rejoicing in our flesh...

I recently read a story about the late Henri Nouwen that spoke to my heart.  It has to do with the
fact that Brother Henri took a long time to become comfortable in his own skin. Apparently, he was awkward and gawky - a spastic dancer - and very ill-at-ease with the way his 6 plus feet of skinny body moved through this world. He was a prophet of God's grace in our ordinary lives, but for most of his 64 years, he felt disembodied. Biographers Michael W. Higgins and Kevin Burns note that unlike Thomas Merton, Nouwen took a long time to comprehend that our capacity to love another has to do with:

... the interlacing of the erotic with the agapaic. (Merton) had come to understand that a theology that has a platonic thrust to it, that prefers abstraction to incarnated reality, that harbors a deep, if covert, loathing of the body, is a theology, a spirituality stamped with the mark of a narrow and constricted rationality. A disembodied love is a partial love, etherealized, safe, but without the plenitude that distinguishes true, generous and full love from its pale approximation... Nouwen had still to make peace with his body - the human body. He needed to reject the residue of a dangerous angelism, the vestigial marks of Jansenism, his perduring detestation of and embarrassment over his physical awkwardness.  (Genius Born of Anguish)

This began to change, however, in 1991 when he met a trapeze act, The Flying Rodleighs, at the Circus Barum in Freiburg, Germany.  Nouwen was smitten by both their physicality and artistry. He went to see them often. He wrote to them, interviewed them and eventually befriend them. And not as a pastor/priest, but as one artist to another, one human being to another, one man to another. In a way, the Flying Rodleighs became therapy for Nouwen - a safe community without any expectations or roles for him to play or fill - a small group of intimate friends who simply accepted Brother Henri just as he was. 

That is part of the story that touched my heart - the acceptance and equanimity beyond
perceived roles - but it goes deeper. Rodleigh Stevens tells the story of how they helped Nouwen move from dis-ease with his body to authentic embodiment:

At one point... we contrived to give (Henri) that physical experience so we positioned him on the trapeze, held up by myself, secured by safety lines, with a swing and then a drop to the net. After he landed in the net, he lay there for three minutes with this enormous smile on his face. He just lay in the net - mute, immobile, totally silent - just the big grin. Adrenaline had taken over his whole body; he was frozen in the moment. Finally, he turned slowly to us and said, "That was wonderful!" And it was - both for him and for us witness the pleasure and peace it brought him!

Nouwen laughed with his artistic athletes. He spoke of them as living prayers even though "religion never entered into the arena of their shared lives; he never preached or exhorted; his compassionate attention to their private lives was not ministerial; he entered fully into the nexus of their lives..." In this, Nouwen became un Jongleur de Dieu - a juggler for God -a subversive, loving and tender soul who through laughter and physical presence opened up a sense of wonder and purpose in otherwise stressed-out people.  As such a sacred acrobat:

Nouwen's enhanced attention to the body, not as something to be feared, suppressed, 
scrutinized or neutered, but as something that can be seen as a channel of grace, (was able to communicate to others) how through discipline, tenderness, trust and human interdependence ... the body is prayer.

Five years later, Henri Nouwen died unexpectedly at the age of 64. Life is too short to hate our bodies, beloved, too short to waste our precious days.  As the chorus and soloists proclaim in the Missa Gaia/Earth Mass we are working on:  Rejoice! Rejoice! And be exceedingly glad for great is your reward in heaven. Thanks be to God for that assurance - but thanks be to God that it is also true on this side as well! Rejoice.

2) Henri Nouwen. Image via Frank Hamilton / Wikimedia Commons


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