Recently Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh made the following statement:
“My prayer for us who have gathered here is that…we will be such a threat to the present order that we will be found worth killing, if only Columba’s white martyrdom, but, if it be so, let it be the red martyrdom,” Duncan said, contrasting the “martyrdom” of asceticism with that of death. Episcopal Life, 28 Sept 2007
So what he is referring to is a Irish homily that provides for three types of martyrdom, not that any necessarily fit the current situation.
From the Cambrai homily, 7-8th century (contemporary with Bede):
“There is not…the holy Apostle has said from his great love; everyone’s sickness was his own, everyone’s offense was his own, everyone’s weakness was his own. In these wise words of the wise man we see that fellow-suffering is a kind of Cross. Now there are three kinds of martyrdom that are counted as a cross to us, namely, white, blue and red martyrdom.
[It is white martyrdom for a man when he separates from everything that he loves for God, although he does not endure fasting and labor thereby. (1)]
The blue martyrdom is when through fasting and hard work they control their desires or struggle in penance and repentance.
The red martyrdom is when they endure a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles when they were persecuted the wicked and taught the law of God.
These three kinds of martyrdom take place in those people who repent well [blue], who control their desires [white], and who shed their blood [red] in fasting and labor for Christ’s sake.” (Celtic Spirituality, ed. by O. Davis, T. O’Loughlin, Paulist Press, 1999, p. 370)
A few comments on these forms of martyrdom. First they are not a major theme in Irish literature. They occur in only two sermons and are not mentioned in hagiography. In other words, no hagiographer (ie. religious biographer) claimed that his favorite saint was a white or blue martyr. Specifically, Adomnan never calls Columba a white martyr or any other type of martyr.
Stress on the three types of martyrdom and identification of Columba as one is a completely modern phenomenon, as far as I know. If there is an early example of white martyrdom in the early literature, the best I can think of is Bede’s description of Egbert of Iona, who takes on a rigorous ascetic regime and voluntary exile from home in thanksgiving for surviving the plague of 664. Note that this was undertaken as a personal thanksgiving, he was not excommunicated or forced from his homeland and Bede doesn’t call him a white martyr. We really have no idea why Columba left Ireland. Adomnan briefly mentions a temporary excommunication that I have previously discussed (here and here), but Adomnan does not link this to Columba’s relocation to Scotland. Adomnan does claim that Columba did return to Ireland several times after his establishment of Iona and he was in communion with other Irish churches.
I should also point out that the Celts, both Welsh and Irish, had a fondness for groupings in threes. Their triads as memory aids are well known. (We can even see some triads embedded in Bede’s History.) So, it doesn’t seem unusual at all that they would develop the concept of three types of martyrdom, another type of triad.
After reading these descriptions I will leave it to you to decide if you think the bishops meeting in Pittsburgh last week meet these criteria.
(1) Section in brackets is an amended translation by Proinseas Ni Chathain (Celtica 1990, 21:417) that makes sense. If white martyrdom’s included fasting and labor, then it wouldn’t be sufficiently different than a blue martyrdom.
You may have heard of green martyrdoms… the Irish word glas is best translate as blue, as both Davis (1999) and NiChathain (1990) translate it. I suspect the urge to call this type of martyrdom ‘green’ is related to the reputed eco-friendliness of the Celtic saints. Yet, when I visited Lindisfarne a few years ago, it was the blue of the sea and sky that nearly overwhelmed me.