A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken is primarily an autobiographical love story. He recounts how he meets and marries Davy and the adventures they have together. He describes how they were determined to protect their love; they called it "The Shining Barrier". He tells of their conversion to Christianity while at Oxford and how C.S. Lewis's books were instrumental in it. Vanauken corresponds with and then meets Lewis during their time in Oxford. After one lunch together, Lewis is waving as he leaves, then stops, turns, and bellows across the street, "Christians NEVER say goodbye!" They continues to write after Van moved from Oxford and his wife becomes sick and then dies. A Severe Mercy is C. S. Lewis's own turn of phrase that he used in a letter to Van meaning "a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love" in describing Davy's death.
Entering Vanauken's world, especially that of Oxford, England where he met Lewis is entrancing. I was there with their little group discussing and enjoying T.S. Eliot, The Wind and the Willows, and the mystery and wonder of Charles Williams. This alone made the book a worthwhile quick read for me even if I was initially disappointed in the book. (This was probably due to me expecting a C.S. Lewis writer, and, in all fairness, he wasn't the author of this book.)
Seeing on the pages the mutual love and marital bliss Vanauken shared with his wife made me thankful of the same. I smiled at their finishing each others poems, being in tune with the others mood, sharing the love of a symphony, and was reminded not to let those early dreams that you share together die just because now you are distracted by the busyness of the world. I needed to be made aware if that again. What could be worse that me taking a perfect love like that for granted for even a moment? I'm trying to hold onto that wisdom, lest I get distracted by the busy nothings. Vanauken talks of his and Davey's "Shining Barrier" - their shield of love, their walled garden - and how it is eventually breached by God. I think I disagree, at least in some way. I understand his meaning, but wasn't his breach (in his feelings for Jane) a breach that would in no way bring a greater joy and fullness to their "inloveness" whereas worshiping God in your marriage could only make it better, stronger, and the other person dearer in a way you knew nothing of before? Thankfully we get to witness his realization and changed heart. The book does lag in parts, and I felt like I was waiting for something to happen - good or bad. The most meaningful parts of the book for me are some of Lewis's own words in his return letters to Vanauken.
Vanauken writes to Lewis after their move from Oxford, telling him, "No doubt Christ was in the churches, somewhere, but He was not easy to find." To him and his wife, who "had accepted the ancient Christian faith" coming back from Oxford and finding it so watered down was depressing. He remembers that "it was about as far from the strong red wine of the faith as grape juice. The Faith was too strong: the wine must be turned to water in an anti-miracle."
After Davy dies, Lewis and Vanauken correspond, and Lewis writes to comfort his friend. In one of Lewis's letters, I found myself agreeing most emphatically with him (who called Van's reasoning "very unsound") on Vanauken's agreement with his wife to have no children. "You spared her (v. wrongly) the pains of childbirth: do not evade your own, the travail you must undergo while Christ is being born in you." What a perfect reminder in any grief or trial.
Go under the Mercy.