Brennan Manning and the meaning of grace

One afternoon, a report came across the newsroom’s police scanner of a possibly “suicidal subject.”

Usually, my first response when I hear this is to say a silent prayer, but this time, I asked my coworker why it seems there are more depressed and suicidal people in this part of the country than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.

Catholic guilt,” he answered.

What’s that?” I asked.

If I were Catholic, I’d know, he said. It’s the feeling that no matter what you do, you can never be good enough for God.

That’s true, I said, but isn’t that the point of grace?

Grace is God’s unearned favor, his unconditional love. It is most clearly expressed in the atonement of Jesus for our sins. The Scriptures tell us we’ve all fallen short, and anyone who says he hasn’t is a damned liar.

I don’t use the “d-word” here as a profanity. I mean it literally. We can never earn our salvation by what we do or don’t do, but only by accepting that Christ paid the ultimate penalty for our failures. Faith without works is dead, but the good we do we do in gratitude to God, not to put him in our debt. We are always in his debt. On that point, Catholics and evangelicals agree.

I’m always skeptical of Christians who are self-righteous and cocksure. It isn’t that they are too religious, but rather that they aren’t serious enough about their faith. Living with the knowledge of grace should be humbling.

The writer who helped me most to grasp what grace meant was Brennan Manning, who died last month just before his 79th birthday.

Author of “The Ragamuffin Gospel,” and many other books, Manning saw it as his mission to help sinners journey from self-hatred to self-acceptance.

It was a road he knew well. One of his worst days was when he got so drunk that he missed his mother’s funeral. He confessed it in his farewell memoir, “All is Grace.”

If ever there was a messenger who followed a different path, it was Brennan Manning.

According to a 2004 profile in Christianity Today that was republished after he died, Manning grew up in Brooklyn, studied journalism, was briefly a sportswriter, served in the Marines in Korea, studied at a Catholic seminary, and left after seven days because, he said, he dreaded rising at 5 a.m. and “chanting psalms in Latin with pantywaste 18-year-old postulants.” Later, though, he became a Franciscan priest and served the poor in Europe and the United States.

While living in seclusion in a cave in Spain’s Zaragova Desert, he heard Christ say, “For love of you, I left my Father’s side. I came to you who ran from me. …” It was the beginning of his deeper acceptance of grace.

Manning became an alcoholic in the 1970s when, as a campus minister at a community college in Florida, he failed to find the affirmation he craved. On April Fool’s Day, 1975, he was drunk and disheveled when he heard a pretty woman in her 20s say to her little boy, “Don’t look at that filth.” She then kicked him and broke two of his ribs.

Manning left the Franciscans, married a woman in Louisiana and became an “inactive priest.” After 18 years, he and his wife divorced, but remained friends until his end. Beginning in the 1980s, Manning was in demand as a speaker at events that attracted crowds in the thousands. His devotees included members of the rock group U2 and Eugene Peterson, translator of “The Message.” His books were bestsellers.

After Manning died, I read again one of my favorites, “The Furious Longing of God.” In it, I came across a story I had forgotten, about when Manning was working in a leper colony near Baton Rouge, and a nurse came running to him to tell him one of the patients, Yolanda, was dying and needed a priest.

Once, he wrote, this Mexican-American woman had been “stunningly beautiful,” but Hansen’s disease had ravaged her face and body so that she was hideous. She had been abandoned by her husband and utterly rejected by society and her family. But not by God.

It had been raining that day, but after he anointed her with oil, Manning said, the room was filled with brilliant light, and he looked at Yolanda, and she was radiant.

Oh, Father,” she said, “I am so happy.”

He asked her why, and she said “the Abba of Jesus just told me that he would take me home today.”

Brennan began to weep and asked her what the Abba (Father) had said to her.

She repeated these words:

Come now, my love. My lovely one, come. For you, the winter has passed, the snows are over and gone, the flowers appear in the land, the season of joyful songs has come. The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land. Come now, my love, my Yolanda, come. Let me see your face. And let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is beautiful. Come now, my love, my lovely one, come.”

Except for her name, the words were from the Song of Solomon.

Six hours later, Yolanda died. That same day, Manning learned that she was illiterate. She had never read the Bible, or any book, in her life, and she had never heard those words from him. He was undone. 

I was reminded of Manning’s story a couple of weeks ago when, at Redeemer Fellowship Church, I heard a visiting Scottish pastor and former felon, Mez McConnell, used the analogy of outcast lepers to describe our estrangement from the kingdom of Christ, and the possibility of reconnection and restoration that the King’s healing touch offers. He also talked about the implications for how we are called to relate to those on the margins of society — AIDS victims, drug addicts, the homeless, the mentally ill.

“We’re still called to touch the untouchable, to love the unloveable. And the real question is, did we even notice them this morning (on our way to church)” he asked.
It’s a question we should bear in mind.
We who are “in Christ” have been shown grace, and in gratitude, we should extend it to others. It isn’t for keeping to ourselves. Brennan Manning understood that, and because of him, I’m beginning to get it.

 

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