Blessed Giles of Portugal
So many romantic legends intertwine themselves with the story of Blessed Giles that it is difficult to see the man himself. His life, even stripped of its legend, however, is the story of the triumph of grace in the human soul.
He was the son of Rodrigues de Vagliaditos, governor of Coimbra under King Sancho the Great. From his childhood, Giles was destined for the priesthood for which he studied at Coimbra. He was ordained at an early age, but with no good intention, for he saw in the priesthood only a chance to wield power. His father’s influence gained for him a number of rich benefices, which he used sinfully for power and pleasure.
Being a brilliant student, he advanced rapidly in his chosen field of medicine, an art that was at the time often linked with necromancy or black magic. He neglected his priestly duties and seemed bent only on the pleasures of life.
Thoroughly irreligious and pleasure-seeking young man, set out for Paris to work for higher degrees in medicine. On the advice of a stranger he met on the way, he went to Toledo instead and became a student of the black arts. According to one story, he met the devil and signed a contract with him, in which he promised his soul in return for a universal knowledge of medicine. Thereupon he spent seven years in bondage to his evil master, learning all his arts.
Having gained the highest degrees in medicine, Giles went to Paris and became a successful physician. At the peak of worldly success, he began to have horrible visions. He saw himself in a cemetery of a monastery of which he enjoyed the revenues. There he saw a specter who carried a skull and an hourglass. The specter knocked at one and then another of the tombs, calling out, “Arise, faithful monk!” At each summons another fearful specter appeared, until at one tomb there was no answer.
“Giles,” he called. “What–not there?” He poised the hourglass and murmured, “There are yet a few sands to run!” After this fearful vision, says the legend, Giles repented of his misspent life, destroyed his magic books and potions, and set out in haste for Coimbra on foot.
At Palencia he met the friars of the newly founded Order of Preachers. He was still troubled by diabolical attacks, but they helped him to make his peace with God. Joining them, he spent seven years in terrible penance, after which Our Lady returned to him the fateful scroll he had signed with Satan.
It is known that Giles had spent his youth badly, and that after entering the Dominicans he did fervent penance. By nature he was witty and charming, and he found the silence hard to keep. Actual violence to his natural disposition was necessary to make him into the humble and reserved religious he later became.
Blessed Giles occupied several positions of authority in the order, including provincial of Portugal, and his medical skill proved to be a blessing in the care of his sick brethren. He made a practice of going about the dormitories, cleaning up the students’ rooms while they were at class. His heroic penance did much to undo the scandal he had caused in his early years.
Giles was sent back to Portugal after his early training, and his preaching was noteworthy, even in that age of renowned preachers. He founded a number of monasteries and did much to establish the Dominicans in Portugal. His last years were filled with visions and ecstasies. He lived to be very old, regarded by all but himself as a very great saint.
Born: Born 1185 at Vaozela
Died: 1265 of natural causes
Beatified: May 9, 1748 by Pope Benedict XIV (cultus confirmed)