There are several tracks of interest in A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. The first is his love story with his wife, nicknamed Davy, her death, and how he dealt with it (no spoiler there: it’s mentioned up front and the whole book is colored by her death). The second is their journey from condescending atheism to Christianity, and the third is their friendship with C. S. Lewis.
The book begins, of course, with their meeting and falling quickly in love. They had a penchant for naming everything: cars, houses, events, periods in their history. They constructed what they called the Shining Barrier around their love:
The Shining Barrier – the shield of our love. A walled garden. A fence around a young tree to keep the deer from nibbling it. An fortified place with the walls and watchtowers gleaming white like the cliffs of England. The Shining Barrier – we called it so from the first – protecting the green tree of our love. And yet in another sense, it was our love itself, made strong within, that was the Shining Barrier (p. 36).
They promised to share everything in life, even to the point of deciding not to have children (because they couldn’t share in that experience equally and a child might divert their love for each other) and declaring that one would not die without the other.
They called this their pagan love, this era their pagan days, either because they were not believers at this time, or they made idols out of each other and their love, or both.
They had the opportunity to go to Oxford for a time and there met some fellow students who were Christians. They had been rather scornful of Christianity to this point, but these friends were kind, intellectual, wonderful to talk to, and they decided perhaps they should study Christianity out just to find out for themselves what they believed about it and to be fair. They read Pilgrim’s Progress, Augustine’s Confessions, and a multitude of other books, but the ones that impacted them the most were C. S. Lewis’s, who “could…swiftly cut through anything that even approached fuzzy thinking” (pp. 108-109). Vanauken wrote to Lewis a couple of times with questions which Lewis graciously answered. The book details their thought processes during this time, with Davy coming to believe first and Sheldon a couple of months later.
They thrived and grew for months, but eventually realized that Christianity itself was a breach to their “Shining Barrier.” After a while Sheldon “wanted life itself, the colour and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God….But for Davy, to live was Christ…His service was her freedom, her joy” (p. 136). He was jealous of her relationship with God and resented the intrusion of love for Christ for a time but, admitting one “cannot be only ‘incidentally a Christian.’ The fact of Christianity must be overwhelmingly first or nothing,” he eventually came to the point of realizing and being willing for full surrender himself.
Then vague symptoms Davy was having became a serious illness and then a terminal one, and the author shares the details and struggles of that time. He felt the “severe mercy” was God’s taking Davy from him in light of the fact that he still had a tendency to idolize her and their love. Perhaps. We don’t see the whole picture as God does, nor can we know all of His purposes for what He does. Davy was willing to go, even offered up her life to God for Sheldon, and God’s answer to that prayer was evidently what was best for both of them. “[Her death] saved our love from perishing in one of the other ways that love could perish. Would I not rather our love go through death than hate?”
They had visited with C. S. Lewis several times while in Oxford and their correspondence with him continued. It was interesting viewing him as someone’s friend and the impressions he made when he came to their apartment. Some 18 of his letters are included in the book. I enjoyed seeing a dashed-off note sprinkled with abbreviations yet still full of razor-sharp wit and clarity. His encouragement in Sheldon’s grief came full circle when he married Joy Davidson, came to love her, and then saw her through illness and death. Though grieving, Sheldon and Lewis both saw death as “an act which consummates, not…merely stops, the earthly life” (p. 183).
It took me a while to get into the book. My more left-brained practicality couldn’t quite fathom some of the more right-brained conversations they had at first. But after a while much in the book resonated and inspired me, especially their journey to faith and its implications on their lives. I wouldn’t agree with every little point in their theology and doctrine but I don’t feel the need to dissect that here: most of my quibbles were minor. I did enjoy each of the tracks of interest.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)