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.”