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.
It’s Christmas Eve, so I guess Advent is over. I appreciated all your comments about the book – the thoughts it inspired in you, what stood out for you. Writing a book is a lot like sending a grown child out into the world to take up their own life. Sort of like Henri and I are the parents who send Flying, Falling, Catching off to make its own friends and become infinitely more than we could imagine, beyond what we will ever know. But it’s a huge pleasure to catch occasional glimpses of what the book means to readers and listeners. Thank you all.
Merry Christmas and blessings of peace to each of you,
I want to commend Carolyn for writing such a wonderful book about Henri and his friends, The Flying Rodleighs. The book was warm, personal….the italicized parts where Henri was sharing his own thoughts, memories, and notes from his experiences with the Rodleighs just made me feel as if I have come to know Henri in a deeper way. It’s a book I’m already recommending to my friends! Watching Henri in the one hour documentary Under the Big Top was also a real treat; I got to see Henri in that short film, and as he talked about the Rodleighs, his whole face was just lit-up with excitement and his hands were moving; it was as if he could hardly contain himself, like he was just ready to burst! I truly believe that God Himself brought Henri and the Flying Rodleighs together.
On this Christmas Eve, I want to thank everyone that participated in our Advent book discussion of Flying, Falling, Catching: An Unlikely Story of Finding Freedom. It has been a privilege and a joy to share this Advent journey with you. May you open your hands, let go and fly, and trust that you will be caught by the One who loves you this Christmas and every day of the year. May the Lord richly bless you and yours during this joyous Christmas season.
You might enjoy this brief reflection on the meaning of Christmas that Henri wrote during his time in Latin America (from Nouwen’s book Gracias): “God came to us because he wanted to join us on the road, to listen to our story, and to help us realize that we are not walking in circles but moving towards the house of peace and joy. This is the great mystery of Christmas that continues to give us comfort and consolation: we are not alone on our journey. The God of love who gave us life sent his only Son to be with us at all times and in all places, so that we never have to feel lost in our struggles but always can trust that he walks with us. The challenge is to let God be who he wants to be. A part of us clings to our aloneness and does not allow God to touch us where we are most in pain. Often we hide from him precisely those places in ourselves where we feel guilty, ashamed, confused, and lost. Thus we do not give him a chance to be with us where we feel most alone. Christmas is the renewed invitation not to be afraid and to let him—whose love is greater than our own hearts and minds can comprehend—be our companion. ”
Merry Christmas, my friends.
I would of never guessed Rodleigh was the guy on the left, he looks so young!
I also want to thank Carolyn for bringing Henri’s passion to fruition, you are the ‘catcher’ in this scenario, and what a catch! I couldn’t put the book down. I loved your style of your weaving the story of Henri’s window rescue with his journal entries and thoughts on the Flying Rodleighs along with their thoughts as well.
As mentioned being grounded as beloved is life changing. As Henri points out in order to get to that we must let go of what is familiar .The things that are holding us back.He writes about these in his peacemaking books. We are needy and wounded he writes.The needs are anchored in wounds.How easy it is to act out of that place of needs and wounds and how violent that can be.This is humanity .His solution is open handed prayer.Entering into a new dwelling place.A new way of speaking,being together,knowing ,and living.This divine dwelling place brings us peace that the world cannot give.He says that when we pray we let ourselves know that the love we are looking for has already been given to us. The true catcher .The dwelling place that we return to in prayer. We are caught once again as Jesus said to us “make your home in me as I make mine in you. Whoever remains in me ,with me in him ,bears fruit”.So we return to flying,falling,and catching with our prayers that Henri says is the beginning and the end ,the source and the fruit .the core and the context ,the basis and the goal.There is one thing I ask of the Lord,and for this I long : to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.For there he keeps me safe in the day of evil.There he hides me in his shelter.And now my head shall be raised above my foes which surround me, and I will offer within his tent the sacrifice of joy . Psalm 27
This was an amazing book to read during the Advent season. Thank you to everyone who made it possible. Special thanks to Ray for his weekly insights & prompts. And, of course, Thank you, dear Carolyn, for creating such a beautiful tapestry of a book that Henri dreamed of writing, woven with the words & memories of many people who loved Henri! I wonder if you have read Henri’s Ukrainian Diaries because it was also a very good example of Henri’s jumps into the unknown when he trusted the Catcher and how many fruits of love that jump produced. By the way, we have such a wonderful circus in my home city Kharkiv, Ukraine! I loved to go there with my mom & then, with my husband. Once I even brought a whole group of my friends & their kids to the circus to celebrate my birthday & I took a couple of those kids with me to fly on the swing-like trapeze! It was an amazing experience: even a memory of it brings a smile to my face 🙂
I also enjoyed watching the excerpts of the video documentary “Angels Over the Net” & look forward to seeing the whole film. Henri was so genuinely happy there, in the circus! I loved when at the end of the book, Henri is questioning himself whether he looked pathetic when he was hanging up in the air on the trapeze and how then he realizes that, actually, it was courageous & better to try & go for it then don’t. I also loved that Henri encourages himself & his readers to be merciful to themselves. It is such a needed encouragement for me now! And finally, his colorful casket, created by his L’Arche family, looked so inspiring! Carolyn, shout out to you for this unique work of art too! I never thought I could say something like that about a casket, but I even asked my husband to make me a similar one someday 🙂
Last year, as we read Henri’s book “Community,” I was inspired to set its title as a theme for my whole New Year 2022. For 2023, the theme that emerges for me is “TRUST.” This week, I wrote in my blog about an English acronym that came to my mind during the Covid pandemic in 2020: “all three words – Pain, Paint & Painting – start with PAIN, and the secret of turning Pain into Painting is hidden in the letter “T” which stands for “TRUST.” As simple as it sounds, it is deep enough to write a book about it & maybe one day I will because I have all the other parts of this acronym too, but as of now, I just want to focus on “TRUST” – the paint Tube in which I will carefully gather all my Pain to Paint my Painting.” So, TRUST it is!
Merry Christmas & Happy New 2023 to everyone!
An especially penetrating reminder of Henri’s spiritual wisdom comes as he looks at his sabbatical writing journal covers and is reminded of something he wrote in 1992: “I know now that I have to speak from eternity into time, from lasting joy
into the passing realities of our short existence in this world. One could call
it the ‘prophetic vision’: looking at people and this world through the eyes
of God” (p. 216).
Perhaps an apt summary of Henri’s legacy for all of us!
More on With Open Hands
In the post this week, I referred to Henri’s 1972 book With Open Hands and his insight that during our lives we are often faced with the difficult challenge to “open your tightly clenched fist.” You might be interested to learn that Henri’s 1972 book consisted of both Henri’s reflections on prayer and photographs by two of Henri’s friends—Theo Robert and Ron P. Van Den Bosch. Ron is the same photographer that was with Henri and the Rodleighs in 1993 and took the photo in this week’s post.
I also learned that in 1994 Henri published an updated version of With Open Hands with slightly revised text to which he added a prayer and a mediation question at the end of each chapter. At the end of the “Introduction—With Clenched Fists” (from which the excerpt in the post was taken), Henri included this prayer: “I am so afraid to open my clenched fists! Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to? Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands? Please help me to gradually open my hands and to discover that I am not what I own, but what you want to give me. And what you want to give me is love—unconditional, everlasting love. Amen.”
This prayer was written in 1994—after Henri’s recovery from his emotional and spiritual breakdown and several years after Henri met the Rodleighs. It seems to me that we can see clear evidence of Henri’s growth on his spiritual journey. In 1972 he understood the need to open his clenched fists, but perhaps he didn’t really know how to do so. By 1994 Henri experienced God’s unconditional love in a powerful way through Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son and his counselors and Daybreak community. He wrote about unconditional love in his spiritual masterpiece with the same title as the painting and in Life of the Beloved . Through the Rodleighs he gained a visual and spiritual metaphor illustrating what it means to open our hands, let go, fly, and trust the catcher. My Christmas wish for us all is that we may learn to do the same.
Peace and all good.
The question about the names of the Flying Rodleighs is thought-provoking. I wonder if Rodleigh is the shorter dark-haired trapeze artist in the middle? Which ones are the catchers and which one is doing all the most daring and risky and needing to be trusty of the catchers, doing all those turns or other gymnastics up there in the air? Or are they all sort of qualified and talented in doing all the trapeze roles? And does Henri Nouwen self-identify with any one of them especially? Very thought-provoking question. With regard to praying, I was caught by the statement that Henri Nouwen had periods when he felt like he was losing his boundaries and then, at another point in the book, he was falling out of balance or was unbalanced or something. I go through stuff like that too, when any kind of prayer seems really to be impractical or even unfocussed in any constructive way, and I can’t even string two thoughts together. But have found that Eucharistic Adoration helps me the most through these episodes, some sort of sharing or counselling after helps but in the immediency it is simply by putting myself in the Presence of Jesus’ Eyes and Being in Eucharistic Adoration that makes my chemistry align itself again so that I can think and feel like He is rebuilding me again and I can explain myself better to myself, to God and to other people involved in relating together. One thing I appreciate about Henri Nouwen in his ministry is that, every time he can, he seems to be sharing the Eucharist with whoever he is with, travelling and all over everywhere. This has been a very stimulating book reading group, a fascinating book to read, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and benefitted from it. Looking forward to what will be chosen for Lent next year. Merry Christmas and thank you, Ray, and all others for doing this Advent study.
I too have noted Henri’s eagerness to share the Eucharist with others in a wide variety of settings. This is a key part of his ministry.
Thanks and Merry Christmas!
From Margaret Nichols
I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to join the insightful discussions as much as I would have like to. One image that stood out to me in the documentary was seeing Henri having so much fun. His childlike wonder bursting from him. It was when they put the harness on him and he ran back and forth on the net. I laughed to see him have so much fun. Then I cried. So happy to see him in his precious childlike heart. So alive, so loving
Thanks for this online study and all of your comments. I suspect that I have “closed hands” in the area of prayer, still being afraid of not having the right words when I pray for someone at church or in other live conversations (not when I’m alone, praying only to God.) It’s similar to not trusting the catcher. How do the rest of you overcome this?
Just found this quote from Henri from several years ago: “God wants to be as close to us as our breath. God wants to breathe in us, so that all we say, think and do is completely inspired by God. God is God-within-us. Thus God’s covenant reveals to us to how much God loves us.”
Henri added to this by writing God says to you “I want to see you come closer to me and experience the joy and peace of my presence.I want to give you a new heart and a new spirit.I want you to speak with my mouth,see with my eyes,hear with my ears,touch with my hands.All that is mine is yours.Just trust me and let me be your God. “.
I meet with 2 other women every 2nd & 4th Wednesday of each month for the single purpose of prayer. After several years of meeting together, one might think I would be over the sense of inadequacy in praying aloud.
Your question asking how others might overcome this, caught my attention. As I read Henri’s response following his participation in the March from Selma, p. 199…..”Yes, yes, I belong; these are my people…They love me, and I love them. Their smiles and tears are my smiles and tears; their prayers and prophesies are my prayers and prophecies; their anguish and hope are my anguish and hope. I am one with them.” Certainly, different setting, experience, people…but this helps me and surprisingly I hear words from a song, “we shall overcome” playing in my mind!
Thanks be to God Who speaks in many and varied ways in and through His people……I can say, “YES”….”Henri’s unlikely story” helps me to find joy, freedom and beauty in my irreplaceable, imperfect family, imperfect community and in an imperfect world…referencing last sentence in acknowledgements, p.234.