Though I’m not Catholic, I can probably thank my 11th-grade total immersion in Catholic doctrine by the nuns of Notre Dame Academy for Girls in Omaha for my obsession with saints. I’m fascinated with how sainted individuals, especially women, might have seen their own lives, as opposed to the romantic re-writing of history that seems to come with canonization.
Dymphna, according to legend, was the 13th-century daughter of an Irish pagan chieftain. She converted to Christianity at the age of 10 or 11, shortly before her mother died. Her father, crazy with “grief” (I’m biting my tongue here), tried to bed his daughter because she looked so much like his late wife. Dymphna and a priest, Gerebernus, fled, taking refuge in a chapel. Alas, her father found them, had his minions kill the priest, and chopped off his own daughter’s head for disobeying.
I always feel a wee bit closer to St. Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill, at the end of the semester, when my own mental health is in desperate need of a blessing. So on this last day of National Poetry Month, here’s my petition to the determined Irish lass. (For more info on the sile na gigh mentioned in the poem, see http://www.sheelanagig.org.)
patron of the mentally ill
In fitful dreams I find you shivering
in rowan and ferns along the Blackwater
river, wreathed in St. John’s wort
& anointed with yellow-rattle,
half-starved and wrapped in a celtar
cinched at the waist with an oak rosary,
humming strains of your mother’s brief
lullaby. But your father was a chieftain
and knew the magic, found you anyway.
Grief or madness drove him to finger
your small bones for signs of her
in the curve of your emerging breasts,
the winged cup of your pelvis, your
silky down, and you a fugitive
child with courage enough to keep locked
that garden gate, though he found you
again, sealed the gate forever. Forsaken
daughter, in my own trembling delusion
I am your Síle na Gigh, we offer up
a novena to our Mother and for nine days
I give you this blessing too—my stone lap
cushioned with heather & moss, pillow
for your bruised and worried brow.