There is something very haunting about Johnny Cash’s album, Ain’t No Grave. Cash finished recording it just a few days before his death in September, 2003. Listening to tracks on this album, you can hear death in Cash’s voice, making the songs even more poignent than ever.
The same can be said of The Wind, Warren Zevon’s final album. The last song he recorded, just months before his death (five days before Cash’s death) from a rare form of lung cancer, was “Keep Me In Your Heart For A While,” a rich and deep farewell from the manic genius. You can almost hear him forcing the air from his dying lungs through his throat and lips so we could hear such great lines as “There’s a train leaving nightly called When All Is Said And Done.”
I thought of these two albums as I read Brennan Manning’s latest book, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir. The 77-year-old Manning now needs round-the-clock aid in his New Jersey home and no longer can travel to speak. He worked with co-writer John Blase to record his thoughts about his past, and you can tell he was having to force air from his dying spirit so we could hear his last words to us.
Manning tells us right up front that there is much of his life he no longer remembers, and of that which he does remember there are some things he will not share. He has a “wet brain,” as he calls it, from years of alcoholism. Yet what we are given is a sufficient picture of a life that was filled with pain almost from birth.
My story is a rosary, the beads of which are the people and experiences that have made me what I am. I have tried to move from one bead to the next, but my fingers are feeble and my eyes are tired. So please forgive me; you will experience gaps and breaks in time and will frequently want to know more. But this is not a tell-all. Sometimes I chose not to elaborate any further, and other times I simply cannot remember any more. That’s the way it is.
Manning does not sugarcoat the deficiencies in his parents or siblings, but then neither does he sugarcoat his own failings. What we have is a portrait of a ragamuffin of the truest order. He doesn’t go into detail, but we feel his struggles with alcohol, with marriage, with seeking a vocation.
Warning: Mine has been anything but a straight shot, more like a crooked path filled with thorns and crows and vodka. Prone to wander? You bet. I’ve been a priest, then an ex-priest. Husband, then ex-husband. Amazed crowds one night and lied to friends the next. Drunk for years, sober for a season, then drunk again. I’ve been John the beloved, Peter the coward, and Thomas the doubter all before the waitress brought the check. I’ve shattered every one of the Ten Commandments six times Tuesday. And if you believe that last sentence was for dramatic effect, it wasn’t.
This offering is not packed with a lot of teaching on grace. Rather, it is a look at radical grace—or, as Manning likes to say, quoting Robert Capon, vulgar grace—in action. Manning has not just taught that God’s love reaches beyond the greatest sins we commit, he exemplifies this. All Is Grace is not a book you should read if you haven’t read his other books. Start with Ragamuffin Gospel, then mix in Abba’s Child and Ruthless Trust. Then and only then should you read his memoir. He refers to much of his previous teaching in this book. You won’t really appreciate his open heart here if you haven’t heard him before.
This is not a long book—there is a lot of filler at the beginning and at the end—but it doesn’t feel like a short book either. It is enough of a home movie of his life to give you a very good idea why he calls himself a ragamuffin, but also why he believes the life message he has taught for more than 50 years: “God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be.”
He concludes with what he calls his last sermon, which ends on this note.
John, the disciple Jesus loved, ended his first letter with this line: “Children, be on your guard against false gods.” In other words, steer clear of any god you can comprehend. Abba’s love cannot be comprehended. I’ll say it again: Abba’s love cannot be comprehended.
If those truly are Brennan Manning’s last words, then I would say he has learned well.
Highly, highly recommended.