Giles of Assisi was the third man to join St. Francis of Assisi when he founded the Franciscan Order. Francis held Giles in high esteem, and because of his purity of heart and single-mindedness he used to call him “our Knight of the Round Table.”
St. Francis attracted people who resembled himself in simplicity of faith, and their association with him strengthened their reflection of his image. Giles, also an Assisian, was probably of peasant origin. He long admired Francis from afar, but he dared approach him only when he learned that his own friends Bernard and Peter had also become disciples of Francisco, adopting his watchword holy poverty.
On April 22, 1208, he ventured to call on the saint at the Portiuncula outside Assisi. The two had a good talk about the projected religious order.
While they were in conversation, a beggar woman came up and asked them for alms.
Neither Francis nor Giles had any money to give, so Francis said to Giles, “Give her your coat.”
Giles obeyed at once. Thus he passed St. Francis’ test for poverty. He was admitted to the new community on the following day.
In 1209, Francis set our for Rome to ask Pope Innocent III to approve the Franciscan foundation. Giles was one of his companions on the journey.
Brother Giles was untrained in book learning, but God rewarded his devotion with great spiritual wisdom. He did not become noted for his missionary work so much as for his example of prayerfulness, poverty of spirit and love of silence. His only notable missionary effort, the trip to Tunis, North Africa, to convert the Saracens, met with no success. The Tunisian Christians urged him, on his very arrival, to return at once to Italy. They feared that the presence of the friar would cause the Moslems to turn against all local Christians.
Apart from his pilgrimages to Santiago, Spain, and the Holy Land, Brother Giles spent most of his life at various Franciscan houses in Italy engaged in contemplation and manual labor.
Often in ecstasy, he won popular acclaim as a saint, and people high and low came to seek his advice. For example, Pope Gregory IX and St. Bonaventure, who venerated him, paid him visits in his final residence near Perugia. His collected spiritual maxims, The Golden Savings, still remain a spiritual “best seller.”
A firm champion of Franciscan poverty, ever quick to denounce its nonobservance among his fellow friars, Giles would accept no gifts, and insisted on always working for his keep. Thus, the Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum once invited him to dinner. Giles said he would not accept unless he could earn the meal. He came to Tusculum, but managed to go first to the Cardinal’s kitchen, which he tidied up thoroughly before he would sit down at table.
Giles’ reputation spread even to France. One day King St. Louis IX of France, en route to the Holy Land, dropped in to see him in Umbria. Louis and Giles embraced each other, knelt for a while to pray, and then parted. During the whole visit neither had spoken a word. The monarch respected the friar’s opposition to needless conversation.
Perhaps the most typical story about this fabulous Franciscan was his encounter with his fellow friar, St. Bonaventure. Giles asked Bonaventure, whom he respected for his scholarship, whether the unlearned could ever equal the learned in love for God.
Bonaventure said they certainly could: “A poor, illiterate old woman can love Him better than a learned doctor of the Church.”
Delighted with this answer, Giles rushed to the garden gate overlooking the city and cried to all who might hear him, “Listen, all you good old women! You can love God better than Brother Bonaventure!”
Then, typically, Brother Giles went into an ecstasy that lasted three hours.
Giles of Assisi is the only one of St. Francis’ first companions to have been declared “blessed.” His life certainly exemplifies all that is best in the Franciscan tradition of joyful self-denial.
–Father Robert F. McNamara