St. Dymphna, St. Maria Goretti and the Litanies of the Heart
These saints teach us that love is stronger than death and that our hope lies not in this world but in God’s loving embrace.
As we recognize World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, let us pray with the seventh-century Irish martyr and patron saint of those suffering from mental illnesses, St. Dymphna. According to oral tradition, St. Dymphna’s father, Damon, was overcome with mental anguish after losing his wife. In a fit of insanity, he decided to marry his 14-year-old daughter. Dymphna fled to Belgium to avoid this fate, but Damon discovered her whereabouts and insisted that she return to Ireland to be his bride. When she refused, Damon murdered her.
The story of St. Dymphna reminds me of another young martyr, St. Maria Goretti. She died at the beginning of the 20th century in Italy when a young man, Alessandro, made sexual advances toward her. When she refused, he stabbed her 14 times. Before she died in the hospital, she forgave him. Alessandro was imprisoned for his crime and later repented.
Upon his release, Alessandro asked Maria’s mother to forgive him. She did, and the next day they attended Mass together. Alessandro prayed to St. Maria Goretti daily and lived the rest of his days as a lay brother at a Capuchin monastery until his death in 1970.
In studying these powerful and disturbing stories, I have many conflicted reactions. On one hand, there’s a part of me that is angry. I am angry that the innocent must suffer at the hands of disturbed and lustful men. I want to see justice for St. Dymphna and St. Maria. Another part of me is impressed by their faith and heroism. I’m impressed by Maria’s mother’s ability to forgive. I don’t think I could be that generous.
And so, I am reminded that we live in a fallen world and that the young and innocent are often at the mercy of dangerous people who would do them harm. One thing that characterizes these stories is the presence of trauma and its deleterious effects on individuals and relationships.
For example, we learn about Damon’s trauma of losing his wife. We also learn about Dymphna’s trauma of losing her mother and then having to run from her father’s insanity and evil designs. We learn about the fatal trauma of Maria Goretti as well as the trauma for her parents, who found her bleeding and mortally wounded. Later, we also learn that Alessandro, Maria’s murderer, was himself the victim of neglect at the hands of mentally ill and alcoholic relatives.
And so, we learn that trauma often begets more trauma. We know that some types of sin and trauma are passed on generationally. There can be a cycle of abuse, as in Alessandro, where in a minority of cases abuse survivors become abusers themselves.
The reason for this cycle of abuse is that people learn to cope with trauma in maladaptive ways. When we experience trauma, a part of us carries the burden of shame, fear and pain, while other parts of us try to continue living as best as we can. This internal fragmentation leads to the repression of negative emotions where we naturally want to avoid bad feelings and their associated memories.
In our reaction to negative and sometimes overwhelming feelings, a part of us may try to stifle, numb, or distract from those feelings at all costs. This can be expressed through excessive drinking, drug use, over-eating, over-spending, workaholism, or any other addictive or compulsive behavior. It can also take the form of irritability, rage, stonewalling, avoidance, or any other negative emotional coping strategy.
But in that process, we become disconnected from much of our internal experience, from our parts — in a word, from ourselves.
So, what is to be done? Healing and good mental health come when we cultivate interior integration. To do this, we must connect with the parts of our inner life that are carrying burdens. We must connect with the parts of us that are trying desperately to cope by avoiding pain. We must connect with the parts of us that are carrying burdens of overwhelming shame, fear and hurt.
With God’s grace, we can discover our core self. St. Paul calls this the inmost self, which is naturally compassionate, calm, patient and present. We can bring healing to our inner world by working with each part of us to give them what they always needed: love.
This self-love is not selfish nor self-centered. It is essential. Jesus says we must love God and neighbor as we love ourselves. The problem is that we sometimes don’t love ourselves very well. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that we must love ourselves properly before we can truly love others or God.
In a remarkable way, St. Maria Goretti showed us that we can reverse the painful effects of trauma and mental illness through love (and proper treatment). Even a murderer and would-be rapist like Alessandro can be redeemed. The pain and suffering, as well as the faith of a young St. Dymphna or St. Maria, can inspire us to work through our own mental burdens and walk with others who are struggling. These saints teach us that love is stronger than death and that our hope lies not in this world but in God’s loving embrace.
The approach that I’ve described above is based on years of working as a Catholic mental health professional. It also involves a process of integrating some of the best therapeutic techniques and adapting them to conform to a Catholic understanding of the human person. The results have been nothing short of life-changing.
I invite you to pray with me to both St. Dymphna and St. Maria Goretti:
Dear Sts. Dymphna and Maria Goretti, I humbly implore your powerful intercessions to bring healing to my inner wounds of body, mind and emotion. Help me bring compassion, kindness, wisdom, patience, strength and forgiveness to every part of my sometimes closed, fearful or wounded heart. Help me as I strive for inner harmony so that my whole being can cry out in joy to God my Savior. In Christ we pray. Amen.
Visit Souls and Hearts online outreach for psychological and human formation resources, grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person, SoulsandHearts.com, including blogs, a podcast, courses, a newsletter, and online communities.
Litanies of the Heart: Relieving Post-traumatic Stress and Calming Anxiety Through Healing our Parts will be released by Sophia Institute Press in January 2024. Each chapter offers an exploration of the psychology of the inner world, a Scripture study, reflection questions, a meditation, and practical ways to apply these life-changing methods.
Gerry Ken Crete, Ph.D., is a Catholic marriage and family therapist and professional counselor specializing in the treatment of trauma and addictions, as well as marriage counseling and treatment of clergy and religious.