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My Friend Donald
25 April 2007


I have been re-reading Donald Nicholl's The Beatitude of Truth and am more and more getting to know Donald as a friend. Part of it is that we share common interests – a love of Russian culture (especially Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamzov), a deep respect for Celtic spirituality (he was a speaker of mediaevel Welsh and Irish as well as Russian) and a yearning to reach across the religious divides and enjoy dialogue with people of other faiths.

But it goes deeper than that. I have a great respect and even love of Donald as a man. The quality that comes to mind is humility. I don't mean that in a fake pious sense but in the sense that Donald was, what the Russians would call 'a man of the soil': he was down-to-earth and 'grounded'. Humility, after all, is derived from the latin humus meaning 'ground'. Donald came from a poor working-class family in Yorkshire and never lost the ability to listen carefully and respectfully to another person no matter what their background or education. I say 'Donald was' because he died almost exactly ten years ago (3 May 1997) and I know him only through his books.

And what a diverse group of books they are. Probably his best known is Holiness – something of a spiritual classic. Don't let the title put you off (it almost put Donald off), there is no religiosity or pie-in-the-sky piousness here, just a practical guide to becoming a healthy and whole human being. After all, the words 'health', 'whole', 'hale' and 'holy' are all derived from same Old English word-root.

For anyone who is interested in the Israel-Palestine question (and these days anyone who isn't interested really should be) Donald's book The Testing of Hearts is a must-read. It was written out of his experience as Director of the Tantur Ecumenical Institute for Theological Studies in Jerusalem, 1981-1985, where he brought his qualities of love, care and appreciation to people on all sides of the divides, as well as to visiting Western scholars with over-size egos. As much as it is a book of theological reflections, it could also serve as a case-study in leadership and management in crisis situations. Spirituality at the coal-face.

Here Donald gives us his 'litmus test' for the health of our souls in this pain-filled, politically and emotionally-charged environment: When we hear news of some new shooting or bombing in which the victims are from the 'other' community, is our first un-guarded reaction one of sorrow and grief, or is there even a grain of satisfaction?

Triumphs of the Spirit in Russia brings a deep appreciation of the spiritual traditions in Russia – a land where the word for 'peasant', krestyanin, is almost the same as the word for 'Christian', Kristianin, (something which speaks volumes to me). It is primarily a book of stories of remarkable people – saints, 'holy fools' and martyrs – who illuminate what it means to be truly human in an often inhumane society. The book also has a wonderful section on the 19th century writer Dostoyevsky, and particularly on his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov which Donald describes as 'the best teacher of religion of the late 20th century'. If you have read Karamzov then you will learn so much from Triumphs of the Spirit. If you haven't yet read The Brothers Karamazov then go and read it.

The Beatitude of Truth, the book I am re-reading now, is a collection of writings over his lifetime – some shorter and others longer. It includes some of the best things I have read on interfaith dialogue. Scientia Cordis (science of the heart) places interreligious dialogue exactly where it needs to be – ie in the context of spirituality. This morning I was reading some musings on how in the 20th century homo sapiens began to be replaced by homo stalinensis – the 'man of steel'. Homo stalinensis values ruthless efficiency, strength and force. He (it is mostly 'he' though there are some exceptions) is inflexible and unyielding and is willing to sacrifice any number of lives for the sake of a principle or cause.

It is a metaphor of course, though one which many took up enthusiastically. The name 'Stalin' (Russian for 'steel') was adopted by Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili whose response, on hearing that his son had attempted suicide by shooting himself, was 'he can’t even shoot straight'. Stalin's Foreign Minister took the name Molotov ('hammer'). Hitler described himself as a magnet which drew to himself the elements of steel in the German nation. Others included Romania's Iron Guard, even (more controversially) Britain's Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, who was famously described by one of her colleagues as 'the only man in the cabinet'. Just as steel is used to make machines, so homo stalinensis loves the machinery of control – the ‘apparatus’ from which derives the favorite word used to describe communist bureaucrats: apparatchik. ‘Time is money’ is an invention of homo stalinensis and is slowly driving to extinction the notion of ‘sacred time’ - time spent with friends, time in nature, time with God.

If Donald were alive today I wonder what he would make of us? I know that he would be vigillant against creeping signs of stalinensis and would courageously remind us in words and deeds what it means to remain fully human. I am blessed to have him as a friend.




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