The Lily of Éire
Feastday: May 15
Saint Dymphna (also: Dympna, Dimpna,
Damhnait, Damnat, from Gaelic Damh=stag and ait=little, i.e. "fawn".) (pronounced
"Dimf-nah") is a Christian saint. According to tradition, she lived in the 7th
century and was the daughter of a pagan Irish king and his Christian wife. She
was murdered by her father.
The story of Saint Dymphna was first
recorded in the 13th century by a canon of the Church of St. Aubert at Cambrai,
France. It was commissioned by Guiard of Laon (1238–1248), the Bishop of Cambrai.
The author expressly stated that his work
was based upon a long-standing oral tradition and a persuasive history of
miraculous healings of the mentally ill.
Story of her life and death
According to Christian tradition, Dymphna
was born in Ireland in the 7th century. Dymphna's father Damon, a petty king of
Oriel, was a pagan, but her mother was a devout Christian.
When Dymphna was 14 years old, she
consecrated herself to Christ and took a vow of chastity. Shortly thereafter,
her mother died. Damon had loved his wife deeply, and in the aftermath of her
death his mental health sharply deteriorated. Eventually the king's counsellors
pressed him to remarry. Damon agreed, but only on the condition that his bride
would be as beautiful as his deceased wife. After searching fruitlessly, Damon
began to desire his daughter because of her strong resemblance to her mother.
When Dymphna learned of her father's
intentions she swore to uphold her vows, and fled his court along with her
confessor Father Gerebernus, two trusted servants and the king's fool. Together
they sailed towards the continent, eventually landing in what is present-day
Belgium, where they took refuge in the town of Geel.
One tradition states that once settled in
Geel, St. Dymphna built a hospice for the poor and sick of the region. However,
it was through the use of her wealth that her father would eventually ascertain
her whereabouts, as some of the coins used enabled her father to trace them to
Belgium. Damon sent his agents to pursue his daughter and her companions. When
their hiding place was discovered, Damon travelled to Geel to recover his
daughter. Damon ordered his soldiers to kill Father Gerebernus and tried to
force Dymphna to return with him to Ireland, but she resisted. Furious, Damon
drew his sword and struck off his daughter's head. She was said to have been 15
years old when she died. After Dymphna and Gerebernus were martyred, the
residents of Geel buried them in a nearby cave. Years later, they decided to
move the remains to a more suitable location. Some of her remains are at the
Shrine to Saint Dymnpha in the United States.
According to Johann Peter Kirsch, "This
narrative is without any historical foundation, being merely a variation of the
story of the king who wanted to marry his own daughter, a motif which appears
frequently in popular legends."
In 1349 a church honouring Saint Dymphna
was built in Geel. By 1480, so many pilgrims were coming from all over Europe,
seeking treatment for the mentally ill, that the church housing for them was
expanded. Soon the sanctuary for the mad was again full to overflowing, and the
townspeople began taking them into their own homes. Thus began a tradition for
the ongoing care of the mentally ill that has endured for over 700 years and is
still studied and envied today. Patients were, and still are, taken into the
inhabitants of Geel's homes. Never called patients, they are called boarders,
and are treated as ordinary and useful members of the town. They are treated as
members of the host family. They work, most often in menial labour, and in
return, they become part of the community. Some stay a few months, some decades,
some for their entire lives. At its peak in the 1930s, over 4,000 'boarders'
were housed with the town's inhabitants.
The remains of Saint Dymphna were later
put into a silver reliquary and placed in a church in Geel named in her honour.
The remains of Saint Gerebernus were moved to Xanten, Germany. During the late
15th century the original St. Dymphna Church in Geel burned down. A second "Church
of St. Dymphna" was then built and consecrated in 1532. The church still stands
on the site where her body is believed to have first been buried.
According to tradition, miracles occurred
immediately after her tomb was discovered. A number of people with epilepsy,
mental illness or to have been 'under evil influence' who visited the tomb of
Dymphna were said to have been cured. The saint is invoked as patroness against
Saint Dymphna is known as the Lily of Éire,
due to her spotless virtue. She is traditionally portrayed wearing a crown,
dressed in ermine and royal robes, and holding a sword. In modern versions she
holds the sword awkwardly, as it symbolizes her martyrdom, but in the older
versions seen on numerous statues and stained glass images, her sword is
pricking the neck of a demon; symbolizing her title of Demon Slayer. She is also
often portrayed holding a lamp, with the chained devil at her feet.
Some modern holy cards portray Dymphna in
green and white, holding a book and white lilies.
Saint Dymphna is the patron saint of
the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, and those who suffer
neurological disorders - and, consequently, of psychologists, psychiatrists, and
neurologists. She is also the patron saint of victims of incest.
The US National Shrine of St. Dymphna is
located at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Massillon, Ohio. St. Dymphna's Special
School is located in Ballina, County Mayo, Republic of Ireland and operates
under the patronage of Western Care Association.
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