Friday, March 8, 2013

St. John of God

The traditional patron of all afflicted with any form of mental illness is the 7th-century Irish martyr St. Dymphna (whose feast day, according to the Roman Martyrology, is May 15). According to legend, Dymphna — the daughter of a pagan Irish king — secretly became a Christian. After her mother’s death, her father became obsessed with marrying his 14-year old daughter, but Dymphna fled with the priest Gerebernus to what is now Belgium. Her father, however, eventually tracked her down in the village of Gheel. He ordered the priest killed and then personally beheaded his daughter. The body of the martyr Dymphna was buried in the church of Gheel. For centuries since, St. Dymphna has been invoked as patroness against mental illnesses, and Gheel has long been a site for mentally ill pilgrims who have been integrated into the life of the community.

But there is another more modern saint (of whose life much more is known) who is also well worth invoking. (He is already the patron saint of hospitals, the sick, nurses, firefighters, alcoholics, and booksellers.) St. John of God, whose feast day is today, was born in Portugal on this date in 1495 and died in Granada, Spain, on this date 55 years later in 1550. Having mysteriously left home as a child, he ended up a homeless street person in Spain, worked for a while as a farmhand, then became a soldier. His growing religious interests led him to the new medium of printing and he worked for a while distributing religious books. At age 42, his spiritual journey led him to what seemed like an acute mental breakdown. He was incarcerated in the area of the Royal Hospital reserved for the mentally ill, where he was chained and flogged according to the custom of the time. He was visited by St. John of Avila (proclaimed a Doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XVI last October), who became his spiritual guide and encouraged him to focus more actively on serving the needs of others rather than on himself. John soon left the hospital and established a house where he tended to the needs of the sick poor. Because of the stigma attached to him as mentally ill, he at first had to do everything himself without outside help, securing supplies by begging. Eventually, however, others attached themselves to his project. John organized them into the Order of Brothers Hospitallers, who continue today to care for the sick in countries around the world.
St. John of God followed St. John of Avila's sound spiritual advice and cooperated with God's grace to become a productive contributor to his larger society's overall well-being as well as that of numerous sick individuals. He is an excellent example not only of overcoming one's personal problems and the stigmas attached to them, but also of the benefits - both personal and social - of focusing outward (In conspicuous contrast to the 20th century's pyschic turn inward). As such he is a fitting model and patron for all who struggle to find their way.

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