Saints for Our Times: St. Giles known as one of ‘Holy Helpers’
By Mary Lou Gibson
Giles was a hermit who lived in the woods near the River Rhone in France in either the seventh or eighth century. Much of what is known about him comes from legend. One popular legend says that he lived on herbs and the milk of a young deer. He became one of the most widely known and most popular saints of the Middle Ages based on a story written about him in the 10th century.
According to this account, Giles was born in Athens and became famous for giving alms to the poor and working miracles. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that to escape the notoriety of being known as a miracle worker, he set sail from Athens and reached Marseilles.
From there, he went into the woods and met the deer who supposedly nourished him with her milk and a legend was begun. Burns gives this account of Giles and the deer: “a local king (maybe the Gothic King Flavius) led his hunting parties into the wood following the tracks of the deer, but she escaped by hiding in Giles’ cave. One of the huntsmen shot an arrow at it and when the king and a bishop went to see where it had gone, they found Giles wounded by the arrow.”
Rodney Castleden writes in “The Book of Saints” that Giles later prayed that his wound would not heal saying “my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
The king offered Giles money in compensation, which Giles at first refused. He eventually accepted on the condition that it should be used to build a monastery. This was done and Giles became its first abbot. The monastery was where the town of Saint-Gilles near Nimes, France now stands. A large community developed around the monastery. Sadly, it is gone now after being damaged by the Albigensians in the 13th century.
Another legend that boosted Giles’ popularity concerns a king who sought his spiritual advice. Some say it was Charlemagne. This king asked for Giles’ forgiveness for a sin he did not dare confess. According to David Hugh Farmer writing in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints,” Giles was celebrating Mass when the sin was revealed to him by an angel. He told this to the amazed king who admitted the sin and repented.
The known facts of Giles’ life are that he was probably born in the seventh or eighth century and that he built a monastery near Arles in Provence. This site was on the pilgrimage routes between Rome and Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrim way of St. James. Burns writes that the legends about St. Giles gave the monastery importance and attracted pilgrims.
Giles died about 710 and his cult spread all over Europe. Every county in England except Westmorland and Cumberland had churches dedicated to him, more than 160 in all. The most famous of these is St. Giles at Edinburgh, a major shrine, and St. Giles Cripplegate, London. At least 15 locations in France are named after him. His feast on Sept. 1 is celebrated by all English-Benedictine monasteries. It is not on the General Roman calendar.
His churches are often found at road junctions where travelers could visit while they had their horses shod in nearby smithies.
St. Giles is included in the list of Fourteen Holy Helpers, a popular group of saints that people pray to especially for recovery from disease. Devotion to the Holy Helpers is especially strong in parts of Germany, Hungary and Sweden. He is the patron saint of beggars, black smiths, cripples, lepers and the woods. Giles is depicted in art wearing a Benedictine habit with a deer and arrow.