Symbolic Martyrdom in the Celtic Tradition

On April 7 2023, during our regular silent meeting at 2 pm est, we will have a contemplative reading of the poem The Dream of the Rood as a Good Friday reflection. The meeting is a full hour of silence, but people are welcome to come and go as they please. The poetry reading will be at the beginning of the hour. You can find the link to get onto zoom and learn more about our regular meetings (which are always free to join) by clicking HERE.

With Good Friday quickly approaching it is good for us to think about and reflect upon what meaning the cross can have in our own lives. Jesus called us to pick our crosses and follow him to our own deaths. To die to ourselves is to let go of our personal desires so that we can be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives instead. This spiritual death, in imitation of Christ, can be thought of as a kind of martyrdom.

In the Celtic tradition there are thought to be three kinds of martyrdom. Each one is given a colour to signify its spiritual meaning. The colours of martyrdom are about the dynamic between the inner person and the outer person which you can read more about HERE. This teaching is most clearly described in the Cambrai Homily, a seventh century Irish sermon. It says,

“There are in fact three kinds of martyrdom which we may regard as types of cross in human eyes: namely, white martyrdom, green martyrdom, and red martyrdom. A person undergoes white martyrdom when he leaves all for the sake of Christ, even though this means fasting, hunger, and hard work. Green martyrdom is attributed to someone who through them – that is fasting and work – is freed of his desires, or undergoes travail in sorrow and penance. Red martyrdom is to be found in the sufferings of a cross of death for Christ’s sake, as was the way with the apostles, because of the persecution of the wicked, and while preaching the truths of God.”

White martyrdom is the renunciation of that which never belonged to us in the first place. Monks have long believed that we cannot claim true ownership of our outward possessions. We are to let go of all things for the sake of Christ. White martyrdom is to renounce those things which give us security and safety in this world. Perhaps the most radical expression of this way of life was to become a wandering pilgrim. Many Irish monks left their homeland to spread the good news in foreign lands. Choosing to be without the protection and support of a community was an intense form of renunciation. These monks understood it as a form of spiritual death and they were said to be in search of the place of their resurrection. The colour white signifies the simplicity of this way of life. It is empty and receptive, owning nothing and ready to be born anew.

Green martyrdom is about the inner person. It is the renunciation of those things which truly belong to us – the vices we have tucked away in the hidden recesses of our souls. Green martyrdom follows after white martyrdom. It is the relinquishing of desire which we acquire through the work of white martyrdom. It is penance in the truest sense, the transformation of our minds into the mind of Christ. The colour green signifies the new life which penance bestows, the sprouts of spring which push their way through the white winter snow. Green penance is a vitality of inner growth and the spiritual fruits which it produces. 

Red martyrdom is what we typically think of as martyrdom – being killed because of your faith in Christ. The colour red signifies the blood of the believer shed in service of the gospel. This was considered to be the highest form of martyrdom. Death should not be sought out, however, only accepted if it is required of us. Therefore, it is white and green martyrdom which are the most relevant to us today.

All three kinds of martyrdom are forms of detachment. White martyrdom is about detachment from security and material possessions, green martyrdom is about detachment from desire, and red martyrdom is about detachment from life itself. Detachment is such an essential virtue because it is rooted in a simple and profound truth – life doesn’t work out the way we think it should.

Our time on this earth is like a journey on the ocean. We never know for sure what is coming or where we will end up. The sea is ever changing. There is no part of the sea which is the same today as it was yesterday, and tomorrow it will be something new again. While this truth is more easily perceived in the water than the land, the mountains change as well and are never the same as they once were. 

In fact, everything in creation is in a constant state of change. Growth and decay are the laws of nature. We are born, we travel through life, and we die. Nothing here is permanent. If we expect the things of this life to be solid and reliable, then we will be disappointed. Everyone we know will one day pass away and everything we’ve done will one day be forgotten. This means that we are but travellers through this life. God is our true home, in whom we exist eternally, from whom we came into this world, and to whom we return when we die. 

As the wise Solomon says, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Solomon saw that all his hard work, all his learning and wisdom, all his pleasure and pain, were nothing more than chasing after the wind. All of them pass away, nothing lasts forever. Yet, we are here on this planet, and our fleeting human existence is all that we’ve got.

After explaining all the ways in which life is meaningless, Solomon goes on to say, “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” 

Life is a gift from God and our living is beautiful and good. All the work, play, pain, and growth that comes with this fleeting life are a gift, even if we only get to enjoy them for a moment. Therefore, the detachment which we seek through white and green martyrdom is not about hating the world or punishing ourselves. Our incarnation on this earth is a gift and we are good in our essence. In fact, all of nature is good by virtue of being created by God.

During this season of Lent, we renounce our attachments to life, not life itself. We let go of our tight grip on the material necessities of life (white martyrdom) and we let go of the vain hope that things will turn out according to our plans and that life will cooperate with our desires (green martyrdom). May this season of letting go bless your heart and mind and liberate you from the fetters of unhealthy attachments.

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