“A simple and upright man, and fearing God, and avoiding evil:” (Job 1:8) such is the description of the just man in the lessons of the night Office for the time, and it is the portrait of the holy monk whom the Church offers us today for our admiration, our imitation, and our devotion. Fleeing from men in order to find God, he quitted his native land, where his rank, and still more his virtues, prevented him from being unknown. He wandered from the coasts of Greece to the borders of the Rhone, and stopped at length in the forests of Septimania, where he seemed to have found his desired solitude. There for three years he dwelt in a cave hidden among the brambles, spending his time in giving thanks to God and praying for the salvation of the people. (Acts S. Ægidii) He lived on herbs and water, until our Lord sent him a hind to nourish him with her milk. But his little friend was soon to betray him. One day, hard pressed by the hounds, she fled in terror to the saint, followed by the royal huntsmen. Safe with her protector her fears were calmed; but an arrow, aimed at her, pierced Saint Giles’s hand, which was never afterwards healed; for he refused to have it dressed, in order that he might bear the pain of it for the rest of his life. But a greater trial awaited him: his retreat having been thus discovered, a monastery soon rose upon the spot, and he was forced to become its abbot; moreover he worked so many miracles that crowds came to see him. Farewell to the silence and oblivion of his beloved forest!
After the death of the servant of God, the place became more and more frequented. From north and east and south pilgrims poured in, to offer up their prayers and fulfill their vows at the tomb of one, who soon became known as one of the most helpful saints in heaven (St. Giles is the only confessor in the group of fourteen saints known as helpers, whose names are given in ancient missals in the following order: George, Blase, Erasmus, Pantaleon, Vitus, Christopher, Giles, Achatus or Acathius, Denis, Cyriacus, Eustace, Catharine, Margaret, and Barbara. He was even reckoned among the five privileged saints, vis. Denis, George, Christopher, Blase, and Giles, honored in a more special manner in certain places). Among the crowds came Pontiffs (Urban II, who consecrated the altar of the basilica where the holy body rested, Gelasius II, Callistus II, Innocent II; Clement IV was born at St. Giles’s; Julius II had held the abbey in commendam) and kings (Boleslas III of Poland, and St. Louis of France). But the most numerous classes of visitors to the holy relics were soldiers and little children, the former equipped for the crusades, the latter borne in their mothers’ arms; all confiding in the humble, gentle monk who, at the risk of his life, calmed the terror of the poor little hind; all imploring his assistance against the fear which even the bravest may feel in the hour of battle, or the fright that disturbs the little one in his cradle. St. Giles’s ranked as one of the three great pilgrimages of the west; the other two being Rome and Compostello.
Over the relics of the saint was raised a colossal church, which has been described as “the most perfect type of the Byzantine style when at the height of its splendor.” (Mérimée, Notess d’un voyage dans le midi de la France.) Around it a town of thirty thousand households has sprung up, where formerly there was but a desert. The most illustrious of the powerful Counts of Toulouse gave the preference over his other titles to the one he held from this noble city; he would be known to posterity as Raymund of St. Giles. A hundred years later, Raymund VI did penance at the threshold of the celebrated basilica, for his connivance with heresy; our saint, who had just given hospitality to Peter of Castelnau for his last resting place, opened his gates for the reconciliation of the martyr’s presumed murderer.
We should never end, were we to enumerate the churches, parishes, abbeys, and altars consecrated to St. Giles, in all parts of Christendom, which are so many sources of grace, and new centers for pilgrimages. Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Bavaria, Poland, rival France in this respect. England is second to no country in the world; she has one hundred and forty-six sanctuaries dedicated to the pious monk, and even the established church continues to honor him.
Let us hasten to give the short legend that remains to the holy abbot since the sixteenth century, when his feast ceased to be celebrated with nine lessons. Most of his precious relics are preserved in the rich treasury of the church of Saint-Sernin at Toulouse; Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, which had been obliged to give them up in order to save them from the sacrilegious hands of the armed heretics, had, in 1865, the consolation of discovering his original tomb.
Giles was an Athenian, of royal race, who from his childhood applied him so earnestly to the study of divine things and to works of charity, that he seemed to care for nothing else. On his parents’ death he distributed his whole fortune among the poor; even stripping himself of his own garment in order to clothe a poor sick man, who was cured as soon as he put it on. Many other miracles soon made his name so famous, that for few of renown he fled to St. Caesarius at Arles. After two years Giles departed thence and retired into a desert, where he lived a life of wonderful holiness: his only food being the roots of herbs and the milk of a hind who came to him at fixed times. One day the hind being pursued by the royal huntsmen took refuge in his cave. Upon his discovery of the holy man, the king of France begged Giles to allow a monastery to be built on the site of the cave. At the king’s desire he was obliged, against his will, to undertake the government of this monastery; and after having, for several years, discharged that office with much piety and prudence, he passed away to heaven.
“Go to my servant … and offer for yourselves a holocaust: and my servant … shall pray for you: his face I will accept, that folly be not imputed to you.” (Job 42:8) This word is unceasingly fulfilled, O blessed Giles, in the innumerable sanctuaries where thou art honored. Make use of thy prerogatives for our benefit; hear our prayers, for the glory of Him who has crowned thy humility. In return for the beautiful peace thou didst ever preserve in thy soul, thou now hast power over the countless troubles which disturb our miserable existence, from the cradle even to the tomb. Thou aidest mothers to drive away from their babes the nightly phantoms raised by the enemy of the innocents; thou preservest the little ones from the terrible maladies to which childhood is liable. Thou watchest over the youth, to secure his good morals; and givest him the fear of God, which will make him a courageous and upright man. Thou makest him brave and calm in the midst of dangers, whether in thunderstorms or on the field of battle. Above all, thou preservest thy client from the most cowardly of all fears, that of human respect; and from the saddest kind of shame, that which would withhold him from acknowledging his sins in the sacred tribunal of Penance. The cares and disappointments of middle life do not disturb the peace of him who trusts in thee; old age has no anxious future for him; he falls into his last sleep, in the bosom of God, as in infancy he fell asleep in his mother’s arms. Deign to accept us among thy devout clients, and disappoint us not in our expectations.
Beneventum offers to our homage twelve brothers martyrs, natives of Africa, who suffered in diverse places, but whose bodies she glories in possession. Let us unite in the prayer which the Church offers to God, in honour of this admirable group of heroes.
May the fraternal crown of thy martyrs rejoice us, O Lord, and may it procure for our faith increase of virtue, and console us with multiplied intercession. Through our Lord, etc.
We must not omit to mention briefly that with the Greeks this day is the first of the Calendar; they celebrate it as a feast, called of the Indiction, or of the new year.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)