St. Giles the Legendary

Sixth Century?

Giles is the English, Gilles the French for of the name of today’s saint, whose name in Latin was Aegidius. For years he enjoyed tremendous popularity despite the fact that little dependable is known about his life. The most we can assume is that he lived as a hermit or a monk near the mouth of the Rhone River in southeast France, in maybe the sixth, maybe the eighth century. His tomb at Saint-Gilles, France, became a center of international pilgrimage during the Middle Ages, and when, in 1862, his relics were brought back from Toulouse, where they had been taken for safekeeping during the Protestant wars of the 16th century, the old pilgrimages to his shrine recommenced.

Giles, in medieval times, was listed as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saints considered especially prompt to answer prayers for special intentions. Our saint was invoked particularly by cripples, beggars and blacksmiths, for reasons that are not quite clear. Twenty other cities throughout Europe were named after him, and at least one in the Holy Land (still, apparently, called “Sinjil:). In England alone over 150 churches had as their name-saint “Gracious Giles, of poor folk chief patron.”

So much for the actual facts of his life and cult. There is a “biography” of him, but it was written in the 10th century, and while it may embody some truth, it is for the most part historically untrustworthy. But this tale provides a charming example of how devout, if fictive, writers could weave an edifying moral story out of a few threads of fact and a hank of fancy.

Giles, this legend says, was a native of Athens, Greece. By the time he became noted for his piety and miracles, he decided to escape praise. He therefore migrated to France; spent two years under the tutelage of St. Caesarius, bishop of Arles (570-543); and then set up as a hermit in a forest near the Rhone River mouth.

In this woodland, the story continues, he was nourished for a while by the milk of a hind (in this case, a young doe). Now a local king named Flavius was out hunting one day, sighted this deer, and pursued it. The hind sought safety with St. Giles, and the hunting dogs mysteriously stopped barking and turned around some distance away from the cave. The same thing happened the next day. On the third day, the puzzled king took a bishop along to advise him. Now a hunter in the party shot an arrow at random through the trees that hit the cavern. When the hunting party broke through, they found Giles seated, the live deer between his knees, and his own hand pierced by the arrow The king and bishop at once expressed their regrets and promised to summon a doctor, but St. Giles simply asked to be left alone.

A pretty symbol for conservationists: the saint protecting, indeed suffering for the animal. Naturally, artists depict St. Giles with a hind and an arrow.

The interest of Flavius did not cease. He offered to build a monastery for Giles if he would be its first abbot. The saint agreed, the house was built, and soon began to attract many candidates to the religious life.

Yet another king now entered the scene, one “Charles of France.” He summoned Abbot Giles to his court of Orleans to give him spiritual counsel. In their discussion however, Charles boggled at confessing a shameful sin. When the saint was celebrating Mass the next Sunday, the legend says, he saw an angel set a scroll on the altar. “On that scroll,” the angel said, “is written the sin of the king. It will be forgiven through your intercession if he does penance for it and commits it no more.” After Mass, Giles showed Charles the scroll. The king promptly knelt and begged forgiveness.

Here the compiler of the Giles story was reminding us that God already knows even our most secret sin. If confessing that sin is a humiliating thing, isn’t humility the key to any forgiveness?

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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