will make a very good homeschool class on May 15 (with some hedging for the younger kids).

 
At 7:57 PM, Blogger Dymphna said...

American Crusader-

Dymphna would not see herself as a victim, at least not as we define it today. She died at the hands of someone who was supposed to love and protect her, but she did all in her power to prevent that outcome.

Our deaths do not define us, it is how we live until we get to that moment which gives our existence meaning.

In your terms, men who die defending their country are victims and I don't think they are. They are fallen heroes.

Dymphna was a fallen heroine.

 
At 8:00 PM, Blogger Dymphna said...

Airforce Wife--

pick your own damn saint, I say! Who else can decide but you. Parents can dedicate their young children to saints, but kids pick their own identity -- i.e., at Confirmation.

 
At 8:01 PM, Blogger Dymphna said...

Gypsy--

I saw that image you have there. She looked kind of like a modern day Goth -- rather anemic, in fact.

Someday I'll get me own picture.

 
At 8:50 PM, Blogger American Crusader said...

Point taken...

 
At 10:49 PM, Blogger a4g said...

No victims in the communion of saints-- a good firm grip on the helve of the cross is the price of admission.

An interesting piece, D, falling on the day Staff Sgt. George T. Alexander Jr. had the unfortunate distinction of being 2000th.

I've been thinking about the cries that he is being victimized by the left-- and how ignoble a title "Victim" to bestow upon a warrior.

Instead, he is, with his family, a warrior whose service goes beyond merely his life, and includes bearing the weight of fools.

I see St. Dymphna peering out from heaven, dolorous for those who see "victim" in sainthood, but with the twinkled eye and the wry smile of one who can say, "If only they knew..."

(Now if only we could know more details of the illustrious life of our lettered, legendary Bodissey-- perhaps a guest post from Mr. Vance?).

 
At 4:03 PM, Blogger Ole said...

"The blond ectomorph of this statue is definitely not Celtic (at least before the Danes invaded Irland."

The Danish Vikings were more famous for invading England. It was the Norwegien Vikings that raided Irland and then settled and assimilated there.

 
At 7:16 PM, Blogger lis wright ivec said...

I really enjoyed reading more about St Dymphna.
I am the artist who painted the image of her that horace jeffery hodges mentioned.(Let me know what you think--She looks like how you described her!)
www.orgsites.com/wa/liswrightivec
I am currently working on a series of martyred saint icons, done in the traditional technique of egg tempera on wood panels.

 
At 12:24 AM, Blogger mishbomb said...

In 7th grade I was confirmed through my catholic school St. Bernard’s in St. Paul Minnesota. I remember having to study the saints one by one, to find the saint that best fits your liking. Being a proud individual, I wanted to choose a name unlike the ones of my peers. Most of the students were picking well known saints, or saints with pretty names. I wanted a unique name, and of course story. I fell upon St. Dympna. I remember Father Mike asking me why I choose her, and if I was sure.

Time went on, and I am now 24, and nondenominational, I don’t go to church nor do I practice any religion. I suppose it is typical at my age, especially going through public college, and everything.

Well, the other day I was searching through my Dad’s books and came across a Saint book (It said St. Bernard’s Library on it…. I must not have returned it….oops…might be a sin) I remembered St. Dymphna, and wanted to look her up because I forgot what she was all about. That was when I re-read her story. The patroness of the insane. I kind of thought this was funny because, it’s not your typical saint. I also thought this was coincidental because throughout my life I have been surrounded by friends or family who have mental illnesses. Coincidence? My best friend in high school suddenly came down with schizophrenia, My close uncle is mentally ill. My close friend in college found out she was seriously bi polar. My Biological father is insane; some might even say my mother is. And my brother has A.D.D.. I could go on.

The other sort of weird coincidence is that my mother just divorced her 5th husband on the grounds that she thought he was more interested in me… (What!!!!)

So far no beheadings and I have yet to go to a mental institution my self...

Wish me luck.

I just find it weird that I chose her to be my saint just because of her name mainly….and turns out her story reflects my life. I need to go to church don’t I?

 
At 12:26 AM, Blogger mishbomb said...

In 7th grade I was confirmed through my catholic school St. Bernard’s in St. Paul Minnesota. I remember having to study the saints one by one, to find the saint that best fits your liking. Being a proud individual, I wanted to choose a name unlike the ones of my peers. Most of the students were picking well known saints, or saints with pretty names. I wanted a unique name, and of course story. I fell upon St. Dympna. I remember Father Mike asking me why I choose her, and if I was sure.

Time went on, and I am now 24, and nondenominational, I don’t go to church nor do I practice any religion. I suppose it is typical at my age, especially going through public college, and everything.

Well, the other day I was searching through my Dad’s books and came across a Saint book (It said St. Bernard’s Library on it…. I must not have returned it….oops…might be a sin) I remembered St. Dymphna, and wanted to look her up because I forgot what she was all about. That was when I re-read her story. The patroness of the insane. I kind of thought this was funny because, it’s not your typical saint. I also thought this was coincidental because throughout my life I have been surrounded by friends or family who have mental illnesses. Coincidence? My best friend in high school suddenly came down with schizophrenia, My close uncle is mentally ill. My close friend in college found out she was seriously bi polar. My Biological father is insane; some might even say my mother is. And my brother has A.D.D.. I could go on.

The other sort of weird coincidence is that my mother just divorced her 5th husband on the grounds that she thought he was more interested in me… (What!!!!)

So far no beheadings and I have yet to go to a mental institution my self...

Wish me luck.

I just find it weird that I chose her to be my saint just because of her name mainly….and turns out her story reflects my life. I need to go to church don’t I?

 
At 5:51 PM, Blogger EG said...

I enjoyed your writing style. Actually, there are 3 programs modeled after Gheel for folks diagnosed with mental illness (no one likes to be called a lunatic): another in Belgium, one in Paris for teens with schizophrenia, and one in Seattle. For more info, check out Ch 8, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God by Craig Rennebohm, www.mentalhealthchaplain.org or www.plyhc.org -- Plymouth Healing Communities

 
At 5:14 PM, Blogger EmilyAnn Frances May said...

Try Suzanne Silvir's site. She has several paintings of St. Dymphna that are very vivid.

http://fineartamerica.com/featured/dymphna-lily-of-fire-suzanne-silvir.html

 
At 8:31 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Sounds like your headed home to Him. Good for you, mishbomb!

 

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