In a tradition dating from at least as far back as the 7th century, Irish religious practice acknowledged a division of three martyrdoms: the red, the white, and the green. Drawing from the established tradition of the Church about the red martyrdom (the martyrdom of blood, where the saints died in the Roman and other persecutions) and the white martyrdom (which came about after Christianity was tolerated and established; so the tradition of the Desert Fathers in withdrawing into deserts or waste places to live a life of isolation and ascetic practice was established; it was later modified to incorporate the peregrinatio pro Christi or “wandering for Christ” when a person would give up all he knew and loved and leave behind home and family to wander abroad, half-pilgrim, half-missionary), the Irish included a third practice: what was known as “green” (or, depending on how the word glas is translated, “blue” or even “gray”) martyrdom.
The Irish had little or no chance of suffering the red martyrdom since there were no persecutions for the sake of the Faith, even in depictions of conflicts between Christian missionaries such as St. Patrick and the native religious tradition as represented by the Druids. This is demonstrated in what the 12th century Norman-Welsh chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) records in his “The Topography of Ireland” under the heading “A sarcastic reply of the Archbishop of Cashel”, when Gerald (acting as an apologist for the Norman invasion of Ireland under the pretext that they were fulfilling the will of the Pope in reforming the Irish church) reproached the native Irishman that no Irish saint had ever been martyred for the faith in Ireland :
I once made objections of this kind to Maurice, archbishop of Cashel, a discreet and learned man, in the presence of Gerald, a clerk of the Roman church who formerly came as legate into those parts; and throwing the blame of the enormous delinquencies of this country principally on the prelates, I drew a powerful example from the fact that no one in that kingdom had ever obtained the crown of martyrdom for the church of God. Upon this the archbishop replied sarcastically, avoiding the point of my proposition, and answering it by a home-thrust: “It is true,” he said, “that although our nation may seem barbarous, uncivilized and cruel, they have always shewn great honour and reverence to ecclesiastics, and never on any occasion raised their hands against God’s saints. But there is now come into our land a people who know how to make martyrs, and have frequently done it. Henceforth Ireland will have its martyrs, as well as other countries.
Since we also suffer from a lack of deserts, it was also very difficult for any Irish religious to emulate the Egyptian Desert Fathers and Mothers in the white martyrdom; attempts such as Skellig Michael are as close as we came. Instead, the Irish preferred to go into exile, as with St. Columcille who left Ireland for Scotland and Iona, or the monks who spread out throughout Europe between the 8th-13th centuries such as St. Columbanus, St. Gall, St. Aidan, St. Fursey, St. Fergal (Virgil), St. Fiachra (Fiacre) and their disciples, and many others.
But the third and most important for the native Irish church was the establishment of monastic settlements and hermitages in Ireland herself. This was a means of having the “desert in the world”, so to speak; to practice withdrawal from everyday life while still being in the midst of everyday life. This had precedent in how monasticism developed in Egypt during and after the 4th century, where the emphasis changed from solitary individuals living as hermits to small groups living communally, and how it developed in Europe under the influence of the Rule of St. Benedict. The pattern is similar in so many ways; a holy man or woman seeks to live a solitary life but attracts the attention of both laypeople and other religious, who seek to live under the rule of that person, who attempts to flee to a more solitary place but attracts yet more attention and ends up founding or being the inspiration for a community.
We see this pattern with St. Kevin of Glendalough and the saints known as the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland” who include the likes of St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, St. Brendan of Clonfert, the 5th century saint famous for his voyage in which he may have discovered America long before Columbus, and St. Canice, whose monastic foundation eventually became the city of Kilkenny.
Because Ireland was on the periphery of Europe, it held onto the older tradition of doing things, so unlike Western Europe where the diocese was the unit of local church governance and the bishop the leader, under the influence of early European and (allegedly) Egyptian monasticism, the church was centered around the monastery and the abbot. This also tied in with the tribal, rural (instead of urbanized) way of life in Ireland, so that noble and ruling families were interwoven with monastic life (for example, St. Columcille as a princely scion of a northern royal dynasty) and rule. Irish monasticism also emphasized ascetic practice, which gave a particular flavor to the Irish church (even in the 19th century, we tended towards Jansenism as our specific flaw), as seen in the popular folk pilgrimages to Lough Derg (three days of fasting and walking barefoot over rock in the rain and cold while praying continuously) and climbing the Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick (again, the hardcore do this barefoot).. However, the flip side to that was the engagement with nature, as seen in the poetry associated with early Christian Ireland, from the one we all learned in school “Pangur Bán” (a 9th century poem by an Irish monk about his cat) to St Patrick’s Breastplate to the 8th century anonymous verse as translated by Brendan Kenneally:
Only a fool would fail
To praise God in His might
When the tiny mindless birds
Praise Him in their flight.
So what has all this historical trivia to do with Lent today? Well, we may not be able to retreat to a desert or the top of a mountain to be apart with God, but we can emulate the spirit of the green martyrdom during Lent; to be apart from and within the world at the same time, to have the desert in the world. We may not adhere nowadays to such severe practices of old as the “Black Fast” (in my grandmother’s time, no dairy products or meat allowed, so that the two collations [less than full or main meal] of unsweetened black tea and dry bread were the rule, and this was softened down from the even more severe fasting of previous centuries as detailed here).
Lent is more than a time to give up chocolate or – the perennial favorite in Ireland – alcohol for Lent (and some diehards still do the mini-fast of giving up drink in November, the Month of the Holy Souls). It’s not a way of going on a diet or giving up bad health habits, as it has tended to become in recent times. It’s not even about gaining religious merit points so as to buy God’s favor. Lent is a time of training the will, and why this is important is because some people even deny that there exists such a thing as the will, as in this recent article in USAToday by one Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago: Forget not even having a soul, you don’t even have a material will! In fact, there isn’t even a “you” in the first place; personality is just an illusion:
Perhaps you’ve chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you’re in a hotel, maybe you’ve decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you’ll wear today.
You haven’t. You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.
… Psychologists and neuroscientists are also showing that the experience of will itself could be an illusion that evolution has given us to connect our thoughts, which stem from unconscious processes, and our actions, which also stem from unconscious process. We think this because our sense of “willing” an act can be changed, created, or even eliminated through brain stimulation, mental illness, or psychological experiments. The ineluctable scientific conclusion is that although we feel that we’re characters in the play of our lives, rewriting our parts as we go along, in reality we’re puppets performing scripted parts written by the laws of physics.
So Lent denies this view of the human creature; we’re not a collection of molecules running in the tracks pre-determined for us from the very moment the universe came into existence by the physical laws which were established then, with no more choice about what we do than a puppet has about its strings being pulled. Whether we spend our days feeding the sick and instructing the ignorant, or robbing banks and murdering our criminal rivals, we are neither to be praised or blamed because we do not make those choices.
Lent says “Yes, you do have a choice. You do have a will. Here is where you exercise it, like any other muscle. And you are not alone in a causeless, random, uncaring universe. There is one who has gone before you. And matter is not a blind whirl of atoms in motion for no reason at all, piling up and breaking down through mechanical forces – it is a creation, and its Creator has declared that it is very good.”
And why is it so important to train the will? Because, as Professor Coyne’s article shows (though not in the way he might have meant it), if the reason cannot operate by means of the will, then how can it operate? How can it mediate our appetites? Are we to be reduced to what C.S. Lewis called “Men without Chests”?:
The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
We sacrifice something during Lent – not because the things of creation are bad or evil or worthless. In all cultures, sacrifice is given to the gods from that which is good and desirable and valuable. We too sacrifice that which is good, voluntarily, of our own free will. The things we give up are good, but we voluntarily renounce the licit use of them. Alcohol or chocolate or television or music or steak or new shoes or a new hairdo are not bad things or vanities, though they can be misused and abused. So in giving them up, we sacrifice not the things themselves, but our wills. It is our wills that are free and that can freely choose to make good use – or bad – of the gifts we have been given in creation.
And just as every culture gives sacrifice to its gods, so every culture develops different ways of renouncing and paring down in order to achieve a noble end, whether it be the Stoicism of the Greeks and of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, or Boethius writing his “Consolation of Philosophy” while imprisoned for treason, or Confucius developing his ethical and philosophical system based on social obligations and right relations, or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:
1. Life means suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering.
Christianity does not solve the problem of suffering in the same manner of attaining detachment, because we believe so passionately in the existence of the individual self that we even have the doctrine of Hell, where Man can defy his Creator to the extent that he can refuse all love and grace and separate himself for all eternity from their Source by his own choices and deeds. Now, indeed, the sacrifices and privations of Lent can be a matter of rote, of habit, of just doing the same old thing as we always did (we gave up chocolate when we were children and we couldn’t wait for Easter to come so we could gorge on Easter eggs; we give up cigarettes for our health or cut back on drink or give up sugar, and then go back to our old habits once Holy Saturday comes around, without using the time of Lent to deepen our spiritual life or do any walking in the desert with Christ at all).
What do we base Lent on? Since Lent comes before Easter, we base it on waiting for the One who has come, who has gone before us, and who has promised to come again. We base it on our forefathers in the faith, who followed the call out of Egypt into the desert. The forty days of the Lenten fast are deliberately related to the forty days Jesus fasted in the desert, led there by the Holy Spirit after His baptism, and the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness under the wrath of the Lord.
We, too, are under the wrath of God for our sins, so Lent is a time of penitence and repentance and penance. We will not see the promised redemption until the Redeemer comes and until the “Old Adam” has been slain in our flesh, until we have died to our own desires, until we have died in baptism with Christ.
So we must come to a realisation for ourselves as to what Lent is for and what it is about. Why did the Spirit lead Christ into the desert? We have several instances of Him going aside to pray in quiet places, but His disciples were with Him and He did not go off for days alone into the desert. And immediately after the baptism in the Jordan, when God the Father had manifested His favour and declared the Sonship of Christ by the descent of God the Holy Spirit? So this was no ordinary withdrawal – Jesus did not need to go into the desert, any more than He needed to be baptized. But just as He did this for our sake – “But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” – so must He have gone into the desert also for our sake. If we are to be baptized with Jesus, then what are we to do in the desert?
So what happens after the period of prayer and fasting and purification? Another vision of God? A greater mark of Divine approval? No, but the temptation, when the Devil comes and asks for signs and promises to grant favours. Therefore, Lent is boot camp for spiritual warfare. As Fr. Zuhlsdorf translates the Collect for Ash Wednesday from the old rites:
Concede nobis, Domine, praesidia militiae christianae
sanctis inchoare ieiuniis,
ut, contra spiritales nequitias pugnaturi,
continentiae muniamur auxiliis.
Grant us, O Lord, to commence the defenses of the Christian field campaign by means of holy fasts, so that, we who are about to do battle against spiritual negligences, may be fortified by the support of continence.
Lent is the time when we train and mortify our wills and our bodies, not to rachet up gold stars in a spiritual achievement chart, but to demonstrate for ourselves how our wills are weak and how much, how badly, we need the grace of God. Because we may sail into Ash Wednesday with great intentions, but by Friday we are flagging, and we start counting down the days and going “Thirty-nine more like this?” and finding out just how enslaved we are to our appetites. And through Lent, we find ourselves in the desert while in the world; like the song by America from which the title of this post is taken, “Horse with No Name”, says:
You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
We can remember the name we were given in baptism when we died with Christ, as we train our wills and our hearts in the good habits of virtue while in the desert, so that when we come out into Holy Week, we too are ready to face the subtle temptations of the Devil.