I heard Brennan Manning speak during my first year of college. He was old and frail, moved slowly and carefully. And then he proceeded to rock my world. I mean, he was Catholic, drank alcohol, and was honest about his faults. I had never met a Christian like him.
This memoir of his, All is Grace, was published in 2011, the author’s 77th year. It’s fairly short and fairly simple, like you expect a a Manning book to be. Reading it, you feel like you are having a complicated conversation with an old friend, an old man who has never claimed to be a saint but because of who he is, you assume he is one – even a Ragamuffin Saint. When he talked about his troubles with alcohol, you assume the subtext is “that was then and now I’m free.” It’d be easy to write that book.
But it would be a delusion.
It’s not easy to write a book like All is Grace, with honesty and boldfaced vulnerability. Manning shares stories from his childhood, one marked by emotional abuse and lack of love. He calls his family “shame-based,” and in that way tries to avoid assigning blame, instead diagnosing the disease of shame that plagued their daily lives.
He traces his way through the military and into the priesthood after seeking “something more.” He talks about the communities he has been part of, in New Orleans and the Notorious Sinners. He talks about leaving the priesthood to get married, then divorced. And he talks about his continual struggles with alcoholism.
You feel his pain as he admits his biggest grief, having to do with his mother’s funeral. He didn’t have to do that. He could have hidden it from us, his adoring followers. But he believes in a God of grace. So he is honest.
This is a failed man. No. This is a man who failed.
Brennan Manning never claimed to be perfect; in fact, he claimed the opposite. But as people grow older, we carry a picture of them that says, you were young and wild like me. But you figured it out. No. We never figure it out. We only fall back on what Robert Farrar Capon calls “vulgar grace.”
And so we let go of the saint to embrace the man, and in doing so, we see God much more clearly.
This is a book written in the twilight, just as the sun is going down. Manning’s body is breaking, letting him down, and his mind is still as sharp as ever. Maybe Manning has another dozen years left of his life, and I’m certain vulgar grace will pursue him.
But he says these are his last words on the subject of grace. And I believe him. He is saying what he has always said, what he tries to pound into the heads of those broken by heartless and hopeless and angry religion – that God loves you as you are, not as you should be, because you will never be as you should be. That is the grace a ragamuffin needs.
There is redemption for Manning. Constant redemption. And there is for us too. If we ask for it, if we chase it. Because all is grace.