One common experience shared by those with mental health challenges and their families is the sense of isolation. Social stigmas, guilt, shame, and the desire to protect loved ones from negative views of others can all contribute to isolating behavior. While it is in no way intended to replace the need for physical, human companionship, one particular gift found within the Catholic faith that can serve to off-set this isolation, is the belief in what is known as the “communion of saints”.
This fundamental belief expresses the reality that all who are created in the image and likeness of God share in an ongoing, life-giving, life-sharing relationship that includes everyone currently living, and those who have died. From a Catholic perspective, we not only have recourse to the spiritual benefit of seeking support and consolation from friends, family, and neighbours here and now, but we, in fact, have access to the intercessions of those ancestors in faith who are even now enjoying the fullness of relationship with God in heaven.
At one point in the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola invites retreatants to imagine the army of saints and angels that is interceding for them in every moment, but especially at those times when we are most in need.
“… (imagine) the Angels, how, though they are the sword of the Divine Justice, they have endured me, and guarded me, and prayed for me; (imagine) the Saints, how they have been engaged in interceding and praying for me…” – The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola
Those times when the weight of our family struggles with mental health has seemed too great to bear, and those feelings of isolation have begun to seep in, this image of the hosts of heaven and an army of saints interceding for our family has continued to provide much-needed comfort and peace.
Throughout our home, we have collected icons of the various patrons whose intercessions we seek most often. Over the next few months, we will feature profiles of a few of the saints who have been and continue to be particularly helpful for our family.
The first of these is perhaps the most well-known by those with lived experience of mental health struggles. Saint Dymphna has been held up as the ‘go-to’ intercessor for those struggling with mental health challenges for more than 1300 years.
After the death of her mother, Dymphna’s father, suffering from acute mental health issues, came to believe that his daughter so resembled his deceased wife, that they should marry. Though she was able to flee and find refuge from him for a time, he eventually discovered her. When she steadfastly refused to marry him, he cut off her head.
Her role as an intercessor for mental health was not based on her unfortunate death alone. The collective experiences, in her local community, in the years after her death were seen as the fruits of her ongoing intercessions for those struggling with mental health.
Soon, a church was built in honour of this young woman whose death was due to untreated mental illness in a family member. It was not long before this new church became a focal point for pilgrims seeking care for mental health challenges. Though the small church was expanded to provide space for their care and healing, it was quickly filled to capacity. In time, having lived closely with mental health sufferers being cared for at their local church, the townspeople themselves began to accept those in need into their homes, instituting a tradition of care and accompaniment for the mentally ill in the town.
St. Dymphna is a spiritual companion with a profound knowledge of the need for compassion, forgiveness, and healing in our relationships with family members suffering from mental health issues. Given the opportunity, her intercessions can move us to deepen our own compassion, to seek an end to the negative stigmas surrounding mental health struggles, and to the realization that lasting change in our cultural approaches to mental health care requires the support of the whole community.
A Prayer for the Intercessions of St. Dymphna:
Lord God, Who has graciously chosen Saint Dymphna to be the patroness of those afflicted with mental and nervous disorders, and has caused her to be an inspiration and a symbol of charity to the thousands who invoke her intercession, grant through the prayers of this pure, youthful martyr, relief and consolation to all who suffer from these disturbances, and especially those families and individuals who experience loneliness and isolation due to mental illness including those who suffer themselves and those who care for them.
Heavenly Father, we beg You to accept and grant the prayers of Saint Dymphna on our behalf. Grant to those we have particularly recommended patience in their sufferings and resignation to Your Divine Will. Fill them with hope and, if it is according to Your Divine Plan, bestow upon them the cure they so earnestly desire. Grant this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Peace and God Bless,
Deacon Eric Gurash