Sunday, December 2, 2007

Memorial: Stephen J. Spiro

Stephen J. Spiro Memorial

Mt 5, 1-12. 20-23. 38-41. 43-48

St. Francis Cathedral, Metuchen, N.J.
December 1, 2007
Deacon Tom Cornell

Last spring, Shorty called me on the phone at Peter Maurin Farm, up in the Hudson Valley. He had visited us a year before. At that time he seemed confident that he was out of the woods as far as his health was concerned, his cancer. Now on the phone his voice was just as steady and assured as when we had last met. He told me that he was dying, the cancer had returned, that he had maybe until September, but then again, maybe longer. He’d like to make it to Thanksgiving or to Christmas but his bags were packed in any event, he told me. He seemed so up-beat about it! Would I preach at his funeral? “Of course,” I said, “of course!” He said that he had no regrets, that he had done most of what he had hoped to do in life. His tone of voice and his words convinced me that he was as he said he was, content and at ease, ready to meet his God. Shorty had faith in the Resurrection. That’s why he was not afraid. He had faith in God, and that God is good.

The first time we met was at a Friday Night Meeting for the Clarification of Thought at the Catholic Worker house on Chrystie Street, in The Bowery, in 1962 or ’63. Shorty was a regular at the Friday Night Meetings at the Catholic Worker, then the most exciting forum in town. After the meeting a few of us would walk down the length of Mott Street to Number 10 to have a late night meal. Shorty liked to eat. We would continue to talk, to clarify thought, as we say, about man and the state, about war and peace, about the Church and how Catholic tradition, the Christian tradition of gentle personalism, might lead us to something better, a better world, a new society in which it would be easier to be good. He was then a Republican. But little by little, over a period of some years, through study and prayer, Shorty wrote that “he gradually became a Biblical anarchist and a radical pacifist.”

Well before that, in 1964 a few of us organized the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Thomas Merton and the Berrigan brothers Phil and Dan gave Jim Forest and me their names and helped us to raise funds. Jim and I did the work, gathering a membership and offering educational services and especially, as it turned out, counseling for those vulnerable to the Viet Nam draft, and later members of the military who felt that they could no longer serve in good conscience and wanted out. Shorty was one of our earliest Catholic Peace Fellowship members, and one of our first clients.

He was well formed in fundamental theology by the Jesuits at Francis Xavier High School in Manhattan. He continued to develop a Catholic view of things by personal study at the University of Chicago and later at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, and by continuing clarification of thought in dialogue with us Catholic Workers. He knew what he was talking about; he knew what he was doing. Subject to the Viet Nam war draft, Shorty determined that he was not going to go, under any circumstances. He presented a claim for exemption from military training and service on the grounds of conscience, a conscientious objector on the basis of just war theory. That presented a problem.

The law allows conscientious objection only on the grounds of opposition to all war. Shorty was convinced that the war in Viet Nam was unjust and that for him to participate in it knowingly would be gravely sinful. He knew that if he made his claim on that basis and did not present himself as opposed to participation in war in any form, any kind of war, then he would be turned down. Denied conscientious objector status, he would face induction. In that event, he would refuse induction and stand trial. He knew that at trial he would be found guilty, and that the court could sentence him to up to five years in prison and a quarter million dollars fine. On the other hand, if he appealed his conviction he just might make it to the Supreme Court, and if that court upheld his defense, then the law would be broadened and all so-called “selective” conscientious objectors after him would be recognized. For their sakes, to expand liberty under law, and for the sake of the traditional teaching of the Church, that it is forbidden to wage unjust war, and for the sake of American democracy, Stephen stood his grounds. I assured him that by stating his case honestly but carefully, avoiding the question of unjust versus just war, he would almost certainly qualify as a universal objector and be off the hook, home free. Shorty took the harder road. In this he became a hero in my eyes and the eyes of those who knew and understood what he was doing, too few, then and now.

As it turned out, Shorty’s judge recognized his sincerity and his larger purpose and kept him out of prison by giving him a suspended sentence and five years probation. He was a convicted felon nonetheless, and he reveled in it, a “criminal for peace.” But a felony rap can limit one. President Ford gave Shorty a pardon, so he was no longer a felon, but a “political criminal,” as he liked to call himself. Shorty had faith that if he did God’s will, all would be well, and all was well. He had an honorable career in the computer industry, married and raised a family, his pride. But he continued to be a thorn in the side of some.

Shorty had a way of upsetting people. He was convinced it was good for them. He became the Catholic Peace Fellowship’s voice in this diocese and in New Jersey. At anti-war peace rallies he set up a Right to Life table, that is to say, Right to Life as inclusive of all the life issues. At anti-abortion rallies he was sure to be seen at the same folding table, handing our literature against the death penalty and war. Call it a consistent life ethic, or the seamless garment argument. Shorty knew that the right to life does not end at birth, and that the right to life entails the right to the means to life, including health care and the right to make a decent living at an honorable job. In this way, Shorty conformed himself to the mind of the Church; he knew that he spoke the mind of the Church, from the heart of the Church, and he understood too that in the long run, our argument in favor of life will not convince unless it is across the board. He had little use for the argument that abortion is intrinsically evil while the other forms of life-taking are not. Willfully killing the innocent is intrinsically evil any way you do it – that’s what happens in unjust war. And the ancient Fathers taught that depriving a worker of his just wage is a crime that cries to heaven for vengeance, along with murder and rape and stealing from widows and orphans.

This is not supposed to be a eulogy but a homily, not so much to praise Shorty as to focus on what gave Shorty his vision, his courage and his tenacity over more than four decades; what made him live as he did and what made him face death with such equanimity, peace and assurance. That, anyone who knew him can tell you, was his faith in God and in Jesus Christ, in Christ crucified, risen, to come again. Shorty believed in the Resurrection, Christ’s Resurrection and our own, “the Resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

In Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he says, “Someone may ask, ‘How are dead people raised, and what kind of body do they have when they come back?’ These are stupid questions,” Paul assures us (1 Cor 15, 35). He goes on to try to explain, but he is not entirely successful. We can not “know” what the Resurrection is, not Jesus’ Resurrection, and not the Resurrection of the Just on the Last Day. What we can know, what we can be sure of, is that it is real.

Jesus showed himself in the upper room, behind locked doors. John tells us his words to the doubting Thomas. “Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand, put it into my side” (Jn 20, 27). Luke recounts that Jesus appeared at the seashore after his Resurrection, that he “stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you!’ In a state of alarm and fright they thought they were seeing a ghost. But he said, ‘Why are you so agitated and why do these doubts rise in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; yes, it is I indeed. Touch me and see for yourselves; a ghost has no flesh and bones as you can see I have.’ And as he said this he showed them his hands and his feet. Their joy was so great that they still could not believe it and they stood there dumbfounded; so he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ And they offered him a piece of grilled fish, which he took and ate before their eyes” (Lk 24, 36-43). Whatever the Resurrection is, it is real. That’s all we can know, that’s all we need to know.

“Vita non tollitur sed mutatur.” “Life is not taken away, it is changed.” Nothing is lost. That’s the first law of thermodynamics, isn’t it? Nothing is lost, nothing lost, just changed. Everything changes, all the time, says sage Heraclitus, all the time, “panta rrhei, ouden menei.” But at the end of time? Not to worry. The worst has happened, and been repaired. Christ is risen!

Did he sing? I can imagine Shorty in his last days singing:

“Just a few more weary days and then,I'll fly away;
To a land where joy will never end,I'll fly away.
I'll fly away, oh GloryI'll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by,I'll fly away.”

“To a land where joy will never end....”

That’s where he is. That’s where he will be. A brief sleep and then to rise in glory. È vero! It’s true! Happy is he, blessed is he. Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called the children of God. Blessed are you, Stephen Spiro, Son of God. Pray for us. We should all live so honestly, we should all die so well. #


TRM said...

There is a profound irony in the fact that hearing Cruz ascribe Trump's absence from CPAC to the presence of libertarians brought me back to Stephen Spiro and the meetings we attended at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey, young Catholics concerned with issues of peace and social justice.

Stephen was my introduction to the libertarian analysis. I can, even now, image his visage, even after the half century since I last saw him. It is not surprising to see the ways his life reflected a constancy of principal and activism.

Stephen's passing holds the sadness of this point in our lives, when we bid farewell to our peers, with some small relief that we remain. What holds some surprise is to discover that Tom Cornel is a deacon. I would not have predicted Tom in such a comfortable relationship with the institutional church. Then again, I could not have imagined the roads my life has brought me down since those times.

Stephen, may you have peace and Tom, thank you for bringing me back to that pivotal period of my life and the many rich memories it holds.

TRM said...

I think often of those days at Christie Street, in Tivoli, of all those wonderfully real persons; Dean, Stanley, The Bishop, the Beffigans, the Corbin's, Jim Forest and, of course, Dorothy. Tom, thank you for prompting me to update my "Reflections on Selling Catholic Workers..."

While I will put those reflections to page now, If my autobiography ever reaches page, it will be entitled "Coming of Age in the Near Shadow of Giants.