Francis de Sales had a tough job: Roman Catholic bishop of Geneva while the Reformed wing of the Reformation was headquartered there. He couldn’t even live in the town he was bishop of! Nevertheless, that didn’t keep him from being a spiritual director for many people through letters. He published the content of those letters as the classic of Christian spirituality Introduction to the Devout Life. In it, he asserts that one does not need to be a monk or nun to follow God closely, and he lays out a program for laypeople with busy lives to do so.
He is writing to people in a honour-hungry age, where everyone zealously protected their reputation. In section 7 of the third part, Francis gives some corrective advice on when and how to defend your reputation.
Humility does not permit us to have any opinion of our own excellence or right to be preferred before others, and therefore it cannot allow us to seek after praise, honor, and glory, which are things due only to excellence. Yet humility agrees with the counsel of the Wise Man who warns us to “take care of our good name” (Sir 41:15). because to esteem our good name is not to esteem an excellence but only ordinary honesty and integrity of life. Humility does not forbid us to acknowledge this within ourselves or to desire a reputation for it is true that humility would despise a good name if charity had no need for it but because good name is one of the bases of human society and without it we are not only useless but harmful to the public by reason of the scandal it would provoke, charity requires and humility agrees that we should desire to have a good name and carefully preserve it.
The duty of preserving our reputation and of being actually such as we are thought to be urges a generous spirit to go forward with a strong and agreeable impulse. Let us preserve our virtues, my dear Philothea, because they are acceptable to God, the great and sovereign object of all our actions. But just as those who want to preserve fruit are not satisfied merely with covering them over with sugar, but put them into vessels that can keep them, so too although love of God is the principal preservative of our virtues, we can also employ our good name as very proper and useful for that purpose.
We must not be too ardent, precise, and demanding in regard to preserving our good name. Men who are overly tender and sensitive on this point are like persons who take medicine for slight indispositions. Although they think they are preserving their health, they actually destroy it. In like manner those who try too carefully to maintain their reputation lose it entirely. By such sensitivity they become captious, quarrelsome, and unbearable and thus provoke the malice of detractors. Generally speaking, to ignore and despise an injury or calumny is a far more effectual remedv than resentment fighting, and revenge. Contempt for injuries causes them to vanish, whereas if we become angry, we seem to admit them. Detraction hurts only those who are vexed by it. Excessive fear of losing our good name reveals great distrust in its foundation, which is really a good life. Towns that have wooden bridges over great rivers are afraid that they will be swept away by every little rise of water, but those with stone bridges fear only extraordinary floods. In like manner those with souls solidly grounded on Christian virtue usually despise the floods let loose by harmful tongues, while those who know that they are weak are upset by every report.
Reputation is like a sign pointing to where virtue dwells and therefore this virtue must be preferred in all things and through all things. Hence if anyone calls you a hypocrite because you are devout or a coward because you have pardoned some injury, laugh at him. Although such judgments are passed on us by foolish and stupid people, we must not forsake the path of virtue even if we suffer loss of reputation. We must prefer the fruit before the leaves, that is, interior spiritual graces above all external goods. It is legitimate to be jealous of our reputation but not to be idolatrous of it. Also, just as we must not offend the eyes of good men, so also we must not try to please the eyes of the wicked. The root of a good name is virtue and probity. As long as they remain in us it can always regain the honor due to it.
If some vain way of life, idle habit, foolish love, or custom of keeping improper company should injure our reputation, we must give them up. Our good name is of more value than any such empty pleasures. But if because of exercise of piety, advancement in devotion, or progress toward heaven men grumble, murmur, and speak ill of us, let us leave them to bay at the moon. If at times they can cast aspersions on our good name and thus cut and shave off the hair of our reputation, it will quickly grow out again. The razor of detraction will be as useful toward our honor as the pruning knife is to the vine, which makes it abound and multiply in fruit.
Let us always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ crucified and go forward in his service with confidence and sincerity but with prudence and discretion. He will protect our reputation. If he permits it to be taken away from us, it will either be to give us a better one or to make us profit by holy humility, of which a single ounce is preferable to a thousand pounds of honor. If we are condemned unjustly, let us calmly oppose truth to calumny. If the calumny continues, let us continue to humble ourselves. By surrendering our reputation together with our soul into God’s hands, we safeguard it in the best way possible. Let us serve God “by evil report and good report” (2Cor 6:8), after the example of St. Paul, so that we may say with David, “Because for your sake, O Lord, I have borne reproach, shame has covered my face” (Ps 69:7). Nevertheless, I except from this certain crimes so horrid and infamous that no man should put with being falsely charged with them if he can justly acquit himself of it. I also except certain persons on whose reputation the edification of many others depends. According to the opinion of theologians, in such cases we must quietly seek reparation of the wrong received.