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St. Giles: Lover of Solitude

Saint Giles and the Deer

St. Giles (d. between 710 and 724) is not as well-known a saint as he used to be. Yet, the list of his areas of patronage is quite long including beggars, the disabled, forests, and hermits. Learn how he became a patron of these and why he is revered in many parts of Europe.

Young Giles: Caring for Others

As a young boy, St. Giles was drawn to nature and enjoyed taking long walks in the woods. It has been said that he cared for injured animals including birds and rabbits. His parents, who were Christians and also members of the aristocracy of Athens, encouraged him in developing a gentle and caring attitude toward those who were less fortunate and whom he could help.
When he was a little older, St. Giles would also enjoy spending time visiting the cathedral and praying to the Lord to the point where he would get lost in meditation. Like many cities, the cathedral was a gathering place for beggars who were seeking alms, and often the beggars sought shelter inside the cathedral.
In the midst of his contemplation, St. Giles became aware of a beggar who was lying nearby, and he had compassion on the man who was shivering as he was only dressed in rags. He rose from kneeling to pray, gently approached the man and wrapped his own cloak around him. From his bag, St. Giles offered the man bread and wine.
Within a few minutes, the man who had been too tired to even raise himself had the color return to his face, was walking about, thanking St. Giles, and giving praise to God. Nearby observers of what had happened cried out, "Come see the young man who healed a beggar!" They were convinced that St. Giles had the gift of healing and began to spread the word about this young man who restored a beggar to health.
Alarmed, St. Giles fled the cathedral. He had no desire to be called a healer. His desire was to take walks in nature, pray in the cathedral, and quietly give assistance to those in need.

In Search of Solitude

Not long afterward St. Giles had been forced to run away, his parents died, and St. Giles made the decision to leave Athens and seek the peace of the natural world in order to draw closer to the Lord.
Like St. Anthony the Great, he first sold off his inheritance and gave the proceeds to the poor. This action only convinced the people of Athens all the more of his sanctity. Once again, St. Giles fled. This time, he boarded a ship to leave Athens forever. Once the ship set sail, he felt relief and was ready to pursue his deepest wish to be hidden in Christ.
After much traveling, he settled in an isolated spot near the mouth of the Rhone River, near modern day Geneva, Switzerland, where he found an abandoned hermitage. He tried to settle into a life of solitude and prayer, but failed miserably. It was not for his lack of effort. Instead, it was because, unbeknownst to him, he had been discovered by local people who found out about his reputation for healing.
The villagers would come to visit him and ask to be healed. St. Giles obliged them as he was never one to be anything but gentle toward those in need. However, eventually, in order to pursue his deep longing for peace, he left his hermitage in the middle of the night so that his leaving would not be detected by the people in the surrounding area. He wandered and wandered trying to find a place of isolation.
At night, he would make a camp, build a fire to keep warm, and find that he would be joined by beggars, peddlers, and even thieves. After spending time with the kind St. Giles, no one left the same as he had been before. But each visit further convinced him that he needed to move on to another place.

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Solitude Found

St. Giles would be hopeful that he had found a place only to learn that a village was nearby. Farther and farther he went into the deep forest until he found a cave that was protected by a thorn bush. There were no paths in the forest so he finally felt he had found the place he had prayed for and desired.
He soon settled into his cave which was near a stream. He quickly learned where he could find berries to eat and how to make bread from seeds. As always, he was enchanted by the Lord's creation of nature and became friends with the local animals. Birds, rabbits, and fish were his companions. And prayer was his most cherished occupation.
One day, while he was in meditation, a snow-white doe came near the entrance of his cave. Although the doe, saw St. Giles, it was not disturbed and instead seemed to appreciate his quiet contemplation.
The deer left after a few minutes, but, almost every day after that, it would return and observe him. Then St. Giles would see the deer when he went foraging for his food. After watching him for a while, it would leap and run into the forest.
Each subsequent visit with him found the deer just a little more tame. The deer could sense the loving spirit of St. Giles and was drawn to his kindness. Finally, the deer became a permanent companion and would stay with him throughout much of the day. Even when the deer would take off to jump and run for its exercise, St. Giles learned that the deer would return. At night, the snow-white doe would lay down in a bed of leaves that St. Giles had made.
After many months, St. Giles and the doe had settled into a regular routine of life in the hermit's cave and life in nature.

Solitude Lost

Then, one day, there were distant noises. The doe heard them first and rose up with ears alert and tail raised high near the entrance to the cave. It was the distant sound of dogs baying and men crashing through the thick forest. After hearing the hunter's horn there was no mistaking their purpose. The deer had been spotted and an arrow flew in her direction toward the thorn bush. It missed the doe, and she fled across the nearby stream.
The hunters tracked the arrow and discovered St. Giles' cave. Curious to find signs of human life so deep in the forest, they called out to the owner of the cave. St. Giles answered and the hunters entered the cave to find him wounded by the arrow that had struck his leg.
Embarrassed by their actions, the men took off their caps and begged forgiveness for injuring one they sensed was truly a holy man. Although he knew that the injury would cripple him, St. Giles said that the injury was no matter. Instead, he urged, "Seek forgiveness for attempting to kill the deer all for the matter of a moment of sport. Even these creatures who cannot speak give glory to God as His creations."
Never having heard such words before, the men were speechless until the leader stepped forward still ashamed of what had happened and stated matter-of-factly, "I am Wamba, King of the Visigoths."
Giles cautiously got up to receive him favoring his injured leg and introduced himself, as well. The king perhaps still not knowing what to say pointed out that men of prayer like St. Giles were needed in this untamed land. He continued to say that he would promise to build a monastery in reparation for what had been done.
The king would see to it that St. Giles would not lack food or clothes or anything he needed. And the monastery would be a place where St. Giles could train up men to follow his path of gentle faith and prayer.
Thinking of his years of wandering to find solitude for peace and prayer, St. Giles gave protest against the idea. The king feeling more confident, pressed his request. Eventually, St. Giles gave his consent.

The Monastery Life

The king was good to his word and had a fine monastery built in the nearby region. Soon, St. Giles was joined by men eager to serve God and to learn the ways of the Faith.
His years of prayer and contemplation had prepared St. Giles to be a very good abbot. He served the men well, taught them the ways of gentleness, and helped bring about a growth of the Faith in the village that was built near the monastery.
Although crippled by his wounded leg, St. Giles served ably until his death around 724. The saint who had fled the world for peace learned that he might be called to receive the world in order to share the peace he had been given.

Image: St. Giles with the Doe (Note, in some versions of the story, St. Giles was injured in the hand and artwork will depict that. However, his patronage of cripples tends to favor the story of his leg being injured.)

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