There he lived with only a deer for company – according to some legends, the hind provided the under-nourished hermit with milk – until one day he was wounded by a stray arrow from a royal hunting party. Refusing all worldly inducements, he went on to found a forest monastery under the Rule of St Benedict. And so, with the motley biographically-based portfolio given to saints, Giles became the patron saint of woodland, the disabled and diseased, outcasts, and hermits.
I’m fond of St Giles. With the church in the village where I grew up named after him, I’ve spent many a dull moment staring at his image in the the east window, appreciating the presence of the animal and image of simple companionship.
These days, he strikes me as a useful emblem of the need for solitude in modern life and the stillness that can bring a deeper connection with nature. Modern society tends to discourage and dismiss solitude, portraying it as the loneliness which speaks of failure, those who seek it out as misfits and misanthropes. But, as this piece by Phil Daoust about the actively-chosen solitude makes clear, for some it’s the condition for exploration of both inner and outer worlds, creativity and, for some, just a peaceful life without the white noise of constant chit-chat.
Britain’s fractured religious history has contributed to the decline of the solitary, privileging busyness and action even in religious circles. The hermits and anchorites that were a part of society in medieval England largely disappeared with the destruction of the monasteries, and the Church of England has never been big on contemplation.
Hidden Hermits, launched on the Feast of St Giles, features a rare interview with a hermit of the old-fashioned variety – he’s lived on a hilltop for decades, doesn’t like speaking to journalists and yearned for solitude even as young monk. It also chronicles the rise of a new kind of solitary, a little-known network of modern people combining silence and solitude with ordinary life, without the requirements of an institution.
So as September ushers in a new season of busyness – back-to-school, off-to-uni, return-to-work – spare a thought for St Giles and his life of solitude among the trees.
Hidden Hermits is available on Amazon