Nov 27th to Dec 3rd – 1st Week of Advent: I. The Call & II. Falling (Part 1)

Reading: Part I, The Call, Chapter 1 to Part II, Falling, Chapter 11; p. 9 to 73

The trapeze act gave rise to a desire in me that no other art form could
evoke; the desire to belong to a community of love that can break
through the boundaries of ordinariness. – Henri Nouwen, p. 19

A warm welcome to everyone and special thanks to the many people who introduced yourselves. Our virtual global community includes participants from across the United States and Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom—with a mix of new participants and veterans of previous Henri Nouwen Society book discussions. We’re glad that you are here and we look forward to your contributions as we journey together through what promises to be a blessed and fruitful time of preparation for Christmas. 

As a work of creative non-fiction and a collaboration by co-authors Henri Nouwen and Carolyn Whitney-Brown, Flying, Falling, Catching is a distinctive addition to the Henri Nouwen canon. Writing 25 years after Henri’s death, Carolyn uses the details of Henri’s rescue through a hospital window in September 1996, together with notes from Henri’s unfinished attempt to write a story about The Flying Rodleighs, and her understanding of many of the experiences of Henri’s life journey to tell a compelling story about the life journey of a spiritual master. In doing so she, along with Henri, paint a picture that gives us new insights into Henri’s life and spirituality that are meaningful today.

As always in these book discussions, we are most interested in learning what touched your heart in the reading. What points did you find interesting and why? What insights did you gain and how may those insights affect your life? What did you find comforting, or enlightening, or challenging, and why? What questions arose in the reading? Or simply share what you read and how and why it affected you. Here are several quotations or thoughts that that may prompt your reflections.

a) “This is, Henri thinks to himself, an interruption. . . . There have been many interruptions in his life. Some have turned out well.” (Whitney-Brown, p. 10)
What interruptions have you had in your life? How did you respond?

b) “. . . the residents of Daybreak have helped me to rediscover the simple but profound truth that all people, handicapped or not, are the beloved daughters and sons of God and that they can find true inner meaning by claiming that truth for themselves. . . This spiritual insight touched me so deeply I wanted to . . . be able to help myself and others to overcome the deep-seated temptation of self-rejection.” (Nouwen, p. 15).
You are the Beloved is Henri’s central spiritual insight and one of his most important books. How might this insight have prepared Henri to encounter The Flying Rodleighs at this point in his spiritual journey?

c) “(Henri thought) Flying and catching. It’s everything I have always desired.” (Whitney-Brown, p. 18); “. . . (T)he high-flyers in any field, held a particular fascination for Henri.” (Whitney-Brown, p. 25)
As we begin this discussion, do you share Henri’s fascination with flying and catching and the high-flyers in the world? Why or why not?

d) “. . . I was suddenly confronted with the other side of this air-ballet, not simply the dangers of physical harm, but the experience of failure, shame, guilt, frustration, and anger.” (Nouwen, p. 31)
Why do you think this “other side” affected Nouwen to the degree that it did?

e) “I was convinced that the encounter with these five artists had indeed opened a new window in my life and that it would be very sad if I didn’t look through it as long and as attentively as I could.” (Nouwen, p. 51)
Based the story that Carolyn is weaving, do you see these artists and the new window in the same way Henri does? Why or why not? How would you respond?

f) In Chapter 8, Henri describes watching two performances, one by Tina Turner and David Bowie and the other a choir singing Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion. He explores how he is attracted to both. Which performance would attract you more at this point in your life? Why?

g) Henri longed to “join a community of people on the move together.”
(Whitney-Brown, p. 68)
In Chapter 11 we learn of Henri’s participation in the communities that participated in the second march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 and in the funeral procession for Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.
How does Chapter 11 influence your understanding of Henri and his ministry? How do you think it relates to overall story of Flying, Falling, Catching?

h) “You know in this world where there is so much division. . . the Rodleighs are in a way peacemakers. They create community. . . . You know, it’s all there in one act—what life is all about, what the world is all about.” (Nouwen, p. 73)
At this point in the book, do you see the Rodleighs the same way as Henri? Why or why not?

Again, the paragraphs above are just to prompt your thinking. You can respond to one or more of the prompts or share whatever is on your heart. We want to benefit from whatever you choose to share. We also welcome participants that choose to follow along silently without posting. We look forward to an illuminating and fruitful discussion for all participants.

Peace and all good.

P.S. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me, either by posting a comment or email at

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28 Responses to Nov 27th to Dec 3rd – 1st Week of Advent: I. The Call & II. Falling (Part 1)

  1. Kim Klein says:

    On page 43 Henri says “prayer is to be fully present where you are, even for a moment…” Sometimes I don’t want to feel and stay in the present pain, like Henri says he didn’t on the next page. At those times of fear and/or pain I have found that reciting memorized portions of scripture has helped to quicken and focus my thoughts on Jesus and helped me overcome my resistance to prayer. Thank you for helping me remember this Henri!

  2. Rose Wertz says:

    I have had several interruptions in my life. Most turned out for the best even though I could not see it at the time. An interruption in my college studies led me to my husband. An interruption in a job quest saved me from being in a job that would have been detrimental to me. So i know the Lord is looking out for me. Herni’s fascination with the flying Rodleighs was an interruption that helped him see things a different light. And set him on a new path. I am on a new path since the death of my husband. (His illness and death another interruption) I have been questioning what am I supposed to do with my life now. It coincided with a spiritual crisis, so I am really on a new/different path.
    Henri’s book on being beloved really helped me with my spiritual crisis. From feeling not loved, a failure, , shamed, etc., like Henri felt in watching the Rodleighs fall in front of the audience. This is how we all feel at different times in our lives. But God is there, gently calling us/me to rest in his love.
    We can be interested in/enjoy 2 different/opposite things like the Requiem and Tina Turner and David Bowie concerts. I wouldn’t chose one over the other but chose according to how I felt at the time.
    The community aspect of the Rodleighs makes a person pause and think. We form community with with those who have similar interests like ours. We hope they can help us improve ourselves like the Rodleighs did with their eval of the performance and the practicing. Like the song says, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world”.

  3. Sharon K. Hall says:

    I am finding this book to be very intrigueingly organized. The movement back and forth among details of the heart attack and how Dennie and the other medic cared for Henri Nouwen, the amazing amount of detail about how enthralled and observant Henri Nouwen was of the Flying Rodleighs trapeze act (which was reminescent of how Henri Nouwen would sit for hours immersed in meditating on the Rembrandt painting of the Prodigal Son), the flashback memories of being involved in caring for challenged people, not only spiritually but also their bodies, the flashback memories of caring also for Black bodies and the injustices done to Black people in our society, I’ve only read half of the book so far, but I am really caught up in the movement of this book and the way it seems that the author, using Henri Nouwen’s own language so much and having had a deep relationship to him may be able to actually convey some insights that Henri Nouwen would find very pertinent to his whole mission while he was alive. One part made me chuckle–his writing about how his mother had been given strict instructions to feed him when he was an infant, every four hours, no matter how hungry or desparate he was. My mother told me she did that too–1947–even though she was the middle child of a family of 19 children, when I was born Dr. Spock in the United States was a big authority for child raising (think it was Dr. Spock she talked about–it’s so long ago now but it definitely was a doctor) and mom was trying to raise me by the authority she put more credibility in because he was so scientific and all. I never realized the same supposed wisdom was across the pond in Holland too. One sentence on page 71 of the book also really grabbed my attention: “Resistance that makes for peace is not so much the effort of brave and courageous individuals as the work of the community of faith.” I’m thoroughly enjoying reading this book and am glad and thankful it has been published and made available. Eager to read the rest!!!

  4. Charles says:

    Seems like Henri recognizes and has great gratitude for human excellence .How complex we are. The beauty of each individuals nuances.He recognized the training , the stringent discipline that led to the flying Rodleighs physical powers.The sacrifice.The harder their labors the stronger is the hope of victory.1 Corinthians 9 : 24 run in such a way that you may win it. Maybe he recognized that the Flying Rodleighs were approaching the asymptote of perfection in their art as he was in a life of virtue .Henri was striving for Heaven having a single minded purpose as much as the Rodleighs were in their act. Henri’s witness to the flying Rodleighs coming together as a team of people performing for something beyond themselves for a common goal flying,falling,and catching does echo of eternity .I think he recognized the Theology to this communal experience.He got caught up in something that was bigger than himself and was gripped by it.Just like us . Oh how sports has this communal aspect that we love.Coming together for something that is good and having a common triumph .Maybe he struggled with the idea that this was to secular like Tina Turner and David Bowie’s performance .Good energy is Spirit. He recognized the voice of Holy Spirit that was speaking to him through all his feelings and emotions .This moved him.Just like Selma .

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Thank you for your comment on Henri and excellence. One of my favorite quotes is from former Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell. In the introduction to The Heart of the Order (a collection of his newspaper columns) Boswell writes, “There is no substitute for excellence–not even success. Success is tricky, perishable and often outside our control; the pursuit of success makes a poor cornerstone, especially for a whole personality. Excellence is dependable, lasting and largely an issue within our own control; pursuit of excellence, in and for itself, is the best of foundations. If the distinction between success and excellence were easy to grasp, we wouldn’t have found so many players, managers and teams in disarray…” I think Henri would agree.

      Peace and all good.

      • Jackie Rutkowski says:

        Charles, I agree with you that Henri had gratitude for excellence. I too appreciate excellence in people, especially in the arts. The arts can actually restore and soothe the soul.

        A few days ago, I went to see the Knoxville Symphony orchestra for a Christmas concert. I was mesmerized. The score was just beautiful, and the players performed so fluidly.
        While watching the different sections of the orchastra, I recalled Henri’s comments on the Rodleighs disciple for their art form. I had to really concentrate hard to discern the different melody lines that each section was playing during a piece. It fascinated me as well. I began to see (and hear) what Henri appreciated about the diligent training, and discipline that led to the flying Rodleighs physical powers.

  5. Henri longed to “join a community of people on the move together” (W-B, 68). Don’t we all? Just yesterday I sat across from a woman who I asked “What do you long for?” Sitting still for several seconds she welled up with tears spilling over: “I long for fellowship.” When I asked her to be more specific she surprised herself with a story 35 years ago. A new teacher new to Florida, she felt fearful like other colleagues in the same school district. So they began to share meals, take care of one another’s kids and go to church together. It forged a fellowship. My friend’s longing for fellowship was like Henri’s longing for community.

    I share that same longing. The restlessness Henri experienced niggled so deep he set out for the South in his Volkswagen Beetle. Mine moved me to put my house on market last Monday planning to return home to Boston. So I identify with Henri here. It feels a lot like flying, falling and hoping that holy hands will catch you mid-air in one act.

  6. Ineke Reitsma says:

    An interruption in life, yes, we have experienced that when our daughter got severely braindamaged during a medical procedure when she was just 17 month old. Our family life was disrupted and still is. Now 41 years old and living in a group home she still needs so much care, but during all those years there has always been that safety net that catches us when needed as long as we trust in God’s guidance. It made our faith deeper and we learned a lot. Henry Nouwen’s living in l’Arche Daybreak has learned us how dedicated caregivers are and we see that daily in our daughters home.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Thank you Ineke for sharing about your daughter. May the Lord continue to give her, you, and your entire family peace.

    • Barry Sullivan says:

      Your dedicated caregiving provides all reading this an important message.

      Moreover, as Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40

  7. Nike Guttridge says:

    Interruptions? Do you mean opportunities to grow? I have that. Some of them are painful. Some of them are fun. It all depends on the perspective.

  8. Ray Glennon says:

    From Carol Park
    What remains in me after my reading: I’m astonished that Henri felt so nervous about talking to the acrobats. I watched a circus this fall – first time in a long time. And the acrobats were my favorite portion. They were astounding. But I had nothing so deep emotionally as Henri had. His meditations on their agility and fearlessness were meaningful to me as I think about risks I’m taking in my own life with my writing as as a couple as we are seeking to make a somewhat investment for the sake of a charitable agency. His reflections on the nature of trust – of the ups and down emotionally – of letting go of the stable thing and reaching out to God to hold us are just what we need to do right now.

  9. Ana says:

    Through the interruptions in my life, some painful, others joyful, the Lord has guided me to adjust and see how much he loves me. The biggest interruption was my sons accident 11 years ago, where he suffered a severe brain injury, and I became his caregiver 24/7. That incident changed my husband and my other children’s life completely. It has made us more aware of God‘s presence in our lives, and the strength and graces he provides if you are ready to receive and understand that we are his beloved, and that no matter , the circumstances or the new realities we’re here to help one another to get to him.

  10. Ray Glennon says:


    Happy New (Church) Year! Welcome to the Advent season. Thanks to all of you, we have a wonderful discussion underway.

    There have been a number of new introductions posted since Sunday. If you haven’t read them, they are located here.

    You can always use the Recent Posts and Recent Comments links in the right hand column to navigate between weekly posts.

    He is coming!

  11. Barry Sullivan says:

    A few initial thoughts relating to our first week of Advent.

    On several occasions, Henri chose to “interrupt” his life to seek new vistas. For example, going from the Menninger Clinic in Kansas to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to join Dr. Martin Luther King’s march; seeking solitude in a Trappist monastery; leaving Harvard and Yale; exploring Latin America; and going to Daybreak). At other times unexpected interruptions arose. For example, his accident in 1988 and emotional breakdown later in life).

    His decision to follow the Flying Rodleighs appears to be one of those chosen “interruptions” or life changes. As the author (Whitney-Brown) writes: “…although he was a prolific writer, he had never attempted a story” (p. 14), so he decided to explore writing creative nonfiction. Henri is quoted as asking “What is it all about anyway” (p. 15) as he considers his work at Daybreak. At a certain age (perhaps various ages) most of us have thought about new avenues of work, adventure, spiritual directions, etc. As he was then in his 60s, he could well have assumed he still had time for new paths in which to use his amazing qualities.

    Speaking as one in his soon-to-be mid-70s, I have had those moments when new horizons beckoned.

    As Henri looked at the trapeze act, he was obviously intrigued by the “artform,” prompting “the desire to belong to a community of love that can break through the boundaries of ordinariness” (p. 19). He had reached the age when he thought he still had some time for those new adventures, new themes and writing approaches, and ways of trying to answer that age-old question, “What is it all about anyway?”

    The various interruptions in Henri’s life (both chosen and unplanned) seemed to have sparked new ways of approaching God, listening to His voice, and sharing what he learned in his spiritual and intellectual growth with audiences (all of us). I hope that, in smaller ways, I have grown over the years. For example, from my early introduction to religion in a small Catholic school in rural Minnesota (pre-Vatican II) followed by years of reading and searching to where I am today—I pray more knowledgeable and somewhat wiser.

    “Life is change. Growth is optional”– Karen Kaiser Clark (a saying often used by a late priest friend of ours).
    “The world is your ship and not your home”– St. Therese of Lisieux

  12. Yvonne Riege says:

    d) “. . . I was suddenly confronted with the other side of this air-ballet, not simply the dangers of physical harm, but the experience of failure, shame, guilt, frustration, and anger.” (Nouwen, p. 31)

    A part of me wonders if perhaps Henri’s awareness of how popular his books had become, how much people were paying attention to what he was saying or doing, etc. weighed a heavy toll on him and this might have been why he connected so deeply with the highly visible errors all would see as air-ballet was performed. And I’m curious if that might have tied to his connection to stepping away from academia; I admit I’m only part way through this book but this is something that I wonder about.

    • Ray Glennon says:


      I think you will find that the reading for the 2nd Week of Advent will begin to address the areas that you are wondering about. We look forward to your further thoughts next week.


    • Laurel Pattenden says:

      Yvonne, your comment brought this thought to mind. Sometimes I write a column or paint a picture and wonder how I ever thought of the ideas. They certainly were not totally from me. Did Henri ever wonder how he wrote such life changing books? Was he flying with God?

  13. Kaye says:

    So many interruptions mainly unwelcome and mainly involving loss and emotional pain.
    And yet on reflection also times of character growth and deepening faith. Finding it pays to always wonder what God is up to. He’s always up to something and is an excellent Catcher

  14. Connie McMahon says:

    What interruptions have you had in your life? How did you respond?

    The biggest interruption was the death of my son Josh at 16. He died helping a customer at a wrecking yard whose crane got stuck in the gravel and toppled over. I was at an orientation that day at Denny Juvenile Justice Center and actually saw coverage of it on the TV in the waiting room, unaware of what I was seeing. I later returned to the Justice center to complete my student teaching and found work with children who were lacking parents a soothing balm to a parent suffering in the loss of her child. That will be 20 years ago this August….
    Going back, my first notable interruption came when I was about to turn 16, my parents’ divorce. Feeling much the child without her parent, I found solace with the boy next door until he also announced he was leaving, and the grief over losing my father came pouring out. That will be 50 years ago this July.
    I now speak with my dad on a near daily basis, a ritual which began during Covid, and for which we are both truly grateful.

    • Ray Glennon says:

      Thank you for your deeply personal sharing about the interruption in your life when your son Josh died. I’m glad that you found a sense of peace and purpose in working with the children that needed your loving care as you were grieving the loss of your son. May the Lord continue to give you peace on your journey.

  15. footprint says:

    “catching” Wow, I wish I knew I had a catcher I could trust and depend on.

  16. Cleo Cyr says:

    The concept of “interruptions in life” struck me as profund and meaningful. I had never really considered all the ups, downs, twists and turns as interruptions. Pregnancy at 20, a husband telling me he loved someone else at 22, moving homes…over and over and over, cancer, children in trouble, divorces, children moving in with grandchildren, broken bones…..only one thing has remained constant…God putting people in my path as guides. One thing I know for sure is that through faith I survived the interruptions and helped others along the way…I have flown, fallen and God has always managed to catch me. I have grown and changed and learned that the new people I meet have been put in my path either for me to learn something from them or I to learn something from them. I have learned that I am not alone.

    • John P. says:

      You are not alone Cleo. I pray for you as I’m certain others will. Henri wrote: “Isn’t that what life is all about – flying and catching.” That made an impression on me. I think praying for someone else is a form of catching.

  17. Ray Glennon says:

    From Sarah Adams
    On January 9, 1997, my precious son was born ….a Holy kiss from my Heavenly Father… a profound gift of immense love..I named my son Nathan….
    Many interruptions came in the form of sleepless nights…feeding my child…and being overcome with my own inadequcies…I prayed that I would always do my best…
    Prayer.. God lead me, show me…provide me with understanding…not even knowing what to pray for…God answered in visits from other moms in my community bringing meals, comfort, hugs…
    So now when interruptions present themselves to me…I pray knowing God will answer providing whatever gifts are needed …

  18. Julie Ketcher says:

    I have found care-giving and death of loved ones to be interruptions in my life. I responded by adjusting. That’s what love does.

    • Jackie Rutkowski says:

      I have also found care giving interruptions in life, however in hide sight I know it is a gift from God to us in order that we can refocus on what is most important to us (and to him). In most cases he allows us the luxury to clear our schedules and make time for people that we might never have done before. I have found that with both of my parents illnesses. This time with them was a great gift to me, perhaps I didn’t realize it while going through it. But most assuredly it was.

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