Saturday, September 24, 2011

All Is Grace -- Review

ALL IS GRACE:  A Ragamuffin Memoir.  By Brennan Manning with John Blasé.  Colorado Springs:  David C. Cook, 2011.  232 pages.  [Advanced Readers Copy]

            To write a memoir is to tell your life story.   We all have stories to tell, but most of us either don’t have the facility to write out our life-stories or we’d rather keep some things private.  The most compelling memoirs generally take us deeper into the psyche of the individual than most of us are willing to reveal to the public.  Some life stories seem to be more compelling than others, though in recent years we’ve discovered that some writers, knowing our desire to read the sensational have embellished their stories. 

            As a reader, I enjoy reading memoirs because they help me understand the psyche of people I either admire or am simply intrigued with.  Thus, even though I’m not a big Hauerwas fan, I was drawn into the complexity of his life story, which made what I knew of his theology more understandable. 

            All is Grace is Brennan Manning’s life story.  I’ve heard of Manning for some years, but only recently did I get introduced to his writings – through his most recent works, which I was asked to review.  Now, I know much more about him, about this Catholic priest who left the priesthood and developed a following among evangelicals.  I’d heard of his “Ragamuffin Gospel,” but I didn’t really know what that meant.    A “ragamuffin” is something of a sinner who has experienced divine grace, and such is the story of his life – a story of radical grace.  But, at the end of the story (he’s still alive so the story has yet to fully end) there are questions to be considered about the nature of this grace.

            In the course of a rather brief and gently flowing book, we are introduced to this man who was born in to a lower class, Brooklynite, Irish Catholic family.   Born Richard Manning, he was the second of three children, his family life was less than ideal.  His mother was hard working, but also cold and demanding.  His father was an alcoholic who struggled to keep a job.  The sense he got of himself from his parents, especially his mother, was that he was a nuisance, a disappointment.  There is little discussion of his younger sister, but there is a grudging respect and love for his older brother, Rob, whom he describes as being “tough.”  The one saving grace was his grandmother, who was often able to defuse potentially violent situations.

           His was a difficult life, but it also helped form the person who he became, a person that was always striving for love and acceptance.  His mother believed he was but a dreamer and thus wouldn’t amount to much, but he did have gifts and talents – one of which was the gift of writing, something discovered and encouraged by his teachers at the Catholic school he attended.

Gifted as he was as a writer and a communicator, part of his pathway in life was established.  But there was another trajectory that was embedded within him early on, and that was the desire and need to be loved and appreciated.   There is a phrase that pops up throughout the book, which first appears as he describes his first real friendship.  His hope and dream was that someone, early on another boy who would be a friend, would come up to him and say “I like you, can we play together?”  (p. 57).  This sentence is really central, for it expresses his deep-seated insecurity (something many of us also know so well in our own lives).  It can be the seed of doing important things, but it can also lead to danger.  That prayer was eventually answered in the person of Joey Keegan, his first friend.  Unfortunately, that friendship ended early as his young friend died suddenly, leaving him grief-stricken and alone in the world. 

His life journey takes him through Catholic high school to St. John’s University in Queens, where he planned to major in journalism.  But college life soon gave way to a stay in the Marines at the tail end of the Korean War.  He would eventually find himself in Japan, where among other things he served as a correspondent for  the military newspaper.  After an early discharge from the Marines he chose to attend the University of Missouri, with the aim of studying journalism, but again this course of education was cut short.  This time it was an apparent call to the priesthood.  He chose the Franciscans and entered seminary, and finally, with some difficulty is ordained, all in search of some simplicity and meaning in his life.   It is at this point that Richard Manning becomes Brennan Manning.

But the wandering nature of Manning’s life continues – he takes a leave of absence from the Franciscans to join the Little Brothers of Jesus, where he found structure and simplicity in a life of service and prayer.  This time seems to have been especially valuable to him. There he says he learned that “many of the burning, theological issues in the church were neither burning nor theological.”  There he learned that Jesus was asking for “personal renewal, fidelity to the gospel, and creative conduct” (p. 95).   But again he grew restless, in part due to the message he received as a child – “you’ll never amount to anything.”  From the Little Brothers he went back to the Franciscans and campus ministry.  And, alcoholism began to take hold of him.  He would be in and out of rehab, and a refusal to own up to this reality.  But, he confesses that he was not only a dreamer, but a survivor, and so on he went. 

After spending time in the Hazelden Rehabilitation Center he began a speaking career, in which he would make his name.  His topic was his alcoholism and God’s unconditional grace, a topic that was welcomed by many.  It was during this period that he met and began a relationship with Roslyn.  They, according to his recollection here, dated, in secret, for about seven years before marrying, eventuating his need to leave the priesthood.  It is here that I have some trouble.  I too embrace God’s radical grace and I too have had need of that grace, and I too on occasion have crossed boundaries – if we’re honest, we’ve all done this – but there is in this relationship a rather lengthy crossing of boundaries that needs to be addressed.  The relationship began as a pastoral one and then developed into a very personal one.   The marriage ends badly, in part because of Manning’s alcoholism and because of his own personal demons.  His employment as a priest ended, as did his speaking engagements.  But it wasn’t long before a new set of engagements emerged, and he began speaking to groups such as Young Life (an evangelical youth ministry).  It is during this post-divorce era that he began to develop new friendships, including one with a group of men, mostly evangelicals, called the “Notorious Sinners,” among whose number included Youth Specialties founder Mike Yaconelli.  While the journey and the battles with alcoholism, self-doubt, and narcissism continued, all in the midst of a realization that grace held the key to something new.  He also expanded his social connections into the Protestant, especially evangelical world. Now, having reached older adulthood, suffering in some ways the effects of his battle with alcoholism, he is ready to tell his own story – as they say “warts and all.”   

Manning’s memoir is instructive in many ways.  It gives context to his writings.  We who have heard the message “you’ll never amount to anything” can recognize parts of ourselves in his story.  It is a reminder that grace is sufficient, but there are questions to be raised about integrity as well.  Ultimately the value in reading memoirs like this one is to see if it shines a mirror back.  What is it about this life that speaks to my life?  If you wish to go down that path of self-reflection then this will be a most useful book.  If you are in need of a message of divine grace, then again this is a book for you.  Since Manning is a natural story-teller, the book flows nicely, the prose is elegant, it is from that standpoint a pleasure to read.  But, it will take you into the depths of human experience, which isn’t always pleasant.  Of course, the message is “all is grace” and that has to be remembered.

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