Dymphna was an Irish princess who lived around 600 AD, the daughter of a pagan king and his Catholic wife. Legend has it that she was a beautiful, holy girl with a loving, happy family. Then her mother died. Driven insane with loss, her father searched for a second wife who would be as beautiful to him as Dymphna’s mother.
Upon finding no one, his councillors pointed out the only woman who could even compare to his lost love was his own 15-year-old daughter.
As this thought burrowed into the king’s troubled mind, he began to think of his child as no father should. He proposed marriage to Dymphna. Justifiably horrified, she fled her home. After traveling more than 1,000 miles, she settled in Geel, Belgium together with others who had escaped her father’s court. They began to rebuild their lives. But the stubborn waves of mental illness can conquer even oceans, and Dymphna’s father caught up with her. She once again refused his advances, and it is said she prayed for her father as he beheaded her in a fit of rage. The young martyr is now the patron saint of those with mental illness.
St. Dymphna’s story is uncommonly unhappy. It is also an uncommonly comprehensive depiction of mental illness. Whether we are struggling with depression or addiction, OCD or PTSD, we can look at Dymphna’s father and identify some aspect of our own disorder: great loss, unbearable sadness, an earthly search for elusive happiness, suggestibility to bad influences, family breakdown, sinful desires, even anger that leads to destruction. But though the king symbolizes the horrors of mental illness, we are called to ask prayer of the saint because of what she represents–the Christian response.
Legend is silent on most of the details of St. Dymphna’s life. She did not speak in tongues, nor did she prophesy. She did not move mountains, nor did she go out into the arena seeking martyrdom. In the end, the little girl did the only thing that mattered: confronted by the swallowing darkness of mental illness, she prayed.
St. Dymphna, pray for us.