This book is one of our Pastor’s favorite books, and Garrett and I both read it on his recommendation.
A Severe Mercy is written as a memoir by Sheldon “Van” Vanauken, a highly intellectual and emotionally insightful man who documents his journey into love, into and out of religion, through loss, and ultimately to God. Garrett and I both agree that this has become one of the most intense, impactful, and formative books in our lives, apart from the Bible itself. See below for our summary, but be aware that we do share spoilers!
I finished this autobiography about a week before a severe tragedy occurred in my church family. A baby, whom my husband and I had loved greatly, died a very terrible death. It was awful. I felt like I had a very small glimpse into the heartbreak that Van experienced when his wife, Davy, passed away as recorded in A Severe Mercy. My Pastor said that our grief is proportionate to our love and it is very clear through A Severe Mercy that Van loved his wife deeply – it was a “great love” which led to great heartbreak when his wife died. However, this book is ultimately about a different love story. This is the story of God’s love for a man, and God’s pursuit of his heart through a great tragedy.
The book begins with Van and Davy’s falling in love story. The two are already a “match made in heaven,” but the couple takes their relationship to a new level. Viewing their “inloveness” as the ultimate good and determined to protect it against the assaults of the unenlightened world, Van and Davy bring the full weight of their intellect and their humanistic idealism to bear to construct “the Shining Barrier” around the eternal tree of their love. “The Shining Barrier” was designed in every way to hold human love supreme. For example, they refused to have any hobbies or interests that the other could not share, they strove for total empathy with each other in spite of even such differences as gender, they decided not to have kids for fear of creating distractions, and if one of them were to perish, the other pledged to follow in one last act of togetherness: “the last dive.” This idealism did cause some eye rolling (especially for Brynn), but Van and Davy did achieve a remarkably high level of joy through their relationship. They shared a deep love of beauty, expressed through poetry, nature, and art.
While Van and his wife, Davy’s, incredible romance is center stage for the beginning of the book, things begin to change once the couple moves to England in order to attend Oxford. While at Oxford they befriend a lively group of Christians and ultimately come to meet with C.S. Lewis. Van’s friendship with C.S. Lewis originally starts through letter correspondence, and transcripts of these 18 letters are incorporated into the book. Through these influences Davy and later Van convert to Christianity. However, it becomes clear as the book progresses that Davy’s level of devotion to her newfound faith was much deeper than Van’s. To Davy, Christ had become her first love while for Van, Davy remained his first love.
Tragically, Davy then becomes ill and after a year, dies of a mysterious disease. After Davy’s death Van struggles to make sense of what happened. Van processes his many questions through correspondence with C.S. Lewis who had recently married a terminally ill women and was experiencing similar struggles. In a shocking moment and at the climax of the memoir, Lewis identifies Davy’s early death as “a severe mercy” given to Van by God. C.S. Lewis also writes “it had to die” – the “great love” that Van and Davy shared could not have lasted forever and it needed to die. Why? Even if Van and Davy had persevered through this life, succeeding in prioritizing their love over all else including God, death would have eventually separated them and left them alone and apart from God for eternity. Had Davy lived on as a Christian, Van would have had three options: 1. Accept Christ’s love with the same fervor as his wife (unlikely by his own admission), 2. “attempt, with some success, to damage or lessen [Davy’s] commitment to God,” or 3. grow to hate God for taking his wife (and/or hate Davy for leaving him.) Van then acknowledges that Davy’s death and his own subsequent reflection that led to repentance and true faith in God was ultimately an act of God’s mercy in his own life. Now he can look forward to one day joining Davy in heaven, a place that has been made available to him because of his saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Between Van and Davy’s poems and the letter correspondence between Van and C.S. Lewis, there are so many rich nuggets of wisdom per square inch of text that I found myself reading pages over and over again to try and let the message sink in. This book teaches that a relationship with Christ should be our greatest treasure, and it is the only treasure that will NOT be taken away by death. God is merciful when he takes even the best of gifts away from us (like a spouse) if these gifts hinder us from cultivating a relationship with the greatest gift, Jesus Christ. This message is severe but it is also the ultimate message of love from a merciful God.
A couple especially memorable excerpts include:
“…And now I [Van] began to resent her [Davy’s] conversion. I did not, I thought, resent her being a Christian; I resented her acting like one. Going to church without me. Going with all the other Christians, leaving me alone. I even resented her little special goodnesses, even goodness to me. I suspected she was doing it for God. I wanted the old Davy back…”
“The non-scientists say, well, we don’t know the answers, but the scientists do, and the scientists who are not physicists say, well, we don’t know the answers either, but the physicists do; and the physicists know that they do not, in fact, have the ultimate answers and, accordingly, turn to Christ who does.”
C.S. Lewis: “My general view is that, once we have accepted an omniscient and a providential God, the distinction we used to draw between the significant and the fortuitous must either break down or be restated in some very much subtler form… Thus I wouldn’t now be bothered by a man who said to me ‘This, which you mistake for grace, is really the good functioning of your digestion.’ Does my digestion fall outside God’s act? He made and allowed to me my colon as much as my guardian angel.”
“If, indeed, we all have a kind of appetite for eternity, we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in a society that frustrates our longing at every turn. Half our inventions are advertised to save time… there is, in fact, some truth in ‘the good old days’: no other civilisation of the past was ever so harried by time. And yet, why not? Time is our natural environment. We live in time as we live in the air we breathe… How strange that we cannot love time. It spoils our loveliest moments. Nothing quite comes up to expectations because of it… C.S. Lewis… asked how it was that I, as a product of a materialistic universe, was not at home there. ‘Do fish complain of the sea for being wet? Or if they did, would that fact itself not strongly suggest that they had not always been, or would not always be, purely aquatic creatures?’ Then, if we complain of time and take such joy in the seemingly timeless moment, what does that suggest? It suggests that we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures. It suggest that we were created for eternity.”
Post by Garrett and Brynn Gray