When I was an young theology student in the late 90s my friend, Carl Appleby, told me that there was a book I really must read. I think he might have even put the book in my hand and insisted I read it. Typically, when someone tells me I need to read a book my reaction is to do the opposite but, for whatever reason, I did read this one. In the years since then I have reread it several times and bought more copies of it than I can remember, to give to friends, insisting that they read it. I still regard it as one of the books that has most influenced my life. Today I learned that the author of that book, Brennan Manning, passed away. Manning was a veteran of the Korean war, and a former Franciscan priest. There is so much that one could say about his writings and their enormous appeal, but perhaps it is best to say that they appeal most to those who feel they are at their wit’s end, those who have had enough of religion, and those who may feel like their lives have been a grave disappointment to themselves and everybody else. I never met Brennan Manning, but I felt like I knew him. Today I feel a bit like I’ve lost an old friend. I’m grateful to my friend for giving me that book all those years ago, and I’m even more grateful to Brennan Manning for writing it.
The following is one of my favourite stories from the book:
‘A story is told about Fiorello LaGuardia, who, when he was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII, was called by adoring New Yorkers ‘the Little Flower’ because he was only five foot four and always wore a carnation in his lapel. He was a colorful character who used to ride the New York City fire trucks, raid speakeasies with the police department, take entire orphanages to baseball games, and whenever the New York newspapers were on strike, he would go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court that served the poorest ward of the city. LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself.
Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a real bad neighborhood, your Honor.” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.” LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions–ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous sombrero saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, fifty cents of that amount being contributed by the red-faced grocery store owner, while some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.’
From The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning.