By Kathy Berken
As I researched the spiritual master Henri Nouwen for a retreat conference, I came across a story about the time he joined the circus. He saw the trapeze artists known as “The Flying Rodleighs,” who performed in the German circus Simoneit-Barum.
Henri was enthralled with the Rodleighs’ aerial stunts, enchanted with the grace of how one man seamlessly flew through the air into the arms of the other. They were “flying and catching as elegant dancers,” he wrote. (“Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring,” by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Harper Collins, 1995)
He introduced himself to them and told them of his interest in their performance. They gave him tickets to their shows and then invited him to join them for a week as they traveled and performed. What young man would say no to that?
The leader of the troupe explained that their actions have to be precise, and each person has a specific role to play. In the aerial routines, the flyer lets go of the bar on the swing and flies to the catcher, whose legs are wrapped around the bar of another swing. “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher,” but even though the flyer gets the applause for being the star, it’s the catcher who is the real star. The secret to the safety and success of this act is that “the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to the catcher, 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 catchbar.”
Henri quickly realized that this circus act is not very different from our everyday lives. We are the flyers and God is the catcher. It’s easy, right? A simple image, but it can be a real emotional and psychological challenge to trust God in the same way the flyer in “The Flying Rodleighs” learned to stretch out his arms and completely trust that his catcher would catch him every time and not let him fall.
For Henri, this became a metaphor for crossing over from life to death: “The words of Jesus flashed through my mind,” he wrote. “‘Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.’ Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, ‘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.’”
But it is also a vivid image of how to think, feel and act when we are faced with a situation where we are afraid, where we are uncertain, where we have to make a decision. So often in my work as a spiritual director, people tell me, “I just don’t know what to do. I am so afraid of making the wrong decision. I can’t control this situation, and I feel helpless.”
Henri would have told them to remember the message of the circus: “The flyer must fly, the catcher must catch.” The ultimate question is, do we trust God or not? If we do, then let go, fly through the air and trust that God will catch you safely. What happens next, once we are caught? Do we flip into the net, or will there be another swing for us to catch? I say, take it one swing, one flying-through-the-air moment at a time. You will arrive, eventually, into the catcher’s outstretched arms.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)