A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

A Severe MercyI finished this book several weeks ago and it is still haunting me with its beauty. Sheldon Vanauken (“Van”) tells the story of his all-consuming love-affair with his wife, Davy, and how their quest for beauty and truth ultimately led them to Christ. And then how, just in her mid-thirties, Davy became ill and was given the doctor’s sentence of death. This is the story of their life together, her passing, Van’s experience of soul-wrenching grief, and how his friendship with C. S. Lewis helped him get down “to the bedrock of meaning” — something Lewis was later to experience firsthand with the death of his wife Joy.

I was struck by so many things in this story, not least of which was Van’s brutal honesty about himself. I don’t think I could bare my soul like that — or do it with such clear-eyed grace. The writing style is absolutely superb, with not a word out of place. As soon as I started the evocative first chapter (so reminiscent of du Maurier’s “I dreamed I went to Manderley” opening to Rebecca), I felt immediately that I was in the hands of a master.

I was also fascinated by how their love seemed to transcend the usual experience and their complex analysis of what makes “in-loveness” stay (the principle of sharing everything [and not having children, from this motive], the Appeal to Love [“what is best for our love?” being the final determining factor in all their decisions], the Shining Barrier, etc.). I loved how Van found it so natural to express his inner life via poetry (and good poetry, at that!).

The book’s haunting title, which refers to Davy’s death, is a phrase from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters to Van. On the face of it, it seemed cruel of God to take her, but her beautiful death was actually His kindest grace to them both. In their correspondence, Jack and Van posited the theory that all human love must die somehow and that the “happy old couples” are the ones who have seen it reborn, purified. Converted to Christianity probably a decade or so into their marriage, Van and Davy slowly realized that God had breached the Shining Barrier that protected their love from all else — that she loved Him more than anything, more even than she loved Van. But Van was not as committed.

Some time following her death, he examines with stark realism what might have happened if she had lived. Either he would have become as committed as she on his own (not likely) or he would have succumbed to jealousy and ended by hating both her and the God who had claimed her fullest love: a chilling prospect. I can’t do it justice, but I was almost breathless as I read the chapter where he lays all this out.

And so she died, and he lived on, and suffered and wept and slowly but unhesitatingly saw the unfathomable love of God through everything. The beautiful phrase of Van’s, that by her early death “the manuscript of our love was sent safe to the Printer,” will stay with me forever. It is not too much to say that this is one of the best and most profound autobiographical works I have ever read. Highly, highly recommended. ( )

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