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.”

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

  1. I appreciated the author’s sharing of Henri’s being able to face his inner anguish because of the safety and support of his new community at Daybreak. His community was a place without competition or any need to prove himself, and a safe place to “fall”. And, it was, in particular, Adam, who showed Henri the way to freedom through vulnerability, as he realized that he was “becoming like Adam”. When everything was stripped away, it was then that Henri began to hear the voice calling him the Beloved. It would seem that, through much suffering, anguish, and intensive work with therapists and on his own, Henri came home to himself. Perhaps that prepared him to so fully engage in his sixtieth birthday celebration and to fully embody being reborn as a baby clown from the clown egg. Reading the description of his “rebirth”, there was no sense of him feeling self-conscious or embarrassed, or of putting on an act to please others. He fully engaged in the wonder of the moment.

    1. Today, I am still pondering Henri’s coming to the place where he could hear the voice of God calling him the beloved. Though not the main focus of this book, it strikes me that his story is so relatable. Henri wrote, “I was going through the deep human struggle to believe in my belovedness even when I had nothing to be proud of……For a long time I distrusted the voice. I kept saying to myself, “it is a lie. I know the truth. There is nothing in me worth loving.”
      I feel this struggle, too. It’s easy to believe that if I am “good”, then I will hear that voice, and it is precisely the moment when a new depth of sin or failure is uncovered in me, or another dark corner of my heart, that I instinctively feel that God would want to look away in displeasure. It’s so hard to believe in one’s belovedness while at the same time taking an honest look at yourself. I wonder if Henri ever realized how many people he helped by sharing so vulnerable about his own struggles.

      I also resonated with Henri’s observations on page 115 about the circus and the church. For Henri, they were connected, as he wrote, “Aren’t they both trying to lift up the human spirit and help people look beyond the boundaries of their daily lives? And aren’t they both, at the same time, in constant peril of becoming places for lifeless routines that have lost their vitality and transcending power?”

  2. I was moved by Rodleigh’s approach to the troupes mistakes after an act. “I have to let them know their mistake is okay” pg 114  As Henri  replied this is “incredibly important for life, not just the trapeze.”  I yearn for the discipline to acknowledge my mistakes, learn from them , and then move on!

  3. I’m glad we get to see both Henri’s child-like joy over the world of the trapeze performances and the people in the troupe, but also his crash when he had his nervous breakdown. It is a great help to know that our “spiritual giants” often have problems keeping their lives and their faith on the upward plane just like many of the rest of us.

    Like Marge, this is my second time reading this book this year and both times I’ve had trouble putting it down when it’s time to do something else. It’s a wonderfully moving story.

  4. Her goes a few thoughts:
    Having read “Adam: God’s Beloved” I was really touched by this weeks reading. When it was mentioned on p. 78 it caught me out and brought a tear to my eye. It almost feels that Henri develops, through Adam and the Rodleighs, a theology of the physical…at Christmas this seems so relevant as we celebrate the Incarnation of the Word made flesh.
    From p.108 I picked up a bit from Henri’s conversation with Joe, “As he spoke, I realized how much was happening within less than a second”. I wondered if our relationships have a similarity here…do we need to consider those moments we have with our friends, neighbours, colleagues…which might seem inconsequential, are in no way dramatic or intense, but are so important.

    A big part for me in this section was from p.114-115… Henri’s encounter with the Church when they where in Borken. Henri’s description of the church, juxtaposed with the trapeze/ circus, made me really wonder how we move the formulaic to the transcendent! Given the position in the UK where, for the first time since the Middle Ages, less people identify as Christian, this would seem to be a massive point. It transpires that of the group that identified as “not religious” a third saw themselves as “spiritual”. One wonders what our church…in the widest sense of church…is doing to stop the people from feeling “lost in this vast space in which everything was so aesthetically correct” (p. 115)
    Carolyn’s point (p.116) that accepting the “messiness” of church is crucial was well borne out by her extract from Henri’s, “Shouldn’t there be something of a trapeze artist in every priest…” Given our role in baptism… of priest, prophet and king… does this also apply to each of us, not just ordained clergy?

    Finally, I too picked up on the entertainer aspect that Henri spoke about. Much of this I concur with, However, I do worry that people who see themselves as more introverted would find this difficult, if not exhausting or excluding! However, I did really like the point Henri made on p. 119 when reflecting on the travels of the circus from one place to another…”As they move from place to place they scarcely have time to NOTICE (my emphasis) where they are….[description of process from town to town]…(p.120) I thought: “What is this all about?” He then goes on to describe the “noticing” people do and how this is the fulfilment, re the entertaining and seeing the beyond. What struck me was the NOTICING…something we need to do more to live a grateful life. When I look back on the passages regarding the Rodleigh’s act…and so much more…the need to NOTICE seems to be a consistent theme. To do this requires time to reflect…to pause…to wait. I think I’ve got my Advent message.
    Cheers Carolyn and Henri!

  5. Hello, dear friends,

    My name is Nadiia which in Ukrainian means “Hope” & this is the 4th online discussion of Henri Nouwen’s books that I join. This year, I read his “Ukrainian Diaries” in Ukrainian & thought how I wished it to be published in English. It helps to understand Ukrainian people & what they go through enormously. I was very glad to learn from Ray that it is going to be published soon.

    Interruptions. Of course. War. This scale of interruption has not been around in Europe for almost a century. I wish Henri was alive so that we all can hear his thoughts & feelings about what is happening in Ukraine. The way he felt the pain of African Americans tells me how he would react to this war in Ukraine. He would probably go there.

    His encounter with the African American protesters sounds the same as his encounter with Ukrainian community of people with special needs & their caregivers. Ukraine was so different from what Henri used to see around him, but he went there anyway. Him becoming a part of a circus community is the same. Yes, he is insecure in many ways, but he keeps going despite it all – way out of his comfort zone, and finds life, love & community.

    He is such an inspiration to me!

  6. Thanks Ray and Bonnie for your thoughtful insights on this part of Henri’s life. Your reflections help greatly in our understanding.

  7. It’s been thought-provoking to read the posts for this week’s reading. This book has also resonated with me and been comforting. I was struck by page 116: “As I walked back to the muddy circus grounds, I wondered how it all fit together There is no reason to idealize the circus. Much that goes on there is quite unspectacular, inside as well as outside the tent. Nor is there any reason to romanticize the church. Much that goes on there is quite unspiritual. And still, the human heart searches for something larger, something greater than its own pettiness, and everyone who enters the circus or the church is looking for something that reaches out to the stars, or beyond? Shouldn’t there be something of a trapeze artist in every priest and something of a priest in every trapeze artist? I am sure there is, but neither seems to know it.” I was also struck by the sentence on page 19 “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.” and also how Henri Nouwen says somewhere in the book he feels like he has sort of a compulsion to get in other people’s skin. To me, I am reminded of Trinitarian theology and God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the relationships of people being caught up in this community of love that breaks through the boundaries of ordinariness through our participating in the Sacraments but it also reminds me of the relationships of couples, the intimacy that comes about through the human bodilyness and spirituality and really everything about being human–on one level God/Jesus being the Catcher and on another level, the spouse being the catcher and really it’s all, in my opinion anyway, somehow universalized in human experience so that no one is excluded from this “realization of the human desire for self-transcendence–rising above one-self, glimpsing the heart of things (also on page 19). It’s actually a remarkable insight Henri Nouwen is coming to, if I’m getting something of the gist of it. Still have some of the book to read, enjoying it and the comments very much.

  8. I have really been enjoying this narrative. I feel like I don’t always get to see so much of what is going on inside the author’s heart and mind when I’m reading a “devotional” book. I suppose the editing and polishing process that cleans things up a bit for us as readers also serves to protect the author from putting too much of himself out there for all the world to see. Several times during the first half of this book I have thought to myself, “Wow, Henri was really a pretty insecure person in a lot of ways.” I have only read a couple other books of his, but I hadn’t picked that up before. That realization has added a lot to this story, at least for me.

    Last week we talked about interruptions. This week Monday I spent all day at the hospital with my dad. Helping my dad and his wife through the process of winding down, and probably soon to move into a care home, is a major part of life for my wife and I these days… and this comes right on the heels of our last kids heading off to school and new jobs and house for the two of us. We specifically bought a house close to Dad so we could help them, but it still sometimes feels like an interruption. But while it sometimes feels like we “have to” help them with things like checking their bank account, flipping a popped electrical breaker, or making sure the furnace keeps running, because we are the closest of 6 siblings, we also “get to” spend more time with them and hear more stories than anyone else.

  9. I thought I would follow quietly just content to read along, but find if I keep quiet I remain “ up in the air” without having left the trapeze platform:). By the way, I am Marge from central Illinois, and frequent Henri’s writings and online offering conversations.

    For me, Henri’s time with the Rodleighs came as “pure gift”! I’m so grateful for this opportunity to read “Flying, Falling, Catching” a second time this year, in March alone, but now in community!

    The “gravity” of Henri’s heart attack strikes me as a real contrast to the absolute joy and freedom that Henri experienced with the Rodleighs. Perhaps, God was about “restoring soul” as Ps. 23 speaks of!

    I have a couple of friends, and actually a son, that in the gravity of life struggles, I pray might never lose their childlike wonder. It and they are such gifts! Thus, a poem written by Mary Oliver:

    “Married to….”
    When it’s all over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement….
    I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

    I’m so grateful for your encouragement, Ray, to watch “Under the Big Top With Henri Nouwen”. Just to hear the circus music as well as seeing, meeting Carolyn Whitney-Brown and Rodleigh Stevens brings an extra, deepening dimension/element to my reading and helps me experience more fully Henri’s story as it relates to my own, and in my own local faith community.

  10. To be exposed as less generous spirited than you thought you were is no easy thing. Our worth so easily caught up in our performance and Henri, finding out how little his reputation mattered to Adam. Walking the walk is so much more difficult than talking the talk. Life is so often a downward rather than an upward progression. Our egos don’t like that direction! Humility and Grace are the journey into God, and the journey is far from comfortable.

  11. Is Henri Nouwen’s sexual preference connected to the flying Rodleighs? How does Henri Neuwen sexual orientation add to his insights?

    1. Ana,
      Thanks for your question. Here’s my thoughts as a longtime reader of many of Henri’s books and moderator of these discussions, but not as a Nouwen scholar.

      As Carolyn wrote on page 20, “The Flying Rodleighs were stunning… Henri had always been attracted to men… Among his close friends, Henri identified himself as a gay man who took his vows of celibacy as a priest seriously. But he was moved by more than the physical beauty of the Rodleighs.” I think Carolyn’s last sentence is the key, and leads to the question what about the Rodleighs moved Henri? Henri later mentions their teamwork, communication, and risk-taking, and commitment to excellence. More directly related to your question, I think it was the sheer physicality of the Rodleighs—in their practices and performances—that especially touched Henri. In Chapter 12 Carolyn describes, often using Henri’s own words, the daily demanding and time-consuming physical interactions that Henri had with Adam and it was through this interaction Henri was getting to know Adam. We also learned that Henri was uncomfortable in his own body and after his arrival at Daybreak and working with Adam and other people with intellectual disabilities he had, “more recently discovered his body in a new way.” (p.33) Carolyn writes about Henri as he is having his emotional breakdown in late-1987 but before leaving Daybreak to seek treatment. “Henri was barely holding himself together during the day, and at night in the safety of the small chapel in Daybreak’s retreat house where Sue (RMG note: and Henri) lived, she could hear Henri’s anguished cries. Sometimes she would go sit with him as he writhed in physical agony.” (p.84) Part of Henri’s treatment after leaving Daybreak was to be physically held by his counselors when he was in deep anguish. It seems to me that it was the Rodleighs physicality—which tightly bound this community to each other—was what attracted Henri.

      Let me speculate and take it a step further. Henri had been seeking a deep and caring community throughout his life. He found that community in Daybreak—and he chose to risk and to “let go” of some of his own defenses. By doing so, he was “flying” but without someone to “catch” him. And he fell—resulting in his emotional breakdown. Through Sue, his counselors, and the Daybreak community he was “caught” and returned to his “platform” at Daybreak, strengthened but still needy and willing to risk (or fly) again. He also had developed his central spiritual insight that we are the beloved. It may be that the Rodleighs helped Henri to see the teen Henri had been (when he had first seen a trapeze act) and the person that he was becoming as he was learning to trust, let go, and be caught.

      So that’s my answer to your question. I think it was the physicality of the Rodleighs performance and how that related to Henri’s recent life experiences was the largest influence, not Henri’s sexual orientation. (Moderator Note: This paragraph slightly revised from the original for clarity.)


      1. Thank you Ray for you kind and thoughtful response. As a Christian who is gay I truly believe that attraction is expressed in many ways and does not define us as persons. Also as a Christian I have challenged much of the stigmatism (expressed through scriptures and the literal interpretation of the same) that my sexual orientation that I was born into, is not who I am all about not defines me. Like Henri, often attributes – physical, spiritual, and orderliness, I deeply appreciate and enjoy the beauty and splendor of all sexual beings. Henri’s words have been paramount in my rich journey towards my firm belief in acceptance by God and that I am his Beloved. Prior to that journey I found myself in great anguish. Reconciliation of my sexual orientation and faith has been life changing and a strong foundation of my current reality. I am loved as I am by God, and in turn I am able to love others, regardless of who they are or who they love – The loving appreciation has breached the gap for me between two seemingly incompatible worlds. In love and humble appreciation, Bonnie

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