Carolyn Whitney-Brown "Henri Nouwen & His Latest Book" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you an interview with someone who’s been deeply influenced by the writings of Henri Nouwen, or perhaps even a recording of Henri Nouwen himself. We invite you to share the daily meditations in these podcasts with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce audiences to Henri’s writings, his encouragement, and of course, his reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
So, with that said, let me take a moment to introduce my guest. Carolyn Whitney-Brown is a gifted scholar, creative writer and thinker – just the right person to co-author a new book with Henri Nouwen. Yes, I said “co-author” and yes, I said “new book.” Today, we’re going to talk about the book that Henri hoped to write on the circus and the trapeze, but never completed. Carolyn Whitney-Brown took on the task and has done a marvelous job of creating a new book, called Flying, Falling, Catching, by Henri Nouwen and Carolyn Whitney-Brown. Carolyn, welcome to Henri Nouwen: Now and Then.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Thank you, Karen.
Karen Pascal: I am truly, absolutely amazed at this book. I am sure it’s at least a year since I read it last, but I am simply amazed at how you pull together the various pieces of writing. It’s brilliant. My questions today are probably going to focus on the how. But before I do, you were a good friend of Henri’s, and I’d just love to know a little bit about that friendship. What was it like to know him at L’Arche? And to know him as a friend and to know him as a pastor?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Well, it’s probably helpful to know that we actually came to L’Arche from somewhat similar backgrounds, right? We were both moving from a highly competitive, high-level academic world to L’Arche. I was just finished a PhD at Brown University and my husband and I had, as we finished, decided to spend a year learning about prayer and communities. So, we lived in several intentional communities in England and did a program that included a 30-day silent retreat. And during that year, we wrote to Henri, because we discovered he’d moved to L’Arche. And we were very curious about this journey he’d made from high-level intellectual life to L’Arche. And we wrote to him and he wrote back. So, we became friends before L’Arche by writing letters to each other. And we had this in common, moving from our minds to our hearts in a way, and discovering something in L’Arche, then, at Daybreak. And do our listeners know what L’Arche is?
Karen Pascal: No, I don’t think they do. I think it’d be good to just explain what L’Arche is. That’s a good idea.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: So, L’Arche is a network, a federation of communities now around the world in 35 countries, where people with and without intellectual disabilities create home together, work together, play together, find ways to share their lives with each other. So, in moving to L’Arche in those days, you moved into a house with people with intellectual disabilities, and discovered the gifts of each other and your own limitations. So, for instance, we lived initially in a house with someone named Gord Henry, who was a very good friend of Henri’s. And Gord was a man with Down syndrome. And he would say to us over and over, “Open your hearts.” And for us, coming from academic work, it was like a mantra. In fact, I recommend it to all our listeners; it’s a good mantra. You can never go wrong, anything going on, just tell yourself, “Open your heart,” and it’ll work. So, Henri and we met in this kind of, with this common ground.
Karen Pascal: That’s lovely. Now, I remember on several occasions reading Henri, right, about the fact that community is that one place where you end up with the very person that’s maybe the hardest person for you to live with. And I think Henri would often describe how wonderful L’Arche was for him, how it blessed and changed him. But it was also a really difficult place. Did you see that challenge for Henri at L’Arche?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Yeah. I mean, you see it for everyone in L’Arche. When you live with people, you discover all sorts of things, not just about them, but about yourself. So, Henri describes beautifully, and it’s in the book, his growing friendship with Bill Van Buren, and how he wants Bill to be his friend. And Bill is wary, and they have to really negotiate what it means to be friends and how to build trust. But you know, what’s interesting about Henri is he is so willing to laugh at himself, to be a bit self-deprecating, to have this humor about himself.
And his big, big discovery in terms of living with someone who’s the most difficult, was that that was himself. In fact, as you might know, he had a really enormous emotional break after his first year in L’Arche, and what he writes about it, and this is in the book. He says, “I began to realize that the gentle safety of the New House [where he was living] was weakening many of the defenses I’d created around my inner handicaps. In this loving, caring milieu, without competition, one-upmanship and great pressure to distinguish myself, I experienced what I had not been able to see or experience before. I was faced with a very insecure, needy and fragile person: myself.”
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, you know, when you describe that. And the book really does introduce us to Henri on a, I think, on a very intimate level. But I find what our listeners and the people who love Henri’s writing really value is his incredible honesty. He doesn’t put on this front of being all together. He reveals a brokenness often and an uncertainty about himself, which in its honesty is incredibly attractive. It’s incredibly releasing for others to enter in as well.
Now, when Henri died, he had a writing project that he wanted to do about the circus, and he was convinced that this book of creative nonfiction would be the most important contribution that he was going to make as a spiritual writer. He had come to know the Flying Rodleighs trapeze troupe, and he simply loved what he saw in their work. Before we start talking about how you put the book together, I’m curious: Do you remember hearing from Henri about his love for the circus, and about this book project that was kind of cooking in his head?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Oh, yeah. We all knew; he just couldn’t stop talking about them. And when he did, he just lit up. There was something about meeting those performers and their artistry and their beauty and their discipline and the way they had to form a community together to move from town to town as a traveling circus that just absolutely fascinated him. And he just talked and talked and talked about it. But what I really remember is how, whenever he talked about it, his whole face would light up with joy. Yeah. Just his enthusiasm about this project. Yeah. We all knew about the project.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because for years, people who knew Henri have been asking, “What’s happening with Henri’s writings on the trapeze? Is there a book that will someday come out?” The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust was careful to hold onto this material for the right moment and for the right creative writer to tackle it. When the Trust approached you with this book project, we asked you to write a proposal for the book. We felt you had both the history of knowing Henri well, and that you had the creative potential to make a book out of what was held within the archives. Tell us about all the pieces that you had to work with.
Carolyn Whitney- Brown: Yeah. Well, first I need to say that I felt enormously privileged to have a go at this project. And I was very curious, because we all wondered, you know, those of us who weren’t in the Nouwen archives, wondered what was in there. And the first thing that really struck me is that he wanted to write a story, that he wanted to tell a story, that he wanted to write differently. And in a way, what was in the archives then is not very complicated. There’s a tape where he talks about his first week of meeting the Flying Rodleighs, and just babbles with excitement. He wrote two chapters a bit later about that same week – two chapters towards a book in a style of creative nonfiction, in the way he wanted to learn to write. And then, that was the really most significant thing, other than a diary that he kept for two weeks when he traveled with the circus. And then there were notes towards a possible book outline. There were a few letters. There was a film that he did with Jan van den Bosch and Bart Gavigan called Angels Over the Net, where he speaks wonderfully about the trapeze, and you can see them in action. And that was really about it. So, then I also pulled in things from other parts of his life and I tried to think what else was going on at the same time. So, that’s really what I had to work with.
Karen Pascal: You did an amazing job. You did an absolutely amazing job and I love the various pieces that you brought into this story. I mean, you told it well, and you made it into a story. It fits together beautifully. People are going to really enjoy this.
What were some of the unique ideas that you brought to the table, because they really provide the framework for this?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Well, the first thing is that it was really fun. This was such a fun project, because Henri’s excitement just bubbles through everything. Like that in the first tape that he does, of his first week. He just starts out by saying, “What really got me, what really fascinated me was the trapeze artists, and that’s why I became so involved in the circus and, when I saw them at the very beginning, it was absolutely fascinating.” And he just babbles with excitement: “These guys were really amazing. Actually, they weren’t all guys; there were three men and three women, and I was just fascinated by the way they were moving freely in the air and making these incredible jumps, and catching each other, and I was fascinated by their physical prowess. But I was as much fascinated by the group as a team, the way they work together.”
So, he’s just babbling out all the things that are striking him, and that kind of excitement is just really fun to work with. And there was just so much energy in those bits. But of course, they didn’t really add up to a book, right?
And so, it struck me pretty fast that I could not write the book Henri would’ve written. I didn’t know what it would’ve been. He didn’t know what it was going to be. But I could tell the story – and it’s a great story – of Henri meeting this trapeze troupe, throwing himself into their lives, becoming genuine friends. And then, how that imagery, how the things he’s learning about embodiment, about beauty, about performance spill out into the rest of his life. I could tell that story, and two things made that possible. One was that Rodleigh Stevens, the founder and key person in the Flying Rodleighs trapeze troupe, became Henri’s very good friend. And he wrote a memoir, which is unpublished also, called What a Friend We Had in Henri. And that gave me what I needed to tell the story, because it gave me a view of Henri from the outside, what it was like to watch him walk around the circus grounds, what it was like to watch him trip over cables in his excitement, and what it was like to both fall in love with his pastoral care and his generous spirit, and also to laugh at Henri because he could be so oblivious to his impact on others.
So, it’s a great scene where he just can’t remember to scrape his feet off before walking into their caravan. And he just, you know, tracks mud in over and over again. So, you get a sense of the humor of Henri from the outside. So that was the one piece. And then the other piece was I got in touch with a Dutch paramedic who could explain to me, and I guess we’ll get to this, but how a patient having a heart attack could be taken out a window. So, two pieces of the story came into place.
Karen Pascal: I think that was so unique of you to figure out – in a way, you figured out the ending, you know, before, and you must have had to work towards it. I know in one of the quotes that I was looking at that had inspired Henri, was you sort of worked toward your ending. But you decided to put a framework around this. And it was the day that Henri had his heart attack. Take us through that and take us through what you learned, because you were, you know, being a good writer, you were doing your research. Tell us all about that.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Well, there were two things, you know, what you just quoted about the ending as a magnetic pole, drawing everything toward it, right?
Karen Pascal: Yes.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Yes. The first thing that struck me was the first thing Rodleigh said in his memoir: that as they were sitting there and he was hearing one of speakers talk about Henri as very wounded and very anguished – and that’s all true, but we all know that’s true – at Henri’s funeral. The first funeral; we’ll get to that, too, in Holland. And Rodleigh is at this funeral, and he hears the speaker talking about Henri as so anguished. And Rodleigh says that he just wanted to jump up and interrupt the speaker and tell them about this different Henri, who was relaxed and flamboyant and funny, and just full of excitement and enthusiasm and curiosity. And that really grabbed me, as one of the poles to head towards. This gave the book a shape; I wanted readers to catch this, the Henri that Rodleigh knew at the circus.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s lovely.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: And it spoke to a Henri I knew. But the other piece then was, I started to think about this strange, strange thing. That Henri, when he had his first heart attack, he had just gotten off a plane from Toronto to Holland. He’d been flying overnight and he’d checked into his hotel and he called down to the front desk and said he wasn’t well, and the front desk called paramedics to come. And they came and realized right away that his heart attack was serious, but they couldn’t take him down steep steps. And they couldn’t take him down the elevator, because he had to stay flat. And so, they took him out a window.
And the technical word for being taken out a window is defenestration. And by coincidence, Henri had actually written something in his journal about defenestration, as a new word he’d just learned, about six months before. So, I kind of latched onto this defenestration thing. And I was sharing with a friend in Toronto as I was working on all this stuff. I said to my friend, great Toronto writer named Ruth Rakoff. I said, “Ruth, I don’t know what to do. His life is stranger than fiction. He got taken out this window.”
And she said, “That’s your frame. That’s what you need to do. The whole story can be, Henri is taken out the window. It’s his last great flight. And as he goes out the window and is taken down to the ground, he will reflect back over his life, and try to figure out why he didn’t write his book.” And it all sort of clicked in for me right there. So, a shout-out to Ruth Rakoff. It gave the book that, as you said, that sort of magnetic pole to head to and the frame it needed to be a story.
Karen Pascal: It’s brilliant. It is quite brilliant. And you’ve done such a beautiful job of giving us a kind of present around it, of giving us memoir within it. I could not imagine how anyone would do a better job than you’ve done on this, Carolyn. It’s really impressive.
Why do you think Henri didn’t get around to writing the book?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Most simply, he ran out of time. He died five years after meeting them, which sounds like a long time. But if you think about it, his Prodigal Son book took eight-plus years to write, to take shape in his mind. And if you think about the moment at which Henri met the Flying Rodleighs in 1991, he had been working and thinking and living with the prodigal son image and story by then for, yeah, more than eight years. His book was finished about the prodigal son and he was very open, I think, to discovering something new in his life. In fact, he said that he was exactly that – he was open to something new and that why wouldn’t the angels of God come to him in the form of five trapeze artists?
And as I’ve said, it totally mesmerized him. And he got to know them. He traveled with them, he got fascinated by their art. He wanted to learn all about the trapeze. He wanted to learn all about their lives. He did all sorts of research into how rigging worked and the trapeze worked, but it was all underway. And I think he just kind of ran out of time. But also, there was the challenge that he’d set to himself that he wanted to tell it as a story. At the beginning of his sabbatical year – his last year of his life was on sabbatical from Daybreak. And at the very beginning of that, he wrote that it was going to be a year when he’d be completely open, I’m going to quote him now, “to let something radically new happen.” He said, “I feel strange! Very happy and very scared at the same time. . . free to deepen friendships and explore new ways of loving. Free most of all to fight with the Angel of God and ask for a new blessing.”
And he said, “I’ve written many essays, reflections and meditations during the last 25 years. But I’ve seldom written a good story. Why not? Maybe my moralistic nature made me focus more on the uplifting message that I felt compelled to proclaim than on the often-ambiguous realities of daily life, from where any uplifting message has to emerge spontaneously. Maybe I have been afraid to touch the wet soil from which new life comes forth and anxious about the outcome of an open-ended story.”
So, he set himself a challenge to write something that was a story – that wasn’t morals, that wasn’t a lesson, to let the reader have an experience and then draw their own meaning and significance from that experience. And I think he was working towards something, but he ran out of time.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because I think as I was reading through your book, I think you sense Henri knows that the aliveness or the buzz that he feels may just be God speaking to him. He doesn’t quite know how, but you sense he has that kind of awareness that there’s something special happening here. There’s something really unique. Now I’m curious: with you, I mean, you delved so deeply into his writing. This book is rich with the way you have caught moments, important moments in Henri’s life. I’m wondering about, was there for you a revelation of Henri that was new or different or deeper for you?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Yeah, there were a couple things. I think that it’s a good question. One was that I really got a sense that I hadn’t had before, of Henri as a performer, how important live performance was to Henri. And that’s in the book – that he starts to think of himself, what kind of a performer is he, what does it mean to be an entertainer? How are priests like trapeze artists? And in the book, the trapeze isn’t the only live performance. I actually reached back to an unpublished journal entry from the mid-1980s, which I thought was fantastic, where he is sitting with his father watching TV, and on one channel is a Tina Turner concert with tons of very physical energy, with Bryan Adams and David Bowie. And on the other channel is Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. And he channel-flips back and forth between these two performances. And he’s really attracted to both. And as a reader, I hope readers catch that we are all attracted to both – the deeper, inner, spiritual, reflective, contemplative life and the really out-there, performing, energetic, physical kind of performer. So, one of those things I really caught was Henri’s love of live performance, and himself as a performer.
Karen Pascal: That is really insightful. Can I ask you what do you think “trust the catcher” meant to him?
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Well, one of the things I found is that the phrase “trust the catcher” really deepened for him over those five years, but he started by seeing it as – and he writes about this in his book, Our Greatest Gift – as a really profound image for our dying. That we reach out our hands. We say to God, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” like Jesus did. And, you know, ultimately, we’re safe. We’re caught by God. And this image that the flyer can’t grab the catcher. And that really fascinated him, that a trapeze artist who is flying has to just reach out their hands and then just wait. And the catcher will swing up from underneath and grab them. But if the flyer tries to grab the catcher, they could break their wrists. It’s a disaster. So, this image of just, you fly, you just let go and you just trust, right? Reach out your hands.
So, it started, I think for him, and still remained most profoundly, is this image of how we give our lives over. And we let go at the end. But then, as he got to know the trapeze troupe more deeply, and the dynamics, then it started to get more complicated and interesting, too. It’s as he writes in a letter to Bart Gavigan, he says that he thinks of these words “as words that express,” he says, “the human challenge to trust your neighbor, to trust your God, to trust love, and to trust that finally we’ll be safe.”
So, he also starts to really think about how we catch each other, what it means to trust each other like that, what it means to trust ourselves to catch each other. And he talks about, with Jennie and the trapeze troupe, he talks with her about the micro-adjustments she has to make to send the flyer with the right momentum so that the catcher can catch them, the kind of fine-tuned details that people do with great attentiveness to each other, to be able to do this performance. And a good catcher, he says too, knows when to let the flyer fall. So, you know, a good catcher doesn’t always catch. A good catcher looks at what’s happening, does what they can, and then knows that if they fall into the net, it’s fine. And sometimes you just have to let people go, and on all these levels, I think it just kept going deeper and deeper for Henri. You trust the catcher, you trust yourself, you trust that you can fall, you trust this whole performance that you’re doing together has all these dynamics. And it’ll all be okay.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because Henri loved the Eucharist and he somehow even saw in that something of the fact that you are catching God, you’re in that process of taking and breaking and giving. And I thought that was fascinating, too. It was like he was finding new, fresh metaphors for his faith and they were so alive to him that he hadn’t quite got the words.
But Carolyn, you did an amazing job of interpreting Henri. I’m really awed by what you have done. It was far more complex than I could have imagined, and our readers are going to love this book. I’m convinced of that. I think they will. They’re going to know more about Henri, a more intimate look at Henri, but there’s so much depth in it. I really encourage people – you need to read it yourselves.
One thing I loved that you wrote in your introduction, you tell how Henri could be anguished and demanding, but I love when you write, “There’s a reason his friends still miss him today.” I think I’ve heard, but I would just say, I appreciate the fact that for you, Henri has always had this magical, wonderful quality that you missed and loved and delighted in. He wasn’t just a broken mess. He was a brilliant man. He was a combination of many things, but I love that about what you’ve told us about Henri.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: Well, I’ll tell you a funny, personal story. When Henri died, I was at Daybreak and I was coming through a pretty deep postpartum depression after the birth of my third child. And I was seeing this wonderful psychiatrist who worked with women and hormonal issues. And she was fantastic. And she was telling me, I should write. So, I really needed to start writing and really do more of my creative side. And then Henri died and I wrote a Lives Lived column for the Globe and Mail. The community asked me to write this Lives Lived column. And the day it came out, I found I was feeling a little uneasy. I thought, “Well, I hope I haven’t made him sound too messed up or, or neurotic or weird,” you know. And I was meeting my psychiatrist and I took it to her and she read it. And she just looked at me so kindly. And she said, “Wow, you’re really going to miss him. It sounds like you were very similar.”
So, I think many readers of Henri relate to this: that there was something of Henri, that you could find yourself in Henri. He’s so transparent and so willing to laugh at himself. And it’s not that he poured everything out. You know, he really did choose what he wanted to share and was very discerning about what would be helpful to readers, what was pastoral. But the imagery of this book, of flying, falling, catching, really speaks to Henri. He had a real instinct of how to help people fly, how to encourage them, how to give them the freedom, the confidence to really try something, to take a risk.
He really helped people to fall. He’d say, “Okay, you fell. Okay. It makes you human. It’s your ticket to being human. Sure. We mess up. It’s okay.”
Just such encouragement, not to beat yourself up or just crumble in shame. And then, this whole sense of catching, that we catch each other, that he could catch us. And you don’t catch someone in the trapeze act and then the act stops. The catcher catches the flyer, and then they either send them on into another trick with new momentum, or they help them get back to the pedestal. So, the catching isn’t the end, it’s part of the flow. And it just seems to me that those are wonderful images for how Henri befriended and encouraged and has inspired so many people.
Karen Pascal: Carolyn, I don’t think that we at the Trust could have found anyone better to write this book. Honestly, I am so glad that it was saved for you. I think you bring an incredible brilliance and creativity to it that enhances the book. It isn’t just a Henri book. It’s a Henri-plus book, and the plus is quite wonderful. I really want to encourage our listeners. This is the book you’ve been waiting for when you heard that Henri had written on the trapeze, this is the book, and you need to read it and you’ll love it. And I think you’ll be blessed by it, really blessed by it.
Carolyn, I’m so grateful that you’ve worked with us and that you have been so faithful to it. I mean, this was a big and demanding project. And we love our publisher, HarperOne, who is taking this book out on March 8th, and we are really excited about the book, but we just. . . to all our listeners, we really want to encourage you. This is a book that I think is life-giving and will bring a fresh vision of God as the catcher and of what we’re doing in our lives.
Carolyn Whitney-Brown: I would just say that one of the pleasures of writing the book, too, was receiving the endorsements from advance readers, which gave me a hint as to how this story works, because readers get their own conclusions from it. And of course, when I’m writing a book like this, turning Henri in a way into a character, trying to guess what might have been in his mind, trying to piece together things, I of course wondered, “Is this okay? Does this feel like Henri?”
So, one of the huge things for me was getting his brother Laurent’s encouragement. His brother Laurent wrote, “I’m very grateful for Carolyn Whitney-Brown’s accurate account of my brother. Henri’s inner feelings, hopes, wishes, and despair. You brought Henri very close to me again.” And I found that a huge affirmation that this book really does speak to something very true about Henri.
And then it’s just so much fun that another reader, Marina Nemat, who was imprisoned and tortured as a teenager, said that she actually found in this book a beacon of hope. She says, “It reminds us that despite all the perils and sufferings that surround us, we can find healing, peace and awe, even in the most unusual detours that life offers.”
And also, very interesting to me, was our friend Shad, the internationally renowned rapper-artist. He saw in it, you know, the life of an entertainer. He said, “A lifelong search for wholeness takes a surprising late turn towards the circus. As someone who’s spent much of my adult life absorbing beautiful spiritual truths in gritty entertainment venues, I can definitely relate.” So, I’ve loved hearing how the book speaks to different people in different ways. And that’s the point of story, right? It’s really open to people’s own reading and to touch them somewhere in their own life. And that’s been really fun.
Karen Pascal: You wove some really interesting pieces into it, too. I love how you’ve woven in Henri’s great admiration for and commitment to Dr. Martin Luther King and his marching to Selma. I love the fact you include pages within this that are just fun, just really fun. His relationship with Joan Kroc, the heir to the McDonald’s fortune, and all sorts of things that are part of the book make it lively and interesting and challenging for all of us who read it. It’s a good book, Carolyn. Thank you for your hard work.
Thank you, all of you, for listening to today’s podcast. Carolyn Whitney-Brown has co-written a book with Henri Nouwen. She took on the enormous task of taking the many notes and interviews Henri Nouwen had done in preparation for a book on the Flying Rodleighs, and has brought this together in a marvelous, very original, creative non-fiction book called Flying, Falling, Catching.
This new book brings together the creativity, spirituality, and vision of Henri Nouwen and of his co-author, Carolyn Whitney-Brown. If you want to dig into the book, Henri felt would be his most important book that he would write, I encourage you to get Flying, Falling, Catching.
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