A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken

My favorite gift to receive is a book. (Hint: it’s my favorite gift to give as well.)

This Christmas, among the gifts waiting for me under the tree lay a thin package. Upon unwrapping it, my father-in-law, Bill commented, “that book is a bit old school, but it has some good insight into marriage.”

Intrigued, I decided to take it on our trip to Costa Rica. I know it seems absurd to think of me sprawled out on the beach or more aptly a hammock reading a book with the word “Severe” in its title. I scoffed at my initial bravado at bringing it along and set it aside for the earlier part of the trip.

A few days later, I picked it up again, you know, just to take a quick peek.

“A Severe Mercy” is both a love story between two people that spans the gap of life and death. It also details a friendship that borders on mentorship between the author, Sheldon Vanauken and noted writer C.S. Lewis through letters exchanged. I would be remiss to not mention that this book is also a written history of two people’s exploration into Christianity. It most certainly involves all of these elements.

In the beginning Sheldon Vanauken (Van) describes his family’s rambling estate, now a ghosted shell but he seeds it with a bit of the magic imbued by memory and specificity. You learn how he first meets Jean (Davy) and their love story begins to unfold.

Van and Davy’s love is described as a “Shining Barrier”, one that they craft and fashion to be impenetrable. He writes about the importance of sharing interests to stave off what he terms “creeping separateness”. Their intent is to keep the spring of “inloveness” intact.

And this is something that truly is tested later on in the book. (Sidenote: when I described “the shining barrier” to Beck, he made a bit of a gagging motion.) There were definitely moments where their love feels a bit heavy and syrupy but I think the premise makes sense. In marriage, you naturally want to share the things that excite you with your partner. It’s a bonus when they also end up sharing your interest too.

Here’s the thing. You know she’s going to die. I mean, aside from the book jacket description, the title “A SEVERE Mercy”, and his penning it, you know she’s going to die.

And frankly, while I found their love story at moments compelling, other times, it felt too much. What held my attention really were the correspondences with then-Oxford professor of literature C.S. Lewis and later on in the book, Van’s writings on grief.

He writes with such alacrity about the final weeks and days of his wife’s demise and the small joys they found during that period. One particular scene of sweetness involved an approved visit by their dog Flurry to the hospital room. Another scene showed him praying and talking her out of coma. As I read “The Deathly Snows” on the airplane in the middle seat, my eyes over-filled. I felt punctured with his loss. He does well to describe the separation of terms as loss and grief not being the same thing. He is experiencing “grief unalloyed.”

“But grief is a form of love- the longing for the dear face, the warm hand. It is the remembered reality of the beloved that calls it forth. For an instant she is there, and the void denied. It is not the grief, involving that momentary reality that cuts one off from the beloved but the void that is loss. In the end one can no longer summon forth that reality, and then one’s tears dry up. But while it lasts, it is a shield against the void; and by the time the grief wanes, the terrible emptiness of loss has given way to a new world that does not contain the shape of the beloved figure.” (p. 182)

My friend Amanda has said before that when someone close to you dies, you become part of a club. And these other cardholding club members speak in ways that find resonance. I do see my grief for my dad as a cloak; it is at times heavy and burdensome- at other times, warming and soft. Does it dampen the depth of loss for him- not always, but I can’t remember what it was like without the cloak. He died eight months ago on the 8th. For someone not subsumed in mathematics, I have become an accountant of time.

Van’s way of grieving consisted of something he called the “Illumination of the Past” culling together bits of music and memories for a study of their collective past.

“I had assembled, and put into chronological order, hundreds of letters Davy had written over the years. I had the diaries and journals we kept. I had her paintings done in their various periods and our photograph album. But I had gone further than these helps: I had searched out and bought recordings or music we had liked or merely chanced to listen to a good deal in some period, knowing how evocative music is… I had all our favorite poems of the years.” (p. 192)

Our trip to Costa Rica probably meant different things to the family members in attendance. For me, it was part “illumination of the past” by getting to learn more about the man that was my dad during his high school years. His two best friends, Jose Maria and Francisco shared stories of those pivotal years. I learned about their high school band with Francisco playing drums, Jose Maria playing the accordion and of course, my dad, as captain of the band and trumpet player. He was a natural born leader… Hugging both of them and looking at them, I was betwixt seeing my dad among our happy group and sorely wanting to tell him I’d met them in person. When I hugged them, it kind of felt like hugging him.

They laughed as they mentioned escapades of cutting class to slip away to the all-girls’ school under the ruse of helping the girls’ band out. They even started their own magazine and my dad wrote poems (poems!) though Francisco claims poorly. I never knew my dad to be a poet. He never heard any of my poems. Alas.

I gained more insight about my grandmother and grandfather and the elegant parties they attended. When the past is illuminated, so much more is given to us than just that which we seek. You have to be ready for it, and I scribbled details down in my notebook as the car drove on. It makes me crave more stories, more of him because story animates memory into the reel-player of imagination.

Reading “A Severe Mercy”, there is a part of me that played voyeur. Apart from the salve and balm it gave in hearing another person coping through grief and loss, I was transfixed on the friendship between Lewis and Van. How I wanted to have a pint with Lewis at the Eastgate and talk about literature and faith with one of my heroes! Never one to mince words, Lewis’ letters reminded me of the power of the written word with scores of pencil marks detailing those pages. The art of letter-writing is not something that needs to be a lost art. Moreover, the execution of letters consisting of more than the mundane but grappling with big questions and sometimes bigger answers, this is something worth pursuing. I wouldn’t say I agreed with everything Lewis had to say, but that’s not really the point. Through the letters you get the sense of friendship-depth that cuts to the quick.

“A Severe Mercy” might speak to some solely on the grief level. Perhaps to others, it speaks on the spiritual- and for those misty-eyed romantics, pure love story. Regardless, this book might change you or turn your thoughts to ponder its truths.

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