Volume 14 Number 1
Jerusalem: a Place to Test the Heart
01 February 2001

Peter Everington returns often to 'The Testing of Hearts', a book written amid the tensions of the Holy Land.

How does a community of scholars from differing church backgrounds live together in a way that is recognizably Christian, especially when they live among the rival halves of the Semitic family in the Holy Land, Jews and Arabs? Part of the answer is to have a rector who is alert to his own spiritual needs, and equipped to draw the best out of others.

A proverb of King Solomon says: 'A furnace for silver, a foundry for gold, but the Lord for the testing of hearts.' Donald Nicholl was the Rector of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research at Tantur in Israel from 1981-85. His book is dedicated to all who shared the testing of hearts with him in Jerusalem during that period. It consists mainly of his journal, and articles written for the UK Catholic weekly, The Tablet.

The Rector's was a varied life. One afternoon he started a discussion in his apartment with a German biblical scholar, when a furious argument began in the corridor outside. It was two Arab shepherds who expected him to arbitrate on which had the right to graze sheep on the Institute's land. Nicholl invited them both in. As soon as they were seated, a message came from the reception desk that the Cardinal Archbishop of Toulouse had arrived unannounced with his secretary and would like to introduce himself straightaway.

The March 1982 journal entries show disquiet about a violent quarrel between two of the scholars known as Olaf and Canute. Over several weeks each tried to enlist the scholars on his side, while explosively rejecting the Rector's mediation. How would the Institute be able to celebrate Easter in good conscience? Then at mass one morning, Olaf suddenly shouted from one side of the chapel to the other, 'I forgive you Canute, and I ask your forgiveness,' and they embraced before the astonished congregation.

One evening Nicholl issued a rebuke to the scholars at a community meeting. As soon as he spoke, he knew it had come from 'the wrong place inside me'. He immediately apologized for the damage done but felt he must look deeper into his nature. Pacing the flat roof of the Institute under the night sky, he discovered roots of resentment and envy going back to his childhood. A great peace descended, and he could greet the new day and his colleagues with a smile. 'The whole episode has been a great lesson to me,' he writes. 'If only you work away at the rotten areas of yourself on which the light of Christ has been shed, then the burden of Christ will prove so light as to be no burden at all.'

Tantur is near Bethlehem, and looks out on Beit Sahur, Beit Jala, and Gilo, names well known from recent killings. Equally violent events occurred during the years when this book was written.

Nicholl had been a scholar at Tantur for a year in the 1970s. Early in his stay he concluded that Jerusalem was the most testing of cities to live in because it required you to exercise the virtue of justice every moment. 'People pile one lie upon another so thick that the truth demanded of them by the holy city shall remain hidden.' How then, he asks, can you know if you have passed the test? It is simple. If the spontaneous reaction of your heart on hearing of killings on either side is ideological ('they deserve it') rather than human, your heart is corrupted and you should go on pilgrimage till it is cleansed.

His own childhood home was a terraced house in the compound of a brickworks in the north of England. This gave him a fellow feeling with the Palestinian men who left home before daybreak, and were often humiliated at checkpoints, on their way to labouring jobs in Israel. Read in one way, The Testing of Hearts is a plea for the dignity of the Palestinians. Read in another, it urges compassion for the Jews of Israel.

Nicholl quotes a Sephardic (Oriental) Jew, Gustav Kars: 'Affliction dies away in time but shame and humiliation ever renew themselves. A shock psychologically dominated is called a trauma. People afflicted with a trauma are mentally diseased. Every psychiatrist knows that a person afflicted with a trauma unconsciously strives to recreate the situation that is at its source, in order to be given a "second chance" to act differently. Ashkenazi [European] leadership in Israel unconsciously tends to provoke a new holocaust--a holocaust where Jews will not die "like vermin" but as heroes and in a way commanding admiration. I claim that this alone is capable of explaining Israeli behaviour.'

A campaigning Auschwitz survivor called Arnold told Nicholl he was exhausted, and asked if he could stay a while at Tantur. Nicholl brushed aside the rules and made him a guest of the Institute for five weeks. At the end he said, 'During the course of my life, many, many Christians have spoken to me about how much they loved me, and what they intended to do for me. But in every case it eventually came clear that ultimately, somewhere at the back of their minds, they were wanting me to convert--and my being aware of that eliminated everything they had previously said to me or done for me. But here at Tantur, for the first time, I feel that I have been completely accepted as I am, by everyone in the community.'

One day the Israeli Governor of Bethlehem, an Army Colonel, remarked that the Rector was trying to be neutral as regards Arabs and Jews. Nicholl replied that neutrality gives a sense of being unconcerned. 'What we try to do is be on both sides, never to lose our sense of compassion for either Arabs or Jews, who are both caught in a situation which is largely not of their own making.'

The Colonel responded with great warmth, and Nicholl comments in his journal that night, 'Suddenly I had a glimpse of the man's heart and an inkling of what it must cost a sensitive man to exercise high office in an occupying force: trying to carry out as humanely as possible a policy which is inevitably oppressive.'

Nicholl observed that some westerners came to Jerusalem to pursue their agenda without any feeling for what was going on in the minds of Palestinians and Israelis. And religious workers could preach a great truth like forgiveness, while not allowing their own hearts to be tested in this area.

Dorothy Nicholl makes occasional appearances in the book. On the birthday of the Romanian Archimandrite Vasileus she can be found visiting him in hospital with a cake she has baked. And in 1985 she makes a notable intervention at a farewell party given to the Nicholls by the Arab community in the area. Solemn orations have been delivered. Nicholl tries to lighten the mood with some jokes before turning to his wife to say a few words. The Tantur journal ends: 'She had hardly got a sentence out before she was unmistakably weeping; and that set me off, and many of the Arabs present also began to weep. In a way it was marvellous, a truly Arab occasion with plenty of speeches and many demonstrations of emotion leading to a welcome catharsis, finishing up with everyone sitting around, restored to cheerfulness, unashamedly tucking into the coffee and the mountains of cake.'

I had known the Middle East for many years before the first edition of The Testing of Hearts appeared in 1989. It is the most profound introduction to the Israel-Palestine situation by a westerner that I know, and I return to it often.

For most of his working life Nicholl taught modern history at Keele University in England. He had mastered Latin, Greek, German, French, Irish Gaelic and Welsh, and (as this book shows) could quote the Hindu, Buddhist and Taoist sages.

In 1994 I wrote somewhat diffidently to ask if I might come to see him with a Sudanese friend whose daughter was about to start at Keele. Together with a British colleague we were invited to his home, where Dorothy produced a five-course lunch for three virtual strangers. She and Donald listened intently to the Sudanese with his anguish about his country, and shared their own longings in an outpouring of heart, mind, soul and strength.

Donald Nicholl died of cancer in his home in 1997. The second edition of his book is introduced and edited by Adrian Hastings. It is supplemented by Nicholl's meditations during his last months, and by poems written by two of his former students who found deeper meaning for their lives through him.

The Testing of Hearts is published by Darton Longman & Todd, ISBN 0-232-52285-5.
Peter Everington