Saint Dymphna lost her head somewhere in the middle of the seventh century after Christ. She was the daughter of an Irish king who, after the death of his beloved wife, conceived an incestuous passion for his daughter. In order to escape from his advances, Dymphna and her confessor, Saint Gerebernus, fled across the water to Antwerp and settled nearby in Gheel. Inevitably, the Irish king found them there and he slaughtered Gerebernus before beheading his own daughter. Centuries later, in the 1300s, the relics of the two saints became objects of reverence; their finger bones were encased in gold and rock crystal coffers, their skulls displayed in gem-studded reliquaries. From all over darkened Europe epileptics and lunatics made the pilgrimage to Gheel. These poor souls were taken into the homes of the local inhabitants, who cared for them and treated them as members of the community. And many were cured. This was a time when the mentally ill, the demented, the delusional obsessives, the paralytics and the merely strange were often rejected and cast out; although sometimes they were sanctified.
To this day, the tradition continues as mentally ill and neurologically afflicted patients come from all over the world to be housed in the town and live amidst its compassionate inhabitants.
Visitors also come to visit the shrine of Saint Dymphna, to touch the relics, to walk the well-trodden streets of Gheel. Some may come to see the carved sarcophagus of Jan III de Merode.
Had my parents named me according to old tradition, for the saint whose feast day it was, they might have named me Dymphna. But they did not. Isidore, Bertha, Torquatus, Hallvard and Magdalen are other choices they rejected.