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Thinking Out Loud

Friendship as a Means of Grace

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 29, 2014
Thinking out Lous 093014What does the most notorious spy of the twentieth century have to do with a twelfth-century saint?

Almost nothing. But it’s the “almost” that’s interesting.

Over a thirty-year period, Kim Philby worked his way up the ladder of Britain’s elite MI6 (MI for “military intelligence”). Yes, that MI6. The one of which the British government denied the existence. The one that employs the fictional James Bond. But Philby was no fiction, though I’m sure there are lots of people who wish he had been.

A product of the British establishment, schooled at Westminster and Cambridge, Philby was recruited as a Soviet spy while in college. Philby betrayed his country. Throughout his long and apparently distinguished career (at one time in charge of counterintelligence against the Soviet Union), he fed his Soviet handlers every scrap of information he came across, costing untold lives across Europe and the Middle East.

He also betrayed his friends, especially the two colleagues who trusted him most, Nicholas Elliott (his fellow officer in MI6) and James Jesus Angleton (the head of counterintelligence for the CIA). Cutting an elegant and disarmingly charming swath across British, European, Middle Eastern and American society for three decades, Philby used every relationship he gained to advance a Communist ideology that he refused to question even as the evidence continued to mount of the horrors of the Gulag and Stalinism.

Philby once said, “Friendship is the most important thing.” But he also said, “I have always operated on two levels, a personal level and a political one. When the two have come into conflict, I have had to put politics first. The conflict can be very painful. I don’t like deceiving people, especially friends, and contrary to what others think, I feel very badly about it.”

However badly he may have felt about his betrayals, his actions led to the death of hundreds of real people who placed their trust in him and the intelligence services for which he worked. As a result of Philby’s spying, one CIA analyst said: “What it comes to, is that when you look at the whole period …, the entire Western intelligence effort, which was pretty big, was what you might call minus advantage. We’d have been better off doing nothing.”

And the friends Philby betrayed never recovered from the betrayals. All were scarred by the profound betrayal of intimacy and trust. He left in his wake three wives, one of which took her own life and another who died prematurely, as well as friends on two continents who never recovered. The lack of trust suffered by Angleton likely contributed to the witch hunts he conducted undermining the CIA for a generation after Philby’s defection to Moscow.

Ben MacIntyre’s new book, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (New York: Crown Publishers, 2014) leaves the reader scratching his head alternately asking, “How stupid could we have been?” And “How could someone do what Philby did to people he seemed to care about?” It is particularly this last question that fuels this book, delving into the tragedy of friendship betrayed, the power of political ideologies and the detritus of sociopathology.

So, how does Philby connect to the twelfth-century saint?

If ever there were a perfect opposite to the ideal of friendship, the sacramental potential of friendship, portrayed in Aelred of Rievaulx, Kim Philby is it!

Recently during a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, I came across Aelred’s writings, and I was astonished never to have read him before. Born in Hexham in 1110, near Durham, England, which for the past thirty years has figured prominently in my sense of call, Aelred served first as novice master at Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, before becoming Abbot of Revesby Abbey, and finally returning to Rievaulx as abbot.

He remained at Rievaulx until his death in 1167. Just to locate Aelred historically, before entering the monastery he served in the household of King David I of Scotland and later as an adviser to King Henry II of England. As a Cistercian monk and abbot, he was under the authority of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who took a great interest in him, mentoring and encouraging him as a writer and diplomat. Among the greatest of Aelred’s writings (and he wrote broadly in history, theology and spiritual direction) and the most influential of his texts in the medieval period, was a book titled, Spiritual Friendship.

To understand the significance of this book, perhaps a little theological background is in order: Christian theology, from the church’s earliest times, advanced an understanding of the Trinitarian God known as perichoresis, though this term does not appear until somewhat later. This doctrine can be difficult to grasp, but I think it can best be understood by focusing on the incarnation of Christ. In the incarnation, according to this doctrine, we are invited to look into the very heart of God’s eternal being; as classical theology puts it, into the Father’s eternal outpouring into the Son, God’s giving away God’s own life and love without reservation. This act of self-giving love is itself not merely an impersonal “it,” but is God the Holy Spirit, flowing from the Father to the Son and through the Son to all humanity and creation. The life of Jesus, through the eyes of faith, invites us to see that love is the ultimate meaning of all things because God is love. God created all things in love, and God loves all things that God has created. The God who is love invites us to participate in God’s own life and love through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This classic doctrine has been articulated variously by fourth-century theologians like Gregory of Nyssa and modern theologians like Catherine Mowry LaCugna. C.S. Lewis famously described prayer in these terms as participation in the triune God in his Mere Christianity, noting how an ordinary believer quietly bowing to pray in his or her bedroom is in fact lifted up into the inner life of the Trinity.

Every attempt (at least, that I know of) to speak of our participation in the life and love of God has been explicitly religious. Prayer is a religious act, a means of grace by which we participate in God. The Lord’s Supper, the same. And so forth. But then I came across Aelred. For him, human friendship is a pathway to participation in the life and love of God. Friendship is sacramental, a means of grace.

As Marsha Dutton (of Ohio University) explains, Aelred “writes of the sacramental essence of friendship – the way in which men and women may by loving one another embrace Christ in this life and enjoy eternal friendship with God in time to come.”

Drawing on sources like Cicero’s On Friendship, Ambrose of Milan’s On the Duties of the Clergy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions and the Bible, Aelred argues that God has woven God’s own love for the other, God’s love for community, God’s own being-in-communion into the very fabric of creation. When we participate in friendship, then, we are participating in God, we are being united to God. [Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, tr. Lawrence C. Braceland, SJ, ed./intro. Marsha L. Dutton (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010)].

According to Aelred, whether we know it or not, Jesus Christ is the silent partner in every real human friendship. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ shares with us, in and through the bonds of friendship, the joy that is the love of God. Not only is such “spiritual friendship” a love that never ends, it is a love that is divine because ultimately it flows from God and returns to God. This means, of course, that a betrayal of friendship is not merely a social faux pas. It is not an unfortunate lapse about which we may “feel very bad.” It constitutes a loss that shatters something of eternal significance in us.

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