St. Giles is one of the more popular saints in Europe, but his life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Perhaps the only fact we know for certain is that he was born in Athens, Greece, likely in the mid-seventh century. Giles was a dreamy, quiet boy who loved to wander the countryside. With no companions but the animals, birds, and flowers, he’d spend hours enjoying God’s creation. The woodland creatures gradually befriended Giles, and even the wildest animals would come with arm’s reach. Some accounts note that animals even seemed to listen when he talked to them, as if they could understand what he said. If nothing else, the animals certainly understood that Giles loved them and would protect them and their surrounding land.
They knew this because Giles often healed the wounds of his animal friends. On any given day he could be found mending a bird’s broken wing or binding a rabbit’s foot that had been torn in a trap. The animals seemed to trust Giles and would lie still while he cured them, even though it hurt.
Unfortunately, Giles’ idyllic childhood ended when he lost both of his parents at a young age. They were enormously wealthy and left Giles a large inheritance: castles, vineyards, horses, gold, and silver. But Giles didn’t care for any of those luxuries. He felt that among his friends, animals, and his small plot of land, he had everything he could want. He decided to give the entire inheritance to God, donating the property to local abbeys and hospitals and sending the money to poor families.
Giles’ remarkable charity scandalized many of his friends. They pleaded with him to keep the wealth and live luxuriously. With his position, they noted, he could marry the daughter of a baron, a count, or a king who could then provide him an heir to whom he could leave his possessions and carry on his name. But if Giles was just going to give it all away, they joked, he might as well become a monk!
To their surprise, Giles agreed. After giving away the last of his property, he set out on the road, aiming to become a hermit in the woods. His friends were shocked and convicted, as Giles’ decision exposed their own warped view of creation. His friends gauged success by how much land a person owned or how many animals were under his control. But Giles had a more sociable relationship with creation. He shunned the unnecessary domination of animals, refusing to wear their skins as clothes or even using them for transportation. He saw the land as a gift from God meant to be shared and cultivated rather than property to be owned, exploited, and left as an inheritance. These views, which were very uncommon in his day, provoked new reflection on how Christians should relate to the environment.
Giles eventually made it to the coast and sailed westward until he reached Marseilles, France. There he found a lonely cave, away from crowds. A clear stream flowed nearby. Giles awoke each morning to the chirping of birds, and soon animals from the wood ventured close to share his meals. But of all his many companions, the one Giles loved most was a gentle white doe. After its first encounter with Giles, the doe rarely left him. It laid close to him when he slept and walked side-by-side wherever he went. Giles helped gather food for the doe while it nourished him with its milk.
Besides the milk, Giles chose only to eat whatever fruits and vegetation he could find. He lived as a vegetarian for many years. Catholic ecologist William L. Patenaude observes that “this in itself [was] a sort of critique of the prevalent banquet and hunting culture of his age.”
It seemed like nothing could disturb Giles’ peaceful, prayerful life, which he lived in communion with the animals and the earth. But then one day a loud noise shocked Giles out of his morning prayer. Listening closer he heard men’s shouting, the sounds of galloping horses, and the blasts of a hunter’s horn. Giles looked around for the doe. He didn’t see her in the cave and so he ran outside, only to see the hunting party racing upon her.
The doe leapt up and dashed through the field toward him, disappearing into the cave just as one of the huntsmen sent an arrow flying after her. The huntsmen arrived at the cave opening, dismounted, and went to see what had become of the doe. But when they walked in they found Giles kneeling in front of her, sheltering the terrified animal that had fled to him for refuge. The hunters then noticed Giles’ hand, which was raised to shield the poor doe. An arrow had pierced it.
The huntsmen hung their heads in shame. One of the men stepped forward and Giles was surprised to see it was the King of the Franks, who ruled the land we now call France. The King asked who Giles was, and the hermit explained that he was just a simple man, interested only in praying to God and serving his creation. This impressed the King. He tried to persuade Giles to leave his cave and return to the palace where he could serve as the King’s spiritual director. Yet Giles kindly refused, saying he wanted to be left alone in his woodland cave. The King offered a compromise: if Giles would agree to disciple other young men in the way of holiness, he would build Giles a monastery in the woods, which he would furnish with anything Giles required. Aware of how much good this might do, the hermit reluctantly agreed and began planning a small community centered on the Rule of St. Benedict.
Giles oversaw the building of the monastery promised by the King, and as soon as it was finished it began attracting a community. It also drew the attention of other rulers, including Charles Martel, who ruled Frankland at the turn of the eighth century. Martel summoned Giles to his palace for spiritual advice on a serious matter and the hermit agreed. He made the long and difficult journey to Orleans, and once there, before even talking with Martel to determine his problem, he explained that Martel would only find relief after confessing a particularly serious but secret sin. The shocked ruler followed Giles’ advice, found great peace, and then sent him home with many tokens of gratitude.
After returning home for a short period, Giles set out again, this time for Rome to meet the Pope and attain a blessing for his small community. The Pope granted Giles’ wish and imparted his blessing, along with other special privileges. He also gave Giles two large, beautifully-carved doors made of cedar wood, which were designed to fit Giles’ woodland monastery. Some legends say Giles threw the doors into the Tiber river in Rome, on which they floated downstream to the sea. When Giles returned to France, the doors lay waiting on a nearby beach, close to his monastery.
Giles died peacefully in his monastery, tucked in the fields he loved so much. In the following centuries he would become one of Europe’s most beloved saints. People relished the thought of this peaceful old hermit who lived in the woods, and protected sad and suffering creatures. Giles was the only non-martyr included among the Fourteen Holy Helpers, a group of saints honored by towns in the Rhineland. Also, thanks in part to Crusaders, his story spread far to other countries. This brought many pilgrims to his monastery shrine where they prayed, sought healing, and asked for Giles’ intercession. The monastery remains a popular stopping point on pilgrimage routes to Compostela and the Holy Land.
Today, at least fifteen French cities and provinces take their name from Giles, along with twenty-four hospitals and at least 160 churches in England—especially those built in fields or near green woods. Though he doesn’t officially carry the title, it’s no stretch to consider him the patron saint of ecology.
This post was excerpted from Brandon’s latest book, Saints and Social Justice: A Guide to Changing the World. Find out more by visiting SaintsAndSocialJustice.com.