The Man, the Myth, the Saint: Gildas the Wise

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January 29 marks the feast of St. Gildas, who was a 6th century monk from Brittany. He is venerated in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican traditions.

What is fiction and what is fact sometimes becomes blurred in the telling of many saints’ stories from the early Church. Such is the case with St. Gildas. Two accounts, written centuries apart, are our main sources of information about this saint. While they sometimes paint very different pictures of Gildas’s life, they are equally full of marvels. Here, are just a handful of the amazing feats of St. Gildas Sapiens.

He studied under a saint

Gildas, born in the region of Brittany now known as Scotland, was sent by his family to study at a monastery school under the tutelage of St. Iltud. We don’t know much about St. Illtud apart from the fact that he was a scholar of great breadth and renown. Based on our current sources, we believe Gildas came from a royal house, and chose to forsake his heritage and become a monk like his teacher. However, again like his teacher Illtud, Gildas himself later became a sought-after teacher in Brittany.

He was BFFs with King Arthur

Yes, that King Arthur. How much of Arthurian legend is myth and how much really happened? Who’s to say, but according to Caradoc of Llancarfan, King Arthur did not only walk the earth but did so alongside St. Gildas.

In the Llancarfan Life Gildas is said to have been great friends with King Arthur and to have served him devotedly, even so far as to play a pivotal role in rescuing Queen Guinevere from an evil king who had abducted her. More stunning still is the story of Gildas’ great forgiveness of Arthur: one of Arthur’s arch-nemeses, the warrior Hueil, was one of Gildas’s 23 brothers. One day, Arthur caught Hueil raiding his kingdom. In the aftermath of this unlawful raid, Arthur pursued Hueil and slayed him. Gildas was struck to the heart at the murder of his brother by his friend, but was able to come to complete forgiveness through the grace of Christ, even going so far as to go to King Arthur and forgive him face to face. Arthur, deeply grieved, received Gildas in repentance, and so friendship was restored between monk and king.

He wrote the De Excidio Britanniae

The De Excidio Britanniae is a work referencing the time of Britain under Roman occupation. It is a very important historical document and one on which St. Bede relied heavily when he wrote his own history of the time.

He slew a dragon in Rome

Gildas took a pilgrimage to Italy at one point in his life, during which it is said he performed many miracles—not the least of which was slaying a dragon in the city of Rome!

He built an oratory

This oratory, known as Saint Gildas de Rhuys, is still standing today in what is now Northwestern France. Gildas reportedly built this oratory after students began to seek him out as their teacher. He also wrote a rule of monastic life after he established life in the oratory. Today, Saint Gildas de Rhuys also marks the resting place of the relics of St. Gildas.

He wrote an epic prayer for protection

The Lorica, which translates to “Breastplate,” is a type of hymn that specifically asks for protection from the Lord from evil. The more commonly known “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is an example of this type of hymnic prayer. It is not surprising to find that St. Gildas, best known as a writer and historian, also composed one of these hymns. Here is an excerpt for the next time you need some extra protection from the Lord:

May Christ, whose terror scares away the foul throngs,
make with me a strong covenant.
God the unconquerable guardian,
defend me on every side by your power.
Free all my limbs,
with your safe shield protecting each,
so that the fallen demons cannot attack
against my sides or pierce me with their darts.
I pray, Lord Jesus Christ, be my sure armor.
Cover me, therefore, O God, with your strong breastplate.
Cover me all in all with my five senses,
so that, from my soles to the top of the head,
in no member, without within, may I be sick;
that, from my body, life be not cast out
by plague, fever, weakness, suffering,
Until, with the gift of old age from God,
departing from the flesh, be free from stain,
and be able to fly to the heights,
and, by the mercy of God, be borne in joy
to the heavenly cool retreats of his kingdom.

He was buried like Boromir

Yes, you read that right. Anyone who has read (or watched) The Fellowship of the Ring will remember the heartbreaking and poignant scene in which the remainder of the fellowship laid the fallen Boromir in a boat and sent him to his eternal rest on the gentle current of the Anduin River. According to tradition, the burial rites of St. Gildas were similar: according to his wishes, after his death his body was placed in a boat and pushed off to float adrift, until the boat was later found and his relics were placed in his oratory.

Whether completely factual or peppered with inspiring (and sometimes strange) myth, the legends of saints are powerful in how they speak to the witness of saints for Christ. The most fantastic hagiography is written with only one goal in mind– to give greater glory to God by the witness of his saints. Let’s pray we have equally thrilling tales told about us once we grace the heavenly courts.

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