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Flying, Falling, Catching: An unlikely story of finding freedom by Henri Nouwen and Carolyn Whitney-Brown

by
13 January 2023

Rachel Mann reads about Henri Nouwen’s friendship with The Flying Rodleighs

I APPROACHED this book with trepidation. Henri Nouwen died in 1996. Since then, a number of books have appeared that draw on the legacy of the great man. The risk, of course, is that with each new offering the legacy is diluted. The book’s tagline — “Henri Nouwen’s exhilarating true story of friendship, community and the flying trapeze” — didn’t add to my sense of expectation. I struggled to see how a book about Nouwen’s love for a circus troupe, The Flying Rodleighs, would add much. Well, despite my doubts, this is a book full of insight.

Much of the credit for the book’s success goes to Nouwen’s old friend and accomplished writer Carolyn Whitney-Brown, who draws liberally on Nouwen’s notebooks to make a work of creative non-fiction. She uses two primary points of view to frame the book: she moves between Nouwen’s rescue by paramedics from a Dutch high-rise hotel room during his nearly terminal heart attack in 1996, and his time spent with the Rodleighs in the early 1990s. Whitney-Brown weaves a quietly compelling story, grounded in interviews with paramedics, conversations with the Rodleighs, and Nouwen’s extensive notes for a planned book about the troupe.

The book’s first surprise, of course, is that Nouwen was obsessed with a circus act. He adored the Rodleighs so much that he made a Dutch TV documentary about them. When he first saw them in the early ’90s, he became — to their bemusement — a super-fan and a kind of mascot. In this ostensibly non-religious circus troupe, Nouwen discerned “a community of love that can break through the boundaries of ordinariness”. Whitney-Brown captures with wit and tenderness the “odd-couple” friendship between the gawky writer-priest and the circus artistes.

© ron p. van den boschHenri Nouwen (horizontal) with the trapeze group The Flying Rodleighs, with whom he developed a theologically fruitful friendship. From the book

Ultimately, insights abound. Nouwen’s notebooks reveal how the Rodleighs deepen his understanding of human difference and otherness, and inspire him to fresh insights into the nature of vocation. Nouwen asks, “Shouldn’t there be something of a trapeze artist in every priest and something of a priest in every trapeze artist?” His answer is beautiful, unexpected, and moving.

If there are times when Whitney-Brown’s technique jars — one finds oneself anticipating the “back and forth” approach — this is a genuinely rewarding work. It draws the reader’s attention back to the surprising horizons of Love. Nouwen invites us to join him in becoming more trusting: in death, as in life, God waits to catch us just as we think we shall fall.


Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

 

Flying, Falling, Catching: An unlikely story of finding freedom
Henri Nouwen and Carolyn Whitney-Brown
SPCK £13.99
(978-0-281-08694-8)
Church Times Bookshop £12.59

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