by S. Marianne Watts, OP “Changes”
When I was very young, I thought I would like to be a spy when I grew up. It would be like playing a hide-in-the-dark game with the neighborhood gang. I would find myself a place where no one could see me, but I would know where the others were. It would be fun.
During that time of my childhood, without my knowing it (without anyone knowing it), spying of a very different sort was being carried out by a group of young upper-class British men, later known as the Cambridge University spies. They had been recruited to supply British intelligence to communist Russia. Serving this ideology far surpassed what they did; it became who they were, their identity.
The new book, A Spy Among Friends, focuses on the career of Kim Philby, the most notorious of the Cambridge spies. When I imagined my future spy career, it didn’t occur to me that belief or loyalty would be problems. I didn’t know that the essence of spying is betrayal and living a lie. This book, of course, makes that clear. But what it also makes clear is Philby’s enormous and sincere gift for friendship, particularly with his fellow Brits.
How could friendship exist in a climate of treachery? Yet the crucial information that Philby was sending to Russia came not only from his job in British Intelligence but to a great extent from conversations with his close friends, also agents, over many drinks at his club.
Why did this terrible paradox grab my interest? Not because of my childhood imaginings. Philby’s was like a game gone wrong, as if the gang hiding in the dark of our neighborhood was playing one game while one of us—someone of a different identity—was playing another, darker version.
Identity is a theme in this story. According to the book, the British upper class had a long-standing identity criterion: being the right sort, as shown by your college, your social class, your drinking club. On graduating from their universities, the young men who drifted easily into intelligence work did not have much to prove to the government if they were the right sort. All it took was for an older influential friend of the family to pronounce “He’s all right. I know his family.” Meaning he had the right connections.
Are such connections, which contain more than a tinge of superiority, strong enough to guarantee loyalty to one’s country? Or must you follow your beliefs? Kim Philby had the right connections but believed deeply in Russian communism. Was he a person of integrity because he followed those beliefs?
Only the person involved can answer that question. But there ought to be some judgment that can be made on a person who deliberately caused the deaths of so many of his country’s allies in the name of political beliefs.
What kind of person was Kim Philby? He was someone who served the end by justifying unforgivable means. Betraying his country was his great crime. But the means to this end, the betrayal of his friends, was his great sin. His “unpardonable sin,” Nathaniel Hawthorne might have called it—
“The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony!”
I’ve heard friendship described as a sacrament and I think that’s true. We particularly need the grace of this sacrament in these days of Edward Snowden’s ongoing betrayal, of young Americans and Englishmen rushing to be part of the destructive mission of ISIS, of a President who is criticized for his efforts to de-escalate another never-ending war.
The recent Global Sisters Report’s excerpt from Sr. Simone Campbell’s speech (on accepting her Pacem in Terris Award) says it best: “It’s not about pushing back against [an opposing force]. . . . That just reinforces it. . . .There’s no peace in that. It’s about standing side by side, looking toward the future and fighting for an alternative vision where everyone is invited in. Fighting for . . . the vision that makes for peace.”
Standing side by side. The posture of friendship.