In honor of author Brennan Manning, who died on Friday, CT is reposting this 2004 profile of the former alcoholic priest whose reflections on grace captivated evangelicals.
The first time the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins heard former Franciscan priest Brennan Manning on tape as he drove through the edge of the Flint Hills in Kansas, his eyes filled with tears. He steered the truck to the side of the road. There, as he later wrote, the message "broke the power of mere 'moralistic religiosity' in my life, and revived a deeper acceptance that had long ago withered in me."
Dallas Willard, who penned The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart, once wrote that Manning's writing "throws firebrands into your soul."
Singer and writer Michael Card calls Manning when he's "in a bad place" and has named his oldest son after him. The priest's book Lion and Lamb: The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus "healed my image of God," Card told Christianity Today.
Psychotherapist and spiritual director Larry Crabb turns to Manning for advice.
Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message, describes Manning's Reflections for Ragamuffins as a "zestful and accurate portrayal that tells us unmistakably that the gospel is good, dazzlingly good."
Members of U2 read Manning's books.
Singer Michael W. Smith "can't even remember" how many copies of The Ragamuffin Gospel he has given away. Author Philip Yancey considers Manning a good friend.
What is it that the shapers of evangelical consciousness find so enchanting about the 70-year-old Catholic who confesses in his writings to "boasting, the inflating of the truth, the pretense of being an intellectual, the impatience with people, and all the times I drank to excess"?
The Imposter's Pursuit
When I first meet Manning, my eyes are drawn to his thick black brows, which only recently have begun to turn white like the snowy hair on his head; his thin, almost absent, lips; and the deep creases around them. He is life-weary, but his intensely blue eyes are young with eternity.
Looking down, I notice a whimsicality coming from the soul of a child. His light denim jeans are cheekily patched up with colorful squares. It's as if to remind himself and me, "Don't think I'm a saint. I'm a ragamuffin, you're a ragamuffin, and God loves us anyway." In his bestseller The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah, 1990), he writes that "justification by grace through faith means that I know myself accepted by God as I am." He explains, "Genuine self-acceptance is not derived from the power of positive thinking, mind games, or pop psychology. It is an act of faith in the grace of God alone." The jeans are a symbol, then, of faith.
We sit down, and Manning tells me that there's nothing he'd rather do than what he has done for 41 years: help sinners journey from self-hatred to self-acceptance.
He's been there—or, to put it more accurately—he is there, traveling this road daily, never too far from a character he calls the Imposter. Everyone's got one. It's "the slick, sick, and subtle impersonator of my true self." The persona craves to be liked, loved, approved, accepted, to fit in. "It's the self that refuses to accept that my true self, centered in Christ, is really more likeable, more attractive, and more real than the fallen self."
The Imposter has shadowed Manning all through his never-boring days: from Brooklyn, where he grew up; through one semester of journalism studies; through Korea, where he served with the Marines; the Catholic seminary—which he left after seven days because of the dreaded "rising at 5 a.m., chanting psalms in Latin with pantywaist 18-year-old postulants," being ordered to eat beets ("which I hated"), and "stumbling up steps in an ankle-length robe unaware that I had to lift the hem"; through his service with the Franciscans in the United States and the Little Brothers of Jesus in Europe; to New Orleans, where he now lives.
One October night in 1955, Manning dreamt he had it all, an idyll by the world's standards: a wife baking bread, a Porsche in the driveway, four children, and "a gold-trimmed plaque on the wall—the Nobel prize for literature awarded to me." But to him, it was a nightmare. He woke up in cold sweat with a shout, "O God, there has to be more!" This cry is still the prayer of Manning's life. God has answered it by taking the discontented Franciscan through a variety of experiences in which he has glimpsed Jesus.
He saw him from many angles in the late '60s when, on a two-year leave of absence from the Franciscans, the author of Abba's Child joined the Little Brothers of Jesus, an order committed to imitating the life of Christ before his public ministry. That meant days spent in manual labor among the poor and nights in prayer. Manning's assignments included transporting water to villages on a donkey and buckboard in Spain, and assisting a mason and washing dishes in France. He once voluntarily checked himself into a Swiss jail with hardened criminals. Only the guard knew his identity. "You never asked what the other prisoners were in for because they'd say, 'It's none of your business,'" Manning explains. "So when they'd ask me the same question, I'd say, 'It's none of your business.'"
He spent six months in a remote cave in the Zaragoza desert in Spain. Every Sunday someone dropped off food, water, and kerosene for the lamp in a designated burrow. Reading occupied most of his time: the Bible, the trilogy of St. John of the Cross, and the writings of Charles de Foucauld, a martyred priest who inspired the Little Brothers movement. "There are many days when you put your head in the pillow at night and the day wasn't long enough to do everything that you wanted to do," Manning says. "Other days were dry, lonely."
Why did he do it? He wanted to find the nearness of God—the kind of emotional intimacy newlyweds enjoy on their honeymoon—even in the dry and lonely days. "When you go on a honeymoon, does anybody ever ask what you did for two weeks? Do we really believe that the presence of God can become so vivid and so real that the time you're there, whether you are eating an egg or celebrating the Eucharist, the sense of his presence is constant?" It was in that cave that Manning received a revelation.
At 3 a.m. on December 13, 1968, he reports, Jesus spoke to him with these words, "For love of you I left my Father's side. I came to you who ran from me, who fled me, who did not want to hear my name. For love of you I was covered with spit, punched and beaten, and fixed to the wood of the cross." The message of God's persistent love has etched itself in Manning's heart, helping this sinner pick himself up countless times since then. Manning's gift is making people feel this love as though they were sitting on their Abba's lap, safe, in spite of their sin and shame. He puts it this way: "The work that God has given me to do is helping people to enter the existential experience of being loved in their brokenness."
The Imposter thought nothing of the cave vision, and began searching for love and acceptance in the wrong places when Manning was a minister on the campus of Broward Community College in Florida in the mid '70s. When he failed to find the affirmation he craved, he medicated himself with booze and eventually succumbed to alcoholism. After a six-month-long treatment, he became sober and began writing. He says he has had two relapses since, one in 1980 and the other in 1993.
Manning's writings—and the lessons he learned from his capitulations to alcohol—have led to speaking engagements and occasions to lead spiritual retreats. Never one to follow religious conventions for too long before getting restless and deciding to find Christ in a new way, he left the Franciscans in 1982. He developed an affection for a devout native Louisianan; they married and settled in New Orleans. This decision made him "an inactive priest," which means he's not allowed to preach or celebrate the sacraments in the Catholic church.
No Time for Shock or Horror
Beneath Manning's struggle with alcoholism is his struggle with a fiercer foe: self-hatred. One of the greatest regrets of his life is "all the time I've wasted in shame, guilt, remorse, and self-condemnation." He's not speaking about the appropriate guilt one ought to feel after committing a sin. He's talking about wallowing in guilt, almost indulging in it, which is "basically a kind of idolatry where I'm the center of my focus and concern."
That's why he says writing The Glimpse of Jesus: A Stranger to Self-Hatred (HarperSanFrancisco), which will be published in paperback this July, was "a tremendously healing experience for me." The key is to let yourself be loved in your brokenness, he says. When he does that, he spends no time in self-recrimination but simply offers the broken action to the Lord, quickly repents, and moves on in the power of the Spirit. It means wasting no time being "shocked or horrified that I failed."
He wrote the book shortly after his divorce from his wife of 18 years, Roslyn. Manning takes the blame for the breakup. "Over the years, with a lot of my travel and with some relapses in alcohol, the marriage deteriorated and we divorced in the year 2000," he says, slowly running his fingers through his hair, with a shadow of pain crossing his face.
He and Roslyn have been to counseling several times. After a yearlong separation, they reconciled, but then separated again for three years, and "at that point, when Roslyn showed no sign of wanting to reconcile or to go to counseling to resume the marriage, that's when I filed for divorce."
But the strong animosity that usually accompanies divorce is not there. Roslyn, who would not comment for this article, works for her ex-husband's ministry. He has made sure "she's going to be well provided for long after I'm gone."
"It seems so trite to say that we have a cordial relationship, but it's a lot more than that," he says. "It's a genuine friendship and a delight in one another, a hug every time we meet. We seem to be doing better apart than when we were together the last few years."
Silence and Solitude
Manning's admission of his failings—combined with his ability to make others feel God's love in spite of their transgressions—is one reason for his popularity among those who have paid more attention to their shame than to God. His message is a liberation of the perpetually guilty, those who grew up in churches that preached a lot of sin but little grace.
"His openness about his struggle with alcohol is what makes him very attractive to people who also are in the midst of struggles," Card says. "He has freed me up to be able to show that I have weaknesses, too, and that God still uses me in spite of them and sometimes perhaps because of them."
Many flock to Manning's retreats and read his books because of such endorsements from leaders they trust. Manning receives invitations from Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and even some Roman Catholic churches. "But the vast majority of my ministry is in the evangelical world."
In every evangelical group, he's met "an average of 40 percent former Catholics." When he inquires why they left the church, "a vast majority say they couldn't find Jesus in the Catholic church. They were sacramentalized but never evangelized." What he has in common with these Catholics-turned-evangelicals are at least three things: belief in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; a conviction that clerical celibacy should be optional; and the fact that he doesn't pray to Mary ("but I love her," he tells his critics).
Another reason for Manning's appeal: "I find among evangelical pastors a desire for silent and directed retreats," he says. "I've led a few of those with them."
In order to hear from God, Manning himself retreats to silence and solitude. He spends eight days a year at a Jesuit retreat center in Colorado, during which he only speaks for 45 minutes each day with a spiritual director. Otherwise, he also depends on the support of his primary spiritual director, a Dominican nun who has met with him for eight years. They get the same results on personality tests, and he says, "She knows me better than I know myself."
When he's in New Orleans, he attends the morning daily Mass at the Holy Spirit Catholic Church. His devotional life consists of an hour of prayer in the morning and an hour in the evening. In the morning, he reads the Scriptures for that day, along with the corresponding commentary. Then he meditates in silence. It takes him about 20 minutes, he says, to come to a state of inner stillness, abandoning "all the distractions, thoughts of food, sex, relationships, the whole deal." Evening prayer includes devotional reading, "for example Yancey's new book."
A Catheter and an IV Bag
At other times, he reads America, The Christian Century, and Newsweek. He gets his news from CNN and NPR. He follows pro football as "a rabid and heartbroken New Orleans Saints fan." His favorite writer is Frederick Buechner because "he refuses to settle for easy answers," and because of "the sheer grace of his prose, the depth of his insight, his sense of humor, and his ruthless honesty." As for his own writings, he is now working on a novel about a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center, and he has gotten a slow start on a memoir for HarperSanFrancisco.
Manning is not universally admired among conservative Protestants. Because of his emphasis on the love of God, he gets accused of being a universalist—for example, by PsychoHeresy Awareness Ministries. But he recoils at this suggestion: "Obviously, the people who would raise that question have never been to my seminars or to my retreats. Write this down: I am not a universalist. Universalism is a heresy that makes the death and resurrection of Christ irrelevant."
In contrast to the profundity of his writings and retreats, once you get to know Manning in person, you discover his playful side, too. After reading his books people may "expect a mystical-saintly kind of guy," Card says, "and he's not that at all. I've seen this skinny little man eat two banana splits at a time."
"He has a great sense of humor," Card says. "Sometimes we forget that abandon or joy really is a part of the faith, too. With him, there's a lot of laughter and a lot of silly jokes and a lot of nonsense. When he's in town, we go to stupid movies together. I saw Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure with Brennan Manning."
Another not immediately apparent quality of Manning is fragility. One time, shortly following a back injury and surgery, Manning came to Nashville to speak. When Card picked him up at the airport, Manning "had a back brace on with a catheter and an iv bag," the singer said. "He was about as fragile as he could be. … He looked like a ghost, he was feeling so poorly." Ignoring Card's well-meaning advice to "get on the plane and go home," Manning went to his appointment.
"This wasn't some big thing, it was just a little high school he was speaking at," Card says. "I remember the principal of the high school with his head in his hands weeping because he was so convicted by what Brennan had to share. When I saw his response and the reaction of many of these high school students who are so difficult to reach, I realized that's why he knew this was something that he was supposed to do, even though he wasn't feeling like it. I think that was a very Christ-like example of how great strength comes through weakness."
Yes, even through "the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don't have it all together"; through the "bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out"; through "the poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents," to use Manning's words.
That's the comfort of every ragamuffin.
Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Brennan Manning is the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, The Wisdom of Tenderness, Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin's Path to God, Abba's Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging, Lion and Lamb/the Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, The Rabbi's Heartbeat, A Glimpse of Jesus, Above All, The Wisdom of Tenderness, and The Signature of Jesus. His books are available from Christianbook.com, Amazon.com, and other book retailers.
Dick Staub interviewed Manning about Ruthless Trust:
Brennan Manning on Ruthless Trust | Many Christians are still afraid to let God love them as they truly are, says the former priest, sober alcoholic, and author. (Dec. 10, 2002)
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