An idealistic young priest once visited Thomas Merton at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky and spoke to him about his agony over social justice issues.  “I know it’s wrong,” he said, “and sometimes I can hardly face myself in the mirror for going along with things as they are. Yet I don’t know what to do. What can I do?”

“Don’t do a damned thing,” replied Merton. “Just take the time to become what you profess to be. Then you will know what to do.” If Merton had less credentials in the area of social justice, his answer could easily be seen as a rationalization, an excuse to escape involvement. Given his record, however, it is a profound answer. The answer of a saint to the agonizing question: What can I do in the area of social justice?

What can we do? In the circles that I move in, on this question, there is enough talk, enough agonizing and enough guilt, but little in the way of practical action. At our roots, many of us feel that we need to do something about injustice and poverty. We feel guilty about being affluent, but we feel helpless: “I have enough problems of my own! I have trouble paying my own mortgage, how can I save the world!”  Or, as a friend of mine recently said: “I don’t know what to do. So I go to a lot of meetings and read a lot about poverty and the Third World. It’s making me more sensitive and assuaging my guilt somewhat, but, in the end, I am still not doing anything concretely.”

What finally can we do?

Merton’s answer is that if we don’t know what to do, then we are still not ready to do anything. If we are still asking what to do, if our own problems are still too distracting, and if we are having trouble looking at ourselves in the mirror, then we are still too caught up in our own neuroses, ambitions, woundedness and false values to be of much help to the poor. We are still too poor ourselves. Our lives are not yet lives of praise and gratitude, lives that, by necessity, spill over and pour out graciousness. Our service, our prophecy and our resistance are still too self-seeking, too motivated by guilt, too distracted by wound and bitterness and anger.

To be a prophet of justice, an instrument of peace and a channel of graciousness necessitates that one be living more in gratitude than in anger, more in the posture of praise than the posture of paranoia.

But this isn’t easy. Too often our prophecy, our service and our resistance are motivated by guilt over our own affluence or by anger at our own culture. When that is the case, we do not truly help anyone. Our actions are simply self-aggrandizing and, in the end, serve to extend our own neuroses, ideologies and bitterness to the poor. There is no outflow of graciousness.

Resistance, prophecy and service must flow from a life which is full of gratitude, celebration, deep friendship and contemplative prayer. When these elements are there, graciousness automatically spills over. One knows what to do!

That is what is implied in Merton’s answer. Only when a person has grown in prayer, friendship and gratitude so that the bitter need to kill, to defend self, to be jealous and to be angry because one has been wounded, disappears, will one truly be able to resist, prophesy and serve.

Saints and prophets aren’t characterized by bitterness, guilt or anger. These do not serve the poor. Saints and prophets are recognized by the warmth of their love and their sense of God’s presence. That is why Merton tells that young man: “Take the time you need to become what you profess to be…don’t rush wounded, self-preoccupied, ill-prepared and badly motivated into the crisis.”

In a crisis, at an accident or a fire, things are not made better, nor is anyone helped, by someone who is too full of personal crisis and self-interest to be self-forgetful enough to genuinely give himself over to the task at hand. Persons caught in self-interest are more part of the problem than of the solution – both at fires and in social justice.

This answer is not a dangerous privatization of morality, an escape clause for the rich, a shutting of the ears to the urgency of the cry and hunger of the poor. It’s a refusal of the blind to lead the blind. It’s the admission that it is hard to save the world when one must still be engaged in the humbler task of growing up. It is a taking seriously of one’s woundedness and narcissism. Most important, it is a challenge to move beyond present complacency, to begin the painful task of uprooting bitterness, resentments, paranoia, self-pity, jealousy, self-interest, laziness, neuroses, and rerooting in prayer, gratitude and friendship, so that when the poor cry out we know what to do.

In the meantime, many of us are reduced to a certain impotence as we live the question.