Sheldon Vanauken

A Severe Mercy

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A Severe Mercy Summary

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A Severe Mercy is an autobiographical account of Sheldon Vanauken’s loving marriage, his friendship with famed author C.S Lewis, and his personal relationship with God. Published in 1977, it won a National Book of the Year award in 1980. It is “a story of faith, tragedy, and triumph” that details the journey of Vanauken (known as “Van”) and his wife Jean Davis (“Davy”) as they fall in love, travel, make friends, find religion, and are eventually separated by illness. Throughout, Vanauken grapples with the conflict between all-encompassing romantic love and the love for God and Jesus Christ.

The book begins with Van visiting his childhood home of Glenmerle, Indiana, several years after his father died and six months after Davy’s death. From there, he begins to tell the story of how they came together as two 19-year-old college students.

After a heated meeting at her work, the pair discovers a mutual love of the sea, literature, dogs, travel, art, and much more. Soon, their long, intimate conversations turn towards marriage and a life together. They want to have a love that is beyond all others and to share everything in their lives. They talk of forming “the Shining Barrier,” which protects them from all external influences and makes them solely each other’s. At this point in their lives, they consider themselves “pagans” and agnostics, although they agree that there must be a creator for all the beauty in the world.

They marry secretly and spend a happy, carefree summer together in Glenmerle. World War II then calls Van to Hawaii, where the couple stays for the duration of the war. Davy works in the Navy, and Van is luckily never called to direct combat. Nonetheless, with uncertainty surrounding them, they occasionally wonder at how easily they could be separated.

After the war is over, Van uses his inheritance money from his father’s recent passing to buy a boat. Together, they fulfill a lifelong ambition of learning to sail and spend some time exploring the Florida Keys and surrounding seas. Van makes some money writing for a yachting magazine, and they continue to grow closer, with nothing else in the world mattering but each other.

Their next step is Yale, where they both study and live together. After Yale, they spend another summer sailing before moving to Oxford to study, a dream they had shared for a while. It is here that their lives begin to change. They make many new friends, among them C.S Lewis, and their correspondence with him is included in the book. Lewis was already a well-respected scholar and author but had not yet written and published the Narnia children’s books series that would gain him worldwide fame.

Lewis is just one of many intellectual Christian friends that Van and Davy make at Oxford. They are struck by how happy these people seem, and as they continue to meet and frequent intelligent, witty, well-read Christians, they begin to wonder whether there is not some merit to the Christian faith. They read all of Lewis’ Christian novels and open themselves up to God and Christianity.

Although both are onboard and willing to take the journey, Van notes that Davy is more passionate and more unquestioning in her embrace of God, while he himself is more reluctant. He remarks, “…though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free—like Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the color and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ.”

Van accepts a teaching position at Lynchburg College in Virginia. They start a Christian study group with some students, and Davy becomes heavily involved in it. It is at this point that Van begins to feel jealousy towards God and Christ, and he senses that religion is breaking through “the Shining Barrier” they had succeeded in maintaining for so long. Davy’s relationship with her faith is personal and cannot be shared. As Christianity demands that God be the priority in her life, Van can no longer be.

Soon after, Davy is diagnosed with a deadly virus. She is given a year to live but dies after a few months. The book then focuses on Van’s journey of grief and acceptance as he comes to grips with the death of the person that had been everything to him.

Eventually, with the help of C.S Lewis, with whom he still corresponds, Van concludes that Davy has, in dying, freed him to pursue and explore his own faith. Van believes that his attachment to Davy had stopped him from fully giving into his love of God. Without her, he is finally able to do so and knows that this is what Davy had wished for him. Comparably, his own wishes for her happiness have also been fulfilled: she is now truly happy in having joined God.

A Severe Mercy is Vanauken’s most successful book and has gained a particularly strong following amongst Christian readers. Amid several detailed discussions about the nature of religion, spirituality, and love, Vanauken also covers themes of beauty, youth, nature, and friendship. A sequel called Under the Mercy was published in 1985, exploring in more detail the author’s life following Davy’s death, from initially moving away from religion to fully embracing the faith that his beloved wife had devoutly followed.