No book had ever made me cry. When I read A Severe Mercy, I wept.
A Severe Mercy is Sheldon Vanauken’s autobiography that deals with his relationship with his wife Davy, their journey from paganism to Christianity, friendship with C.S. Lewis, and Davy’s death. Many have written about romance, religious conversion and tragedy, but it is the beauty and authenticity with which Vanauken tells his story that sets it apart. The joy and pain of Vanauken’s story is played out through philosophical contemplation, raw emotion, and honest wrestling with God.
Although the story centers around the life of Vanauken and Davy, the themes in the book transcend their personal story, and even their lives. From the beginning of their relationship, the Vanaukens deliberately cultivated a very thorough paradigm of love, beauty, truth, and longing for eternity that underwent a major evolution after their individual conversions to Christianity. “We saw self as the ultimate danger to love, which it is; we didn’t see it as the ultimate evil of hell, which it also is,” Vanauken writes about their pre-conversion worldview.
Vanauken’s story is much more philosophical than a typical autobiography, yet his narrative is anything but dry. The eloquent prose reflects his background as a literature professor and an amateur poet. Throughout the book he lapses into the third person to convey his thoughts, abstracting himself from his ideas in a way that allows the readers to easily follow his reasoning. This detached treatment of ideas provides contrast to his personal struggle to internalize those ideas, and ultimately, to surrender himself to God.
A few years into their marriage, the Vaunakens moved to Oxford for Sheldon’s studies. Their time close acquaintance with a group of serious Christians there inspired them to study the faith they had previously rejected. They greatly admired the work of C.S. Lewis, and “on an impulse” Sheldon wrote to Lewis about his struggle to accept Christianity. Their subsequent correspondence was instrumental in Vanauken’s conversion, after which Lewis became a trusted mentor and lifelong friend, and they maintained a lively correspondence even after the Vanaukens returned to America. Many of the letters Sheldon received from C.S. Lewis are interspersed throughout the latter half of the book, and provide Lewis’s characteristic depth of wisdom.
After the Vanaukens returned to America, Sheldon struggled with the realization that their love must be subject to Christ. Early in their relationship and prior to their conversion, the Vanaukens described their love for each other as the Shining Barrier-- “It was our love itself, made strong within” that was their ultimate good and would transcend even death. After their conversion it pained Vanauken to see his wife following Christ above her love for him.
“I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God,” he wrote, “I wanted holidays from the school of Christ. We should, somehow, be able to have the Shining Barrier intact and follow the King of Glory. I didn’t want to be a saint. Almost none of this did I consciously know– just longings. But for Davy, to live was Christ.”
Vanauken’s struggle is the universal struggle of all Christians attempting to live out Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Vanauken’s frank disclosure of his idolatry shocked me. But I was not so shocked by his sentiment, but by the realization that his words resonated with something deep within me. Convicted, I cried over the unsurrendered loves in my own heart.
“God in His ample love embraced our love with, it may be, a sort of tenderness, and we must tread the Way to Him hand in hand,” Vanauken writes. But God did not intend for Sheldon and Davy to tread hand in hand for very long. Recalling Davy’s illness and death, Vanauken writes of himself, “He had had– was having-- all the sorrow there was. And yet, the joy was worth the pain.”
I cried again when I read of the joy in pain, the hope of life everlasting in Christ, and the depths of Vanauken’s devotion to his wife.
Lewis was instrumental in helping Vanauken understand the goodness of God in Davy’s death. The richness of their correspondence after her death– pondering God’s goodness, musing about eternity– was refreshing after the emotional intensity of Vanauken’s loss. The book’s title comes from a letter from Lewis, who described Davy’s death as a “severe mercy” from God.
The strength of Vanauken’s faith is remarkable. He writes, “I cannot escape the impression that Somebody was being very gentle with us. Perhaps she had to die– for me, for our dear love, for God.” Elsewhere he reflects, “...it was for me, despite grief and aloneness, worth it.”
I wept again, praying for a faith that could say– no matter the trials it endured– “it was for me, worth it.”
Originally published in the Patrick Henry College Herald.