It was in the beautiful land of Greece that Saint Giles was born, very far away from the grey northern city, whose cathedral bears his name. His parents were of royal blood, and were, moreover, Christians; so the boy was brought up most carefully, and taught all that a prince should know.
He was a dreamy, quiet boy, and what he loved best was to wander out in the green woods by himself, with no companions but the animals and birds and flowers. He would lie for hours watching the birds busily build their nests, or the rabbits as they timidly peeped at him out of their holes. And soon all the woodland creatures began to look upon him as their friend, and even the wildest would come gradually nearer and nearer, almost within reach of his hand; and they seemed to listen when he talked to them, as if they could understand what he said. One thing they certainly did understand, and that was that he loved them and would do them no harm.
Saint Giles could not bear to see anything suffer, and his pity was great for all those in pain; and often he would mend a bird’s broken wing, or bind up a little furry foot that had been torn in a trap; and the birds and beasts always lay quiet under his hand, and seemed to know that he would cure them, even though the touch might hurt.
It happened that one day, when Saint Giles was kneeling in church, he saw a poor beggar lying there on the cold, stone floor. He had scarcely any clothes to keep him warm, and his face had a hungry, suffering look, which filled the heart of the saint with pity. He saw that the poor man was ill and trembling with cold, so without a moment’s thought, he took off his own warm cloak and tenderly wrapped it round the beggar.
The warmth of the cloak seemed to bring life back to the poor chilled body, and when Saint Giles had given him food and wine, he was able to lift himself up, and to bless the kind youth who had helped him.
And when the people saw what had happened they thought Saint Giles had worked a miracle, and cured the man by his wonderful touch; for they did not realise that all kind deeds work miracles every day.
It did not please Saint Giles that people should think he possessed this miraculous gift of healing, and he had no wish to be called a saint. He only longed to lead his own quiet life and to help all God’s creatures who needed his care. But the people would not leave him alone, and they brought to him those who were sick and lame and blind, and expected that he would heal them.
It is true that many needed only a little human aid, and the food and help which Saint Giles gave them would soon make them well again; but there were some he could not help, and it wrung his heart to see their pleading eyes, and to watch them bring out their little store of hard-earned money, eager to buy the aid which he so willingly would have given had he been able.
So at last Saint Giles determined to leave his native city, for he had been all alone since his father and mother had died. He wished to escape from the anxious crowds that refused to leave him in peace; but first he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor of the city, an act which made them surer than ever that he was one of God’s saints. Then he sailed away across the sea to a far-off country.
There Saint Giles found a lonely cave in which an old hermit lived. “Here at last I shall find peace and quietness,” said he to himself, “and men will soon forget me.”
But even here ere long his friends found him, for his fame had spread across the seas. So once more he set out and went further and further away, by paths that few had ever trod before, until in the depths of a green forest he found another shelter, a cave among grey rocks overgrown with lichens, and hidden by the sheltering boughs of the surrounding trees. Saint Giles had always loved the woods and this was just the home he had longed for. A clear stream flowed not far off, and his only companions would be the birds and beasts and flowers.
Early in the morning the birds would wake him with their song, and the wild creatures would come stealing out of the wood to share his meal. And his silent friends, the flowers, would cheer and help him by their beauty, and remind him of God’s garden whose gate would one day open for him, where he would wander in the green pastures beside the still waters of Life for evermore.
But of all his companions the one Saint Giles loved best was a gentle white doe, who came to him as soon as he settled in the cave. She seemed to have no fear of him from the first, and stayed with him longer and longer each time, until at last she took up her abode with him, and would never leave him, lying close to him when he slept, and walking by his side wherever he went.
This peaceful life went on for a long time and it seemed as if nothing could disturb its quiet happiness. But it happened that one day as Saint Giles was praying in the cave, and his companion, the white doe, was nibbling her morning meal of fresh grass by the banks of the stream, a curious noise was heard afar off. It came nearer and nearer, and then shouts of men’s voices could be heard, the sound of horses galloping and the note of the hunter’s horn. Then came the deep baying of dogs, and before the startled doe could hide, the whole hunt was upon her. With a wild halloo they chased her across the greensward and through the trees, and just as she disappeared into the cave, one of the huntsmen drew his bow and sent an arrow flying after her. Then they all dismounted and went to see what had become of the hunted doe, and soon found the opening into the cave. But what was their surprise, when they burst in, to find an old man kneeling there. He was sheltering the terrified doe who had fled to him for refuge, and an arrow had pierced the kind hand that had been raised to shield her.
The huntsmen were ashamed of their cruel sport when they saw the wounded hand of the old man and the trembling form of the white doe as it crouched behind him, and they listened with reverence to the hermit’s words as he spoke to them of man’s duty towards God’s dumb creatures. The King of France, who was one of the hunting party, came often after this to see Saint Giles, and at last offered to build him a monastery and give him all that he could want; but the old man begged to be left alone in his woodland cave, to serve God in peace and quietness. So there he lived quietly and happily for many years, until God took him, and he left his cave for the fairer fields of paradise.
People loved the thought of this peaceful old saint who dwelt in the woods and was the protector of all sorrowful and suffering creatures, and so they often called their churches after Saint Giles, especially those churches which were built in the fields or near green woods.
The surroundings of many of these churches are to-day changed. There are no fields now round his great cathedral church in the old town of Edinburgh; but the poor and sick and sorrowful crowd very near to its shelter, and the memory of the pitiful heart of the gentle old saint still hovers like a blessing round the grey old walls.