Fish Eaters: The Whys and Hows of Traditional Catholicism

``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D

Feast of St. Dymphna

The story of St. Dymphna is a sad and shocking one. She was born in the 8th century in Ireland to a pagan king whose wife became a Christian. Dymphna must have been taught well by her mother, but too soon, when she was fourteen years old, her mother died, leaving her father wracked with grief, insane with it.

And here, the story goes from merely sad to disturbing: seeing that Dymphna was beautiful and looked very much like her mother, her father turned his eyes to her. Dymphna related all this to her confessor, St. Gerebernus, and he advised her to run for her life, telling her that he would help her. The two, along with a court jester and the jester's wife, took a boat to Flanders, in what is today northern Belgium. They made their way through the woodlands of the Eastern part of the country, to a town called Geel (Gheel) about 25 miles from the city of Antwerp. There, they lived as hermits, and Dymphna gained a reputation for holiness and charity.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, her father was losing his mind. He sent spies out to find her, and they did, tracking her down by following the trail of Irish coins she spent along her route. Her father himself went to bring her back to Ireland, but she refused. He then ordered his men to kill Fr. Gerebernus. They obeyed his command, but Dymphna still refused to return. So her father, in a fit of rage, killed her -- murdering his own daughter by decapitating her with his sword.

The people of Geel Dymphna and Fr. Gerebernus in a cave -- and miracles began to happen, most especially the otherwise inexplicable cures of people suffering from mental illness, epilepsy, and demonic oppression or possession. After so many wonderful graces, the villagers wanted to give them a more fitting interment, so dug them up -- and when they did, they found their bodies entombed in two coffins made of lovely white stone. They moved the relics to the chuch, but soon built a larger church especially in St. Dymphna's honor. Sadly, that church burned in 1489, but a new church -- Sint-Dimpna-Kerk --
was built, and her relics can be found there still today.

The miraculous cures and help granted to those suffering from mental and emotional troubles gave rise to something fascinating: people with such problems began to flock to Geel, and in the 13th century, an infirmary was built for them. The Church in Geel then instituted a program by which the people of the town sort of "adopt" a pilgrim in need of such care, and the pilgrim is integrated into those people's family lives. They sleep at their houses, eat with them, work with them, and live alongside them as normally as possible. Some may stay for a few weeks or months; others may stay for decades. And all the while, they are treated as friends and boarders, not as "patients," and are as fully integrated into the surrounding community as they can be.

A potential "adoptee" will first go to the infirmary and be screened for potentially dangerous sexual disorders, violence, and active psychosis. The adopting families are likewise screened, and being considered able to handle such the task of hosting a boarder in need has become a matter of personal, familial, and civic pride in Geel. In fact, caring for the troubled has become a routine aspect of Geel life, something the town is known for in the same way that Venice is known for its canals and gondolas, and New Orleans is known for its Dixieland jazz. Though, since the mid 19th century, the foster-family program is no longer handled by the Church but by secular authorities, its spirit is purely Catholic and inspired by the cures brought about by St. Dymphna's intercession. You can read more about all this in the paper
Lessons to be Learned from the Oldest Community Psychiatric Service in the World: Geel in Belgium (pdf), by Henck P. J. G. van Bilsen, published in the BJPsych Bulletin by the Royal College of Psychiatrists in 2016.

St. Dymphna is the patron Saint of those with mental or emotional disorders (including depression, anxiety, nervous disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc.), and victims of incest. She is depicted in art as a pretty, young girl, often crowned and holding a sword, the instrument of her murder. Sometimes the sword is shown being used, or having been used, such as impaled through her neck. She's also often shown with a demon chained at her feet. Note that her name is also spelled Dimphna, Dympna, or Dimpna.


Some may prepare for today by praying the Novena to St. Dymphna starting on May 6 and ending on May 14, the eve of her feast. For the feast itself, the Litany of St. Dymphna would serve you well, as would this prayer to our Saint, a prayer that reminds us that no matter what we may be suffering from, "this, too, shall pass":

Dear St. Dymphna, look graciously upon me from your blessed place in heavenly glory. Where you are now, I aspire to be after the ending of this brief earthly life. I journey daily as a pilgrim toward my permanent home, but I should have a much stronger desire of heavenly things. Sometimes I am too content to live here forever. Enable me, dear Saint, to measure the shortness of this life by the length of eternity. Make me appreciate that I am here only in passing. May my heart remain free, safely and surely anchored in the promise of Christ that He is preparing a place for me. Inspire me with longing for my future home. May this thought give meaning and value to the trials and pleasures of earthly existence. May I yearn for the place that awaits me, rejoicing daily that my pilgrimage gets ever shorter and heaven closer. Thus making myself familiar with this thought, I shall be better able to accept and sanctify the sorrows and joys of earth. Amen.

Every five years in Geel, a great festival is held in St. Dymphna's honor on her feast day. It's marked not only a procession, but huge theatrical reenactments.

For citizens of the United States who want to make a pilgrimage in honor of St. Dymphna, the national St. Dymphna Shrine is located inside of St. Mary’s Church in Massillon, Ohio.

For those who live in Ireland, there are, in addition to many parishes named in her honor, at least two holy wells named for St. Dymphna. One is in Caldavnet, County Monaghan, and another is in Kildalkey in County Meath. The latter, in a parish dedicated to St. Dymphna, can be found near an old abbey -- now in ruins -- that was dedicated to her as well. It is said that dipping a ribbon into the well's waters, and tying the ribbon around your head, is a cure for headaches.
As to music, I don't have any hymns or liturgical songs written for the day, but do have this song for you:"St. Dymphna" by a group called "The Dead Brothers":

As to foods for the day, there are no traditions in this regard (at least none that I know of), but given St. Dymphna's patronage, "nuts," "crackers," and "bananas" come to mind -- and not at all because I think mental illness is something to mock (quite the contrary,1 and, of all people, who would I be to mock mental illness?). It's just that having a sense of humor is one of the more important things in life, and one of the best things a person so afflicted could develop in himself. So here's a recipe that includes the trifecta -- nuts, crackers, and bananas:

Mad Muffins

16 sheets graham crackers, finely crushed (about 2 cups of graham cracker crumbs)
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk
2 TBSP honey
2 very (even overly) ripe bananas, mashed
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a muffin pan with baking cups or grease the tins well. In a big bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, sugar and baking powder. Then mix in the egg, milk, honey and mashed banana and mix well. Spoon batter evenly into muffin baking cups and top each with walnuts. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into their centers comes out clean. Cool in pan 5 minutes then remove to cool longer on wire rack.


1 I am very serious about this. (And I am also very serious about the importance of humor. Perhaps it's telling that, along with Fr. Gerebernus, it was a court jester and his wife who accompanied St. Dymphna to Flanders.)

Back to Seasonal Customs
Back to Being Catholic