Saint Dymphna

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May 15th is the feast of Saint Dymphna. Here at Silverstream Priory, we are blessed to have and to venerate a first class relic of Saint Dymphna. Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of those who suffer from mental illnesses, emotional maladjustment, nervous disorders, and epilepsy. She is also the patron saint of runaways, and of the victims of incest and other sexual abuse. The following entry, slightly modified here, originally appeared in Tabernacle and Purgatory, published by Benedictines of Clyde, Missouri in May 1946.

The Lily of Fire

ISLE OF SAINTS has long been a title popularly given to the island evangelized by St. Patrick, which nestles in the blue waters of the Atlantic. And appropriately it is so called for the names of the Irish saints would more than fill the Church's calendar. Yet it is to be regretted that Catholics for the most part are entirely unfamiliar with so many of these glorious saints, yes, even ignorant of their very names. One such forgotten or unknown saint, who, on account of her spotless virtue and glorious martyrdom, is sometimes referred to as the "Lily of Fire," is St. Dymphna. True, the records of the life and martyrdom of this holy virgin are for the most part meager and unsatisfactory, but sufficient is known regarding the principal faces of her life and of her many well-authenticated miracles to attest to an exalted sanctity.

A Christian Child

St. Dymphna was born in the 7th century, when Ireland was almost universally Catholic. Yet, strange to say, her father, a petty king of Oriel, was still a pagan. Her mother, a descendant of a noble family, was, on the other hand, a devout Christian., who was remarkable both for her piety and her great beauty. Dymphna was, like her mother, a paragon of beauty, and a most sweet and winning child, the "jewel" of her home. Every affection and attention was lavished upon her from birth. Heaven, too, favored the child with special graces. Dymphna was early placed under the care and tutelage of a pious Christian woman, who prepared her for baptism, which was conferred by the saintly priest Father Gerebran. The latter seems to have been a member of the household, and later taught little Dymphna her letters along with the truths of religion. Dymphna was a bright and eager pupil, and advanced rapidly in wisdom and grace. When still very young, Dymphna, like so many other noble Irish maidens before and after her, being filled with fervor and love for Jesus Christ, chose Him for her Divine Spouse and consecrated her virginity to Him and to His Blessed Mother by a vow of chastity.

Mother's Death

It was not long, however, until an unexpected cloud overshadowed the happy childhood of the beautiful girl. She lost her good mother by death. Many were the secret tears she shed over this bereavement, but at the same time she found great comfort in the Divine Faith which, though she was still of a tender age, already had taken deep root.

Flight from Incest

Dymphna's father, too, greatly mourned his deceased wife and for a long time continued prostrate with grief. At length he was persuaded by his counselors to seek solace in a second marriage. So he commissioned certain ones of his court to seek out for him a lady who would be like his first spouse in beauty and character. After visiting many countries in vain, the messengers returned saying that they could find none so charming and amiable as his own lovely daughter, Dymphna. Giving ear to their base suggestion, the king conceived the evil design of forcing Dymphna into an incestuous relationship with himself. With persuasive and flattering words he manifested his purpose to her. Dymphna, as may be expected, was greatly horrified at the suggestion. She immediately betook herself to Father Gerebran, who advised her to flee from her native country, and since the danger was imminent, he urged her to make no delay.

Belgium

With all speed, therefore, she set out for the continent, accompanied by Father Gerebran, the court jester and his wife. After a favorable passage, they arrived on the coast near the present city of Antwerp. Having stopped for a short rest, they resumed their journey and came to a little village named Gheel. Here they were hospitably received and began to make plans for establishing their future abode at this place.

Martyrdom of Saint Gerebran, Priest

The king, in the meantime, having discovered Dymphna's flight, was fearfully angry, and immediately set out with his followers in search of the fugitives. After some time, they were traced to Belgium and their place of refuge was located. At first, Dymphna's father tried to persuade her to return with him, but Father Gerebran sternly rebuked him for his wicked intentions, whereupon he gave orders that Father Gerebran should be put to death. Without delay, his wicked retainers laid violent hands upon the priest and struck him on the neck with a sword. With one blow of the steel, the head was severed from the shoulders and another glorious martyr went to join the illustrious heroes of Christ's kingdom.

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Martyrdom of Saint Dymphna, Virgin

Further attempts on the part of Dymphna's father to induce her to return with him proved fruitless. With undaunted courage she spurned his enticing promises and scorned his cruel threats. Infuriated by her resistance, the father drew a dagger from his belt and he himself struck off the head of his child. Recommending her soul to the mercy of God, the holy virgin fell prostrate at the feet of her insanely raving father. Thus the glorious crown of martyrdom was accorded to St. Dymphna in the fifteenth year of her age, on the fifteenth day of May, between 620 and 640. The day of her death has been assigned as her feastday.

Discovery of the Relics

The records of Dymphna's life and death say that the bodies of the two martyred saints lay on the ground for quite some time after their death, until the inhabitants of Gheel removed them to a cave, which was the customary manner of interment in that part of the world at the time of the martyrdoms. But after several years had elapsed, the villagers, recalling their holy deaths, decided to give the bodies a more suitable burial. When the workmen removed the heap of black earth at the cave's entrance, great was their astonishment to find two most beautiful tombs, whiter than snow, which were carved from stone, as if by angel hands. When the coffin of St. Dymphna was opened there was found lying on her breast a red tile bearing the inscription: "Here lies the holy virgin and martyr, Dymphna."

The remains of the saint were placed in a small church. Later necessity obliged the erection of the magnificent "Church of St. Dymphna," which now stands on the site where the bodies were first buried. St. Dymphna's relics repose there in a beautiful golden reliquary.

Miracles and cures of people afflicted with melancholy, anxiety, and other psychological pathologies and and emotional maladjustments began to occur in continually increasing numbers. Gradually St. Dymphna's fame as patroness of those who suffer from mental illnesses and nervous disorders spread from country to country. More and more emotionally mentally afflicted persons were brought to the shrine by relatives and friends, many coming in pilgrimages from far-distant places. Novenas were made, and St. Dymphna's relic was applied to the patients. The remarkable cures reported caused confidence in the saint to grow daily.

The Miracle of Gheel

At first the patients were lodged in a small annex built onto the church. Then gradually it came about that the patients were place in the homes of the families living in Gheel. From this beginning Gheel developed into a town world-famed for its care of the insane and mentally afflicted. An institution, called the "Infirmary of St. Elizabeth," which was conducted by Canonesses Regular of St. Augustine was later built for the hospital care of the patients. Most of the latter, after some time spent in the institution, are placed in one or other of the families of Gheel, where they lead a comparatively normal life. Every home in Gheel is proud to welcome to its inmost family circle such patients as are ready to return to the environment of family life. Generations of experience have given to the people of Gheel an intimate and tender skill in dealing with their charges, and their remarkable spirit of charity and Christlike love for these afflicted members of society gives to our modern-day world, so prone to put its whole reliance on science and to forge the principles of true Christian charity, a lesson the practice of which would do much to restore certain types of mentally afflicted individuals to an almost normal outlook on life.

Forward in Hope

Renowned psychiatrists testify that a surprisingly large number of patients could leave mental institutions if they could be assured of a sympathetic reception in the world, such as the people of Gheel take pride in showing. In fact, psychiatrists state that institutions can help certain cases only to a given extent, and when that point is reached, they must have help from persons outside the institution if the progress made in the institution is to have fruition.

1 Comments

Thank you Dom Mark for sharing this beautiful writing on St. Dymphna. I must share a little story with you. Having been trained for the past four years and graduating with a certificate in Spiritual Direction I was encouraged to begin. However, I have waited for Jesus and His Mother to show me in a way that this is indeed God's will. While prying a novena to Our Lady of Good Counsel a few weeks ago, I went in early one morning to church for confession. There on the table was a beautiful picture of Our Lady and Jesus, having placed there for someone to have by someone who was finished with it. (a custom here). After confession, just before Mass, I happened to look at the back of the image as I had not known the title...It was Our Lady of Good Counsel. Then I continued to pray to Her under this title for the past several weeks. This past Sunday, on Mother's Day, before the Latin Mass at my parish, I happened to stop by a little table outside the door where they were selling jams for the nuns and roses for pro life. There was group of pictures in frames. One caught my eye. She was a little saint, beautiful and holding a book with the Trinity symbol and a cross through it. I knew it St. Dymnphna but there was something in the gaze of this particular little print that caught my eye. A mystical gaze. Picking it up, I asked the price. The woman told me what ever I could afford. All I had was four dollars. "Enough" she said. Again I went into the church to go to confession and after returning to my pew, I drew out the framed print to study more closely. Turning it over and looking the the back of the frame were the words. St. Dymphna, Feast Day May 15th and here came the surprise: Patron Saint of Counselors. I don't know if this is God's confirmation but something inside smiled. Thanks for listening and thank you for your site.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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