One interesting thing that emerged as I read a biography of Nouwen by Jurjen Beumer was the interest he had in the circus, and in particular, the trapeze artists. He was deeply impressed by a South African troupe called ‘The Flying Rodleighs’ whom he met in 1991. Nouwen believed that spiritual themes could be seen in the whole of life, and he saw something in the trapeze ‘story’ that he believed was a metaphor for the spiritual life. He determined to get to know them – their lives, their discipline, their fears, the thrills they enjoyed.
In the following years his friendship with The Rodleighs developed. He watched them, listened to their stories, learned to understand their techniques and studied the movements of their bodies. One day Nouwen was sitting with Rodleigh the leader of the troupe in his caravan, talking about flying. ‘As a flyer I must have complete confidence in my catcher,’ said Rodleigh. ‘The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.’
‘How does it work?’ asked Nouwen.
‘The secret,’ Rodleigh said, ‘is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catch bar.’
‘You do nothing!’ said Nouwen, surprised.
‘Nothing,’ Rodleigh repeated. ‘The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I am not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end of both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.’
Henri Nouwen summed up this picture with his usual deep spiritual insight, he concluded “When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, I thought, ‘Don’t be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.'”