Archive: St. Giles, St. James and Pilgrimage


St. Giles’ Day was 1st September. It is celebrated each year in the church in South Mimms, as near as possible to this date: this year it was on August 30th. St. Giles is the patron saint of many things – cripples, the poor – and blacksmiths, which is why he is an appropriate saint for a mediaeval Wagonway Service Station like South Mimms. It’s common for churches dedicated to Saint Giles to be near pubs called the White Hart. England had several pilgrimage places – Canterbury for St. Thomas à Becket, Walsingham for Our Lady, Durham for St. Cuthbert, and our own St. Albans. Another popular destination, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, has many routes leading to it, one of which (from Arles in the south of France) leads through St. Gilles, the centre of St. Giles’ cult.

Who was St. Giles? He was a hermit in the south of France. He may originally have been a Greek, from Athens (his name means “Little goat” in Greek). What we know of him comes from a Life written for pilgrims in the 10th century, so he lived before AD 900 (allegedly around AD 550), and he was already by then an object of pilgrimage. The Life includes various startling wonders, and anachronisms, including the story of protecting a hind from being shot by a king out hunting. Apparently other saints are credited with the same tale of their zeal for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The reason for Santiago being a goal for pilgrims is down to the zeal of Spanish Catholics. Santiago is the Spanish for St. James the Great, Apostle, brother of St. John, son of Zebedee. They believe he came (before his martyrdom) to bring Christianity to Spain. After his death, so the story goes, his coffin – a stone boat, no less – floated up the Atlantic coast of Spain to Galicia, was drawn to shore in a fisherman’s net along with loads of cockle shells, and was taken to a field where someone had seen a whole galaxy of stars, hence Compostela, field of stars. St. James’s cockle shells were adopted as a badge by his pilgrims and then by pilgrims to other saints’ shrines.

The legends about St. James were devised by the Spanish to rally Christians against the Moors, i.e. Arabs, who conquered all of Spain from about AD 600 onwards. St. James was believed to help the Spanish win battles. In AD 844 St. James rallied the Christian armies at Clavijo, near Logroño (think Rioja). There is a portrayal over one of the doors of the church of St. James in Logroño of Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor Slayer. Basically for Christians, Santiago was a Weapon of Moors Destruction. As a focus for pilgrimage and devotion, St. James (Spanish style) is frankly not up there with St. Giles or St.
Cuthbert, who were devout and holy men, deeply attracted to animals and solitude, or to St. Thomas à Becket, who confronted royal wrong-doing.

But the route to Compostela now attracts thousands of pilgrims each year, some devout, some out for a good long walk. Walking the Pilgrim Way is hard, as it has been planned to be, but to persevere and follow the Way, in terms of meeting and greeting fellow souls, is hugely rewarding. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”, and walking a pilgrimage route, whether in Spain or elsewhere, is doing God in the World, signing up with Christ.

Not for nothing do so many of the hymns we sing in St. Giles Church speak of pilgrimage, of following the way, of travelling towards God. There’s “He who would valiant be” from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. There’s “I heard the voice of Jesus say” which ends “and in that light of life I’ll walk till travelling days are done”. In “Father, hear the prayer we offer” we sing “Not for ever in green pastures do we ask our way to be; but the steep and rugged pathway may we tread rejoicingly”. I’ve trodden a fair few steep and rugged pathways: they’re meant to hurt.

In “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer, Pilgrim through this barren land” we sing “Let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through… When I tread the verge of Jordan [i.e. when facing death], bid my anxious fears subside”. Pilgrims in the Middle Ages were very conscious they were travelling a dangerous road to God. Even now pilgrims to Compostela meet their death upon the Way. In a (highly inaccurate) film called “The Way”, the main character, played by Martin Sheen, whose son has died on the Camino in the high Pyrenees, does at the end move on from his selfishness and finds the joy of journeying with, and for, others. In the film we see the huge censer, the botafuego, hauled up by ropes to swing through 180° from transept to transept in the great Pilgrim mass in Compostela Cathedral, and we get a sense of the glory of God’s Kingdom.

Pilgrimage may be a journey of 1,000 miles, or it may be a simple visit to St. Albans Abbey lasting just one evening, or just a weekly visit to St. Giles. It may be to the shrine of a great saint like St. James (despite the Spanish propaganda), or a humble one like St. Giles. What we do on pilgrimage is confirm in our hearts that here we have no abiding city, but we seek one to come. We are all on our own journey to that heavenly city, which is our true and final home.

William Marsterson. September 2015