Dec 18th to Dec 24th – 4th Week of Advent: V. Flying & Epilogue

Reading: Part V, Flying, Chapter 30 to Chapter 39; Epilogue; p. 183-230

The Flying Rodleighs express some of the deepest human desires.
The desire to fly freely, and the desire to be safely caught.
—Henri Nouwen in a letter to Bart Gavigan, p. 202

As we conclude our Advent book discussion during these final days before Christmas, Henri completes his final flight—the descent from his hotel window to the waiting ambulance, visits in the hospital with his father and siblings and his friend Nathan, the hopefulness of the apparent passing of danger, Henri’s death from an unanticipated massive heart attack, his two funerals, and finally being laid to rest with other members of his Daybreak community.

Author Carolyn Whitney-Brown shares Henri’s experiences while on sabbatical during the final year of his life, including several private jet flights into a “beauteous new world” (p. 185) to discuss spirituality with Joan Kroc, heir to the McDonald’s fast food fortune, and his last meeting with the Flying Rodleighs in July 1996. Henri was flying—he had fully recovered from his earlier breakdown, he was continuing to grow in his spiritual insights (many prompted by his friendship with the Rodleighs), and he was anticipating a new role at Daybreak where he would have more time and freedom to write. He was also doing too much and he ended his sabbatical exhausted, which contributed to his untimely death.

Throughout out time together, I have been looking at the photo of Henri, his friend Frank Hamilton (far left) and the Flying Rodleighs, trying to identify the trapeze artists by name. I made my best guess and sent it along to Carolyn. She replied, “Haha! Good try but…” and then she provided the correct answer.

Now it’s your turn. In the comments, identify the members of troop from left to right. I will update this post with the correct answer on Wednesday morning.
(Photo by Ron P. van den Bosch)
Answer: The Flying Rodleighs (l to r): Rodleigh, his wife Jennie, Joe, Rodleigh’s sister Karlene, and Jon.

As always, you are invited to share what touched your heart in this week’s reading. You might also review the entire book to share any insights you gained throughout the story. In addition, we’re pleased to have author Carolyn Whitney-Brown join us this week to reply to your comments and questions. She will participate in the discussion in the same way that you do—by posting and replying to comments. If you have questions or comments for Carolyn, please post them and you can expect Carolyn’s personal response generally by the following day.

Before closing, I’d like to share something I discovered this week. Carolyn quotes Rodleigh Stevens saying, “Sometimes I think that Henri desperately wants to be accepted, especially by God… I think he sees in us a visual representation of his spiritual feelings, something that he feels within himself.” (p. 195) Rodleigh’s perceptive insight is supported by something Henri wrote on prayer in 1972 in one of his earliest books, With Open Hands: “When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fist… A first prayer, therefore, is often a painful prayer because you discover you don’t want to let go. You hold fast to what is familiar, even if you aren’t proud of it. You find yourself saying, ‘That’s just how it is with me. I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way that it is and this is the way I’ll have to leave it.’ Once you talk like that, you’ve already let the hope for a new life float by… When you want to pray, then, the first question is: How do I open my closed hands?”

During the intervening two decades, Henri suffered his emotional and spiritual breakdown and through Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son and his counselors, Henri came to a deep understanding of God’s unconditional love and that we are all the Beloved. And as God’s beloved we are called to live with joy and gratitude on our life’s journey. But in order to do so, we often have to let go of what is familiar, the things that are holding us back. Rodleigh was right. Henri had long wanted to be accepted by God—or, better, to be caught by God. The Flying Rodleighs provided a visible, physical metaphor of the spiritual life—one in which we are all called to let go, fly, and trust, trust, trust that we will be caught by the One who loves us.

As we conclude, on behalf of the Henri Nouwen Society, I want to wish each of you a blessed and joyous Christmas season. It has been my privilege to share this Advent journey with you. I’m grateful to each of you for your participation, whether you posted comments or followed along silently. I’d like to recognize and express my thinks to those who chose to share their thoughts and insights that built up our Advent community. We hope you will join us for our Lenten book discussion that will begin on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2023. The book selection will be announced in the coming weeks.

And as Henri’s favorite saint, Francis of Assisi, said to those he met, “May the Lord give you peace” in this most wonderful time of the year.


Dec 11th to Dec 17th – 3rd Week of Advent: IV. Trust the Catcher

Reading: Part IV, Trust the Catcher, Chapter 20 to Chapter 29; p. 127-180

A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must
trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher
will be there for him. – Henri Nouwen, p. 161
Note: An excerpt from Nouwen’s Our Greatest Gift

We have had another week of heartfelt, touching, and insightful comments and we continued to have new participants join our community and introduce themselves here. Thanks to everyone that is participating in our Advent book discussion—those posting comments and those following along in the quiet of their hearts.

This week we turn to the imperative to trust the catcher. In his journal Henri wrote, “I am convinced that I have been sent to the Rodleighs to discover something new about life and death, love and fear, peace and conflict, Heaven and hell, something I can’t get to know and write about in any other way.” (p.130) What did Henri discover? Here is my take. In his letter to Bart Gavigan we read, “The words that really struck me were words by Rodleigh, ‘When I have done my flying, I have to stretch out my hands, and trust that the catcher will be there for me. The greatest mistake I can make is try to catcher.’ I have thought about these words that express the human challenge to trust your neighbor, to trust your God, to trust love, to trust that we will finally be safe.” (p.171). Henri also refers to God as the ultimate Catcher when he writes, “Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, ‘Don’t be afraid. Remember you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump….Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.'” For me, living spiritually, not just dying, is trusting in the catcher. Henri summarizes this spiritual insight in the quote in bold at the top of the post.
Does Henri’s spiritual insight resonate with your personal experience? Who are the catchers in your life? For whom are you the catcher? Do you find the image of God as the ultimate Catcher helpful? To the extent you are comfortable, share and example of flying and catching in your life.

In addition to trusting the catcher, there are other scenes and ideas worthy of your reflection.

  • “I saw many connections between my L’Arche community in Toronto and this circus community… They are both communities for special people.” (Nouwen, p. 136)
  • Chapter 23 presents Henri’s encounter with Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son and his emotional, psychological, and spiritual breakdown.
  • Chapter 25 describes Henri’s trapeze flight followed by the discussion about the Flying Rodleighs between Henri and his friends Ron and Fran.
  • “They are just people like we are. (note: with conflict, struggles). (W)hen you go on the trapeze, forget everything else. Be only there and totally there….to be totally present in the present…” (Nouwen, p. 173)
  • “You know it was like the university was the mind, L’Arche was the heart, but the trapeze was about the body. And the body tells a spiritual story.” (Nouwen, p. 180)

As always, you are invited to share whatever touched you in the reading–whether it is related to trusting the catcher, one of the other scenes or ideas, or something else entirely.

Briefly looking ahead, author Carolyn Whitney-Brown will be joining our online discussion group during the 4th Week of Advent beginning next Sunday. She is looking forward to responding to your comments and questions.

We look forward to another week of fruitful discussion.

Dec 4th to Dec 10th – 2nd Week of Advent: II. Falling (Part 2) & III. Teamwork

Reading: Part II, Falling, Chapter 12 to Part III, Teamwork, Chapter 19;  p. 74 to 124

I realized that my project was not to write the book that Henri would have written, but to tell the story of Henri and the Flying Rodleighs.
—Carolyn Whitney-Brown, Prologue, p.3

First, I’d like to welcome those that joined us during the week and introduced yourselves in the Welcome and Introduction post found here. I also want to thank those of you that provided such moving and insightful comments on the reading from the first week of Advent. Some of you commented on how the interruptions of life, both joyful and painful, have affected your life journey. Henri’s loneliness, restlessness, and search for community that attracted him to the Rodleighs were noted. Another commenter pointed to Henri’s insecurity and the “possibility of being judged harshly by a disappointed audience” (p. 31). This is not as surprising as it seems since, as we will read this week, Henri saw similarities between the life of the Flying Rodleighs as entertainers and his own ministry writing, “travel(ing) here and there giving talks, make people feel safe or excited.” (p. 121)

Next, let’s consider the quote from the Prologue shown in bold above. As we have read, Henri wanted to write a book unlike any he had ever written. And Carolyn told us that her project was to “tell the story of Henri and Flying Rodleighs.” That makes this book different from any we have previously considered here. Flying, Falling, Catching is a story rather than a spiritual meditation (e.g., on a painting), a spiritual journal (e.g., on a portion of Henri’s life journey), or a reflection on some aspect of spiritual life. As longtime book discussion participant Sharon noted in her comment, “I am finding this book to be very intriguingly organized.” Consequently, using selected quotations to prompt discussion as was done last week may not be the best approach.

On her author website Carolyn Whitney-Brown reminds us that Flying, Falling, Catching depicts Henri Nouwen in two key communities: a) the Flying Rodleighs’ world of a traveling circus, and b) Henri’s home in L’Arche Daybreak where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life in community.

In our reading this week, Carolyn describes several formative events in Henri’s life that give us some insight into Henri’s response to the Flying Rodleighs. She describes Henri’s arrival at Daybreak and his challenges in getting to know his housemates, especially Adam. Carolyn discusses Henri’s emotional crisis and recovery from late-1987 until mid-1988. Two of Henri’s most popular and important books—The Return of the Prodigal Son and Life of the Beloved (both published in 1992)—were the fruit of this life-changing experience. Henri’s evolving understanding that he (and all of us) are God’s beloved, provides an interpretive lens through which we view Henri’s rebirth as a clown at his 60th birthday celebration as well as his deepening relationship with Rodleighs. Carolyn points out how Henri rediscovered his body and related that to the physicality that observed in the Rodleighs trapeze act. Finally, she shows us Henri questioning whether in his ministry of traveling and presenting talks he is entertainer like his circus friends. And Henri asks, “Isn’t Jesus the greatest of all entertainers?” (p. 121)

In addition to the reading, you are encouraged to watch the Henri Nouwen Society’s book launch webinar “Under the Big Top with Henri Nouwen” that was released on September 21, 2022, the 26th anniversary of Henri’s death. In this 50 minute webinar you will hear from author Carolyn Whitney-Brown, Rodleigh Stevens, and Bart Gavigan, and you will see film footage of the Flying Rodleighs. You will find it most interesting and well worth your time.

There is so much in this weeks’ reading and the webinar to prompt your reflections. We look forward to hearing what touched your heart—perhaps your thoughts about the Henri’s two worlds, one or more the the events in Henri’s life, or something you glean from the webinar. Please share your thoughts, observations, responses, and questions. The heartbeat of these book discussions is your comments.

As St. Francis of Assisi (Henri’s favorite saint) said to those he met,
“May the Lord give you peace.”