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.

brennan manningWhen 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.

Brennan3The 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.

Brennan 5Why 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.

The Power and the GloryBrennan 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.


Share this

34 responses to “Farewell, Brennan”

  1. Linnea Larsen says:

    Love this. Loved every one of his books.

  2. Mike Miles says:

    Thanks for this. I’m always drawn to these wonderful stories of grace and the beautiful perspectives given that are so helpful. But, in all honesty, I sometimes wonder whether the grit of discipleship and denying self – that follows radical transformation is where we struggle. We all continually want to go back to that moment and live there. Well I do and
    theres the tension!

  3. Rick Merrill says:

    If you were God would you have reached down and squelched the demons that drove Brennan to lifelong alcoholism as sort of an example of what God can do in a believer’s life as he is conformed to the likeness of Christ, or would you leave him unhealed despite his heartfelt desire to be free?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      To me, the point is that God can use either outcome. Many, many who struggle with addiction have been helped by Brennan’s honesty about his journey–reminiscent of Paul’s realization in 2 Corinthians 12.

  4. Susan Reel says:

    So many replies!! Brennon Manning in his raggamuffiness touched me too.. when I failed, I needed to know others fail too!
    We hear and know about forgiveness .. but sometimes have a hard time knowing we are forgiven.

  5. Leigh says:

    I deliberately searched for an article that would illuminate for me just how Brennan Manning overcame the scourge of alcoholism…and I read this. I am devastated because I wanted to know that God can entirely rebuild us sufficient to avoid falling through the cracks of our own brokenness…now I’m not so certain. On the heels of the revelations of sexual misconduct and rape(?) from the RZIM associates – I am forced to reckon myself without any heroes.

    We are a wretched bunch – yet inexplicably God loves us and works in and through us anyway…

    I know longer ‘see men like trees’.

  6. Philip Gerrish says:

    Philip, a huge thankyou from another Philip. Your book “What’s so amazing about grace?” absolutely rocked my world. And your thoughtful and loving words about another of my heroes, Brennan Manning, confirm that you are genuine and authentic, living what you write. My life started out with success after success after success, culminating early in a couple bachelors, a couple masters, an early PhD and publications in the world’s top scientific journals. The devastating spiritual repercussions of that early success were remedied when my marriage failed, my career careened out of its tracks to eventually plow into a mountainside, and I took a liking to my friend Jose Cuervo. It was in one of the many bottomless pits that followed that I found your paradigm-shattering book “What’s so amazing about grace?”. I cannot thank you enough. And I cannot thank our dear friend Brennan enough, whose book “Ragamuffin gospel” I found in another of my bottomless pits, and which also rocked my world. Love both of you guys!! I have since been pushed into Mexico by Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric (thanks to your and Brennan’s influence, and of course my love of enchiladas and chiles rellenos), I hope to do God’s work somehow down here. Thanks to both of you, and may our great friend Brennan enjoy his new dwellings in a place where the wine flows freely, is wildly delicious, and is not a hellish obsession.

  7. Neil says:

    Disappointment With God, What’s So Amazing About Grace, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Ruthless Trust. Thank you, Philip and Brennan for articulating the things that I couldn’t quite grasp, for demonstrating the things that I couldn’t quite embrace and for addressing things no one else dared to touch. The truth of God’s grace has been like a cool fountain in the desert to me…without it, I would simply not be here. In all of my sin and shame, I know now I am loved. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound. Thank you…BOTH of you. You will never truly know just how much your writings have meant to me. Brennan I will tell you in Heaven. Philip, I cannot fully express my gratefulness in words.

  8. David L. Van Meter says:

    I have read many of Brennan Manning books and have read “Letting God” for months. You and Brennan are some of my favorite writers. I have just finished reading “rumors of another world.” I was especially captured by a couple of paragraphs on pages 227 and 228. “Keeping the unseen world in mind changes me in subtle ways…” brought to my mind another book I was reading at the same time, Eben Alexander’s “PROOF OF HEAVEN” which tells of his hear-death experience where he saw God’s unseen world.
    Having been raised in china as a missionary child then replacing my missionary father after his death at 33, I have been a Christian explorer of God’s many wonders. I am very impressed by so many of your books because you ask the questions that many ministers of the gospel do not raise up. Thank you for your “borderlands of belief”. I too have explored these areas with my reading and teaching from “Conversations With God” series of 10 mind-blowing books by Neale Donald Walsch. I continue in my quest of new explorations in this area. Thank you again for putting your thoughts down on paper. Keep up the good work! I love your books!
    David L. Van Meter

    Between your father’s life and yours, you’ve seen an amazing period of history in China. In one sense modern China was an experiment about “Rumors of No Other Worlds,” with resulting consequences. Keep listening…

  9. Angelique says:

    I would just like to say that your book “What’s so amazing about grace” was a life-changing ready for me. I have never really been able to accept God’s love for me. When I ready chapter four, I sobbed. I always saw God with a big stick frowning on all the wrong I did. Never did I picture Him as someone who rejoices when the perodical son returns. Thank you so much.

  10. Dianne Davidson says:

    Brennan reminded me that God is accessable not impossible.

  11. Dianne Davidson says:

    Thank you Phil for words I can appreciate and adopt into my heart to say goodbye to Brennan. Yes, writing is a business but in his business of writting, the expressed search light of Brennan’s heart reminded me repeatedly of the cornerstone of Grace. I have nothing to bring to God; I can do nothing to gain His favor, impress or surprise Him. The relationship is a gift centered in the person of His Son, Jesus.

  12. Stephanie Trahant says:

    Thank you, Philip, for putting it just as it is. I am emotional as I read and remember.

  13. I sometimes feel unworthy in the presence of the Christian who has it all together. But through men like Manning who are transparently flawed, it’s easier for me to believe that God’s love and grace is for me to. I’m blessed by his witness.

  14. Ann says:

    Thanks Philip for your words. Thanks Brennan for your life – the good and the messy. And thank you both for pointing the way to our Amazing Savior – oh how He loves you and me!

  15. Kim says:

    Hi Mr Yancey,

    I feel compelled to write you once again after reading this touching piece about Brennan Manning of whom I know very little about. Thank you for sharing and paying tribute to this precious child of God who is now called home to the heavenly realm. Indeed I learnt first hand about grace by reading your books and articles…..I can’t help but feel the love of god through this little tribute. You continue to grace my world with writings that speak volume to me, that serve as a reminder to me that we are worthy because god loves us….period….and not because of what we do or strive to do. God bless you Mr Yancey and someone mentioned about listening to Brennan through youtube…well I sure will check that out and I think I have a book or two by him that have yet to be read….it’s time I rack the shelves for the material. Thanks for pointing the way to another great read I am sure.

    Warmest regards,
    Kim ( an avid Yancey fan)

  16. Christ Stacey says:

    Philip, I heard Brennan speak at LaSalle about 20 years ago at one of the lowest point of my life – far from God, being dragged to the service, coming late… he spoke on the prodigal son and I sat in the last pew, weeping like a baby. God used this wounded healer. it is so true. Thanks for writing this. Chris

  17. Christ Stacey says:

    Philip, I heard Brennan speak at LaSalle about 20 years ago at one of the lowest point of my life – far from God, being dragged to the service, coming late… he spoke on the prodigal son and I sat in the last pew, weeping like a baby. God used this wounded healer – it is so true. Thanks for writing this. Chris

  18. Michele Morin says:

    “A facility with words may make writers sound confident and wise but most often we write about what we long for.” Classic Philip Yancy candor. I’ve never read any of Manning’s work (nor Greene’s novel), so I’ve got homework to do. Thanks, as always, for a challenge.

  19. Dean says:

    Dear Philip:
    I am a Christian from China, I have a lot of confusion and struggle, belief your book was a great comfort to me, here may I ask you some questions in terms of faith?

  20. Bill Fleming says:

    Philip a searingly honest piece on a man who often acted (alongside yourself) as a paramedic for my own sometimes faltering faith. Thank you for the article which I suspect many of us can relate to maybe more than we readily admit to those around us.

    This faith thing is not easy.

  21. John Kuypers says:

    Thank you Philip for this eloquent summary of a man whose speaking had me in tears when I first saw him on Youtube. Extraordinary – he spoke the thoughts and feelings of so many of us broken by faith and saved by grace alone. I pray he will receive the mercy he didn’t seem to entirely get here on earth. Trust all is well with you.
    Peace, John

  22. Nancy Berns says:

    A moving and inspiring tribute. Thank you.

  23. Dorothy Bethel says:

    Thanks for the great article. I had the chance to hear him speak a few years ago and I was spellbound. What a gift he had. His book, Abba’s Child, will forever be one of my top 3 life changing books (along with What’s So Amazing About Grace, by the way.) I’m so thankful for him, that he is now in the presence of the Lord, fully free.

  24. Tereza Cristina Macedo de Oliveira Cunha says:

    Happy birthday Brennan! I am still missing you, but i know that you are in paradise!

  25. Pamela Wood says:

    I have been waiting…I knew, at some point, I could count on a tribute to Brennan Manning from your pen (computer?), and you have not disappointed me! I am an ordinary raggamuffin whose life has been extraordinarily impacted toward CHRIST by Mr. Manning. I was privileged once to hear him speak, I have read his books, and interestingly enough, others who have helped me in my journey with CHRIST other than Mr. Manning (you included, Mr. Yancey) have all expressed their appreciation and love for him (kindred spirits) and his transparency. Thank you so much for your kind, loving words for a fellow servant of the Most High GOD. Happy Birthday, Mr. Manning!

  26. Robert says:

    Happy Birthday to you Brennan!

  27. Belinda L. Galvez says:

    …just at the time when i’m wondering if i’m really worthy of my Saviour’s love… i saw and read this! The Lord never fails to amaze me with His dealings with me- just as i needed this…for the nth time, His assurance came…He truly loves me! just as how He loves Brenann. Thank you Lord once again…Yes, all is grace and apart from it there is no way we can cope in this cruel world. Thank you Mr. Yancey, for you contributed much in my learnings…

  28. Clay Knick says:


    I wonder if he realized how many people he touched in his witness to God’s grace? I hope so.

    Thanks for this.

  29. Candace Kay Hardin says:

    I ache with this tribute. Manning loved God with abandon yet struggled with his own darkness that tried to steal, kill, and destroy his life and spirit. What is true of Brennan has been my journey of loftingly loving God while encountering and wrestling with my darkness. It’s the human story and journey trumped by the passion of God through Jesus. Still . . . so many of us, most of us, get to work at and participate in our healing and wholeness won by Christ. Manning as well as P. Yancey are two of my “spiritual-director” writers who help guide me along the path pointing towards God’s wholeness–ready and available.

  30. Robin Warden says:

    Absolutely beautiful birthday tribute!

  31. Teresa says:

    Wow! What an amazing article. It was like God reaching down and touching my soul. As a believer I have struggled so with whether I am worthy of God’s love. My intellectual side says no, none of us are worthy and that is why Christ had to die. Then because God loved Jesus he accepted his sacrifice and paved the way for my salvation. Jesus rose from the grave victorious. God wants a relationship with flawed me and that comes through my relationship with Christ. Intellectually, I understand it all.
    But my heart, the one that knew legalism in my home (do it right and you will be loved and accepted) still tries to do everything right! I fail miserably at that as all humans do because none of us are able to do everything right. I am still looking for that relationship with my father and mother that accepted me for who I was with all my flaws. I find I still can’t please my mother at age 58! She was questioning my decisions again the other day because she wants something different for me than what I chose.
    Thank you for the reminder of God’s love for me. His love for me is because of who he is and not because of who I am. It is because of what he has done and not because of what I haven’t done. It is because he is perfect and not because I am (because I certainly am not).
    You have given me much to ponder today.

  32. Karen says:

    EVERYONE has a story. Some write them, and others just live them, but they’re ALL interesting when told out loud… thanks for this name I hadn’t heard of before today. Now I, too, am affected 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.