I suppose I have an odd name. I’ve never heard it for anyone other than me, at least not in the form that I have it. For those too lazy to read the About page, my name is Damhan, and then it has a confusing pronunciation. I wasn’t always called this. At birth, I was given a different name, after a prince in a great story who became a much better man than he started as. When I became a Christian, I found that it is the custom to find a patron saint and take his or her name as your own. Most pick a patron with the same name so as to avoid the confusion of changing names. I, however, was already attached to Saint Dymphna (Originally Damhnait). Let me tell you about her.
Saint Dymphna was born to an Irish chieftain who was pagan (an oddity at that time), named Damon and his Christian wife. When Dymphna was young, her mother died, leaving her father grief stricken to the point of losing his sanity. (I’ve seen this happen to young widows and widowers, and it is well known that often someone very old will simply die shortly after their spouse dies). Seeking a bride as beautiful as his late wife, Damon found no one up to his standards.
Dymphna was much like her mother. She became Christian shortly before her mother’s death and developed a particular devotion to the Theotokos (Saint Mary, the God bearer). Inspired by the mother of God, Dymphna took a vow of chastity and virginity. Dymphna was stunningly beautiful and looked quite like her mother. Damon, in his madness, sought to marry his own daughter.
Dymphna fled to Belgium with her spiritual father and a few others. Being saintly, however, she created a ministry among the people nearby and performed wonders. She was tracked fairly quickly and within a year her Damon killed Dymphna’s spiritual father and demanded that his daughter marry him. When she refused, he cut off her head.
But the story does not end with Dymphna’s death. It only gets more interesting at this point. Dymphna had been near the village of Geel (or Gheel) and the people there, knowing she had been a saint, buried her remains. As people came to venerate her, wonders began to happen and most frequently, people were healed of mental illness or nervous disorders. Eventually, they built a church and named it after St. Dymphna.
Over time, people came to the church for healing from mental illness in particular and the village overflowed with pilgrims, so they built a sanitarium. Eventually, even that could not keep all the pilgrims seeking mental wellness, so the people of Geel started taking people into their own homes to minister to them. This has been done even to this day and even now, the people of Geel, in honor of St. Dymphna who died over a millennium ago, take care of those suffering from mental illness. I long to go to Geel someday and meet these people and see the church. I hope to see the relics of my patron saint there. (They moved her relics to the church when it was built.)
Saint Dymphna captures two of my greatest loves: Christianity, and mental health treatment. Even though she lived only to the age of fifteen, she has inspired over a thousand years of people to carry on a ministry for the sick.
According to tradition, when a Christian finds a patron saint, he takes that saint’s name. I would have been named Dymphna, but my godfather told me to take a male name, so I took the male form of Dymphna. The original name is Damhnait in Irish. The male form is Damhan. The names are the diminutive form of the Irish word for “Stag”, so “Little stag” or simply “Fawn”, would be the meaning. It is often Anglicized to Gavin of all things, but I chose the original, partially because I’m a purist in such things, and also because I have a lot of Irish heritage. (I’m more than half Irish by ancestry). When I hear the word “Damhan”, I think, not only of myself as it is my name, but also of my patron saint, Dymphna and her works and legacy, because it is also her name. It is a pleasant reminder.
I quickly googled a couple links for further reading. Most of the information is in the first link. I provided to second (even though it is very short) because it’s an Orthodox Wiki with hyperlinks for those interested in learning about related matters.