Book review: True love in Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy”

I first ran into the name Sheldon Vanauken when reading The Collected Letters of C S Lewis a few years ago. Intent on reading everything I could by Lewis, I was glad to hear that I wasn’t completely finished when I reached the end of his novels. Several of the letters in that tome were exchanges with Vanauken. The letters were often a difficult read, because they often lacked context, and the lack of a plot to follow made it easy to read whole pages without absorbing what they were saying. But Vanauken’s name stuck, because behind the name was a terrible tragedy. Lewis wrote to Vanauken when he was going through the grief of losing his wife to some tragic illness. Vanauken’s book A Severe Mercy records their love, their conversion to Christianity, and their eventual parting.

A Severe Mercy is a memoir. It covers the span of about thirty years, from his childhood home of Glenmerle in Indiana in the 20s to his wife’s death in Virginia in 1955. His life spans WWII. He was actually stationed at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and a key scene in the story takes place there. The books three central events make this a love story, a conversion story, and a story of grief all in one. Their love does indeed seem to be a rare and beautiful thing. It was everything to them, and they dedicated their lives to each other. He endearingly refers to his wife as Davy, calling her by her maiden last name throughout the book. Their love was protected by what Vanauken refers to as The Shining Barrier:



The Shining Barrier—the shield of our love. A walled garden. A fence around a young tree to keep the deer from nibbling it. A 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.

They did everything they could to protect their love from anything that could come between them, particularly what they call creeping separateness, the slow distancing from one another due to competing interests and sameness as years go by. I think a lot can be learned from their model of love and marriage. Their commitment to each other actually turns into somewhat of a vice. They end up promising not to have children, because that could interfere with their love. And they promise each other that if one dies, the other will commit suicide so as to quickly follow. For these reasons, he refers to his love as a pagan love because it made their love the center rather than Christ.

The next major event in the book is their conversion to Christianity. They were attending Oxford at the time, and they made many friends there who were Christians. They were caught by surprise because they thought Christians were stuffy, strict kind of people. They were mistaken:

All five [of our closest friends] were keen, deeply committed Christians. But we liked them so much that we forgave them for it. We began, hardly knowing we were doing it, to revise our opinions, not of Christianity but of Christians. Our fundamental assumption, which we had been pleased to regard as an intelligent insight, had been that all Christians were necessarily stuffy, hide-bound, or stupid—people to keep one’s distance from. We had kept our distance so successfully, indeed, that we didn’t know anything about Christians. Now that assumption soundlessly collapsed. The sheer quality of the Christians we met at Oxford shattered our stereotype, and thenceforward a reference in a book or conversation to someone’s being a Christian called up an entirely new image. Moreover, the astonishing fact sank home: our own contemporaries could be at once highly intelligent, civilised, witty, fun to be with—and Christian.

Through the influence of good friends, and their beginning to read the complete works of C. S. Lewis, they eventually began their conversion to Christianity. But the result is not a foregone conclusion. The book shows how much Vanauken in particular fought it. My favorite part about his final conversion, is how he pridefully held on to his right to self-determination; he didn’t say “I believe” but “I choose to believe.” I liked reading about his path, how he wasn’t a perfect Christian all at once, and that there were flaws in his Christianity at times.

There was one phase in his Christianity that I did find a little unbearable, where pride does begin to come through. He and his wife had just moved to Virginia away from Oxford and where they were converted. They experience a terrible homesickness, and they judge the Christians around them as not being spiritual enough:

When we spoke of the lively life in Christ, we meant keenness, to be sure, but we also meant the subtle discourse on the meanings of Christ’s way that is, in fact, only possible among highly articulate and civilised Christians. There was perhaps more faith in the Virginian churches than we perceived, faith that was real but inarticulate and not thought about. But we, seeing what looked like apathy in one direction and, in the other direction, watered-down Christianity, began to wonder whether in Protestantism the apostolic faith were not dying.

I have to admit that I sometimes feel the same way myself; are there others who have felt the same way I have about the gospel, who experience the same joys I do? Those around me seem to be going through the motions, seem to be blinded to the beauty in the scriptures. Perhaps that is why this passage stuck out to be as so repellent, because I recognized the same weakness in myself.

Woven into the story of Vanauken’s conversion is the letters he exchanged with C. S. Lewis. Lewis was central to his conversion, another reason I was keen to read Vanauken’s book. I in effect felt Vanauken to be a fellow traveller, because I also consider Lewis to be a spiritual father. From my first experience reading The Screwtape Letters in a high school English class, he opened my eyes to my faith. What had before been just another element of my identity, like the fact that I played the piano or wanted to study chemical engineering, I began to see that faith is meant to be a living thing. I liked Vanuaken’s description of Lewis when he first met him:

I had never so much as seen a photograph of him, and in reading hiss books and letters I had vaguely pictured him as a slender, perhaps somewhat emaciated, and slightly stooped with a lean, near-sighted face. What I met, when I turned up at his rooms, was John Bull himself. Portly, jolly, a wonderful grin, a big voice, a quizzical gaze– and no nonsense. He was as simple and unaffected as a man could be, yet never was there a man who could so swiftly cut through anything that even approached fuzzy thinking. Withal, the most friendly, the most genial of companions.

The last part of the novel, Davy’s death, was perhaps the part I can least understand, but one with which I wholly sympathize and sought to learn from. I haven’t lost someone close to me before. I don’t have an inkling of what it is like. To Vanauken, it was earth-shattering. But, like the title of the book suggests, he considers her death a blessing from God. All things must die in Christ in order that they may be resurrected in perfection.

Vanauken has many endearing idiosyncrasies that perhaps seem out of place in today’s world. I liked how he gave names to everything– his cars, his places of residence, and concepts that he and Davy shared. Their basement apartment was referred to as Mole End from The Wind in the Willows. The yacht they dreamed of getting some day to travel the world in is called The Gray Goose. And the ideas central to their love– The Shining Barrier is the shield around their love, The Appeal to Love is the attempt to resolve the question what is best for our love, and The Illumination of the Past is Vanauken’s reminiscing on his marriage to Davy after she passes away.

I was glad to share a bit of Vanauken’s own spiritual journey, It was a great book to read on a Sunday when I was home sick.

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