Irish monks desired solitude above all things and offered their isolation as a type of martyrdom.
Most of us will never become a red martyr, killed for our Christian faith, and many will never be labeled a white martyr, openly persecuted for our faith. However, one martyrdom that we can all freely choose is a green martyrdom, offering up our physical sufferings and isolation to God.
An ancient homily from Ireland, written around the end of the 7th century, gives a brief summary of the three types of martyrdom.
Now there are three kinds of martyrdom, which are accounted as a cross to a man, to wit: white martyrdom, green and red martyrdom. White martyrdom consists in a man’s abandoning everything he loves for God’s sake, though he suffer fasting or labor thereat. Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labor he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance.
Green martyrdom focuses on extreme penance and fasting out of love for God. This type of martyrdom is usually associated with the hermits of Egypt, who greatly influenced Irish monasticism. This accounts for why many Irish monks sought out places of extreme solitude and harsh weather; the monastery atop Skellig Michael being a perfect example of both.
For centuries Irish monks were champions at isolation, freely choosing to divorce themselves from the world in order to make their lives an offering to God. They knew they would never be killed for the faith, or even persecuted. They were simply at peace being alone and dedicating their time to prayer and work.
Interestingly, this is one of the most difficult types of martyrdom to embrace. It means being at peace with ourselves and with God, able to let go of the world around us.
In many ways it is a response to the call of Jesus, who encouraged his disciples to pray in solitude.
[W]hen you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6:6)
Jesus himself often prayed in isolation, spending 40 days in the desert alone, as well as getting up early before his disciples to pray in silence.
If you find yourself in such a situation, try to embrace it and offer it to God as a type of “martyrdom,” asking him to spread the seed of your sacrifice on fertile ground, bearing spiritual fruit for all to enjoy.