St Dymphna of Gheel

(Belgium) (entered heaven around 650)

Dear Dina,

Your notes never fail to uplift me.  You are unique among my nieces.  None of them has been given such a cross as our Lord has seen fit to give you, and few of them bear their crosses with as much faith and love.  I am truly sorry to hear that your mother’s mental health gives no signs of improvement, but I am deeply edified by your trust in Providence, and your continued, faithful presence in her life.  Your example of self-sacrificing, Christ-like love reminds me a lot of today’s saint.

Dymphna is one of those mysterious figures from the early Middle Ages.  We know less about her actual life than we do about the remarkable influence her life had and continues to have.

She was the child of a pagan Irish King (Damon was his name) and a beautiful Christian woman who died while Dymphna was still just a girl.  Upon her mother’s death, her father fell into a violent depression and left Ireland in search of a woman who could equal her in beauty.  Dymphna, meanwhile, was left under the care either of relatives or of the holy priest St Gerebernus, or both – we don’t really know.

Damon’s quest kept him away for years, but was unsuccessful.  When he finally returned, his daughter had grown to be a beautiful young woman (still in her teens).  She resembled her mother, and as a result, her father, in his abnormal mental state, conceived an incestuous desire for her.  But she had been brought up Christian, and betook herself to St Gerebernus, who recommended that she flee from her father instead of submitting to his sinful designs.  Together they crossed the English Channel into Belgium.  They found a small oratory near the present day town of Gheel, and there they settled down to live a simple life of work, prayer, and service to the poor and suffering.

Their peaceful Christian way of life was short-lived, however.  Her Father pursued and found her.  He demanded that she obey his desires, but she refused.  He sent his servants to kill both the priest and his daughter.  They beheaded St Gerebernus, but they were pacified by the beautiful, holy maiden.  This put Damon into an uncontrollable rage, and he himself came and struck the head off of his daughter.

By then, Dymphna’s reputation for Christian charity and goodness had already been established.  The sick and poor visited her grave and implored her intercession.  Soon cures were reported – especially cures of the mentally insane.  Devotion spread, and a hospital for the mentally ill was constructed.  The cures, the devotion, and the hospital are all still going strong today.

My dear niece, it doesn’t sound like you need much encouragement from me, but even so, I think today’s saint shows clearly how God works in this sinful world.  He doesn’t eliminate suffering and sin – even the most horrible and horrifying kinds.  Rather, he conquers them with the love of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  And I am convinced that his conquest is advancing far and wide through you.

Your loving uncle,


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