I first found Manning through The Ragamuffin Gospel, as many people do. I was struck by his raw honesty and entire dependence on God. Billing itself as “good news for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out,” the book was a fresh cup of grace to many who were tired of fellow Christians’ legalism and judgment.
And did he ever need that cup of grace. Luther once famously said to “sin boldly,” and it pleases me to think that Manning did just that. By that I don’t mean that he sinned any more than most of us. I think that for him, “sin boldly” was not so much a license to sin as a license to talk about it. He was not a hider.
A couple of years ago when I read his memoir, All Is Grace, it moved me deeply. It was published right around the same time as Flunking Sainthood, and I was beginning to hear from readers how much they appreciated authors’ willingness to discuss spiritual failures in public. Such transparency was and is very hard for me, but I have learned that it is the way of healing.
Here is what I wrote at the time:
This memoir is the first thing I’ve read of Manning’s in a very long time, and I found it unexpectedly powerful. It’s good that he recounts his life in chronological order, because by the time you get to the “sin boldly” part, in which he reveals his deeply troubled adult journey, you’ve already read about a childhood so loveless and miserable it would make a Roald Dahl character appear cherished by comparison. His mother’s seething, cold angularity; his father’s ne’er-do-well abusiveness; the sudden death of his only true boyhood friend: It’s all there, along with urban poverty, the Great Depression, and the proverbial wolf at the door.
It’s my observation that kids who come from shame-based backgrounds tend to head in one of two basic directions: they either 1) program themselves on “repeat,” mimicking their parents’ substance abuse and descending into chaos, or 2) sublimate the dangerous self by trying to be The Good Child. During my own turbulent adolescence—which was on my mind constantly while reading this book, since the weekend I read it marked the first anniversary of my father’s death—I chose what was behind Door #2: social acceptance, academic success, a place in the world. The shadow side of that path, the one they never warn you can be every bit as destructive as what’s behind Door #1, is that external approval becomes its own brand of addiction. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep it real and fight what Manning calls “the impostor self.”
Manning, rather magnanimously, chose both paths. He did this in an almost laughably stereotypical way, by becoming the good Catholic boy who stumbles through mass on Sunday morning because he’s still hung over from Saturday night. By age 18 he was drinking a dozen beers every night (every night?!), a pint of rye whiskey every other day, and a liter of sake about once a week. He was also beginning to write (a talent he honed in the military, of all places), discovering his unexpected gift for captivating audiences with his words while feeling an even more unexpected tug to the priesthood.
Manning was a priest for many years, and then, just as suddenly, he wasn’t anymore. He had fallen in love. His discussion of this phase of his life is one of the most tender and joyous parts of the book, but it doesn’t last. It wasn’t long before Manning resumed the alcoholism he hoped he had laid to rest forever when he became a priest. One particularly heartbreaking scene in the book has him admitting that he would provide spiritual wisdom for audiences and delight the crowds immediately before checking himself into an anonymous motel in that same town, unplugging the phone so his wife couldn’t reach him, and drinking himself into a stupor. He would be on his bender for several days and then fly directly from that city to his next speaking engagement so as to avoid facing his wife.
But there is true repentance in these pages, genuine sorrow for the ways he has damaged the people he loves. It is a beautiful book, its intensity all the more vivid because Manning is now ill and probably dying. As such, the beginning and end of the book offer a kind of festschrift to frame his story. Numerous friends and mentees share memories of how they met Manning or how he helped to turn their lives around. In the end, these loving voices do much to quiet Manning’s own articulated fears that his sins have outweighed the good he has done with his life. And throughout, always, is the underlying rhythm of a loving and forgiving God—a God Manning will meet sooner rather than later.
Grace, in the end, is everything.
Rest in peace, beloved ragamuffin.