The Feast of St Giles, patron saint of lepers, falls on 1 September. To coincide with the patronal festival, our curate Phillip reflects on the timeliness of St Giles Day and the realities of living with leprosy today
On the day the church remembers St Giles, the patron saint of leprosy sufferers, summer turns to autumn in the UK meteorological calendar. Seasonal change was a pet topic of the pioneering ecologist, ornithologist and priest Gilbert White. While many of his conclusions have since been disproved by modern science - such as his belief that swallows hibernate underground (rather than migrate) in winter - his observations about leprosy appear to be borne out, in part.
Writing in 1788 he remarks that an apparent reduction in cases is linked to improved diet as a result of changing farming techniques - which meant that the majority no longer ate salted meat or fish through the winter. He recalls a pauper in his parish who suffered from the debilitating condition, whose symptoms would be more noticeable in the spring.
Recent research from Brazil (which accounts for 12% of worldwide cases of what is now known as Hansen’s Disease), revealed a significant increase in diagnoses in the autumn (March to May there). This is not due to seasonal change affecting the pathology of the disease, but the way society responds to the seasons.
Time off for holidays and religious festivals during the summer months means a reduction in clinical staff and fewer people choosing to present themselves at medical facilities. The autumn start of the fiscal year means more resources are available at that time to promote awareness and assist treatment. Infrastructure unable to cope with the winter rains makes it hard for patients to travel from rural areas to medical facilities in towns and cities.
Given the proven links between early detection of Hanson’s Disease and a reduction in permanent disability arising from it, the way society responds to the seasons has life-changing consequences for sufferers in Brazil.
It’s not just an issue that affects the global south. Seasonal poverty arising from casual employment, food poverty due to changing patterns of childcare over the summer months and winter fuel poverty just some examples of the way the our society chooses to respond to the changing seasons has life-altering consequences for some here.
Remembered on September 1st, St Giles was feted for his symbiotic relationship with the natural world, five hundred years before Francis of Assisi became the pin-up saint for ecologists. Said to have encouraged vegetation to grow in the desert and suckling from a willing hind for nourishment in the royal hunting ground near Arles where he - rebelliously - made his home, Giles eschewed the feudal economy, refusing invitations to lavish and wasteful banquets once his renown for healing became known. When he became abbot of a monastery, Giles - like Gilbert White after him - saw the benefit in more sustainable agricultural practices; recognising that changing the way the systems and structures of society respond to the seasons can have benefits for all.
As we remember St Giles this month, let us pray for the relief from suffering for all living with Hanson’s Disease and for those working to aid early diagnosis of the condition. As we notice how the changing season impacts our lives in this time of new - or fresh starts, may we be more mindful of how it affects all in society. By God’s mercy and grace may we learn to become as “well seasoned” as Saint Giles.