I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret. A facility with words may make writers sound confident and wise but most often we write about what we long for. Thus books on marriage often emerge from difficult marriages and books on prayer trace back to the authors’ frustrations with prayer. No one demonstrates this pattern better than Brennan Manning, a friend who died two weeks shy of his 79th birthday, which would have been today. Brennan piped a one-note tune, the melody of grace, and his own life both embodied and belied that theme.
When he got around to writing a memoir, Brennan titled it All Is Grace. I had agreed to write the foreword and behind the scenes the publisher wondered whether the memoir would ever get written. Brennan sank into a depression, gave in once more to his lifelong struggle with alcoholism, and suffered a broken shoulder and ribs from falls. Several times I got calls from people who had booked him to speak to a college or church audience. “We’ve heard he drinks a lot,” they said. “And that he makes up some of the stories he tells.”
Guilty on both counts. As revealed in his memoir, by age 18 Brennan was drinking a dozen beers every night to wash down lesser amounts of rye whiskey and Japanese sake, and he had relapses throughout his speaking career. He describes standing before an audience to impart spiritual wisdom just before checking himself into a motel and drinking himself into a stupor. After several days on a bender he would fly directly to his next speaking engagement. No wonder he sometimes made up stories—he had lost his grip on reality.
The memoir tells of a loveless, miserable childhood in a tough Irish Catholic family not far from New York City. From there Brennan joined the Marine Corps and, after a dramatic conversion experience, made a U-turn into the Franciscan priesthood. He served for a time as a campus minister at a college and seminary, joined the Little Brothers of Jesus in France where he worked as a mason’s assistant and dishwasher, spent six months in a desert cave in Spain, then returned to the U.S. to work with poor shrimp farmers and their families. After settling in New Orleans, he left the Franciscans in order to marry, a relationship that ended in divorce after 18 years, yet another consequence of his addiction to alcohol.
Brennan began speaking to mostly evangelical Protestant audiences since his status as an “inactive priest” made him unwelcome in many Catholic gatherings. A small, trim man with a head of snow-white hair, he would usually begin with this corny opening: “In the words of Francis of Assisi when he met Brother Dominic on the road to Umbria, ‘Hi.’” But then something akin to possession would take place and with a strong voice and the poetic rhythm of a rap artist he would begin a riff about the grace of God.
Why is Brennan Manning lovable in the eyes of God? Because on February 8th of 1956, in a shattering, life-changing experience, I committed my life to Jesus. Does God love me because ever since I was ordained a priest in 1963, I roamed the country and lately all over the world proclaiming the Good News of the gospel of grace? Does God love me because I tithe to the poor? Does he love me because back in New Orleans I work on skid row with alcoholics, addicts, and those who suffer with AIDS? Does God love me because I spend two hours every day in prayer? If I believe that stuff I’m a Pharisee! Then I feel I’m entitled to be comfortably close to Christ because of my good works. The gospel of grace says, “Brennan, you’re lovable for one reason only—because God loves you. Period.”
Rising in eloquence, he held audiences spellbound. One university chaplain told me that no speaker had ever had more impact on his fickle students than this aging, alcoholic failed-priest from New Jersey.
Brennan reminded me of the “whisky priest” in Graham Greene’s great novel, The Power and the Glory. Though we never learn the priest’s name, and he considers himself a failure, a fool who “loves all the wrong things,” at the end of the book we meet those who have been changed—transformed even—by his life and witness. You need only Google “Brennan Manning” to catch a glimpse of those likewise affected by him. They include celebrities like Bono, Rich Mullins, and Billy Graham’s grandson Tully Tchvidjian as well as ordinary “ragamuffins” who first encountered the truth of God’s love through a modern whisky priest.
“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark,” Brennan wrote. “In admitting my shadow side, I learn who I am and what God’s grace means.” He joined an accountability group called “Notorious Sinners,” which had mixed success in holding him accountable. “In Love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve,” Brennan also wrote, in Abba’s Child. Those of us who loved him wished him not so wounded, because we knew the toll alcohol was taking on his liver and his mind. In the end he lost most of his eyesight, fell often, and became nearly catatonic.
Using his best Irish brogue, Brennan liked to tell the story of a priest in Ireland who, on a walking tour of a rural parish, saw an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road, praying. Impressed, the priest said to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looked up from his prayers, thought for a moment, and then smiled, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.” I think he told that story because he wanted so desperately to believe it. He more than anyone knew his flaws. He as much as anyone I know strove to serve God despite them. I wonder, though, if in his 78+ years on earth Brennan Manning truly felt the love of God he proclaimed so powerfully to others.
Happy Birthday, Brennan. Now, you know for sure whereof you spoke.