My Friend Brennan

Brennan Manning has written a memoir titled All Is Grace that will be published this year by David C. Cook Publishing.  I wrote the Foreword, and include excerpts here about my friend.

I first met Brennan Manning at an event called Greenbelt Festival in England, a sort of Christian Woodstock of artists, musicians and speakers that had attracted twenty thousand fans to tents and impromptu venues set up in the muddy infield of a horse-racing track.  Brennan seemed dazzled by the spectacle, and like a color commentator kept trying to explain the subtleties of evangelicalism to his wife Roslyn, a cradle Catholic who lacked Brennan’s experience with the subculture.

We did not see each other often over the years, but each time our paths crossed we went deeper, rather than tilling the same ground of friendship.  When he visited a monastery in Colorado for spiritual retreats, he would sometimes get a temporary dispensation from the rule of silence and meet my wife and me at an ice cream parlor (one addiction he doesn’t disclose in these pages).  Our backgrounds could hardly have been more different— Southern fundamentalism vs. Northeastern Catholic—and yet by different routes we had both stumbled upon an Artesian well of grace and have been gulping it ever since.  One glorious fall afternoon we hiked on a carpet of golden Aspen leaves along a mountain stream and I heard the details of Brennan’s life: his loveless childhood, his marathon search for God, his marriage and divorce, his lies and coverups, his continuing struggles with alcohol addiction.

As you read this memoir you may be tempted, as I am, to think “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t given into drink.”  I urge you to reframe the thought to, “Oh, what might have been…if Brennan hadn’t discovered grace.”  More than once I have watched this leprechaun of an Irish Catholic hold spellbound an audience of thousands by telling in a new and personal way the story that all of us want to hear: that the Maker of all things loves and forgives us.  Brennan knows well that love and especially the forgiveness.  Like “Christian,” the everyman character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, he progressed not by always making right decisions but by responding appropriately to wrong ones.  (John Bunyan, after all, titled his own spiritual biography Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners).

At one point Brennan likens himself to Samson, that flawed superman whom God somehow found a way to use right up to the day of his death.  Reading such stories in the Old Testament, I’ve come up with a simple principle to explain how God can use the likes of such imperfect men and women: “God uses the talent pool available.”  Again and again, Brennan made himself available.  In the last few years, nearly blind, subject to illness and falls, at an age when he should have been enjoying retirement on a beach in Florida, he kept getting on airplanes and flying places to proclaim a Gospel he believed with all his heart but could not always live.

“All is grace,” Brennan concludes, looking back on a rich but stained life.  He has placed his trust in that foundational truth of the universe, which he has proclaimed faithfully and eloquently.

As a writer, I live in daily awareness of how much easier it is to edit a book than edit a life.  When I write about what I believe and how I should live, it sounds neat and orderly.  When I try to live it out, all hell breaks loose.  Reading Brennan’s memoir, I see something of the reverse pattern.  By focusing on the flaws, he leaves out many of the triumphs.  I keep wanting him to tell the stories that put him in a good light, and there are many.  Choosing full disclosure over a narrative that might burnish his reputation, Brennan presents himself as the Apostle Paul once did, as a “clay jar,” a disposable container made of baked dirt.  We must look to his other books for a full picture of the treasure that lay inside.

A poem by Leonard Cohen says it well:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

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17 Responses to My Friend Brennan

  1. Holly Thiebaud says:

    It is only because of Grace and the revelation shared through Brennon Manning that I am living in freedom one day at a time. I found Jesus in his books. And today I can say that I am a real ‘Christian’. It is not what I do but what has been done and GIVEN to me that equips me to live a life of freedom. I do not judge. I love. It is the Master (Jesus) who makes the difference. And He loves each and every broken sinful one of us.

  2. Roberto T. says:

    I have been looking forward to reading Mr. Manning’s memoirs. In recent months however, I have come across varying views of Mr. Manning’s theology. There are some in fact that consider him to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. How awful.

    These commentators are comparing Brennan’s religious views to that of eastern mystics…that he (Brennan) is watering down the gospel and pumping up man; that all of mankind can “feel” God’s love if he/she meditates on nothingness..and just listens for God’s voice.

    I’m confused actually. I have read many of his books and enjoyed them…. but I agree there is something missing, something very important…Manning doesn’t mention the total depravity of man in light of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s perfect holiness. Yes, God is Love, but God is also Just. Christ left his eternal home to glorify God, willingly die on the cross for the propitiation of man’s sin culminating with eternal life for those whom He died.

    Appreciate any insights. Perhaps I missed the boat.

    Warm regards in Christ,


    I get similar comments about my book “What’s So Amazing About Grace,” that it’s unbalanced. My response is, “You’re right, it’s unbalanced, and I wrote it in part to address an imbalance in the church toward law and away from grace.” Read the books of James and Galatians back-to-back and you see how the Bible itself emphasizes first one message and then another, depending on the needs of the listeners/readers. Brennan doesn’t tell the whole story by any means, but there are many who need the full does of grace that he dishes out. I like him for what he gives rather than what he doesn’t give.

  3. Mary says:

    So many second chances in life … because he is a man. So many wonderful, life giving experiences he enjoys … because he is a man. What became of the his ex-wife? She was left holding the bag. A metaphor for how the Catholic church operates.

  4. cathy halpin says:

    I met Brennan many years ago. We invited him to our Parish to give a Retreat. Everyone loved Brennan’s message and everyone loved Brennan! He realized when we picked him up at the airport that we didn’t know he had left the priesthood and was now married. No one in our area knew; we were pretty remote! And would you believe even though he was no longer considered in ‘good standing’ with the Catholic Church his words were inspiring, loving. compassionate and life giving! Brennan was and will always be considered a huge blessing in my life and the life of many I know. I often wonder how he is and look back on our time together in a little parish in New Hampshire as a gift from God. God bless you Brennan.

  5. Doug says:

    Thank you for your “My friend Brennan” article, it is a very touching and heartwarming piece. I can hardly wait to read Brennan’s memoir. I too have often wondered “what if” or what might have been if I had not failed so many times in my life journey. But I’m often reminded that God really can work all things together for good, even our failings when we miss or fall short of the mark. I’ve come to believe that if it were not for some of my failures in life I would have remained proud, legalistic, and lacking in love, mercy, and grace towards others. It seems that it took a couple of big failures to shatter this part of my heart and open me up to the truth of God’s grace………….

  6. Pushpa says:

    In the struggles with my own brokenness its encouraging to know I’m not alone in this journey. I’m glad that there are those who are honest about their failings and still hold on to the GRACE that’s being held out for just the ones like me. Thank you for sharing this. Will look forward to Brennan’s latest book.


  7. katy fitz says:

    Nearly 20 years ago, while a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I attended a seminar led by Brennan on “Healing your Images of God.” My life was changed through his words and his experiences. In the that past 20 years I have followed his ministry, the ups and the downs of his life, rejoiced in his successes, and sorrowed in his failures … which are no different than those of my life. I look forward to this last book of his and know that my life will be further changed as God uses Brennan’s words and experiences to help me along my journey. I can say with utmost sincerity and security that my Abba loves me, Ragamuffin though I may be.

  8. Eric Simpson says:

    Interesting stuff. I know of another book that was just published last month titled, ‘All is Grace’ (Orbis) about the life of Dorothy Day, written by Jim Forest.

  9. Tammy Carter says:

    As always, thanks for sharing, Philip. I was introduced to Brennan’s work last summer when I worked the 12 steps with my small group. I read both “The Signature of Jesus” and “Abba’s Child”…both amazing. And, well, I finally got into an AA meeting as well. Long journey and still going, but better since taking some important first steps. I’ll never forget what you said to us one time about the difference between church and an AA meeting…if someone’s late to church, everyone kind of scowls at them…but, if someone is late to an AA meeting everyone stops and congratulates them because they knew it took them everything to get there. Very profound. Yea, I’m finding my way, only by His Grace. LOVE the title for Brennan’s new book, can’t wait to read it! I’m in the middle of another great one though, something like “What good is God”! haha! Love it! And, thank you for reading my neck story…I really appreciate it. God bless and thank you for letting God use you to encourage us!

  10. Henry Beun says:

    Thank you for teaching us that maturing comes through embracing God’s grace: loved, forgiven and inviting us to newness. Too often I/we live with a mindset of “regrets.” I will use this teaching as my 12th grade students in Kingdom Living class write their spiritual autobiography as the final project of the high school years.

    Christ’s love,

  11. Bill Fleming says:

    I am absolutely delighted to read That Brennan has a new book coming out. It should come as no surprise to any believer that the most edifying and helpful books on Christian discipleship are those authored by individuals who tell their stories with a “warts and all” take on their lives. Thank God for the Yanceys and Mannings of this life.

    A beautiful, insightful piece on Brennan Philip. Thank you.

    Bill Fleming.

  12. maria joana says:

    All is grace….but, the church still seems to do not know that word….The church today is more concern with the ” show” , they do every sunday , then showing love….
    How are we going to reach out if there is no love….
    I felt the pain of “no grace”, how much it hurts….
    We can tolerate the armies of our enemies but, the silence of our church….
    Grace, grace…’s all because, for and about Grace!
    If they only knew that word…

  13. Ellen Gee says:

    I too struggle with the “what if I hadn’t sinned so much” question. Thanks for pointing me in the opposite direction. I shudder to thing what my life would have been without Gods grace.

  14. A beautiful and heartfelt tribute to your friend. I pre-ordered the book because you recommend it. I also learned what “grace” meant by reading your books. Thank you.

  15. Jim Foster says:

    I watch closely for your thoughts and your sharing on prayer, grace and people who have learned to live by both. I look forward to reading Brennen Manning’s works. Thank you for passing this on.

  16. Excited to hear he has a new book coming out!

  17. Thanks for giving me the heads up on Brennan’s new book. How appropriate that you would write the forward for this book on “grace”! I look forward to reading it. I have read just about everything that the two of you have written and have been blessed by the “purpose in the pain” that you both have shared!
    It continues to give this pilgrim hope to know that while the journey is rough, we never travel alone!
    Grace & Peace- Amy

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