Brennan Manning was, by all accounts, an odd character. A Franciscan priest committed to serving the poor, he died in 2013 in his eightieth year.
His ‘callings’ had seen him transport water to rural villages in developing countries via donkey and buckboard; he was a mason’s assistant under the blazing Spanish sun; a dishwasher in France; and a voluntary prisoner in a Swiss jail.
Many regarded him as a mystic, an intensely godly man, although not religious, and he struggled with alcoholism. He claimed to have heard the voice of God audibly once when he spent six months living in solitary contemplation in a cave in the Zaragoza desert. Late one summer evening, he said, he heard these words: “For love of you, I left my Father’s side. I came to you who ran from me, who did not want to hear my name. For love of you, I was covered with spit, punched and beaten, and fixed to a wooden cross.”
Brennan later reflected: “Those words were burned into my life. Once you come to know the love of Jesus Christ, nothing else in the world seems beautiful or desirable by comparison.”
But it wasn’t until his collapse into alcoholism in his mid-thirties that his writing began in earnest. He seems to have written a total of 15 books, among them his classic, The Ragamuffin Gospel.
He once told the story about an occasion when he sat beside an old friend who was dying. At one point he grabbed Brennan by the arm and said: “I can’t relive my life Brennan, but you’re still a young man. Don’t waste your life doing things that don’t count.
“I want to give you something,” he said, and he opened a drawer and from it he pulled out a picture with some text on it.
“Read it for me,” he said, and Brennan read: “A bell ain’t a bell till you ring it. A song ain’t a song till you sing it. And love ain’t love till you give it away.”
The two men talked easily for a while until his old friend died, and Brennan told how, as he sat for a while beside the body of his old friend, he looked back over his own life and saw that most of it was a drab grey, with little peaks of brilliance poking through, like church spires through a blanket of fog.
“Those were the moments when I was giving of myself for the good of others,’ he said. “For the rest of the time, I might as well not have been born.”
I’ve discovered how you can make yourself invisible: Sit on a wooden box at the bottom of Main Street with a handful of Big Issue magazines on your knee. Few people will see you, those who do are likely to side-step you, studiously avoid eye contact, and yet how we love to put on our pious Sunday best, we congratulate the pastor on another “life-changing” sermon and we make our way home, oblivious to the screaming pain of hurting humanity all around us as we return to the safety of our respectable little bubbles, until our lives are changed for another half-hour next Lord’s Day.
We sanitise the words of Paul to the young church at Ephesus: “…live a life of love”. But they can’t be sanitised, because love ain’t love till you give it away and you can’t do that without getting your hands dirty.