There are several attributes which are common to many of the saints of the Church, among them a desire for solitude in order to meditate and pray away from the distractions of the world; a gentle nature which is recognized by animals who are tame in the presence of the saint; and the miraculous effectiveness of the saint’s intercessions. St. Giles, whose day we celebrate on September 1, is one who demonstrates these attributes.
Giles (or Aegidius in Latin, Gilles in French, and Egidio in Italian) was, according to his legend, born in Greece. As a young priest he searched for a place of retreat from the world and, traveling further and further from home seeking this elusive place, he eventually settled in what is now southern France. Living in a dense forest, eating whatever food he could gather, Giles was befriended by a doe, who gave her milk for his sustenance.
The hermit spent his days praying for the world he had left behind and talking with the occasional visitors who sought him out for counsel. One day, however, the king’s hunting party came to this part of the forest and, spotting the deer, one of the hunters sent an arrow flying toward the animal. Missing the intended target, the arrow instead went into Giles’ leg, crippling him for the rest of his life.
When King Wamba was made aware of this accident and met the hermit, he was determined to make amends in whatever way he could. So he gave land to Giles for a monastery and a community, using the Benedictine rule, began to gather around Giles, who served as the abbot.
Before long, a town began to build up around the monastery and as the people heard about the holy abbot, they began to come to him to ask for his intercessions for their troubles. Seeing his physical handicap, they especially asked for prayers for those loved ones with similar problems. A story which is no doubt apocryphal but which shows the effectiveness of the prayers of Abbot Giles is of an incident that happened as he was celebrating the Liturgy in the monastery chapel one day. A letter appeared on the altar indicating an incriminating sin which the king had committed but had been unable to confess. Giles prayed for forgiveness for the king and, as he prayed, the writing on the letter slowly disappeared. This and many other miracles which resulted from his prayers brought fame to the monastery and to Giles, so that when he fell asleep in the Lord around the year 710, he was proclaimed a saint by the people
Through the centuries following, the monastery of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard was a place of pilgrimage for many. Its location, along the route to both Santiago de Compostella and the Holy Land, made it one of the most important stops along the way, where pilgrims could venerate the relics of St. Giles.
St. Giles’ renown spread ever further. The city of Edinburgh, Scotland, took him as its patron saint and named its cathedral for him, resulting centuries later in Presbyterian churches in Britain and the United States being named for this Orthodox saint! Crusaders took his name to the Middle East, where the castle in Tripoli, Lebanon is named Qala’ at Sanjil (St. Giles Castle), and a West Bank Palestinian village bears the name Sinjil.
By the 14th century, St. Giles was listed among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, saints whose intercession was sought for particular illnesses or conditions of life. St. Giles’ relics were removed to Toulouse in the 16th century to escape the ravages of Protestant iconoclasm, but were returned to the abbey in 1862. Churches in France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic were dedicated to him and were often built near crossroads, where travelers could stop to pray to St. Giles while their horses were being tended.
May we remember the attributes of this holy saint and may we ask for his most effective intercessions for our physical and spiritual infirmities.