This is the latest installment of the series, “The genius of my sister.” Read other articles in the series to learn more about Catholic women throughout history and how they can inspire us today.
“The woman’s soul is fashioned as a shelter in which other souls may unfold” (St. Edith Stein).
About 1 in 5 Americans, ages 18 and older, bear the cross of a diagnosable mental illness. I am one of the adults who makes up that statistic. I have experienced first hand the weight of the cross that is anxiety and depression. I have seen how, when I am not managing it well, it impacts my relationship with my family, friends, finances and, yes, even my prayer life and understanding of God.
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But I have also seen grace triumph. This cross that I’ve been assigned has increased my empathy and understanding, it has led me to be an advocate for my students who struggle with their own mental health issues, and it has urged me to challenge some of the stigmas that surround mental health issues in Catholic and Christian circles. (Sorry, but “too blessed to be stressed/depressed” just isn’t a thing.) Not only that, but those who have helped me bear this cross have been to me the face of God, my light in the darkness, my Simon of Cyrenes and my Marys and my Veronicas.
If you’re reading this, odds are that you have either experienced mental illness yourself or know someone who has. The ripple effects of mental illness (particularly untreated or unmanaged mental illness) are profound: it doesn’t just affect those with the illness, but it impacts family members, friends and the community at large. This brings us to St. Dymphna — patron of mental illness and anxiety — whose intercession we frequently should invoke.
The life of St. Dymphna
According to tradition, princess Dymphna was born in the seventh century to Irish royalty and was raised by her Catholic mother, a queen, and pagan father, King Damon. Unbeknownst to her father, Dymphna’s mother baptized her as an infant. Out of fear of the king’s anger and judgment, Dymphna’s faith was kept a secret. When Dymphna was 14 years old, the queen died, and her husband went into such mental anguish and despair that he became ill. He longed to marry a woman who closely resembled his wife, and when his lords found no one who looked the part, the king laid eyes on his daughter who shared his deceased wife’s beauty.
Upon hearing her father’s request, Dymphna, who had taken a vow of virginity, was horrified and vehemently refused. She fled the castle with her confessor, Father Gerebran, and two of her father’s trusted servants. Eventually, the four of them made their way to Geel, a city in Belgium. Moved by the illness of her mother, Dymphna began to care for the sick and suffering, and it is said that she even used her wealth to establish a hospital.
Unfortunately, news of her whereabouts made its way back to the king. He traveled to Geel to demand her hand in marriage. Again, Dymphna refused. Infuriated, the king drew his sword, cut off his 15-year-old daughter’s head, and ordered the death of Father Gerebran.
In time, both Father Gerebran and Dymphna were canonized saints. In the 14th century, to honor her life, St. Dymphna’s Church was built in the center of the town. Those suffering from mental illness began to make pilgrimages to the church, and many were miraculously cured.
As news of the miraculous healings attributed to St. Dymphna’s intercession spread, more and more people flocked to Geel. To this day, over 700 years later, this little city in Belgium is known for welcoming strangers into their homes who suffer from mental illness, a tradition that has been attributed to Geel’s devotion to St. Dymphna.
May we invoke St. Dymphna’s intercession for those in our life who suffer from the burden of mental illness and anxiety. And may we, like the town of Geel, be inspired by the life of St. Dymphna to compassionately care for those who endure from mental afflictions, providing a shelter where their souls may unfold.