The best Saints inflame in other women (and men) the worst jealousy. This was especially true of Catherine of Siena and her contemporary, Palmarina, who nursed a toxic resentment of Catherine. Palmarina was, like Catherine, a Dominican and a member of the Sisters of Penance of St Dominic. She was also a native of Siena and had given her life to caring for the sick in the Hospital of Mercy in the time of the Black Death, much in the same way Catherine nursed the lepers which earned her the opprobrium of her mother, who thought it unseemly and dangerous for her daughter to tend the wounds of the untouchables.

Palmarina, however, was vastly different to Catherine. Unlike Catherine, Palmarina was not enlightened by revelations from the Lord and she barely had any insight into her own character. Her soul was mildewed in lukewarm love of God and love of admiration from others. She craved special attention and coveted Catherine’s charisms. In her interior life, Catherine enjoyed the highest levels of divine intimacy with Our Lord and in public she was celebrated as having an extraordinarily sparkling personality. Among the citizens of Siena, Catherine was famous for her charisma alone.

Palmarina envied Catherine’s reputation for sanctity and she was allergic even to the mention of her name. Raymond of Capua noted that, “From a secret source of pride and envy, she [Palmarina] nursed a cordial hatred of the holy virgin…to such an extent that she could not bear to see her or even hear her name mentioned.”  It was the 1300s, and yet the green-eyed monster was as alive then as now.  Palmarina knew that she could not have the special place that Catherine had in the hearts of many in Siena, so she waged a smear campaign against Catherine and tried to destroy her reputation so that less people would hold Catherine up as a role model and thus Palmarina satisfied her narcissistic longing to take from Catherine what she wanted for herself.

Catherine responded by treating Palmarina with the utmost loving kindness and humbled herself before her. She pleaded with Our Lord to cleanse the envy from Palmarina’s heart. Suddenly, Palmarina fell deathly ill. Even with death lingering, Palmarina became even more resentful of Catherine and had no empathy with Catherine for all the hurt she was causing her. Blessed Raymond was a witness to this, “She showed more unreasoning hatred of the holy virgin.” Worse still, Palmarina refused to confess to a priest and refused the Sacraments entirely, so narcissistic that she could not find any wrong-doing in her actions. Our Lord afforded Catherine a vision of Palmarina’s soul as being on its way to Hell. This provoked in Catherine self-abasement and self-blame, “O Lord, can it be that a poor thing like me should come into the world so that souls created in your image should be cast into eternal fire?”

In spite of her pleas, Our Lord, however, revealed to Catherine that Palmarina’s jealous maliciousness could not go unpunished. Catherine was moved to courageous charity, she asked Our Lord that he punish her instead of Palmarina, “Can the fruits that you were to obtain through me come down to this, the damnation of one of my sisters? I have not the slightest doubt that my own sins lie behind all these things…Punish me for all her sins, for I am the cause of her sickness and I should be punished, not her.” Then, Catherine launched one last petition, “I beg You, most merciful Lord, by all your goodness and mercy, not to allow my sister’s souls to issue from her body until she had been given your grace.” Our Lord was moved to pity for Palmarina and gave her more time.

At this time, Palmarina was in her last agony, but her life was miraculously prolonged, which amazed those who were attending to her because by all rights she ought to have died. Through Catherine’s intercession, Our Lord awarded Palmarina a light in her soul that acted as an awakening of conscience. She saw her vile sins of jealousy and repented. Catherine was aware that all this was happening and when she knew Palmarina wanted to ask her forgiveness, she made haste to her deathbed. Palmarina was delighted to see her, gave her a heartfelt apology and she showed true contrition for her narcissism. When she had given Catherine a profound apology, she made a final confession to a priest who gave her the Last Rites. After Palmarina had gone to God, Our Lord made it known to Catherine that her escape from Hell had been a special favor to her, “See, most loving daughter, for you I have retrieved this soul that was already lost.”

It never fails to amaze me that even in our times when the word “sin” is taboo, that people experience the destruction wreaked by a jealous person, and yet they balk from calling it a deadly sin. And it’s sad that among Catholics few understand that to envy another’s spiritual good is an offense against the Holy Ghost. Yet, envy and jealousy are the emotional fuel of the narcissistic condition coupled with a total determination to deny their own errors and misdeeds. Then the best books by the finest psychologists of our time often conclude that for people who are very entrenched in their narcissism that recovery is often impossible. You and I may be better to do as Catherine of Siena and pray for the same enlightening light of grace to shine in the souls of those who are so direly afflicted by narcissism.  Perhaps Catherine of Siena may even intercede for the Palmarina in your life.

A Prayer of St Catherine of Siena

Eternal God, eternal Trinity,

You have made the Blood of Christ so precious
through His sharing in Your Divine nature.
You are a mystery as deep as the sea;
the more I search, the more I find,
and the more I find, the more I search for You.
But I can never be satisfied;
what I receive will ever leave me desiring more.
When You fill my soul, I have an ever greater hunger,
and I grow more famished for Your light.
I desire above all to see You,
the true Light, as you really are. Amen.

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Reprinted from the blog of Mary O’Reagan: The Path Less Taken. This post was informed by Raymond of Capua’s biography of St Catherine of Siena. Classic painting of Catherine of Siena by unknown artist, Spanish, 17th century.