Monday, January 25, 2010

Trapeze Trust

For many years, Henri Nouwen worked as a professor Christian theology at Harvard and Yale, until one day, he felt God call him to leave these esteemed institutions to serve in ministry at a home for physically and mentally disabled adults. Throughout those years, Nouwen wrote some very insightful and beautiful things about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. During a period of personal sabbatical, Nouwen wrote about, of all things, paying a visit to the circus!

He was taken in especially by the trapeze act, a team of brothers who called themselves “The Flying Rodleighs.” He watched them perform, and then he got to know them, learning more about their craft.

There were 5 members in the act- 3 “flyers” and 2 “catchers.” The flyer climbs the steps, mounts the platform, and grasps the trapeze. He leaps off the platform, swinging through the air. He uses his body for momentum, swinging with increasing speed and height. The catcher hangs from his knees on another trapeze, with his hands free to reach out. Trapeze artists usually use a safety net nowadays, but even falling into one of those is dangerous and sometimes fatal.

The moment of truth comes when the flyer lets go. He sails into the air with no support, no connection to the earth. He does a somersault or two. Picture him in the middle of a somersault and freeze the frame. There is absolutely nothing, at the moment, to keep the flyer from plunging to his death. What do you think he feels like? Do you think he feels fully alive- every cell in his body screaming out? Thing he’s feeling any fear right then?

In the next moment the catcher swings into our view. He has been timing his arcs perfectly. He arrives just as the flyer loses momentum and is beginning to descend. His hands clasp the arms of the flyer. The flyer cannot see him; to the flyer, everything is a blur. But then, in an instant, the flyer feels himself snatched out of the air. The catcher takes the flyer home. And the flyer is very, very glad.

Nouwen spent some time getting to know the flyers. He learned that flyers are small, weighing 150 pounds or less, because if you’re a catcher, you don’t want a flyer with a sweet tooth. He learned about the equipment they used. They had socks filled with magnesium dry powder for their hands, because Joe was one of the catchers. They told Henri, “Joe sweats a lot.” and if you’re the flyer, you don’t want a catcher with sweaty hands.

Here’s where the trusting comes in. Letting go is always an act of trust. One of the flyers told Nouwen, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher. The public might think I’m the 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.”

Nouwen asked him, “How does it work?”

He answered, “The secret is that the flyer does nothing. The catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait.”

Henri asked him, “You do nothing?”

“A flyer must fly and a catcher must catch. The flyer must trust with outstretched arms that his catcher will be there waiting for him,”

To say, “I believe” involves intellectual assent, it’s true. Saying “I believe in God,” takes humility and honesty. But in the end, confessing your faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the words of this creed means letting go, taking a leap, and trusting that there will be someone there to catch you.

There is no way to God that bypasses the call to let go…. The truth is that we are all born holding onto a trapeze- a little trapeze we call our “life”. We hold on to it tightly: our security, our “okay-ness”, our success, our importance, our worth, our stuff, our bodies, our heath, our influence. [1]

[1] Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, 40, 70-75.

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