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Why divine union hurts sometimes

I made it to the desert -- and I was shocked.

Kelly Deutsch in front of New Mexico rock formation

I can’t believe I made it to New Mexico.


After spending the majority of the last two years in bed, I traveled—on my own—to a retreat in the desert.


I’m not sure how to convey the enormity of this occasion. Perhaps by contrast:


It is not uncommon for me to need help functioning in my daily life. Walking, getting up the stairs, or finding food to eat are not always things I can do independently.


Poor sleep may result in me being a zombie for days.


Travel is tenuous. I am rarely able to drive myself places, due to weakness and fatigue.


The last time my husband and I flew to visit family, my nervous system got so overwhelmed that I broke down in the middle of the airport. On the floor. In a heap of sobs.


But on this trip, I flew all by myself. 


I drove to the airport. Found foods that my messed up gut could handle. Got a Lyft to a motel on Route 66, only to discover that certain people like to race their loud cars until 2 in the morning.


But even with poor sleep, my body functioned the next day! (WHAT!) Enough that I made it over to the CAC where I met up with a dozen other contemplative leaders.


I’m still in shock!

desert scene with blue sky

I had traveled to New Mexico to go on retreat with the Contemplative Community Creators Network. Each of the attendees led an organization engaging in contemplative practices, community, and formation.

Our retreat center was hugged by massive rock walls, in layers of saffron and rust and mauve. It was unlike anything I had seen before.

On the first night, I stepped out for an amble about the grounds. As dusk deepened, I breathed in the stunning landscape. The rocks appeared pink as the first stars began to peek out from behind their velvet stage curtain.

The rugged beauty transported me to the deeply moving retreats of my past.

Santa Marinella, Cortina, Assisi.

Ocean, mountain, valley.

Tender memories rushed through my limbs.

Remember stealing away together on those Assisi trails?

Dancing on the deserted beach?

The sweet nights on the Roman balcony?

A flush of joy: my body recalled the delicious silence and intimacy on those retreats.

When I felt so held, loved—and so deeply settled.

My body didn’t experience that depth of settledness much anymore.

With my dysautonomia of the past decade, overwhelm and collapse were always precariously close.

I felt a surge of melancholy.

My dear friend, Grief.

I missed the old me.

And the way that I used to experience the Holy.

Remember when everything was a symphony?

Every color a crazy love letter?

I used to glow and purr.

I sighed as my dry eyes found themselves bathed.

I know You’ve been with me each step of the way—so intimately.

Through my life falling apart. Leaving the convent. Illness. Piecing my world back together in an entirely new arrangement.

But damn. My whole being has been through so much.

Violence has been done - continues to be done - to my body, my brain, my psyche, my heart.

It’s so very heavy.

And yet here I am, in a breathtakingly beautiful place once again.


Why this path?

Why this?


(As some wiser part of me countered—)

Why not?

Did I really think I’d be spared the Cross?

Do I want union or do I want UNION?

It’s excruciating


It’s the marriage bed

desert scene at dusk

I was reminded of a passage from Catherine Doherty, one of my favorite modern mystics. She experienced the agony of her family and her entire life’s ministry falling apart. She said:

"Everything that happens to us spiritually, everything that causes us to grow, will bring us closer to God if we say yes.


This is what spiritual growth means. It doesn't come from what we do, necessarily, from all our actions and good works.


Sometimes it comes from simply sitting and seeing the shambles of what we tried to accomplish, from watching what was seemingly God's work go to pot. You can't do anything about it, but watch. 


This happened to me. I knew dimly then what I see more clearly today, that this was the moment when God really picked me up and said,


"Now I am offering you the union you seek. The other side of my cross is empty. Come, be nailed upon it. This is our marriage bed."



Is that a sucker punch for you too?


"Now I am offering you the union you seek. The other side of my cross is empty. Come, be nailed upon it. This is our marriage bed."


Union is always so much different than we think.


I sighed. 

I'm just so tired of the emotional whiplash. Feeling great, then feeling miserable, feeling great, then collapse...


Can I just have a time of gentleness, please?


Some loved ones who can hold it all, together?


We were never meant to walk this alone. CLEARLY.



And throughout the week, my prayer would be answered.

Contemplative Community Creators Network photo

I’d come to know 12 other beautiful hearts, each seeking to live into Mystery in their own unique way.

Together we’d meditate, share stories, swap ideas, hike (I hiked!!), grieve and laugh together.

I would be in bed for about 30% of the time, but that was okay.

Even more: my illness opened up opportunities for vulnerability.

One friend in particular made a point of quietly checking in throughout the week. His gentle presence would melt me into a puddle every time he came to sit with me in my weakness.

Of course at this point, I knew none of that.

I shifted my feet in the crunchy gravel as I gazed up at the New Mexico sky.

It was still a grand experiment. Another jolt of awe shot through me as I recalled: my body did this. It brought me here. All the way to the desert.

And, in the way that never makes sense, Grief’s twin Gratitude showed up.

She was dazzling.

Tears welled up as I welcomed her too.

Kelly Deutsch in front of a pink sky


Kelly Deutsch headshot

Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.


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