Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Chick's Got A Sword

My father-in-law contributed to many charities over his lifetime, and many of these, as you know, generate further appeals. These often include little trinkets or presents, presumably to guilt you into gift reciprocation, a custom which stretches back into human history as far as we can see. Among the items that still come to him in the mail, still finding him even at assisted living in another town, was a request for support from a Franciscan group. They included some cards with this picture of Saint Dymphna on them.

Chick’s got a sword. That’s the kind of patron saint you want, baby. She is the patroness of the mentally ill and emotionally troubled, which I vaguely recall having heard years ago. I brought the cards into work, knowing some psychologists and social workers who would appreciate this. All are female, and made some comment about her appearance as well – that her shoes matched the cape, her outfit looked well put-together, etc. The bing images all show her as attractive. The story suggests why.

She carries a sword in most of the other representations of her as well. I’m thinking that my PTSD ladies might well relate to a patron saint who is carrying a sword. This is a saint who’s taking names, Jack. There’s a Princess Leia aspect to that one. I thought that even before I read her history. I am sympathetic to much Roman Catholic theology, but have never taken to the idea of patron saints. In many cases, it is hard to know if these people actually existed, let alone did the things attributed to them. Yet I think the stories tell us much.

 Calling something a myth is often to dismiss it, but that’s not my take. A story has to rise to a high level of symbolic power before it can be called myth in my book. Folk tales have power – they tell us things about the cultures they spring from. To grow beyond that, even unto the level of myth, cuts even deeper. It is often worth it to look at such stories for their mythic value before trying to track down their exact time and place in history.

 It’s rather disappointing at first that the sword turns out to be the article she was killed with because she refused an incestuous marriage to her father, a pagan king. Yet wait.  Let's stand back from this and squint a bit.

So, she’s a princess, and the spitting image of a beautiful but deceased mother. Lots of rich psychological material there. She chooses Christianity, in independence or perhaps even in defiance of her father. The king’s desire to marry her is not mere sociopathic disregard for her good, nor simple lust, but sick romance. He is not a cold, cruel figure but a twisted one.

Yeah, that’s an incest story, and you can still recognise it centuries later in modern psychiatry. The association with emotional distress is not accidental. The storytellers of 7th C Belgium are telling us something in code. Or, if it all actually happened, it is God himself telling us something in code. On those views, the sword is not accidental either. The official story may be that it was used in her martyrdom. But if the image is what was encountered most powerfully over the past 1300 years, then my initial impression of the sword as an avenging item may be the mythically correct one.

Chick’s got a sword.


james said...

I tried to imagine myself as somebody aware that I have some mental problems, with this lady as my patron saint. The mythic "stereotypes" the picture shows are female compassion and strong protection. I think I'd feel comforted.

If it were someone I loved with a problem, with her as his patron saint, I think I'd feel the same, though perhaps a little more strongly because I can see the problems he can't.

Yes, she needs to be shown carrying the sword. Though her grip leaves something to be desired.

It would be nice if there were some evidence that saints shared in divine omniscience and noticed when we were in trouble or asked for help. But I noticed that one of the prayers in a seasonal cycle was asking God to please listen to Mary when we asked her to ask Him for something. Seems a bit roundabout...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I put myself in the skin of an incest victim, who dares not speak aloud. She hears the story of St Dymphna and thinks "She would understand."