Our Patron of Mental Health: St. Dymphna

Sometimes the saints pursue us, and it seems that the ones who choose to intercede for us are fairly unknown.  St. Dymphna is one such saint who mysteriously — and miraculously — appeared in my mother’s life when she was a child and then reemerged last year on a pilgrimage to Ireland.

St. Dymphna is one of the lesser-known Irish saints, a fairly quiet figure of the distant past.  She is also the patroness of people with mental illnesses, which is a consolation to my mother because of many family members who silently suffer from various psychological diagnoses.

As a child, my mother endured an undiagnosed mental illness, but during the 1950s it was incredibly taboo to even mention such a thing.  So she struggled painfully to hide her anxieties in order to avoid potentially being sent to an institution, which was a very real likelihood for those in similar situations at the time. When my maternal grandmother died in 1963, my mother received a box with some personal items that belonged to Grandma Jean.  One of the items inside was a medal of St. Dymphna.

Decades passed, and my mom nearly forgot about the unusual saint, but in 1992, she received a piece of mail that struck her.  It was a novena prayer to St. Dymphna. Instantly, she recalled the medal from her childhood and wondered if this was a serendipitous message from the saint.

During this time, my younger brother was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — the same affliction from which my mother suffered as an adolescent and young adult. I grew up watching this disease trap both my mom and my brother in their own minds. Because of this, my mother chose to respond to St. Dymphna’s call and begin praying for her intercession in our family.

When my parents prepared for their annual trip to Ireland last year, they discerned that their vacation was to be a pilgrimage instead — a pilgrimage made on behalf of my brother. St. Dymphna reappeared in a book about Irish saints that my mother had purchased shortly before leaving the country, so she and my father chose to venerate one of her shrines.  Around the same time, my mom saw an image of a pair of hands holding a pearl, which my mom realized was “the pearl of great price.”  She felt the Lord was saying that my brother’s soul was the pearl for which my parents should pray at the time.

Unbeknownst to my parents, my brother was receiving Scriptural references to water and shared this with my dad shortly before my parents left for Ireland.  It was confirmation to them that they were to bring my brother’s intentions with them to St. Dymphna’s shrine.

Shortly before their arrival at the shrine, my mom attended daily Mass at the local parish not far from their hotel.  At the conclusion, a woman approached my mother and asked if she wanted to join some other women for their daily meditation.  Assuming it was similar to silent Adoration, my mom accepted the offer, and the two sauntered across the parking lot and into the parish center, where they were greeted by a consecrated sister who led the group.

Unsure as to what was going on and yet intrigued by the movements of the Holy Spirit, my mom followed the sister’s lead and opened her Bible to John 11:4, which read, “…this sickness will not end in death, but in God’s glory…”  She knew this was referencing my brother’s lifelong battle with mental illness and recent struggles with substance abuse.

After everyone had shared their Scripture verse with the group, the sister asked if my mom would blow out the candle and pray aloud for a special intention.  Naturally, she mentioned my brother and his difficulties, but what was incredible about this gesture is that it symbolized much more than simply blowing out a candle.  It’s an Irish custom to send the Holy Spirit to the person for whom you are praying when you extinguish the candle’s flame.  Your breath sends the prayer to Heaven.

When my parents arrived in County Monaghan at St. Dymphna’s Church and Shrine, they noticed a small, metal jug filled with water.  A sign above the jug read, “From St. Dymphna’s well.”  They took note of it but didn’t entertain a second thought, because they were uncertain about their purpose in this small, village church.

While they were praying for my brother, my mom asked the Holy Spirit to reveal clearly what they were to bring home as a spiritual token for my brother. She felt he needed encouragement and consolation during some very tumultuous months of battling both his mental illnesses and addictions to drugs and alcohol.  Instantly, my father’s eyes widened as he declared to my mother, “We’re supposed to bring David some holy water from St. Dymphna’s well.”

In that moment, my parents remembered how my brother had received spiritual references to water during prayer and had shared that he wasn’t entirely certain as to the meaning of these Scripture verses.  Amazed, they filled up travel-sized plastic bottles with the healing water and exited the church.

Somehow my mother knew the holy water would be used for more than just my brother, and she was right.

We all learned that my great-uncle was dying last summer, and he suffered terribly for many decades from Bipolar Disorder. My mom worked in close proximity to the nursing home where Uncle Steve lay dying, and she sensed that she was meant to pay him a visit – he, the typical lapsed Catholic who had been away from the Sacraments for over half of his life.  She brought with her a St. Dymphna holy card, blessed medal, and the holy water from the well.

My mother sweetly approached Uncle Steve (who was also her Godfather) and showed him the holy items she brought with her.  A wry smile curled his lips upward as he gestured for her to come closer.  He then asked her to bless him with the holy water, and, trembling, she humbled herself to bring comfort to a man who once held her as a child in his arms.  She gingerly traced a cross on his forehead with the water as it trickled down his face, silently beseeching St. Dymphna to intercede that he would receive the Last Rites before he went to his eternal home.

After a short visit, she departed, wondering if her prayer would be granted and yet surrendering it with certitude and peace.  Two weeks later, Uncle Steve died, and my mom’s heart was restless without knowing the answer to her prayer about the condition of his soul.  At the funeral, my Aunt Charlotte approached my mom, and as the two embraced, Charlotte casually mentioned that a priest had stopped by a day earlier to visit with Uncle Steve.  Charlotte, a non-Catholic, was unfamiliar with the Last Rites, so she wasn’t certain if Uncle Steve was able to make his last Confession.

Despite all of this, my mom knew that St. Dymphna interceded for my brother those thousands of miles away in Ireland, and she continued to soothe the invisible pains of my Great Uncle Steve upon my parents’ return to the United States.

The blessing of a somewhat unfamiliar saint is manifested in their desire to be invoked – that is, to assist – those of us who desire clarity on how we can best direct our intercessory prayers on behalf of our loved ones.  The unfamiliar saint remains widely anonymous, except in areas where they retain popularity, as St. Dymphna does in Ireland.  But to you and me, we catch a glimpse of God’s love for us when He allows a saint with a specific mission of intercession to offer us hope: that surge of expectant waiting for God’s promise.

Is it not true for all of us that “…this sickness will not end in death, but in God’s glory”?  Even if we should die from any number of physical or psychological maladies, we clutch our prevailing belief that our souls will live eternally and reflect the same glory of God that the saints imitate.

image: Carolus / Wikimedia Commons


JEANNIE EWING is a Catholic spirituality writer and national inspirational speaker. Among her eight books, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, is her most popular. She is a frequent guest on podcasts, radio shows, and has appeared on EWTN, CatholicTV, and ShalomWorld. Her deepest desire is to accompany those who suffer and are lonely. Visit her website at jeannieewing.com for more information.

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