Henri catching the wing of a windmill.
I invite you to Be Still! Be Loved! Be Grateful!, a Spiritual Formation course that I will be leading at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, GA, on Henri Nouwen’s life, ministry, and writings Sept. 22-24, 2016 following the 2oth anniversary of his death Sept. 21, 1996. A technical glitch tried to put some registrants on a waiting list, but there are still openings.
Attending an international Nouwen conference in Toronto this past June and doing further reading in preparation for the course, I’ve been thinking about the research Henri did for a book he never wrote about the Flying Rodleighs, trapeze artists in a German circus. He wanted it to say something about the spiritual life in more universal (rather than religious) language. So, last week, this children’s story came out of me!
Once upon a time there was a wide-eyed boy named Henri. He lived in Holland during a great war. His hands were large, his ears were large, he was clumsy and awkward, and he felt like a clown.
And so he went to clown seminary. He devoted himself to learning all the gestures a clown must use, flapping his oversize hands like birds, extending them at arms’ length in welcome, clapping them rapidly together as if offering multiple expressions of gratitude for everything and everyone he encountered.
He stuck his neck out, squinted his eyes as if to see better, turned a big ear to hear clearly, bowed grandly but deferentially, and stood on tippy-toes to accentuate his already great height when making a point. And he had a huge, goofy grin that revealed his absolute delight at encountering you.
Henri found a costume that accentuated his vocation, and learned how to apply garish makeup that sometimes covered his true feelings.
So Henri joined the circus, following the poet e.e. cummings’ famous advice: “damn everything but the circus.” He travelled hither and yon, over hill and over dale, as the circus wagons kept rolling along.
He stumbled and fumbled and tumbled and somersaulted his way into people’s hearts. “He is just like us,” they said, sometimes smiling in recognition, sometimes deeply moved as his familiar foibles and limitations tugged at their heart strings. His disabilities mirrored our disabilities.
But Henri had a secret wish: to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Sometimes his height allowed him to catch an arm of a windmill, common in Holland’s countryside, and the uplift took his breath away. He could see great distances and imagine himself flung to the heavens before crashing to earth in a pile of hay, cushioning his fall.
And then Henri met Rodney, a trapeze artist. Rodney was strong and graceful, beautiful and amazing. He was everything Henri wished to be, and HE COULD FLY! Boy, could he fly, doing doubles and triples midair without a care in the world.
“How do you do that?” Henri asked Rodney, appreciatively. “Being absolutely present in the moment,” Rodney explained. “I let go of everything that can hold me down: my cares, my doubts, my fears, even yesterday’s mistakes. And I trust. I trust the Catcher, and I trust the net. Gravity is not my enemy; it is the friend that brings me home. I can go up toward the skies knowing I will come home. I surrender to the moment and soar, knowing gravity will keep me down to earth.”
Then Rodney added, “It’s the same thing you do when you stumble and fumble and tumble and somersault into people’s hearts—except you do it grounded. Your gravity is compassion. Your home is the heart.”
Henri was stunned. He had never thought of his work in this way. Rodney’s words lifted him up, and Henri felt like this man on the flying trapeze.
My book about Henri:
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Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved.