Saint Dymphna pray for us

Somehow, I missed the Feast of Saint Dymphna on this day last week — Irishwoman of the seventh century, celebrated in missals of both Latin West and Greek East, though not very boldly in recent centuries. She is the patron saint of the insane.

I could of course have waited upon the latest recension of the Martyrologium Romanum, which moved her feast to the 30th of May, for no intelligible reason. Why the Roman authorities should wish to keep saints’ days in movement I have yet to understand. St Dymphna’s hagiography was formally gathered and committed to writing in the thirteenth century; it was the product of a strong oral tradition that had spread through Christendom, encouraged by many miracles.

We little appreciate today the empirical and rational aspects of mediaeval and byzantine saint-worship. Saints rose in stature not because of some administrative decision in Rome, but because praying to them worked. This is secretly why some saints enjoy special favour to this day, among the common people in the surviving ghettoes of “traditional” Christianity, and also among the sophisticated in there. The modern mind, however, which is both atheist and superstitious, would not dare try the experiment of believing.

The beautiful daughter of a beautiful Christian mother, and a pagan Irish king, Dymphna consecrated herself to Jesus and to a life of purity at an early age. When her mother died, her father, whose madness was perhaps accentuated by grief, fell upon the incestuous idea of marrying his daughter as a replacement for his wife. She fled, to Gheel in what is now Belgium, along with several others including the court jester. His pagan majesty pursued, eventually tracking her to Gheel, where she had already established a reputation for the care and cure of difficult cases. She was martyred when he found her.

Our contemporary “humanists” would laugh, I suppose, at the claims made for St Dymphna in her shrine at Gheel, and in several others dedicated to St Dymphna now scattered around the world. Obviously, those drawn as pilgrims to such places are deluded. Indeed, this is precisely why they have come: to be freed from their delusions.

It is one of the dirty secrets of medicine that “miracle cures” often work. It begins, I should think, when the afflicted soul desires to be rescued; when by grace he or she dimly begins to appreciate that neither the pharmaceutical nor the surgical industries can offer much help. Drugs may induce artificial mood changes, and a frontal lobotomy might reduce one to an even less harmful turnip, but neither can offer a cure. Even electro-shocks, when they seemed to work (as they did when they were practised), brought only temporary relief. The afflicted is seeking something more permanent, and looks in the only place it could possibly be found.

Those who happen to have read the Gospels with any attention, will have observed that Our Lord was a practitioner of faith cures. He was also very clear on demonic manifestations. Modern churchmen are embarrassed by this, and as they do with the Sacraments, take what is an action for a kind of lame symbol, to be saluted in passing by members of their club. We do the ceremonial, when we do it at all, “in remembrance of” something we in fact can’t remember.

A real Christian would notice that this is quite mad.