St. Dymphna & St. Blaise: Getting to Geel

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Lewis Carroll

It doesn’t get more Catholic than this.

Don’t you just love St. Blaise Day?

We do. Back when we homeschooled, it was an annual tradition on February 3rd to pile in the van and go all together to get our throats blessed. We’d head over to St. Pat’s for the noon Mass, or the hospital for the 2 p.m., and then get in line with everybody else for the weird ritual.

And you have to admit it’s weird.

The candles crossed at the throat, the mumbled prayer and cursory sign of the cross, and then, “Next!” I imagine this is one of those days that priests dread – after hundreds of blessings, their throats must parch, and the recited lines are no doubt hard to switch off in their heads until the wee hours of February 4th.

Ah, but it’s so exceedingly, deliciously Catholic – filled with piety and wonder, and just shy of superstition, it’s a convert’s delight! And it makes sense to have a special blessing of the throat – our gateway to both breathing and eating, and thus a darn important part of our anatomy!

And the connection with St. Blaise? Let’s see, there’s the candles and Candlemas on February 2nd; St. Blaise and a legendary healing story on the 3rd. You can see how it all might’ve gotten tangled up together over the last thousand years or so, but we can’t sort it out at this late stage. Anyway, it’s now all part of small “t” tradition, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with big “T” Tradition — the guts of the Faith, that is, Christ Himself and our recapitulation, along with creation itself, in Him — then it’s fine. If it helps us get along, great; if it gets in the way, then jettison it without hesitation.

St. Dymphna

Devotion to St. Dymphna runs along these lines — lots of small “t” tradition jumbled together in the service of big “T” tradition. Dymphna was a seventh-century Irish princess who had to flee her home after her mother died and her father went nuts with grief. His madness led him to believe that his daughter was some kind of reincarnation of his deceased spouse, and he insisted that Dymphna marry him as a replacement. Dymphna, accompanied by a chaplain, escaped to Belgium to hide out, but her dad found her and gave her a choice: Marry him or die. Dymphna chose death, as did the chaplain, and a cult of devotion grew up around their tomb in the Belgian city of Geel.

Martyrdom of Saint Dymphna of Gheel, 17th century print / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

In short order, Dymphna became the go-to saint for those suffering from mental illness, and Geel, naturally, became the pilgrimage site for those who particularly desired her special intercession. And here’s the remarkable thing: Instead of turning aside all the crazies and wild-eyed who tramped across Europe to their town, the good people of Geel not only opened their gates, but also opened their homes, and the entire community became a haven, under Dymphna’s patronage, for those suffering mental infirmity.

What began in Geel spread far afield, and St. Dymphna’s intercession for the depressed and the disturbed is in high demand around the globe. In this country, that devotion centers around a shrine located in Massillon, Ohio, near Canton, but that’s only the beginning. For example, Mary Queen of Heaven Parish in Milwaukee has a large shrine dedicated to St. Dymphna in the back of the church. It’s no accident, I’m sure, that the parish is located less than a mile away from Rogers Hospital, a private psychiatric facility that provides in-patient and out-patient services for adults and adolescents.

Even my own parish, St. Matthew Cathedral in South Bend, has its own Dymphna presence. St. Matt’s is privileged to house a relic of St Dymphna in the baptistry, and last October, the relic was present in the sanctuary for a special Mass offered on behalf of those “whose lives have been affected by mental illness in any way.” The Mass was well attended, and it was moving to see  individuals and families approach the relic before and after Mass to venerate it, kiss it even – as if doing so would somehow bring them into closer proximity to the saint whose intercession has proven so effective for others suffering through similar trials.

Which, of course, it does.

And perhaps that’s the secret of GeelThe closer we get to the saints, the closer we get to Christ. Indeed, friendship with the saints is friendship with Christ, and the friends of Christ do wild things – like take in the mentally ill as long-term house guests. It is an historical fact that Geel did become a refuge for the mentally ill, and it continues to serve in that manner down to the present day – a phenomenon that has to rank up there on the weirdness scale with getting our throats blessed with candles.

Scholars are skeptical, however, that Geel’s unusual form communal outreach stretches all the way back to that tragic series of events in the seventh century. Rather, it seems to have sprung up after Dymphna was formally canonized in the thirteenth-century, when those with mental illnesses desperate for a cure began pouring into the small Belgian town. This influx necessitated the construction of facilities to house them all, and, in time, the numbers of those seeking a cure outpaced the resources of church and civic authorities.

So it was that private citizens themselves, inspired by the courage and witness of Dymphna, began offering the pilgrims shelter in their own homes, and the Geel experiment was born. How bizarre to think that mentally ill strangers would be welcomed into private residences. More bizarre still is the fact that this practice soon proved itself enormously successful, and the Geel miracle has become a model for other community recovery efforts around the world, including here in the U.S.

In a review of the book American Psychosis by E. Fuller Torrey,psychiatrist Dr. Sally Satel noted that “Dr. Torrey documents our nation’s shameful legacy of inadequate care for people with serious psychiatric disorders.” Satel goes on to make this statement:

Many of Dr. Torrey’s proposed solutions are based on evidence from enlightened programs that already exist…. Experiment should be tried too, he says.

Mental illness is incredibly challenging to manage and treat, no less so given the stigma it still endures, especially in this country. St. Dymphna, it seems, offers us viable alternatives: Prayer, for one thing, particularly through her intercession, but beyond that are the bold innovations in communal hospitality and therapy that her story has inspired in Geel and beyond.

On St. Blaise Day, you got your throat blessed, but you’ll also hear the story of Legion and how Christ healed his madness. In the end, Legion pleads with Jesus to accompany him, but Jesus turns him down. “Go home to your family,” Jesus tells the now sane man, “and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.”

That’s the Geel model, weird as it is, and it is one that is mutually beneficial: The mentally ill find succor and security; those who care for them find an emissary of Christ in their midst. This is radical hospitality, and clearly not something that can be widely replicated. Still, it’s a small “t” tradition that pegs capital “T” Tradition with laser precision. Geel is Christian beneficence, it is the love of Christ made incarnate. Geel is the Gospel, in other words.

The mentally ill need champions. Dymphna and her devotees are ready.

image: Statue of St. Dymphna by  Judgefloro [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons


Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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