Thursday, 1 September 2011

Fairs & Patronage - Some Thoughts on the Feast of Saint Giles

Littlemore, Oxford, 1st of September, 2011

Saint Giles is one of my favourite saints. Apart from the annual Saint Giles Fair in Oxford at the beginning of September, I knew nothing about him until I became Associate Rector at the church of Saint Giles-in-the-Fields in central London, just north of Covent Garden, south of Bloomsbury, east of Holborn, and west of Soho. Very few people have ever heard of it, although another neighbour, Saint Martin-in-the-Fields has an international reputation. This is a shame because, in my view, it is the most beautiful church in London, designed by Henry Flitcroft, and built between 1730 and 1734. All is elegance and proportion, unlike James Gibbs's S. Martin's; and it is designed for worship, unlike Nicholas Hawksmoor's S. George's Bloomsbury. It is an easy church to pray in, and after all, when it comes to prayer, we need all the help we can get.

Giles is listed in the books as "Giles of Provence", but he was not a Frenchman. He came from Athens, born to a rich family, and at some point he got the God-thing, and started to travel about to find a place to pray without being bothered by people who thought he was holy. He settled in Provence, by the mouth of the Rhone (good taste in wine!), in a cave, and, his family money long forgotten, sustained himself on the riches of the woods. It all sounds rather idyllic, if you like being on your own, and far from the maddening crowd. But his lovely, private, house of prayer came tumbling down one day, when the King of the Visigoths and his cronies were having a hunting party. One of them shot a doe (doe, a deer, a female deer) and didn't kill her outright. She found Saint Giles's cave, and he nursed her back to health. This was a double-blessing, because she was expecting at the time, and when the fawn was born, the doe allowed Saint Giles to have her surplus milk. And so, rather implausibly, this celibate hermit became the Patron Saint of Nursing Mothers.

The King - his name was Wamba, which sounds more like someone you expect to find collecting litter on Wimbledon Common - discovered what Giles had done, and took a shine to him. He wanted to reward him, but Giles said he needed nothing. But King Wamba was insistent, and finally Giles said "this part of the world needs an abbey". The King thought about it and replied "I will build an abbey - but on one condition". "What is that?" "That you must be its abbot". And so, biting the bullet, Giles consented to become an abbot, for the sake of the people who needed an abbey.

It is often overlooked that abbeys and priories did tremendous good in those distant days (they still do now!) - they were hospitals for the sick and hostels for the pilgrims, places of prayer and spiritual wisdom and guidance, their very presence said loud and clear "God is here, his Spirit is with us".

But Saint Giles was not done yet. He went to seek the Pope's blessing on his labours, and the Pope gave him a handsome pair of doors for his monastery. Giles, in exasperation, knowing he could not afford to transport them home, threw them into the sea. When he returned, there they were on the beach, soon to be installed and become a sign of both welcome, and enclosure, the openness, and the secret, of God.

And that brings us to another little story. One day King Wamba was at Giles's abbey, and he gave notice that he would not receive communion, and could not say why. As Giles said mass he noticed a little scrap of paper on the altar, which explained the King's problem - it was not put there by the King. He gave him absolution as if he had confessed aloud, and the King could come to the altar. So, Giles became the patron saint of those with a secret sin.

But Giles is best known as the patron saint of lepers and cripples (I know we don't use the word any more, but they did then). I have never discovered why this should be, but that is how our church in London came about - it was in the fields, to be a hospital for lepers. You may also notice that here in Oxford, and also in Cambridge, and in Lincoln, and in countless other places, there are churches dedicated to Saint Giles on the edge of the city. This is where the unacceptable could be accepted. Saint Giles is also the Patron Saint - what a busy man! - of blacksmiths and cobblers. As a preacher, I take great comfort that there is a patron saint of cobblers. The reason is that as you left your town for another, you made sure you and your horses were well-shod for the journey, so blacksmiths and cobblers plied their trade near those Saint Giles' churches, and they adopted him as their own.

But is any of this true, can we know? We can't even be sure when Giles lived, although the 8th century AD is the front-runner. I know I want it to be true, but am sufficiently a man of science to know that wanting it doesn't make it so. Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe what matters is that someone many years ago heard his calling and acted upon it. Maybe what matters is that lepers and cripples and nursing mothers and and people with secret sins, blacksmiths and cobblers, the people who lived on the edge of Mediaeval life, took comfort from his prayers, that he cared for them. Doesn't that lead in its own small way to Life More Abundant? And isn't that small way part of the greater Way, of Christ?

Thank you God, whoever you are, for Saint Giles, whoever he was.


  1. Richard,

    Thank you for an interesting story, about a Saint who seems to actually be more suitable than George to be our Patron.

  2. I never understood how a Middle-Eastern invented person became our patron saint! For a long time it was Edward the Confessor - a very clever bit of politics, because he was half-Norman, half-Anglo-Saxon. He'd be ideal from the Bank Holiday point of view, because his feast is October the 13th. Slightly more worryingly, though, that is also Lady Thatcher's birthday!