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“A Severe Mercy”—Book review

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

It’s an unusually strong love story.
It’s true.
It begins with a man and a woman.
It ends with a man and his God.

In between, you get details and circumstances and movement.

And if you’re introspective at all, you also get questions and ponderings and aha moments

Vanauken tells of the wondrous love affair he had with his wife. And with Love itself. 

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. We saw only the danger to our love.

Still, we turned away from it, turned away because we loved our love.

But the more you read, the more you see God entering this love, even unbeknownst to Vanauken and Davy at the time.

The curious thing, to us, about the whole affair was the question we were so often asked, seriously asked: Why were we doing this? Were we Christians or something? Naturally we denied it.

But we were rather taken aback by the assumption. We had thought we were merely doing the decent thing in the circumstances.

Why should so many people think that only Christianity could account for it? Very odd.

As he sees his wife grow closer to Christ, you feel his angst, even amidst his own Christianity:

But for Davy, to live was Christ. She didn’t want to be a saint, either; she was too humble even to think of such a thing. She simply wanted God—almost totally. His service was her freedom, her joy.

…I was ready to play in a match, Christians v. Atheists. I was ready to level my lance and charge under the Cross of Gold. I was ready to follow the King into battle.

But—Sunday school? Where was the glory? Poring over the Bible—when we could be reading poetry? Where was the army of the King with banners? Where was the cathedral, beautiful and holy?

And with delight, you watch him turn corners.

And then I found I could not reject God. I could not. I cannot explain this. One discovers one cannot move a boulder by trying with all one’s strength to do it. I discovered—without any sudden influx of love or faith—that I could not reject Christianity. Why I don’t know.

There it was. I could not. That was an end to it.

For you C. S. Lewis lovers, this book provides numerous treats. Lewis and Vanauken grew to be personal friends, and 18 of Lewis’ letters are included in the book. They are quintessential Lewis!

It was actually in one of these letters that the book title emerged, in what Vanauken later came to call The Severe Mercy Letter.

letter from Lewis to Vanauken:
One way or another the thing had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in wh. it cd. have died tho’ both the parties went on living.

You have been treated with a severe mercy.

You have been brought to see (how true & how v. frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from US you have been led back to US AND GOD; it remains to go on to GOD AND US.

She was further on than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth.

Besides the spiritual benefits you’ll reap from reading these lives, you’ll also be treated to a style of prose and imagery not often found in modern story.

At that moment came a cheery tattoo on the door knocker. Davy and I looked at each other in the smoke with mad red eyes and, in unspoken agreement, did not move. The knock came again. We did not stir. Whoever it was—we never found out—gave up. Heels went away. Probably it was Jesus.

…All this, to us who had accepted the ancient Christian faith, was depressing. 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.

I close this book with bittersweetness. Those of you who have also read this book and love it can perhaps testify to this sentiment.

While I feel drawn to what Sheldon Vanauken says, I want to turn away at the same time. He asks questions I might ask in his shoes, yet the answers he receives—of a “severe mercy”—I fear, yet approve of, all at once.

My moment of selfless offering-up had been for her best good, which may come to the same thing as the Kingdom’s good, but is not the same in intention. My commitment was to her. If, unimaginably, my duty to God had seemed to require my leaving her there in hospital to cope alone, I would not have done it. Never.

Would I not rather our love go through death than hate? 
   If her death did, in truth, have these results, it was, precisely, a severe mercy.

She would have been content. It took her death, ironical as it must seem, to make me content in her turning her gaze from me to the eternal Fountain.

…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. And I had to live with grief, for God. But He was, perhaps, as gentle with us both as He could be.

Somebody is indeed very gentle with us all.

This book, subtitled “A Story of Faith, Tragedy, and Triumph,” shows us the gentle yet uncompromising Father who holds nothing back to bring us to Himself, our truest and deepest Love.


Dorothy said...

Now, this one sounds like a definite "must read" for me! Thanks, Lisa.

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