Thinking Out Loud

August 22, 2022

Henri Nouwen and the Acrobats: Behind the Making of the Book

In late May I received a short note from the co-author of a book I had briefly mentioned on my Christian book trade blog. The book was Flying, Falling, Catching: An Unlikely Story of Finding Freedom (HarperOne, 2022) by the late Henri Nouwen and Carolyn Whitney-Brown. Both Carolyn and I thought that the story behind the book deserved greater attention, and months later, she sent what follows, which at this point, we have exclusively. You can learn more about her writing at this link.

by Carolyn Whitney-Brown

I first met Henri Nouwen at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill [North Toronto] in 1989 when he drove me with my husband Geoff to a local pizza place for lunch. He was a terrifyingly inattentive driver. But we had a terrific conversation that day. Geoff and I were completing our PhDs in English literature, so like Henri, we were coming from academic backgrounds looking for ways to live the gospel more concretely in a diverse community.

As Gord, a longtime L’Arche member with Down syndrome, would encourage us, “Open your heart.” We lived with Henri and Gord and many others at Daybreak until 1997, learning to think and love and laugh and pray in new ways. Those were transformative years.

Carolyn Whitney-Brown with Henri Nouwen

Henri first saw the Flying Rodleighs trapeze troupe perform in 1991, and it hit him like a thunderbolt. He described a physical response that left him shaken, excited, in tears – a response of his body, not in words. Over the next five years, he got to know the trapeze troupe and they became close friends. His times with them were relaxing, inspiring and full of fun. He talked about them constantly.

I knew from conversations with Henri at the time that he wanted to write differently; something that would read like fiction or even a novel. He wanted his circus book to be different than any of his previous books, based not on ideas or insights, but offering a story that would draw readers into an experience and invite them to draw their own significances and connnections.

But he died suddenly in 1996, and the fragments that he left behind sat in his literary archives for decades.

In 2017, because I was a writer who knew Henri well, I was invited by the publishing committee of Henri’s literary estate to have a look at his trapeze writings and see if anything inspired me.

Immediately, I was hooked by two mysteries. First, why did his encounter with the Flying Rodleighs strike him so powerfully at that moment of his life? And second, why he did he not finish his book about them?

I started to read widely in the archives, trying to figure out what else was going on in his life and spirit in those years, what had prepared him to see, as he put it, “the angels of God appearing to me in the form of five trapeze artists.”

I couldn’t write the book that Henri would have written, but in Flying, Falling, Catching, I honour his desire to write a creative book that would be as engaging as a novel. I juxtapose his writings about his friendship with the Flying Rodleighs trapeze troupe alongside other significant moments in his life. Those experiences in Henri’s own words are framed by the true story of his first heart attack and his rescue out the window of a hotel in the Netherlands in 1996.

The book is in two voices, Henri’s and mine, with two typefaces so that readers know which writings are Henri’s and which are mine.

I had a lot of fun writing it.

After completing the book, I keep thinking about pedestals. It’s easy to put Henri on a pedestal: he was wise and brave even when he was demanding and anguished. He’s often called a spiritual master. But that elevates him to a unique and lonely place, and being admired like that was not a healthy place for Henri. The trapeze act involves a different image of a pedestal, as somewhere to launch from. You’d look silly staying on a pedestal. It’s a platform to allow you to take a risk. And trapeze performers are rarely on a pedestal alone: no one can do a trapeze act by themselves.

Henri Nouwen with The Flying Rodleighs
Photo: Ron P. van den Bosch

You can actually see some hilarious film footage of Henri on the trapeze pedestal on the online recordings of two book launch events, one with commentary by Rodleigh Stevens himself, and the other with L’Arche Daybreak. In that one, I tell viewers to notice that real friends will not only accompany you on a pedestal, but they will throw you off at the right moment! You can find links to both book launch events at:

https://www.writersunion.ca/member/carolyn-whitney-brown

It struck me recently that I am now the age that Henri was when he was so entranced by the Flying Rodleighs, and interestingly, so is Rodleigh himself, since he and I are close in age. At our age, Henri let his imagination be seized by a whole new adventure. He said,

On a deeper level, [my friendship with the Flying Rodleighs] has given me a sense my life is just beginning. I don’t know where it’s going but I’m only sixty-two so I may have another thirty years. The Rodleighs are saying to me indirectly, don’t be afraid to fly a little, don’t be afraid to take a few doubles or triples or a few layouts. If you really miss the catcher you fall into the net so what’s the big issue! After all, take a risk and trust, trust, trust.”

Henri cared passionately about building communities that honour differences, that work for justice, that seek God’s vision of peace on earth and goodwill to all. As you finish reading Flying, Falling, Catching, be open to the spiritual challenge: What seizes YOUR imagination? What excites you? What life of fun and creative energy does God imagine for each of us, not just alone, but in our communities?


Flying Falling Catching is also available in the UK through SPCK Publishing.


Related: At Christianity 201 — Henri Nouwen quotations

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