If anyone could experience revelation at a circus, it would be Henri Nouwen. The Dutch Catholic spiritual writer was known for his ability to uncover the sacred in unconventional places: his time living with adults with disabilities in a L’Arche community inspired his book Adam: God’s Beloved, while a chance encounter with a Rembrandt painting transformed his understanding of God’s infinite mercy. Now, a new book by Carolyn Whitney-Brown brings to light Nouwen’s unpublished reflections on how a troupe of trapeze artists helped him embrace spontaneity and overcome fears of failure.
Flying, Falling, Catching: An Unlikely Story of Finding Freedom pairs Nouwen’s journal writings with Whitney-Brown’s historical reconstructions of the last years of his life. When he watched a trapeze troupe, the Flying Rodleighs, perform at a circus in Germany in 1991, Nouwen was fascinated by the artists’ skill and courage, and so asked to meet them backstage to learn about their work. This marked the beginning of an improbable friendship and something of a writer’s obsession for Nouwen, who devoted much energy over the next five years to writing about his conversations with the troupe and the profound emotion he felt watching their thrilling performances.
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After performing countless dangerous flips and throws, the five Flying Rodleighs had cultivated deep faith in one another, trusting that when they flew from platform to swing, they would be caught by the waiting hands of their partner. Nouwen saw this trust as symbolic of the movement in his own spiritual life toward interdependence, writing that “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.”
Yet Nouwen struggled to organize his fragments on the Flying Rodleighs, and the subject seemed outlandish at first to his collaborators on previous spiritual books. The trapeze writings were therefore incomplete at the time of his death in 1996 at age 64. Whitney-Brown, as a longtime friend of Nouwen’s through the L’Arche commun-ity in Richmond Hill, Ont., has written Flying, Falling, Catching not to complete his musings, but rather to bring the story of his relationship with the Flying Rodleighs to life. Her renderings of Nouwen’s conversations with the trapeze artists and other friends — reconstructed from his journals, letters and talks — capture his passionate curiosity and the childlike enthusiasm with which he approached the risky art of the trapeze.
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The resulting book is a fascinating read, both as a portrait of Nouwen and for the insight it offers into his creative process. An initial moment of inspiration — watching the trapeze artists soar through the air — leads him, after reflection and prayer, to an essential spiritual truth: that an extraordinary art form can be a way God speaks to the world.
Marie Trotter is a writer and PhD student in Montreal.
This story first appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2022 issue with the title “The thrill of the catch.”
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