St. Giles of Assisi was a humble religious, a mystic, and a dear friend of St. Francis of Assisi. Born c. 1190, little is known of the background of Giles. As a very young man, he was aware of the dramatic conversion of his townsman, Francis. After two of his friends, Bernard and Peter decided to leave all worldly ways behind to join Francis, Giles made the decision to do the same.
FOLLOWING THE POOR HOLY MAN
When Giles first approached Francis, he was challenged to give his coat to a beggar, which he instantly did. Having thus passed the “test” of detachment, Giles was presented by Francis to the two previous disciples as “a good brother whom Almighty God has sent us”. This occurred on April 23, 1209. Having given away everything he owned, Giles was given a poor habit, which Francis had begged for him. Soon after, he and Francis set out to preach at the Marches of Ancona, a borderland during Medieval times, located near the Adriatic Sea. They then went to Rome, where, with other friars, they sought and received approval of the first Rule for the Franciscan order from Pope Innocent III.
PILGRIMAGES AND EVANGELIZATION
Because he was Francis’s closest companion, Giles and Francis set out on several preaching expeditions in central Italy. Because Francis was thoroughly convinced of Giles’s holiness, he honored his request to set out alone to visit the burial site of St. James (Major) the Apostle at Compostela, Spain. After his return to Assisi, he set out for an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he venerated the places significant in the life of Christ. On the way back to Assisi, he made several other pilgrimage stops. On these excursions, Giles would pause to work at whatever small jobs he could do, in order to have food and shelter, and to have some alms for the poor. He occupied himself with a wide variety of simple skills, such as basket weaving and working in wineries and gathering crops. He would preach, very simply, wherever he stopped, not as an impressive speaker, but simply telling of God’s goodness and giving advice for living a holy life. With time, he had gained a widespread reputation as a man of holiness and wisdom. In 1219, the chapter meeting of the Friars Minor took place, which by then had five thousand members present. At this meeting, Francis appointed Giles and several friars to go to Tunis in northern Africa to proclaim the Christian Gospel to the Saracen Mohammedans. The effort did not succeed, however. When they arrived at the port, they were met by many long-suffering Christians, who forcefully turned them back out of fear of further persecutions.
After Giles’s return, Francis decided that he was to remain in Italy. After the death of Francis in 1226, he spent most of his remaining years at the Monte Rapido hermitage near Perugia, not far from Assisi. There, he lived a quiet life of prayer. With time, it became more and more apparent that Giles was experiencing supernatural ecstasies while in prayer, which intensified as he aged. His life was not always quiet, however. Pope Gregory IX heard of Giles’s reputation for gifts in prayer, and the two met while Gregory was in Perugia. During their conversation, Giles went into an ecstasy. The Pope pressed him for advice, but the humble Giles declined to dare to advise the vicar of Christ. When Gregory insisted, Giles only advised that he keep one of his eyes on heavenly things and the other on the things of the earth. Giles was also visited by King [St.] Louis IX, who was on his way to the Holy Land. The two men spent time in silent prayer, but did not converse. Fifty two years to the day after his entrance to the Franciscans, April 23, 1262, Giles died at the hermitage at Perugia, at about age seventy-two. At the time of his death, he was already widely considered a saint.
St. Giles of Assisi was known to be a holy man of deep prayer, but that does not mean that it was easy for him. He struggled mightily with temptations during prayer, and he was sure that Satan was interfering and causing distractions. Giles was resolute in his commitment, and he persevered in this spiritual battle by contemplating the things of heaven. Despite having very little education, he exhibited a remarkable wisdom. St. Francis himself referred to him as “Knight of our Round Table”, and he is considered the most authentic example of the earliest days of the Friars Minor.
BITS OF WISDOM ARE COMPILED
The brief offerings of advice that he gave to so many who came to him were committed to memory and then to written form, and were compiled into a book, still available more than seven hundred years later, The Golden Sayings of Brother Giles. St. Giles is interred at the Franciscan church at Perugia, Italy, and his feast day is celebrated April 23. Referred to as St. Giles, he was never formally canonized, but was beatified in 1777.