St. Giles: A seventh-century Catholic ecologist

I posted a few months ago about a keynote speaker at an interfaith conference on climate change. In his talk, he violently misrepresented the Church’s ancient views on, and work with, ecology.

While I know the error of such statements, it’s always good to learn more about how Catholics throughout the ages have embraced an ethic of what we today call environmentalism. And so I was delighted to hear a paper from Monica Ehrlich, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Virginia, who introduced me to a little-known seventh-century environmental activist: St. Giles.

Ms. Ehrlich’s paper was given in May at the International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University. Her excellent research and presentation piqued my interest so much that I asked to interview her, which she graciously found the time to do.

And so, we meet St. Giles (c. 650 – c. 710). The story goes that Giles was an Athenian-born Christian who settled in southern France. He would become something of an exemplar for many in the medieval world, mostly for his critique of aristocratic land use, hunting, and feudal cultures of consumption. This critique elevated agriculture over hunting as well as simple living over the banquet/feasting culture. While the word “environmentalist” or the modern concept of what that word means were not in existence in the seventh century, or the medieval world, St. Giles was very much concerned with how human consumption and particular worldviews can do violence to nature.

By building off existing studies of the subjugation of the “other” (such as male domination of female, rich over poor) what we know of St. Giles points to his concern that the land can also be seen as an “other” of man, one that is subjugated and not seen as a gift from God to be shared with our neighbors, but as property which can be used, owned, and left as an inheritance. Giles saw the land with an environmental ethic. This allowed him to use it to, for instance, build hospitals for the poor rather than advance his own material wealth. (Here, we find echoes of St. Basil, who did very much the same thing in fourth-century Cappadocia, in modern-day Turkey.)

Indeed, we learn from Ms. Ehrlich that Giles’ view of the land and creation was connected to the Beatitudes—to humility and care for those with less, to sharing rather than hoarding for personal gain. We can also learn something about Giles in his choice of a home—a hut built in prime royal hunting grounds. Giles also built a hut for a beloved deer, one he had a rather strong bond with and sought to protect from hunters.

Given severe laws about the protection of the king’s hunting lands (although there were often exemptions for religious uses) Giles construction of these huts was rather subversive. Moreover, his protection of a prize deer—which he would defend with his own body and life—is a particularly intriguing element of who he was and what he prioritized.

For instance, in some hagiography, Giles would be traveling with kings and be offered a feast and sumptuous bedding. But he would refuse both. Such lifestyles did not fit his eco-ethic of simplicity—an ethic that was common among hermits/monastic lifestyles across the centuries until the modern day—as we can find in, for instance, the Rule of St. Benedict.

We also know that Giles was a vegetarian. He would eat only what fruits and vegetation he could find. This in itself is a sort of critique of the prevalent banquet and hunting culture of his age. Indeed, Giles’ vegetarian lifestyle seems to be built literally from Genesis 1:28-29, which reveals that God gave humanity only vegetation and seed-bearing fruits to eat; the use of animals as food consumption is not in the blueprint of Genesis.

The bottom line of all this is that at the core of St. Giles’ love of the land and of creatures—and of his critique of the gluttony of the wealthy—is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church. Giles understood (perhaps rather elaborately) what it meant to be a protector of the natural world and, thus, how we humans must be related to it. This is not to say that all Catholic ecologists need to live like St. Giles—I certainly won't be building a hut on state property for a deer, at least I don't think I will. And I don't think I'll be a vegetarian any time soon.

But what we can acknowledge from Giles is the strong attraction across the Church's ages to what we today call ecology, an  attraction to know, live by, and protect the natural order, all of which is rooted in the eternal revelation of the Triune God.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.