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A Severe Mercy–love and the struggles of life

A Severe Mercy

by Sheldon Vanauken

Sometimes good books, even nonfiction, can be a rollercoaster ride, and A Severe Mercy falls into that category for me. Sheldon Vanauken is a very good writer with a special devotion to words. His subject in this work is actually two-fold—marriage and Christianity. In the first part of the book, he focuses on the “pagan” love he and his wife Davy share and the commitment they make to be completely and solely taken up with each other. He tells of their conversion to Christianity and how their new relationship to God affects their lives and their union as a couple. They are both adventurous and intellectual. In their pursuit of God they begin a friendship with C.S. Lewis that proves to be very important in their daily walk with Christ, especially during a health crisis that confronts them.

My opinion of Vanauken as a person changes several times in the course of the events recounted in A Severe Mercy  as he changes and grows as a person. It is not light nor easy reading as it mines the depths of their efforts to achieve a perfect union, to talk everything through, and to glory in Beauty. In making decisions, they always choose based on what would be best for their love. Vanauken describes their two different paths to Christianity: Davy through her need for absolution from sin and Sheldon through a yearning for the Jesus he learned about as he studied the New Testament. Vanauken has lengthy discussions on believing despite doubts, the “Oxford experience” of intellectual friendships, and the difficulties of readjusting to life in the United States. He devotes a chapter to Davy’s illness and another to his grief at her death. It is in these chapters that his love for her shines most clearly and that his writing takes the more theological bent as he tries to reconcile his devastation with his belief in God. He examines these events in the light of human views on time and eternity. Included are eighteen letters from C.S. Lewis with whom he shared a special bond as Lewis also suffered through the illness and death of his wife Joy. The letters from Lewis are clear, straightforward and understandable, mincing no words. 

I needed a tissue during the chapter recounting Davy’s struggles with her sickness. I didn’t always like Sheldon. It was, however, his story to tell, and he told it from his viewpoint with soul searching honesty. I am glad that I read A Severe Mercy. It is the love story of Sheldon and Davy, and also of their love for Christ.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Memoir, Christian, Nonfiction

Publication:  May 26, 2009—Harper One (first published January 1, 1977)

Memorable Lines:

He stood there in the stillness, looking. A tiny breeze touched his face like a brief caress. He closed his eyes for a second or two, fancying as always that she was in the wind. “Davy?” he murmured. “Dearling?”

If one of us likes anything, there must be something to like in it—and the other one must find it. Every single thing that either of us likes. That way we shall create a thousand strands, great and small, that will link us together. Then we shall be so close that it would be impossible—unthinkable—for either of us to suppose that we could ever recreate such closeness with anyone else.

The grim and almost fierce will to do all and be all for Davy that I had held before me like a sword for half a year became now, upon her death, tired though I was, a no less resolute will to face the whole meaning of loss, to drink the cup of grief to the lees.


3 Comments

  1. Carla says:

    Not sure if I want anything this heavy, but I am sure glad you enjoyed it Linda.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lghiggins says:

      I understand. “Heavy” is a good adjective for it. There may be a time in your life that you would like to pursue it, but as we turn away from all of the lockdown rigamarole, you certainly might find lighter works to be more appropriate for your summer reading fare.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carla says:

        I am starting Anxious for Nothing by Max Lucado this week, I think that might help me deal with some of the anxiety about all the opening up and moving forward.

        Liked by 1 person

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