17 Sep St. Giles, Hero of France’s Dark Ages, Abbott
Today is the feast day of Saint Giles. Ora pro nobis.
by Ed Masters
France has produced some of the Catholic Church's greatest heroes as well as her fiercest, most intransigent foes. A little-known French hero is a very early gentle Saint who had an enormous influence on Europe’s history, simply by following his vocation as a monk. Regina Magazine’s Ed Masters takes us on a journey through the Dark Ages to meet St. Giles.
A Greek Prince in Ancient Gaul
St. Giles (in Latin, Aegidius) was actually not born in France, but in Athens, Greece around 640 A.D. He was a prince, the son of King Theodore and Queen Pelagia, known for their piety. Thus he was of royal lineage — and in one of those not-so coincidences in the ways of Providence he would go on to interact with a King of the Visigoths and a King of the Franks in later years.
When he was 24, St. Giles lost both his parents. He used his inheritance to assist the poor and left Greece to live in obscurity (or so he thought) in Gaul, settling first in the area near the mouth of the Rhone River, then near the river Gard, and finally in the woods in the diocese of Nimes.
France in the 600s was a dangerous place. The peaceful centuries of the pax romana were a distant memory; the Roman Legions had left a power vacuum. Gaul was ruled by local Visigothic warlords and under threat of Muslim invaders.
Beggars roamed the countryside and the Church stepped in to provide succor for the needy. When Giles encountered a beggar who was ill and barely clothed, he took pity on the poor man and recalling the actions of St. Martin of Tours, he gave the beggar his tunic. Immediately the man was restored to perfect health. This miracle showed St. Giles how pleased the Lord is with those who give alms to the needy.
Giles in the Wilderness
This was the first of many miracles the Saint is said to have performed in his lifetime. Though he lived in solitude away from the noisy, populated cities and towns, his sanctity and fame spread far and wide.
Like St. John the Baptist, St. Paul the Hermit and the prophet Elijah, Giles lived off the land; his food was roots and herbs and water from streams to drink. As Our Lord said, “Consider the birds of the air, and how your Heavenly Father feeds them…worry not about what you are to have to eat or drink, as your Heavenly Father knows all these things and provides.”
In a tale reminiscent of how St. Paul and St. Anthony of the Desert came to know one another late in life, the Lord brought Giles and St. Veredemus (also a hermit of Greek lineage) together for about two years, during which time they shared a love of all things holy. After this time they went their separate ways.
Giles and the Hind
He was also fed milk from a hind (a doe) that was often his only companion. Once, she was fleeing from a hunting party of Visigoths pursuing her through the woods. She lay down at the Saint's feet, and Giles prayed that the animal be spared. The hunters shot an arrow which pierced Giles, wounding him.
When the Visigoth hunters found the wounded Saint with the doe at his feet, they begged his forgiveness. Hearing about this incident, the Visigothic King Wamba visited Giles. Impressed by his holiness, Wamba offered him honors and riches but the Saint would not be swayed.
King Wamba did convince him, however to accept some followers; Giles then built a monastery which followed the rule of St. Benedict. The sick and the afflicted often visited him, and were miraculously healed of their ailments by St. Giles.
St Giles is often pictured with a deer in art, as is St. Catherine of Sweden, St. Eustace and St. Hubert among others. Deer symbolize piety, the faithful Christian longing for God, and Christ the Saviour Himself. From Psalm 41:1 we read, “As the hart panteth after thy water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God.” Also, because deer seek freedom and refuge in forests and mountains they also symbolize solitude and purity of life.
Giles Steps Into History
Giles is also reported to have met with Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Charles Martel was severely troubled by certain sins he had committed that gnawed at his conscience. St. Giles advised him to sincerely confess all of his sins. The king did so, and found a great weight lifted from his shoulders.
On his return to his monastery, the Saint raised the dead son of a nobleman. When St. Giles and his monks discovered that Muslim invaders had destroyed their home, Martel offered them refuge. (It is said that it was the influence of St. Giles on Martel which enabled him to defeat the Ummayad Caliphate invaders at the Battle of Tours (Poitiers) in A.D. 732, a few years after the Saint's death.)
Giles traveled to Rome to meet with Pope St. Gregory II. Gregory gave the monastery privileges and bestowed an apostolic blessing on the community, along with two magnificently carved cedar doors. (Giles’s monastery was in the process of being rebuilt, having been destroyed by Islamic invaders.)
Miracles After His Death
His monastery restored, St. Giles died, full of years on September 1, A.D. 720 (some sources say 725). His last words were the same Nunc Dimittis of St. Simeon at the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.”
Many miracles occurred at his tomb. After his death many churches were built and named after him as far away as Hungary, Poland, and Scotland. St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh was named after him and he is the Patron of that city.
His relics were hidden in Toulouse in A.D. 1565 to save them from the French Huguenots who like many Protestants throughout Europe at the time (and the French Revolutionists two centuries later) sought to eradicate Catholic devotion to the Saints.
St Giles is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers and he is the Patron Saint of beggars, the disabled, the sick, blacksmiths, sterility, bad dreams, forests, and difficult confessions.
His tomb was rediscovered in A.D. 1865 and afterwards pilgrimages to his Shrine began anew.
Featured image: Triptych of Willem Moreel, central panel, artist: Hans Memling, circa 1484. (2)