Thursday, January 13, 2011

Dympna of Gheel

Dympna Caelrhynn was born near the end of the eighth century, the eldest daughter of a heathen Celtic prince, Eadburh. When she was still just a child, her beloved Christian mother was claimed by a plague. Apparently stricken mad with grief, Eadburh conceived a perverted passion for his daughter. In order to escape his incestuous intentions, she fled abroad with her chaplain Gerebernus, first to the newly Christianized port city of Antwerp, and then to the small village of Gheel about twenty-five miles away. There she began to rebuild a life for herself.

With the help of Gerebernus, she devoted herself to the care of the needy and the forlorn. She rescued dozens of orphaned children from a life of begging in the streets. She gave shelter to the lame, the mentally impaired, and the infirm. She fearlessly lobbied for justice for the poor. And she fought to expose the dark secrets of abortionists whose flourishing contraband was wreaking havoc among the peasantry.

There in the Flemish lowlands, Christian medievalism was progressively making its mark. As a result, many of the most insidious practices from antiquity were passing from the scene—including the age old pagan procedures of infanticide, abandonment, and exposure. Even so, when there were serious problems with a pregnancy or when handicapped children were born, many families reverted to the pagan practices.

Dympna boldly challenged this, arguing that if human life is sacred, then all human life must be protected—regardless of how unlovely or inconvenient it might be. She sought to demonstrate that there was no such thing as an unwanted child. She made her home a haven for the otherwise unwanted. In the span of just three years, her household grew to include more than forty handicapped children and another twenty mentally impaired adolescents and adults.
Before long, she had gained a remarkable reputation for selflessness, graciousness, and charity. Eadburh, upon hearing of his daughter's whereabouts, followed her to Gheel. There was an awful confrontation. When she refused to return home with him, he flew into a rage and brutally slew her on this day in 795.

Amazingly, Dympna's vision did not die with her that day. Stricken with sorrow, the citizens of Gheel decided to continue her mission of mercy. That work continues to the present day. It includes a hospital for the mentally ill, a foundling center, an adoption agency, and the world's largest and most efficient boarding-out program for the afflicted and disturbed run as a private association by the Christian families of Gheel.