To state its theme simply, A Severe Mercy is a story about love and loss. It is an autobiographical account of love exchanged between the author, Sheldon Vanauken (“Van,”) and his beloved life comrade, Davy, and as the story grows and expands, the telling of a human love is replaced by a greater love—the eternal love of a consuming, Heavenly Father. The story of their marriage is fringed with adventure and purpose. Together, they lived in Hawaii during the bombing of Pearl Harbor, made a yearlong home aboard a schooner in Florida, attended Oxford and dwelled amidst the misty streets of England, and finally, settled into life in the countryside of Virginia. Amidst the adventure in which they embark together, you, as the reader, are drawn into the center of a story told in beautiful prose, set against the backdrop of faithful love and suffering.
A Severe Mercy’s prologue opens with Van’s night visit to Glenmerle, his family’s former estate, six months after Davy’s death. Returning to the estate floods Van with memories of his childhood and the love he shared with Davy. His reflections foreshadow what is to come in the book, yet the story Vanauken weaves beckons you into the love story of Davy and Van.
"The Shining Barrier"
Davy and Van’s love began unexpectedly, yet from the first time they met, they knew that the other was to be the object of their love and affection. The love shared by Davy and Van is beautiful and idyllic. Van describes them as the best of friends and deepest of lovers. Neither believe in God at their time of meeting, and as such, Van holds that the heights of joy, the purest of human emotions that make life worthwhile, can only be found in a great human love. To further cement their dedication to one another and their love, Davy and Van develop the figurative concept of “The Shining Barrier…the shield of our love. A walled garden…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). Underlying the Shining Barrier was an understanding of complete sharing and trust and that “creeping separateness” and the notion of “self” destroy love.
Conversion to Christianity
Davy is first to be convicted of her sin. Reflecting upon a frightening experience she has as a man exposes himself to her in a park and then chases her, she becomes aware of the sin of her heart. Van describes her conviction in this way: “…the Hound of Heaven was after her, following after with unwearied pace” (p. 68). Davy and Van believe that reprieve from this weight will be found in time away with the sea and sky, and they embark on a yearlong journey with the Grey Goose, a schooner on which they live in Florida, yet the impact of the experience remains with them.
A couple years after the incident, Davy and Van move to Oxford, England to study. While in Oxford, God surrounds them with friends who are Christians, and it is with these friends that they are challenged to consider the truth of Christianity. In his journal, Van writes, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous in smug complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths…the positive quality of joy is in Christianity—and possibly nowhere else” (p. 85).
In addition to observing true joy in the hearts of their Christian friends, Van and Davy are both deeply intellectual and must reconcile that Christianity is a faith, requiring all of their belief. Both engage their minds to learn about the Christ of Scripture. In wrestling with the beliefs of Christianity, Van begins corresponding with C.S. Lewis, who remains a close friend throughout Van’s life. Davy is the first to fully trust Christ, recognizing her need for a Savior and believing in the work of Christ. Van describes being more intellectually stimulated by the possibility of the truth of the work of Christ, rather than coming to Christ out of need. Yet, he ultimately chooses to place his belief in Christ.
The Barrier Breached
Upon their return to the United States, Van and Davy settle in Lynchburg, Virginia. During this time, Van describes his affection towards Christ differently than Davy’s: “Christianity was first in my concerns. Intellectually I was wholly committed to its truth. And yet I was holding something back. But for Davy it really was ‘overwhelming first’—nothing held back. She was literally pouring out her life in Christ’s service” (p. 136). The dissonance they experienced in their individual relationships with God challenged the intimacy to which they had aspired in the Shining Barrier, and they sought to reconcile their old pagan love model with Christian joy.
About a year and a half after their return, Davy becomes seriously ill and is given a grim prognosis—six months to live. Van cares for her, and God uses the months leading up to her death to draw each of them more closely to Himself. Davy dies, and upon her death, C.S. Lewis writes to Van that the death of his beloved wife and life comrade was a “severe mercy,” meaning “a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love. For it had been death in love, not death of love” (p. 20). Through her death, Van comes to the realization that the “…the shining barrier had been breached by God’s assault troops, including C.S. Lewis…and we had bent the knee. ” (p. 213). God uses suffering and loss in Van’s life to bring him to a place where he withholds nothing from God and sees God as the source of all true joy and love. Grieving the death of Davy is the most immense task he has done, yet Davy’s death allows Van to fully experience the eternal love God has for His people.
There are aspects of Van’s grief of which I struggle to find a Biblical foundation, yet I also have not experienced the painful loss of my spouse and best friend. Van describes feeling Davy’s presence near him after her death, and God allowing Davy to return to him. Yet, as believers, upon our death, we are taken up to be with God in glory, utterly satisfied in His presence.
The beauty of A Severe Mercy is the telling of a human, pagan love paling when compared to the riches of the eternal love of God. It is an honest, human story of pleasure, joy, grief, and loss; yet the sovereignty of God is evident through the suffering. In the words of Vanauken, “great joy through love seemed always to go hand in hand with frightful pain…still the joy would be worth the pain…” (p. 18).