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Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit: A Review of "All Is Grace"
The last time I saw Brennan was at my father's funeral in 2003. The service was held in a high school gym with the podium at the center of the floor surrounded by folding chairs that fanned out toward the bleachers. Behind the speaking platform were three tall, rough-hewn crosses that our church often used on Easter Sunday. The funeral was held at night and the room was dark except for a few dim lights and a table full of candles. Just before the service began I heard a popular Christian speaker say derisively to another colleague, "Brennan came in last night. He was stumbling around the parking lot drunk." "Is he here?" the other inquired. "Doubt it. He's probably passed out in his room."
The service began and there came my time to go the podium and offer my remembrances. As I approached the microphone I noticed a solitary figure in the darkened shadows, just behind the cross to my left, the one, according to tradition, that held the body of the repentant thief. I remember the figure was bent over, hands shaking, clothes rumpled and disheveled, face unshaven, eyes heavy and swollen with sorrow. At first I assumed a homeless man had walked in from the street, but then I noticed the thick white hair and I knew it was Brennan. I have not seen Brennan since that moment. He slipped out before the service ended, but I will never forget his wasted, distraught, grieving body sitting behind the thief's cross. It was an image of spiritual poverty, an image that matched my own grief and emptiness.
All Is Grace presents the inner life of a present-day desert father—a man, like all desert fathers and mothers, who embodies an unquenchable spiritual hunger. A man who knows his sin, a man whose central prayer is "Lord, have mercy." As someone who has been touched by Brennan's life, and again by his memoir, I can only feel a kind of perverse gratitude for his great and terrible poverty, for the sin of his parents, for the sin of his church, for the cruelties of life that created within Brennan such great desperation for tenderness and love. I thank God for the ancient and holy ruin of a soul that Brennan has been entrusted to carry. Moreover, I thank God for grace, for the yearning for grace that is Brennan Manning.
Yes, this is a memoir of an alcoholic, a disloyal husband, a liar, and cheat: "I've shattered every one of the Ten Commandments six times Tuesday" (even in this confession he exaggerates). As you read Brennan's confessions, you can't help but grieve the pain that he has caused his ex-wife Roslyn, his children, his friends, and all those who looked up to him as a spiritual leader. There is nothing to celebrate in the damage that he details in his writing.
At the same time, I couldn't help but feel deep gratitude for the hurt that Brennan has carried and for his gift of communicating a God of unending compassion. All Is Grace is a simple story of Brennan the wounded sinner. It is also the story of Brennan the grateful lover, Brennan the tender healer. As another itinerant preacher once said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Fore more conversation on All Is Grace, visit the Patheos Book Club.
Mark Yaconelli is the co-founder and co-director of Triptykos School of Compassion. His latest book is Wonder, Fear and Longing: A Book of Prayers. [Read an interview here.] He is also the author of Downtime, Contemplative Youth Ministry, and Growing Souls. Mark lives in Oregon with his wife and three children.