If I could have anyone lead me on a spiritual retreat with Jesus it’d be Brennan Manning. I wish I could do that and invite you to join me, but he died in 2013. But we can imagine what it’d be like to have Brennan guide us on retreat. That’s what we’ll do in this article, which is based on his book Abba’s Child.
Why Brennan Manning? Why would we want to go on retreat with him?
Born in New York City in 1934, he was a Franciscan priest and professor of theology for many years. His Christian books and seminars have helped many thousands of people. He had amazing experiences of intimacy with God. He gave the best years of his life as a contemplative missionary doing manual labor to care for the poor. He was a spiritual director to many people, including Christian leaders.
But these aren’t the reasons I’d chose Brennan Manning as my retreat leader and spiritual director. I’d want him to guide me because of his example of seeking the God of grace on extended retreats in solitude and silence and submitting to the care and guidance of a spiritual director during these retreats.
An Authentic Spiritual Director
Many of the pastors and leaders that we provide Soul Shepherding for ask for help with taking extended retreats in solitude and silence. They didn’t learn this in their own discipleship process or in seminary. They need some guidance on how to approach a spiritual retreat and what to expect.
My first three-day silent retreat many years ago was extremely difficult for me and I wasn’t prepared for it. I needed a spiritual director like Brennan Manning. I wish I’d had this article!
As our spiritual director, Brennan helps us to make sense of our emotions and to pray. As we’ll see, he shares his own personal story with us to help us connect with God’s grace. He draws us into his authenticity and love for Jesus and Abba.
We learn from Brennan to trust that even if we’re not receiving the blessing we seek, God is indeed doing a good work in us and he will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
In this article I offer some excerpts and quotes from Brennan Manning’s book Abba’s Child (published in 1994 by Navpress). My hope is to prepare you for setting aside time for spiritual retreats that feature solitude and silence. Brennan’s personal story, journal entries, and prayers will help us to adjust our retreat expectations and be more open minded about what might happen for us on retreat.
My Experience With Brennan Manning
A movie about Brennan Manning’s life was released recently. It’s called “Brennan” and is currently limited to private showings. I look forward to watching it. It’s a follow up to the movie “Ragamuffin” which Kristi and I recently watched on Netflix.
The movie “Ragamuffin” tells the story of Brennan Manning’s influence as a spiritual director on Rich Mullins, a famous Christian musician. (The picture above is a scene from the movie when Brennan and Rich are sitting on a porch in the woods on retreat.) The title of the movie comes from Brennan’s best-selling book The Ragamuffin Gospel. Brennan proclaims that Jesus loves ragamuffins — ordinary, broken and struggling sinners like you and me. It’s all about God’s grace.
Brennan and Rich’s relationship is a beautiful example of Christly spiritual mentoring and friendship and their devotion to God in the midst of the challenges of life gives us courage. Sadly, both of these great Christian men have died, Brennan died in 2013 in New Orleans at the age of 78 and Rich died in 1997 after a tragic auto accident killed him in the prime of life at the age of 41.
In all his books and seminars Brennan helps us to be honest about our pain and sin, trust God as our Abba, receive his mercy through the cross of Christ, and follow Jesus’ way of lovingkindness for all people.
Kristi and I first heard Brennan speak way back in 1986 when we were College Pastors attending a Youth Specialities Conference. What a gentle and yet passionate lover of Jesus! He spoke on the grace of God for all people.
Later in Brennan’s seminars on Abba’s Child I was profoundly impacted to come to know God as my “Abba” or dear Papa. Jesus prayed to God as Abba (Mark 14:36) and Paul picked this up, praying to Abba and teaching the early disciples of Christ and us to do the same (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
The Abba Prayer by Brennan Manning
Perhaps Brennan’s best gift to the world is inviting us to join him in the Abba experience. Inspired by Jesus and Paul’s example of praying to God as Abba, Brennan developed his own Abba Prayer of the heart: “Abba, I belong to you.” (See Abba’s Child p. 168 for his explanation and the source of the quotes below.)
By praying the Abba Prayer he says that “Jesus’ unique passion for the Father catches fire within us. In the Abba experience we prodigals, no matter how bedraggled, beat-up, or burnt out, are overcome by a Paternal fondness of such depth and tenderness that it’s beggars speech.”
It’s a seven-syllable Breath Prayer. The idea is to use the rhythm of your breathing to help you engage you mind and heart with “the Father and Son intimacies and knowledge” (Matthew 11:27, MSG). Brennan’s testimony is that “As our hearts beat in rhythm with the Rabbi’s heart, we come to experience a graciousness, a kindness, a compassionate caring that surpasses our understanding.” The Transcendent God has come close as the Father lavishing his love on his precious child (1 John 3:1).
Try praying this affirmation of Abba’s love for you by breathing the words in an out, over and over, in a relaxed cadence:
- Breathing in, “Abba…”
- Breathing out, “I belong to you.”
As Brennan prayed this he liked to imagine pressing his ear against Jesus’ heart. To him the Rabbi’s heartbeat was like Abba’s footsteps coming closer and closer!
You might experiment with repeating the Abba Prayer in some of these ways:
- Imagine Jesus smiling and opening his arms to the child in you as he embraces you in Abba’s love (see Mark 9:36-37 and 10:13-16).
- Smile big to help you appreciate God’s fatherly blessing.
- “Abide” in intercession for people the Lord brings to mind: “Abba… ________ belongs to you.” (You’re praying a heart intention rather than lots of word-thoughts.)
- Breathe in the whole prayer — “Abba, I belong to you” — in one long, slow, deep breath. As you breathe in focus on receiving Abba’s love. After the inhale, hold your breath as you imagine Jesus holding you in Abba’s love. Then as you exhale release any stress in your body. Stay with this to come to rest in Abba’s love.
One time on a day retreat I spent most of my “TLC Time” (TLC is for “To Love Christ!”) using the Abba Prayer to help me quiet my thoughts and stay centered in the Father’s loving presence and to offer intercessions for others.
Using this prayer over many years has helped to renew my image of God as gentle and loving toward my vulnerable “inner child.” It’s also helped me to be more compassionate and gracious with the insecurities of people who talk with me.
Brennan Manning’s Story
The best Christian leaders approach their leadership as assistants to the Lord Jesus. As they lead, teach, care, or pray they rely on the Spirit of Jesus in their midst. This was Brennan’s approach in his ministry. One of the ways he came under Christ when helping others was to share examples of his own brokenness and how Jesus his High Priest sympathized with him and helped him to find mercy and grace at the throne of God (Hebrews 4:16).
So if Brennan were leading us on retreat he might get us started by sharing something of the flawed man behind the marvelous minister. But then he’d lead us into extended silence to meet alone with Jesus and Abba. We wouldn’t talk except to meet privately with him to receive his listening and prayer.
Brennan says he wrote Abba’s Child to recover the passion that fired his desire to become a Franciscan priest when he was a young man. He writes, “All I wanted from the years of silence and study was to fall in love with God.” (p. 9). As our retreat leader, Brennan prays that we’d join him in falling in love with God as our Abba.
Brennan grew up in a broken home. He writes, “I vividly recall the emptiness I felt as I drifted aimlessly from one relationship to another, one tavern to another, seeking solace from the loneliness and boredom of my desiccated [dried up and passionless] heart.” (Abba’s Child, p. 166)
His restless search for God led him to seminary, but theology was dry for him till the day he was meditating on the Stations of the Cross and personally experienced the love of Jesus Christ. He said, that in 1956 at the age of 22 he was “ambushed by Jesus of Nazareth.” He added, “At that moment the entire Christian life became for me an intimate, heartfelt relationship with Jesus.” (Abba’s Child, pp. 11, 185)
The Stations of the Cross have been powerfully healing and transformative in my life also. I lay out the path for you to join me through Gospel stories, meditations, and prayers in my 68-page booklet: Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross.
Brennan’s crosswalk journey led him to become a Franciscan priest, a theology instructor, and many years of living a contemplative life serving the poor in Europe and the U.S. He was an “aguador” who carried water to the thirsty in rural villages. He also worked as a mason’s assistant and a dishwasher. He became a volunteer prisoner in secret, as a show of love for mistreated people. He prayed in the isolation of a desert cave for six months.
On Brennan’s long cave retreat he sensed the Lord speak to his heart:
For love of you I left my Father’s side. I came to you who ran from me, who fled me, who did not want to hear my name. For love of you I was covered with spit, punched and beaten, and fixed to the wood of the cross.
Those words are burned into my life. That night, I learned what a wise old Franciscan told me the day I joined the Order: ‘Once you come to know the love of Jesus Christ, nothing else in the world will seem as beautiful or desirable.’ (Abba’s Child, pp. 186-187)
Have you experienced the love of Jesus like that? Has your heart ever been so warmed and sweetened by the touch of Christ that everything else in life leaves you empty? You can’t live a normal life anymore. You want more of Jesus for yourself and the people around you.
In the 1970’s Brennan lived with a small community of priests on the Alabama coast to model the primitive Franciscans and minister to shrimpers. Then he resumed campus ministry at a Catholic college in Florida. But his successful ministry left him empty and he collapsed back into alcoholism. He said that his “soul-diminishing success” became a “life-enhancing failure.” He submitted himself to six months of alcohol recovery treatment. (Abba’s Child, p. 11)
As a recovering alcoholic, Brennan became a prolific spiritual writer and a “vagabond preacher.” With a new sense of direction and a growing public ministry, he decided to leave the Franciscan order. In 1982 at the age of 48 he married Roslyn Ann Walker and settled in New Orleans, which became his home until he died.
Sadly, Brennan relapsed into alcoholism again. In fact, on and off, throughout much of his life, he abused alcohol and vacillated between God and drunkenness. His wife Roslyn felt her trust in him was so broken that she divorced him in 2000. He was completely devastated and demoralized. But he threw himself onto the grace of God with even greater abandonment and humility.
Till his last breath on earth in 2013, Brennan was tireless in sharing the ragamuffin gospel with as many people as he could. Even in his last days when his health was failing badly he responded to requests to travel and speak to groups or to visit and pray for others who were sick.
At the end of his life Brennan told his story in All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir. In it he writes, “I’ve shattered every one of the Ten Commandments six times Tuesday” (p. 31). He freely admits he is “hardly a poster child for anything… anything that is but grace” (p. 33).
Central to Brennan’s journey of spiritual and psychological growth was his practice of going on an annual retreat featuring a number of days that focused on solitude and silence, balanced by meeting with a spiritual director or counselor. This helped him to press in closer to Christ and through him to receive God’s empathy, mercy, and insight.
Out of this personal history Brennan invites us to become “true contemplatives” who learn to encounter God with naked trust. “Silence is not simply the absence of noise or the shutdown of communication,” Brennan says. It’s “a process of coming to stillness. Silent solitude forges true speech… and growing in awareness of [our] identity as the beloved.” (Abba’s Child, p. 55)
But our initial experience of being quiet and alone often surfaces inner turbulence. Distracting thoughts buzz around like bees. Emotions boil up like water being heated on high. We may feel ambitious, worried, irritated, guilty, sad, or empty. Spiritually we may find ourselves lost in a dry desert.
Ugh! But I came on retreat seeking the peace of God’s presence and to hear his voice!
Brennan reminds us that probably what we need from our retreat is to cooperate with a work of the Spirit of Jesus in our soul.
The pressures of life and ministry wear us down. Often our emotional pipes get backed up with repressed distress and this greatly inhibits us from sensing God’s loving presence and wisdom.
Furthermore, in times of difficulty we tend to project what we’re feeling onto God. We see a blank stare in his face… Or a frown… Or hands folded and he’s not moving to help us.
This is why Brennan says, “It takes a profound conversion to accept that God is relentlessly tender and compassionate toward us just as we are — not in spite of our sins and faults (that would not be total acceptance), but with them.” (Abba’s Child, p. 16)
Do you believe that God is relentlessly tender toward you? Do you trust that he is gentle and kind with your weakness and neediness?
Probably there is a part of you that judges you for your failings and your weaknesses. If so this Inner Critic blocks you from fully receiving and responding to the unfailing love of the Lord.
“God weeps over us, when shame and self-hatred immobilize us.” (Abba’s Child, p. 18) Jesus invites us into the mercy of God:
Come to me now, acknowledge and accept who I want to be for you: a Savior of boundless compassion, infinite patience, unbearable forgiveness, and love that keeps no score of wrongs. Quit projecting onto Me your own feelings about yourself.
At this moment your life is a bruised reed and I will not crush it, a smoldering wick and I will not quench it. [Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20] You are in a safe place. (Abba’s Child, p. 19)
To personally experience God’s compassion and grace we need to do two things that the Bible couples: (1) Enter into quiet spaces of waiting on God in prayer and (2) Confess our sins, faults, and wounds to a caring listener who ministers to us the healing mercy of Christ. (James 5:13-16)
We see this integration of solitary prayer and authentic relationships modeled by our Bible heroes. For instance, David composed lament psalms in desert caves and he sought ministry from the prophet Samuel and soul friends like Jonathon.
Brennan Manning’s Eight-Day Silent Retreat Was Dry as Dust
When we go on retreat we hope to experience spiritual renewal, closeness with God, or to receive a profound message from the Lord. But, as we’ve said, often we end up wrestling through unpleasant emotions and may feel little if any connection to the God we seek. We may find ourself in a Dark Night of the Soul, as I did when at age 22 I went on a retreat for three days of solitude, silence, and fasting in a monastery.
Brennan Shares His Prayer Journal
This was the case for Brennan on an eight-day silent and directed retreat that he took when he was 43 years old. He wanted to dedicate that year to the Lord and so he started his retreat on January 2, 1977. His journal entry documents his experience (Abba’s Child, pp. 63-65):
It’s dark and below zero. That pretty well describes where I’m at inside. It’s the opening of an eight-day retreat and I’m filled with a sense of uneasiness, restlessness, even dread. Bone-weary and lonely. I can’t connect two thoughts about God.
Have abandoned any attempt at prayer: It seems too artificial. The few words spoken to God are forced and ring hollow in my empty soul. There is no joy being in His presence.
An oppressive but vague feeling of guilt stirs within me. Somehow or other I have failed Him. Maybe pride and vanity have blinded me; maybe insensitivity to pain has hardened my heart.
Is my life a disappointment to You [Lord]? Are You grieved by the shallowness of my soul?
Whatever, I’ve lost You through my own fault and I am powerless to undo it…
“The physical fatigue soon passed,” Brennan reflected afterwards, “but the spiritual dryness remained. I groaned through two hours of desolate prayer each morning, another two in the afternoon, and two more at night. Always scatterbrained, disoriented, rowing with one oar in the water.”
What did he do? How did he deal with feeling so dry and desolate day after day on his retreat?
I read Scripture. Dust. I paced the floor. Boredom. Tried a biblical commentary. Zilch.
On the afternoon of the fifth day I went to the chapel at four pm and settled into a straight-backed chair to begin ‘the great stare’ — meditation.
For the next thirteen hours I remained wide awake, motionless, utterly alert. At ten minutes after five the next morning I left chapel with one phrase ringing in my head and pounding in my heart: Live in the wisdom of accepted tenderness.
We All Need Tenderness From God and Others
Tenderness. It’s a word that Brennan keeps coming back to. He says when someone is tender towards you it makes a huge difference. If you walk into a crowded room of strangers and that person is there then you’ll breathe an inward sigh of relief. You’ll feel safe knowing that you have a friend whose warm care and kindness banishes your fears.
Tenderness is mercy for broken people. It’s gentle care for those who are vulnerable and in need. It’s being liked and wanted by someone who has full knowledge of your weaknesses and faults.
Brennan asks us, “Do you honestly believe that God likes you, not just loves you because theologically God has to love you? If you could answer with gut-level honesty, ‘Oh, yes, my Abba is very fond of me’ you would experience a serene compassion for yourself.”
You’d go skipping down the road, radiantly beaming, smiling from ear to ear, and exclaiming, “My Abba is very fond of me!”
If in your belly you don’t believe that Abba delights in you and treats you with tenderness then you might try skipping to get yourself to believe it!
Really. I’ve done this. Skip and sing out, “My Abba is very fond of me!” Or “Jesus embraces me in Abba’s love!”
You’d feel like a child and that’s the point! You’re using your body to activate your heart in proclaiming your child-like affection for Abba.
An Intensive Retreat (Brennan Manning’s Experience)
I was especially interested to learn about Brennan’s intensive retreat that he did in 1993 at the age of 59, one year before he wrote Abba’s Child. It was this retreat that led him to write this precious book about the life-changing Abba experience. (The quotes in this section are from Abba’s Child, pp. 21-25.)
For Brennan’s intensive retreat he spent twenty days in a secluded cabin in the Colorado Rockies — twenty days in solitude and silence! He was totally cut off from people, ministry work, media, entertainment, and even reading material. All he had with him was his Bible and a journal.
Opening to Emotions
Why would he make such a dramatic disconnect from his normal life and ministry in society? Why be in seclusion for so long? He wasn’t just chasing spiritual bliss and peace!
Brennan was engaged in soul work with God. He actually wanted to recall painful memories from his childhood and other deep feelings about himself and his life. Each morning he met with a psychologist for therapy who helped him to awaken his repressed memories and to process his emotions.
“As the days passed,” he wrote, “I realized that I had not been able to feel anything since I was eight years old.” A traumatic experience at that time led to an emotional shut down. “When I was eight, the imposter, or false self, was born as a defense against pain. The imposter within whispered, ‘Brennan, don’t ever be your real self anymore because nobody likes you as you are. Invent a new self that everybody will admire…’”
To get people to like him, Brennan says he became a good boy, well-mannered and deferential. Through hard work he excelled in school. He strove to succeed in order to receive approval. He displayed a public persona of being nonchalant and carefree all the time. He put himself into “an unfeeling zone” to keep his fear and shame at bay.
He realized that in his ministry he had been proclaiming to others God’s unconditional love with energetic conviction but he wasn’t emotionally experiencing this message in his own heart. This is the dilemma that every Christian pastor, counselor, missionary, and Bible teacher faces: it’s far easier to talk about God’s grace than it is to personally experience it.
Looking back on his life up to that point, Brennan says, I “was stalked every waking moment by the terror of abandonment and the sense that nobody was there for me.” He identified with someone who said, “I can’t feel any of my life. I’ve never been able to feel my life and all [the] good things.”
For eighteen long years of Brennan’s life and ministry, he realized there was a “great divorce” between his head and heart. His psychotherapist summarized, “All these years there has been a steel trapdoor covering your emotions and denying you access to them.”
Brennan writes, “On the tenth day of my mountain retreat my tears erupted into sobbing.” The wall of his “callousness and invulnerability” broke down. Finally, he began to mourn that he’d lived without soft words and tender embraces. He “drained the cup of grief.” He received the healing power of empathy for the little boy of his history and his heart.
Setting Aside his Imposter Self to Trust God as Abba
He came to realize, “It used to be that I never felt safe with myself unless I was performing flawlessly… I interpreted weakness as mediocrity… My jaded perception of personal failure and inadequacy led to a loss of self-esteem, triggering episodes of mild depression and heavy anxiety.”
His unhealthy psychology profoundly affected his relationship with God. “My desire to be perfect had transcended my desire for God… Unwittingly I projected onto God my feelings about myself. I felt safe with Him only when I saw myself as noble, generous, and loving, without scars, fears, or tears. Perfect!”
His breakdown led to breakthrough as he became the Prodigal Son limping home only to hear music and dancing! “The imposter faded,” he reflected, “and I was in touch with my true self as the returned child of God.” He didn’t need to perform perfectly to feel safe. He stopped longing for praise and affirmation.
“I internalized and finally felt all the words I have written and spoken about stubborn, unrelenting Love. I leaped from simply being the teacher of God’s love to becoming Abba’s delight. I said goodbye to feeling frightened and said shalom to feeling safe.”
Brennan wrote in his retreat journal about his experience of opening to his emotions in a safe relationship with his therapist, which in turn helped him to feel really safe with God.
To feel safe is to stop living in my head and sink down into my heart and feel liked and accepted…
[It’s] not having to hide anymore and distract myself with books, television, movies, ice cream, shallow conversation… [There’s] no need to impress or dazzle others or draw attention to myself… [I can be] unself-conscious… [with] no anxiety about what’s going to happen next…
[It’s] staying in the present moment… feeling relaxed… [It’s being] loved and valued… [It’s] just being together as an end in itself.
He realized, “If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can neither be illuminated nor become a light for others. We cling to our bad feelings and beat up ourselves with the past when what we should do is let go… But when we dare to live as forgiven men and women, we join the wounded healers and draw closer to Jesus.”
The Test of Your Retreat
How do you measure the value of a personal retreat? How do you know it was time well spent?
As we’ve said in this article, the purpose of a retreat is not feeling spiritually renewed, learning something profound, or receiving a special word from God. These are great blessings, but they’re not the heart of discipleship to Christ.
The point of a retreat — and of our whole life — is to grow our capacity to love God and neighbor. (Jesus’ Greatest Commandment in Mark 12:29-31.)
[Discipleship] is all about the way we live with each other. In every encounter we either give life or we drain it. There is no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity, or we diminish it.
The success or failure of a given day is measured by the quality of our interest and compassion toward those around us. We define ourselves by our response to human need… We reveal our heart in the way we listen to a child, speak to the person who delivers mail, bear an injury, and share our resources with the indigent. (Abba’s Child, p. 169)
By setting aside a day or a number of days to be quiet and alone in God’s presence we’re training our body and soul to be formed more into the image of Christ.
If we go on formation retreats periodically, especially if we couple them with receiving spiritual direction, then over time we’ll see changes. We’ll grow in self-awareness, trust in God’s unfailing compassion, readiness to worship God even when we don’t feel like it, and capacity to love our neighbor, including those who are difficult or mistreat us.
A Special Resource For Your Retreat
You can go deeper in your appreciation for Christ Jesus. Forgiveness, unfailing love, and the power to become like the Lord are available to you!
Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross by Bill Gaultiere is 68-pages of heart-warming appreciation for Christ and inspiration to learn to live your daily life with his attitude of love for God and people.
Unforsaken is great for personal devotions, small groups, and retreats.