When I first wrote this, St. Dymphna and St. Gerebran’s feast day was overshadowed by another holy day (not unlike my saintly namesake, who has the misfortune of sharing her feast day with Christmas Day). Either way, though, these are two saints (especially Gerebran) who usually get overlooked and forgotten unless one has been effected by mental/emotional illness or affliction in some way, whether it be oneself or someone in one’s life.
It has been for me, though Dymphna was also in my children’s book of saints. Her story intrigued me, reminding me of a fairytale called Donkey Skin. While Donkey Skin was the typical fairy tale princess with her story ending with her marrying the prince and living happily ever after, Sts. Dymphna and Gerebran’s tombs are visited by many a sufferer of similar life-stories.
Forgotten Father & Child
St. Dymphna was an Irish princess born to a Christian mother and an Irish-Pagan father in the 7th century, some time after St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. When her mother died, her father, King Damon, went mad with grief. In the search of a new queen, his advisors planted the insidious idea for the king to marry his own daughter, saying there was no other lady in the kingdom as beautiful and worthy as the late queen.
This was all it took for Damon to be set on marrying Dymphna; as Dawn Eden put it in regard of her own abusers in My Peace I Give You, he put to death the reality of Dymphna being his child to love and protect, and saw instead a wife to take for himself.
Obviously, the princess was horrified. Anyone who suffered any form of incest from their parent knows the fear, pain, and confusion that was most likely going through her mind. When her father proposed to her, Dymphna ran to her spiritual director, Fr. Gerebran, asking him what she should do. With the priest’s help, she was able to make a plan to get away from the king, and after convincing her father to wait a month for her answer, the two ran away with a few companions to Geel (now known as Belgium).
It didn’t take long for King Damon to find out what happened, and with Dymphna using her wealth to establish a hospital for the poor, her hiding place was not kept secret from him for long. He first sent messengers to bribe and plead with her to come back to Ireland. Dymphna, though probably still scared and confused, stood firm, refusing. The king soon grew angry when he saw this wasn’t getting what he wanted, and came himself with his knights to Geel.
Fr. Gerebran met him outside, standing between him and Dymphna. I can imagine he must have looked very small in his humble priest robes next to the richly dressed and armed King Damon. It makes it all the more admirable that he rebuked the king when asked about Dymphna, condemning the evil desires Damon had for his 15-year-old daughter. He refused to move, and refused to allow the king to justify his intentions. Enraged at his words, the king had his knights force Fr. Gerebran to his knees, and had them behead the priest.
Dymphna was now alone against this insane, murderous king. She probably witnessed in some way that Fr. Gerebran died protecting her, the one who was more of a father to her than the man in front of her now, standing over the priest’s headless body. Tradition says that the king attempted to plea with her one last time. Not surprising if so – he was clearly beyond reason, though like other abusers confronted with their wrongdoing, he knew that the best way to evade guilt was to act like a victim himself. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he wept and knelt before Dymphna, expressing his undying love for her, his utter loneliness without his wife, her mother, and his ardent desire for her to come home with him.
I saw this pattern of behavior, and heard from other victims/survivors of similar abuse that this was their abuser’s case, too. Displaying a mix of excessive anger and/or violence to excessive endearment and/or self-pity often confuses children into thinking that the adult abuser was just someone to appease and pity, especially if this abuser is a parent. It would’ve been very understandable for a girl seeing such extreme mixed messages from her father to do what he said, and go with him.
That’s what makes Dymphna’s final refusal so heroic.
Her spiritual director – really, her spiritual father – had just been killed. His blood was still wet on the street. She was harassed for an unknown length of time with all those honeyworded messages demanding her return, by her own father no less. When it came down to it, she had to chose which father to believe in: the father who is always there for the ones under his care to the point of exile and death, or the father who does whatever it takes to get what he wants to the point of manipulation and murder.
She chose the former, and with an even stronger rage and hatred than before, the king drew his own blade to behead the daughter he professed just moments before to love more than life itself.
It wasn’t until many years later that her and Fr. Gerebran’s tombs were discovered. They were forgotten for so long by most everyone. However, the poor they cared for didn’t forget their kindness, and so buried them there in Geel for us to discover, to share their story lest it be forgotten again.
St. Dymphna is the patroness to victims/survivors of incest and sexual abuse, as well as those suffering from any kind of mental/nervous affliction, hence why she is sometimes mentioned in the mental health field. Tradition justifies that last saintly trait to her father’s insanity that killed her, like with other martyrs (e.g. St. Lawrence was grilled alive, and is thus the patron of cooks). However, as I write her story, knowing what was most likely going through her head with how her father was acting from my own experiences… I’d actually argue that her title of “patroness of mental/nervous afflictions” comes from her being able to conquer the mental/nervous afflictions her father’s behavior caused her, choosing the true fatherhood of God and St. Gerebran instead of giving into the fear and pity a child would naturally have for an abusive parent like King Damon.
In Silently Seduced (a book I found while praying to St. Dymphna to help me to make sense of how troubling my own relationship with my father was), Dr. Adams discusses the effects of the lesser-known type of familial dysfunction called enmeshment (also known as covert or emotional incest) on a child from a parent when said parent’s connection with the other parent is compromised in someway, leading to the offending parent to connect with their child the way he/she would a romantic partner. As he wrote in his other book on the topic, When He’s Married to Mom, “The love between a mother and father naturally disrupts enmeshment.” This sometimes leads to overt incest (molestation, rape, etc.), but it doesn’t have to in order to still be considered incest; that dynamic is still there, and it’s still damaging for the child in question.
Whether it’s overt or covert, incest results in the same kinds of mental/emotional afflictions: depression, eating disorders, PTSD, sexual disorders like hypersexuality or asexuality, addictions, nightmares, self-injury, suicidal ideation, and more.
Going back to St. Dymphna, her father (to our knowledge) never overtly abused his daughter, but from what I learned and experienced in covert and overt incest, all the things he said and did were enough to surely traumatize her the same way as if he had. She probably had nightmares, anxiety attacks, and the other painful problems victims/survivors of overt sexual abuse does. It’s unclear for how long this went on, but as studies show, once is enough to leave an invisible wound that can last a lifetime.
This is what makes St. Gerebran so heroic: under the guidance of her mother, he baptized Dymphna, gave her the sacraments, taught her about God, and what He teaches about love and one’s sexuality (as she had already chosen to consecrate her virginity to God before her father proposed to her). When he did propose, the priest made and executed that plan to get her away from her father at the cost of his position. When her father sent all those confusing messages, he was probably there for her to talk to, to remind her that this isn’t what true love or fatherhood looks like. Even in his last moments, and even when he died protecting her, he provided her with the foundation to ground herself, and say no to her father.
This fatherly example of St. Gerebran is a very big deal for me: for over 20 years, whether from what I learned at home, or in Catholic school, “Honor thy father and mother” meant “Obey us without question on the main principle that we are your parents or else“. Needless to say, that was wrong, and imprisoning: it told me that God Himself approved of and enforces what my parents (and the other adults they let into my life who also abused me) were saying and doing. It wasn’t until I met good people who, like St. Gerebran, helped give me enough confidence in the truth of who God is and what He actual taught, to likewise say no to the wrong I could finally admit was happening to me. Though he shares patronage to the mentally ill and incest victim/survivors with St. Dymphna, I consider him a patron saint to priests and spiritual directors who counsel the mentally ill and victimized.
Whatever you believe, I hope it helps you as you walk on your healing journey, a real story about a real girl to stabilize you when confusion and fear rocks the boat.
Sts. Dymphna & Gerebran, pray for us.