The Saint Who Invented Therapy

May 13, 2007

Multiple Pages

On May 15, the Church marks the feast of a saint who is at once somewhat obscure and extremely significant. At first blush, St. Dymphna’s story is quite a sad one. According to her widely popular legend, this early medieval girl was the daughter of a petty, pagan Irish king. Like her mother—whom she very much resembled—she was a Christian. When the queen died unexpectedly, the king was crazed with grief, and announced that he would marry his daughter. Dymphna had the normal reaction: She went to Belgium. Her father tracked her down in the town of Gheel, where he watched as she was put to the sword. All in all, a dark family romance that sounds like a rejected first draft of a Faulkner novel.

But the story does not end here. St. Dymphna was buried in Gheel, where she was martyred, and a shrine was built in her honor. Several centuries later, a group of “madmen” who’d been driven from town to town happened upon the shrine—and were miraculously cured. Word of this cure spread quickly, in a world without Paxil or Lithium, and soon large numbers of mentally afflicted pilgrims began to descend on the town. Instead of locking them up, or burning them as “witches,” the Christian folk of the town admitted the pilgrims to their homes to await their cure. From this unlikely beginning came the West’s first humane facilities for treating the mentally ill. To this day, pilgrims and patients come to Gheel and are welcomed by the locals.

To honor this saint and the heritage of her shrine, I suggest you turn your home into a little Gheel for a day, by throwing a party for your most insane friends and relatives. You know—the people you’re afraid to invite other times, because you never know what they’ll say, or onto whom they’re liable to spill the punchbowl. The old man from the parish who takes you aside after Mass to explain that the Freemasons control the weather;  the Pentecostalist sister-in-law who burned the family TV on the lawn, your brother the failed seminarian, your aunt the Scientologist screenwriter. And of course, both your crackpot parents.

If you move (as I do) in right-wing Catholic circles, you should have plenty of weirdness with which to work. There’s something about a supernatural faith that can twist people’s nature into a pretzel. Why not serve it up and enjoy it with melted cheese?

For an example of the kind of fun you may expect from your “special” guests, witness the interchange one of the authors overheard at a Catholic Rendezvous in the woods which began as a retreat but devolved into “a bunch of Irish-Americans singing and arguing around the keg.” The two key speakers I will call “Andrew” and “Robert.”  (Their real names.)

Andrew argued that the Irish people had completely lost their culture when they gave up the Irish language. Robert insisted that they’d kept the Catholic faith—far more important.

Andrew disagreed: “You don’t understand. The Word was made flesh. The Word!”

Robert paused. “Surely, ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,’ refers to Our Lord Jesus Christ—not the Irish language.”

Andrew replied: “You can’t keep making these arbitrary distinctions!”

If you’re blessed to have an Andrew in your acquaintance, make sure he’s the guest of honor.

Remember: You’re not inviting people who are genuinely suffering from some serious mental illness. There’s nothing funny about schizophrenia or depression, while sociopaths are just plain unsanitary. Rather, you’re summoning folks who fit the older definition of “eccentric,” folks who are genuinely happy to spend the day researching the hidden connections between the Kabbalah and the stock market, or using Photoshop to place the heads of politicians on the bodies of farm animals. So resist the temptation to remake your house to resemble a state mental institution circa 1960.

Instead, think “wacky,” think “Dada,” think “fringe politics.” Make up collages full of headlines and covers from tabloid newspapers, broadsheets of the far left or far right (if you can tell them apart) and tracts from hellfire sects that harass you at shopping centers. Just to keep people guessing, mix in cutouts from duplicates of beloved family photos—placing your eldest son “mysteriously” close to Lyndon Johnson during the Tet Offensive, or situating Mother Teresa squarely on the Grassy Knoll. Make your family dog a witness at Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings; lay in your infant in Bill Clinton’s arms.  Express your artistic inclinations—in a nice, harmless setting where no one will laugh at you. (They’ll be too busy arguing.) Hang these collages squarely over the food and over the bar.

Since St. Dymphna was Irish—and she is venerated by countless bingo-playing, Entenmann’s eating Hibernian agoraphobics throughout the Celtic Diaspora—you can also use your left-over St. Patrick’s Day decorations in the theme. String angry, boxing leprechauns from the ceiling lights and tape holy cards of St. Dymphna prominently throughout the house. (Find them, and a whole lot of other aquatint images here.) You might also pin up Tarot cards, Black Muslim images of the Space Africans coming to save the planet, Hare Krishna devotionals, and selected villains from the U.S. Army’s 56-card Iraqi evildoers pack. Rebuff all requests for explanation with a whispered, “Surely you see the hidden connections—you of all people,” and go back to the kitchen.

Don’t serve green beer—you’re not a sadist, for God’s sake—but do make Guinness, Harp, and Magner’s cider generously available. If you want to get really authentic, go online and order the brew made in Dymphna’s final resting place, Gheel. In a bit of that irony which has made God so justly famous, the local Gheel beer is called Kwak, and is marketed under the slogan “Kwak If You Want A Beer™.” 

Aside from the inevitable quarrels that will erupt, you should really provide for some structured activities. We suggest beginning with Twister, and moving on, as the Kwak freely flows, into microwaving marshmallow Easter bunnies and chicks. Guests get to watch the sugary snacks distend 10-20 times in size inside the oven, then consume the bloated treats—whose sugar has carmelized nicely, making them quite edible.  After a few more drinks, it’s time to introduce “talking” games. Our favorite is called “Conspiracy or Dare,” in which each participant must either do something sickening—such as kissing another guest—or reveal the private conspiracy theory to which he secretly subscribes. Be sure to seat the JFK autopsy enthusiasts near those who insist that the Soviet Union still exists, and the people who believe that the European aristocracy are descended from a race of alien lizard men, who still rule the world close to the anti-Semites. They should have plenty to talk about.

When it comes to food, it’s important to stay thematic, without taking things too far. Don’t order pre-made hospital meals and serve them on blunt-edged, light plastic trays that cannot be used as weapons against the orderlies. Feel free to make butter (not steak) knives available. Use real glasses—although not your finest crystal. Cheaper glass, when it’s hurled across the room as a clincher to a rabid political argument, shatters into fewer, smaller pieces which are easier to sweep up.

And serve a nice, light eclectic meal that fits the party’s theme by selecting tasty treats from around the world that happen to include some variant of the word “crazy” in their names. Here’s a sample menu which will keep all your patients—er, “clients”—tranquil and cooperative.

Excerpted from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living.


Menu and Recipes by Denise Matychowiak
Drinks:
Guinness Stout and Harp Ale
Magner’s Cider
Kwak Beer
Fruit Punch with St. John’s Wort

Food:
Crazy Salad. This variety of salad, like a metaphysical poem, violently yokes together opposite flavors—such as chickpeas and strawberries, blueberries and cilantro—to wonderful effect. 
Shrimp in Crazy Water (Gamberoni al’ Acqua Pazzo).  An Italian favorite that recalls bouillabaisse. (See recipe.)
Harvest Pazzo. A traditional Italian style of using recently gathered fruits for a tempting dessert.
Individual Fruit Cakes. One for each fruit cake you invite. 
Lunatic Cookies. Moon-shaped, with fruit and lots of nuts. (See recipe.)
Coco-“Nut” Sorbet.  (See recipe.)

As an after-dinner treat, you might lay out Altoids, festively presented in empty bottles from your family’s psychoactive medications—Ritalin, Neurontin, Effexor, or Viagra.


Shrimp in Crazy Water (Gamberoni al’ Acqua Pazzo).

Serves 4
3 pounds shrimp, headless, unpeeled
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 small red hot peppers, with seeds finely chopped
1 cup Acqua Panna, still mineral water
1 cup Verdicchio, light Italian white wine
1 tablespoon Sicilian sea salt
2 sprigs oregano, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring shrimp to room temperature while preparing the broth.
Heat oil in large pot. Add garlic and sauté 3 minutes. Add peppers and cook another 3 minutes. Add waters and salt, bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Add shrimp and cook till all the shrimp turn pink. Do not overcook as they will continue to cook in broth.
At last minute add oregano and generous grinding of pepper.

Lunatic Cookies.
These delicious treats are based on the classic Mexican wedding cookies.

2 sticks butter, soft
Generous pinch fine sea salt
½ cup confectioner’s sugar, plus additional for dusting
½ cup pecans, roasted, finely ground
½ cup walnuts, roasted, finely ground
½ cup almonds, roasted, finely ground
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped, pod reserved for another use
1 teaspoon, Mexican vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose unbleached flour

Preheat oven to 350. Line baking pans with parchment.
Beat together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla seeds. Add nuts and combine thoroughly. Whisk flour and add, combining well. Roll into 1 ½ inch logs and curve into a crescent.
Bake 12 - 15 minutes. Allow to rest on sheet 2 minutes. Transfer to cookie rack and cool completely. Roll in more sugar.

Coco-“Nut” Sorbet
2 ¼ cups coconut milk
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
½ cup sweetened shredded coconut
½ cup corn syrup
Combine all ingredients and chill at least 2 hours. Adjust sweetness to taste. Process in a blender until smooth and strain through a fine sieve. Blend solids once more until smooth and pass through sieve once more.  Finally, discard remaining solids and chill. Turn in ice cream machine and magic!! Enjoy.

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