A Severe Mercy


I just finished A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. It’s a memoir so extraordinary I can’t help but add it to The Story Place collection. He describes in beautiful prose the three main stories of his life.

This is a story of love between a husband and wife that is as deep and true as any I’ve ever read about. They raised what they proclaimed “The Shining Barrier” against creeping separateness, against self and the world. “We sought closeness through sharing in order to keep inloveness; but such closeness was simply true union. In an early talk at the club, we saw the process of achieving union as like two stones becoming one by grinding together, the hard bits of one wearing away the soft bits of the other, until at last the fit is perfect: one stone.”

This is a story of conversion to the call of Christ. Through a gradual wooing of the Spirit from childhood, both Sheldon and Davy experience God’s very real presence, helped along by their friendship with C.S.Lewis. The road to belief was the first thing to breach “The Shining Barrier” of their love and in the end the only thing that was allowed to do so. Here Sheldon describes an experience of Davy’s…“I know now, of course, that she had experienced the classical conviction of sin. Christianity knows all about it, but I didn’t know all about Christianity. If I had actually understood what was happening, understood it as spiritual process, I should have been wildly alarmed…For the Hound of Heaven was after her, following after with unwearied pace.”

As he recounts their personal journey to God, they realize that choosing to live a life of faith would be either first or nothing. “It is not possible to be ‘incidentally a Christian’. The fact of Christianity must be overwhelmingly first or nothing. This suggests a reason for the dislike of Christians by nominal or nonChristians: their lives contain no overwhelming firsts but many balances.”

This is a detailed story of grief and loss. No spoilers here because you learn early in the story that their earthly love does not endure. His grieving process written in detail no doubt resonates with all who have lost a love before it was time. “One sleepless night…I was overwhelmed with a sense of cosmos empty of God as well as Davy. ‘All right, to hell with God. I’m not going to believe this damned rubbish any more. Lies, all lies. I’ve been had.’…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.”

In the afterword, Sheldon writes about the effect that this book had on so many. His surprise at how his story deeply resonated with others. Brene’ Brown would recognize this is as the power of vulnerability. He reflects, “It is, I think, that we are all so alone in what lies deepest in our souls, so unable to find the words and perhaps the courage to speak with unlocked hearts, that we do not know at all that it is the same with others.”

Ahhh….this is exactly the reason I love a good story.

And who wouldn’t love a book with personal letters written by “Jack” himself!

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