“When you gossip about a person it means you have removed the person from your heart. But be aware, when you remove a man from your heart, Jesus also goes away from your heart with that man.” – St. Padre Pio
“If something uncharitable is said in your presence either speak in favor of the absent, or withdraw, or if possible, stop the conversation.” – St. John Vianney
In part one of our series we discussed the different forms of gossip and the offenses against the eighth commandment. We know that we shouldn’t gossip, and we know that if we succumb to the temptation that there is the sacrament of confession available to us. So we can reasonably say we know what to do if we unfortunately fall into gossip, and how to try to keep ourselves from doing so in the first place. But what if you are the target of gossip? What if you are the one being calumniated or about whom gossip is being spread?
It is never pleasant to discover that untruths, partial truths, or even truths that were to remain in confidence are being spread about oneself. It is even more unpleasant, even hurtful, to discover who is spreading the gossip, especially if they are friends or family. Thankfully, we have the example and the advice of the saints to help us navigate this unfortunate situation, and to come through it in such a way that being the target of gossip contributes to our own sanctification and growth in holiness.
The saints speak
St. Josemaria Escriva reminds us that we should use our circumstances to reflect on ourselves and our own shortcomings. It is so easy, especially when we feel hurt or betrayed by gossip, to point the finger and begin to disparage the person who is responsible for the gossip being spread. But this neither contributes to our personal holiness nor does it do any good for the person in question.
Instead, St. Josemaria says, “How I wish your bearing and conversation were such that, on seeing or hearing you, people would say: ‘This man reads the life of Jesus Christ.'” This applies to everyone, even victims of calumny and gossip. He also says, “If you have so many defects, why are you surprised to find defects in others?”
That stings a little, but it is a healthy reminder that we are not perfect, and before we go about pointing out the shortcomings, failings, and faults of another because we are hurt by them doing so to us, we should pause and recall our own failings, and remind ourselves that we are not perfect, nor without our own shortcomings. This should cause us to be silent about the failings and faults of others and pray all the more fervently for our own faith and sanctification.
Mother Teresa has some sound advice not only for those who find themselves the target of detraction or calumny, but for when we must face those who have spread gossip about us or someone we love.
She says, “When you talk to them, put all of your love and sweetness into your words—or rather ask Jesus to speak through you.”
This can seem like a really tall order – especially if we have been hurt, or suffered serious consequences as a result of the gossip that was spread. There is wisdom in her advice though, because by choosing charity, even if through a pure act of the will, we merit not only grace, but we keep ourselves from bitterness. Remember, “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8).
The doctor is in
Perhaps the most comprehensive advice comes from none other than one of the greatest, and most practical spiritual directors in the Communion of Saints. Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales, broke down not only how to respond to calumny, but the hierarchy of virtues that should come into play in your response. His brilliant counsel was catalogued by Bishop Jean Pierre Camus, of Belley, who was the only Bishop ever consecrated by St. Francis de Sales, and who wrote of his spiritual father and friend in a book published with the title, “The Spirit of St. Francis de Sales.” If you are ever fortunate enough to have some time to read this book (available in print and for e-readers) you can find the saint’s advice in detail beginning on page 138.
St. Francis de Sales’ counsel begins with what our first obligation is when we are the victim of calumny but it can be applied to being the object of most forms of gossip. He reminds us that our first obligation is to the truth. Therefore he counsels that it is right to calmly and without need for excess words, set the record straight. However, if the truth does not stop the gossip, or at least abate it, Bishop Camus explains St. Francis’ next piece of advice,
“If you are not believed, humility now claims her right and bids you say that you have many greater faults unknown to the world…”
If this act of humility, along with the admission that you are a sinner, and that this particular gossip is untrue, but for the grace of God, is not enough to stop “the tempest of evil speaking,” silence, we are told, is the next course of action, “and offers her calm resistance to the storm.”
“Answering is the oil which feeds the lamp of calumny, silence is the water which extinguishes it. If silence is unavailing, then patience reminds you that it is her turn to act, and coming forward, shelters you with her impenetrable shield. Patience, as holy scripture tells us, makes us perfect.” If however, the gossip does not stop and the calumniators are unwavering, we are counseled to call upon constancy next. Constancy, we are told, “is impervious to the most violent thrusts.” “But should evil tongues, growing both sharper and keener, cut to the very quick, longanimity, which is an unfailing, undying patience, is ready to enter the lists, and eager to help us.
Lastly, we are encouraged to call upon the virtue of perseverance. perseverance,
“which goes with us to the very end and without which the whole network of virtues would fall to pieces, for it is the end which crowns the work, and he who perseveres to the end will be saved.”
We are further told that St. Francis de Sales explains how there are many other virtues that often come into play when one is the object of calumny, detraction, or gossip; not the least of which is charity, because it is charity that requires us and calls us to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who persecute us. Charity, we are reminded, is “indeed the life and soul of all the virtues.”
Be not afraid
To steal a Biblical phrase often echoed by Pope St. John Paul II, “Be not afraid!” Just as we are to fear that which can kill the soul more than that which can kill the body, we shouldn’t fear even that which can “kill” our reputations or our good name. When we find ourselves the victim of gossip we can find great consolation in the fact that Jesus, our Savior, was himself the object of slander, calumny, gossip, and ridicule.
As we carry own crosses after him, it should not be a surprise when we suffer as he did, and we can remind ourselves that his sufferings were infinitely greater than our own. He carried on his shoulders all the sins of the world—sins of gossip included. Perhaps by suffering well we not only “make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ” but we find ourselves closer to reaching the holiness we are all called to in this life so that we may merit life in heaven for eternity. When we maintain an eternal perspective, even the evils of gossip, of slander, of calumny, are no match for the grace of God and the hope we have for eternal life! If we keep this in mind, follow the counsel of the good doctor, St. Francis de Sales, and heed the advice of the saints who have gone before us, we too, will be equipped to deal with gossip like a saint!