St Dymphna Reflection

11/05/2016 12:00 pm

Many reflections of the lives of saints have the same narrative. An innocent faithful young woman martyred by a marriage-minded man is not an unfamiliar story to us. St Dymphna sounds familiar to us, but this is only the start. She is the patron saint of mental health, whose appeal is not diminished by the little we know about her life.

Dymphna was an Irish Princess born in the seventh century. Aged 14 she chose to lead a consecrated life and took a vow of chastity. Shortly after this, her Christian mother died, leaving her in the care of her pagan father, King Damon. They were both saddened by her death and, while Dymphna found solace in her faith, the mental health of King Damon declined. He became obsessed with marrying someone with the likeness of his wife, so he searched all over Europe for a new wife. Meanwhile, Dymphna grew and became more devoted to Christ.

When her father could not find someone that sufficiently reminded him of his dead wife, he returned home, his sanity dwindling. His advisors then suggested that he marry his daughter. Dymphna begged to be free and eventually escaped with her priest Fr Gerebran and some loyal servants. After a long time travelling they arrived in Geel in Belgium, although there is some confusion over what occurred next. There are stories that she built a hospital for the poor and sick in Geel and this is how her father found her. Other stories say that it was just sheer determination on his part that led Damon to his daughter. However, what transpired after this is very clear. Both Fr Gerebran and Dymphna were beheaded, Dymphna by her own father, and were buried where they died. This was the end of their story until they were discovered accidentally in the 13th century, and miraculous healings took place when people visited her grave.

On her feast day, and indeed on all days, it is important to recognise that people suffer with the same problems they did then. We do not often think about mental health in society or in our churches, but this is an ideal time to bring those suffering mental illness into your prayers. The conditions faced today are no less severe than the ones faced by Dymphna’s father.

Although the story of St Dymphna is not an ideal illustration of mental illness, there are things to be taken from it. Indeed this sad tale doesn’t bear thinking about, but nevertheless it encourages us to reach out to those who are struggling in this way. It may seem like some grand distant narrative but in it we can see a small part of what the mentally ill and their families go through every day.

We should honour her feast day by reaching out to those who suffer, with prayer and community. Chances are you know many people who are troubled with mental health problems. Next time, recall the struggles of Dymphna and her father and reach out your hand.

We do not only have to look to Dymphna, there are many other saints that suffered from mental health problems. St Catherine of Siena is thought to have struggled with anorexia, and it is commonly acknowledged that St Ignatius of Loyola had depression. Also the father of St Therese of Lisieux, St Louis Martin, suffered from dementia. Not only do mental health sufferers have a patron, they also have company. We can find in our history many great people who suffered from mental health problems that in no way diminishes their worth. We do not feel their graces less, nor do we take their virtues less seriously. We respect their lives.

Perhaps, if we begin to reflect on the suffering of these saints, we can begin to break down the stigma that has developed in society towards the sufferers of mental illness. May we welcome them into our communities, and to help them find peace in the love of God and the warmth of Christ

We cannot ignore the issue of mental health, indeed the church never has. It has had no choice when many of our great saints have suffered with them same things that many people suffer with today. On 15 May we should pray that all who suffer with mental illnesses should find comfort in the warmth of Christ. That they will find peace in their troubled minds through the intercession of St Dymphna. But we should remember the difference we can make in our hearts and through our actions.