A Troubling Lack of Martyrdom

And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom – something even more interesting than the wonderfully grisly stories they had begun to learn in the simple continental collections, called “martyrologies,” from which Patrick and his successors taught them to read.

The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom by blood. The Green Martyrs were those who, leaving behind the comforts of and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island – to one of the green no-man’s-lands outside tribal jurisdiction – there to study the scriptures and commune with God. For among the story collections Patrick gave them they found the examples of the anchorites of the Egyptian desert, who, also lacking the purification rite of persecution, had lately devised a new form of holiness by living alone in isolated hermitages, braving all kinds of physical and psychological adversity, and imposing on themselves the most heroic fasts and penances, all for the sake of drawing nearer to God.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

I am more sympathetic to these monastics than I used to be. After all, the motive for many was to draw closer to God and to see more of his glory, misguided though they may have been in trying to accomplish this by retreating from the world. A far better “martyrdom” would have been to endure the sufferings implicit in taking the gospel to the pagan peoples which had not yet been reached – as the later Irish were indeed to do. This Green Martyrdom, then, was perhaps was the result of Patrick’s limited knowledge of the world. He believed he had brought the gospel to the end of the world, beyond which there was nowhere else left. Perhaps he taught this to his disciples, so they looked around at the newly Christianized Irish tribes, and retreated into the woods.

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

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