One reward for a commitment to leading a virtuous life is criticism. As surely as night follows day, the person of devotion and virtue will be accused of hypocrisy and it will be suggested that they have turned to God out of weakness.
Of course, we are hypocrites. There is no one of perfect virtue save Jesus himself and his Blessed Mother.
Indeed, we may be even more hypocritical than some of the children of the world who accuse us of that vice. We actually proclaim the goodness of virtue and fall short. They, on the other hand, have given up on virtue and neither proclaim it nor live it.
The one who accuses you of hypocrisy as you strive to do good is a cynic. He has hardened himself and looks on the world with a jaundiced, jealous eye. Every hint of goodness must be criticized because the critic cannot stand the light that goodness throws on his own darkness.
At this point, this series of articles turns its focus to Part Four of St. Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life, a section in which Francis provides advice for combatting frequent temptations.
The first temptation is not a temptation; it is a reality. The reality, as St. Francis says, is, "As soon as worldly people see that you wish to follow a devout life, they aim a thousand darts of mockery and even detraction at you."
If you don't believe St. Francis de Sales, believe Jesus: "Because I have chosen you out of the world, . . . therefore, the world hates you" (John 15.19).
The person who wastes their time on vain amusements such as dancing and card playing draws no criticism, says Francis. But spend an hour in meditation or a night-long vigil in prayer and you will be accused of wasting your time or endangering your health.
"Does anyone fail to see that the world is an unjust judge, gracious and well-disposed to its own children but harsh and rigorous towards the children of God?"
If we spend too long in the confessional, the worldly will believe that we have done grievous evil. However, if we emerge too quickly, it is obvious to them that we have not made a full accounting of our sins.
If we get dressed up, it is because we are implementing some nefarious plan. If we dress slovenly then we are dowdy and out of date.
"John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He is a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, 'He is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners'" (Matthew 11.18-19).
In the face of temptation, we should feast on 'honey' offered in the counsels of holy persons.
Francis admits that virtue and hypocrisy may sometimes look the same. How do you tell the difference? "Hypocrisy cannot last long but is quickly dissipated like rising smoke, whereas true virtue is always firm and constant." The duplicity of the hypocrite is quickly revealed, but the virtuous person will remain that way through thick and thin.
The second temptation is a real temptation. It is the temptation to be sad and discouraged in the face of criticism.
However, Francis de Sales says we should welcome the criticism that comes to those who are growing stronger in their faith. Such criticism is a cure for pride and vanity. "We are crucified to the world and the world must be crucified to us."
The big question is how one responds in face of criticism that is cold-eyed and unfair. The great temptation is to respond in kind, if not with anger, then at least with festering resentment.
Francis begs us to be patient. Our discouragement means nothing. It will pass and we will receive "countless blessings." But if we react in kind, we will forego those blessings.
The unfair criticism we receive is an opportunity to grow in holiness. We can gently challenge the veracity of those criticisms, but Francis advises us that most importantly we should feed on the "honey" of advice from holy persons or spiritual books. "Little by little, by continuing to eat honey the older bees have prepared, the little nymphs take on wings and grow strong so that later they fly all over the country in search of food."
We are only little bees who hope someday to fly to the heights of Christian perfection. To do that, we need to be regularly nourished for the flight. We need to avoid the strong temptation to feed off the bitter gruel of unfair criticism directed our way. The sweet honey of the counsel of spiritual masters can help us carry the cross that inevitably comes with the pursuit of holiness.