One element of A Severe Mercy I adore is the correspondence between Sheldon Vanauken and C. S. Lewis. Their exchanges are very genuine, straightforward, and even challenging. The influence of close, faith-filled friends is apparent and so is the belief that right relationship with God and others is to be valued over politeness and friendly formalities. It is essential to have friends who love us enough to ask us the tough questions and suggest a different viewpoint from our own, especially in regards to our relationship with God and those closest to us in this life.
As a winner of the National Book Award and the Gold Medallion Award, this is rightly called “the classic memoir.” I love that Sheldon Vanauken included original poetry as well as many of his letters to and from C. S. Lewis throughout the book.
I have infused parts of the spiritual memoir manuscript about Kevin and me with my poetry, excerpts from our personal letters, and some of my journal entries. I’m delighted to see how artfully this can be done by a masterful writer.
The glimpse into the mind and heart of someone whose lover wants God to be first in her life is very intimate. I believe it helped me to understand a bit better where my own lover was coming from when we first became friends and began our relationship. My then boyfriend, now husband Kevin expressed to me more than once that he put me first, before everyone and everything else. I tried my best to explain to him that God should be first in my life as well as his.
Sheldon and Davy eventually experienced a major tension and break in what they referred to as “the Shining Barrier:” their pledge to preserve their “inloveness” and the springtime of life by sharing everything with one another—reading the same books, seeing the same movies and plays, and learning one another’s hobbies. They went so far as to say that if one of them was to die, they would both commit suicide together so as not to let death separate them.
The following two verses from the poem “The Shining Barrier” that Sheldon and Davy co-authored beautifully sum up their pledge to one another and the Pagan approach to love and life they had at the beginning of their relationship:
“This present glory, love, once-given grace,
The sum of blessing in a sure embrace,
Must not in creeping separateness decline,
But be the centre of our whole design.” (p. 53, Stanza 1)
“The magic word is sharing: every stream
Of beauty, every faith and grief and dream;
Go hand in hand in gay companionship—
In sober death no sundering of the grip.” (p. 54, Stanza 4)
In the first verse of the poem (and of the two mentioned here), the words suggest that their union and the love between them are what they want to put at the center of their lives. Their notions of what should come first and be the love through which all other loves flow change when they come to know Christ. Davy is the first to embrace God’s Will as the one that should come before all others. At the beginning of her conversion, Sheldon doesn’t share her conviction that the Lord should come before all else. This discrepancy in priorities leads to the breakdown of the sharing that creates “the Shining Barrier.”
Davy’s inclination to put God first, even before her dearly beloved spouse, severed “the Shining Barrier” but it led to the ultimate good in time and eternity for both Davy and Sheldon—a desire for God’s Will above all others, including their own.
I thought of the many times I prayed with tears streaming down my face that God would bring Kevin closer to Him and allow him to see the value and importance of putting His Will above all other loves, plans, hopes, and desires. I feared that might happen through Kevin losing me to a religious vocation or because that’s what God knew to be necessary in order for him to become a person of faith.
I can completely identify with Sheldon’s wanting the greatest good in time for his wife Davy, though his understanding of what that is and how it comes to pass changes as he becomes more aware of God’s love and role in our lives on Earth and in the afterlife.
In response to Vanauken’s letter describing his grief over the broken “Shining Barrier” and Davy’s death, C. S. Lewis writes a letter that calls his friend out and really shakes him up. Vanauken comes to refer to it as “the Severe Mercy Letter.” In this case, the message from his friend led to the writing of this book as well as its title.
Towards the end of what some might consider a harsh way of addressing a friend who’s grieving, C. S. Lewis writes: “There’s no other man, in such affliction as yours, to whom I’d dare write so plainly. And that, if you can believe me, is the strongest proof of my belief in you and love for you. To fools and weaklings one writes soft things.” (p. 210)
Honesty, clarity, trust, vulnerability, and accountability are vitally important if we wish to grow in love of God and each other. Our skewed views not only harm us, but they also afflict those around us. C. S. Lewis acknowledges the depth of love between Sheldon and Davy while proving that “the Shining Barrier” was destined to die. Furthermore, he admonishes Sheldon not to commit suicide in an attempt to be reunited with Davy as soon as possible, because taking his own life could very well create an “eternally unbridgeable chasm” that would sever his soul from hers forever.
I highly recommend reading this book. For more information or to order your own copy, click here.