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What We're Reading--A Severe Mercy

I've recently re-read Sheldon Vanauken's beautiful book, A Severe Mercy. The Wikipedia articles on Vanauken and the book itself are fairly accurate, as far as they go, and linking them moves us past the most general introduction for those who have never heard of the book.

It is said that every man has one good book in him. A Severe Mercy was that book for Vanauken. The writing is often lyrical. The delicately-written prologue draws you into the story with a third-person account of Vanauken's last visit to his family home, which he calls Glenmerle, by that time owned by strangers. He goes there at night like a ghost himself to say farewell not only to the family estate but also to the ghost of his wife, who has recently died.

A Severe Mercy is the story of a great love. You don't have to agree with everything the young lovers think or do. In fact, as it is an autobiographical book written by one of the no-longer-young lovers in hindsight, after his wife's death, he himself doesn't agree with everything they thought or did. But you cannot read the book with a receptive mind and come away a cynic. At every re-reading I am reminded that young love is one of the greatest and most beautiful gifts God has given to mankind.

If it is the mark of a good book that it gives you something different every time you read it, your whole life long, then A Severe Mercy is a good book. When I was myself very young, married very young, the book gave me a vision of absolute selfless commitment which was, perhaps, almost too heady. Vanauken draws you so deeply into his and his wife's mindset as young lovers that you are able to feel as they feel, and what they felt was that they must set up their springtime love as a standard for their whole lives. But that is to some degree to make emotion an end in itself, and it is probably a little dangerous for newlyweds or engaged couples to have that held up to them as an ideal. Our emotions are subject to many influences that do not lie within the control of our wills, and we should not be tempted to despair when brought up against this unpleasant fact. On the other hand, every married couple, and indeed, every person who has to deal with other people, can sense the challenge of that total commitment to the other that does not allow self to be the center. Van and Davy present us with the fact that even pagan love (for they were pagans at first, as he says himself) can reach very great heights and be a beacon to the world.

I remember being rather irritated twenty-some years ago by some of Vanauken's self-probing at the end of the book. After his and his wife's conversions to Christianity and his wife's subsequent death, he realizes forcefully that he had been jealous of God and had wanted to draw his wife away from loving God too much. He realizes, too, that he loved her more than he loved God, and he says that if God had wanted him to leave her bedside during her final illness, he would have refused. What used to bother me about that particular mea culpa was what seemed to me its pointlessness. Why in the world would God ever have asked him to do such a thing? Why even consider such a silly hypothetical? What would such a call look like, aside from some bizarre and implausible scenario such as the literal voice of God calling him away? Of course his service to God at that point in his life consisted in his service to his dying wife. Why put the two even hypothetically in competition with one another?

I've read the book several times since then and always balked at that particular bit of reflection. But this time through, I had a new thought. One of the things the young couple decide during the days of their pagan love is that they will never have children. They decide this in large part because children would distract them from one another and would give one of them (Davy) the experience of motherhood which her husband cannot share. This decision against having any children is one their friend C. S. Lewis criticized in a letter to Vanauken after Davy's death, though at the time Vanauken couldn't agree with Lewis. (The Lewis letters are one of the highlights of the book.)

But wouldn't the needs of children be the most natural form that a conflict between duties could take for a grieving husband? Suppose that his wife were dying and that they had a child or children at home. Even if he had friends and neighbors to help, still he would not have been able to spend all his time (outside of the bare necessities of work and sleep) at Davy's bedside, as in fact he did. A child, especially one old enough to have some inkling of what was going on, would have been grieving and bewildered, too, and would have needed his father.

And there is no denying the fact that children do draw us outside of ourselves and even stretch the love of a husband and wife for each other, stretch it into new forms that have room for others. That stretching process can be painful, but it is one of the ways in which we hear God's voice.

Vanauken accepts the stark fact that one "cannot be only incidentally a Christian." He accepts the reality that God sometimes calls us to leave all and follow him. He admits that he was unwilling to do so. And in doing so he challenges me, whenever I read the book, with a bit of cold, uncomfortable self-knowledge: I don't want to leave all and follow, either. I don't want to give up much of anything at all. But God, in his mercy, gives us within nature itself, first by our love for our spouse and then in the trinity of father, mother, and children, a means by which we can begin, at least, that hard process of letting go.

Comments (8)

So his other books are skippable? (I liked "A Severe Mercy" myself, but haven't sought out his other works.)

The only other one I've read (which is almost the only other one he has) is Under the Mercy. I would say it's skippable except to people who are really curious about what happened to him afterwards. It's a book of essays. They range from more autobiography about his hippie period in the 60's and his eventual journey to the Roman Catholic Church to opinion essays, some of them quite crusty and conservative. He has one against gender-neutral language, for example. I read it once, was mildly interested by it, but never wanted to re-read it.

A Severe Mercy, in contrast, is a gem. Criticisms sort of bounce off of it in the way that they do bounce off of a really good book. If you say that it is sentimental, for example, the book takes that in stride, somehow. I think here, for example, of the place where Davy goes into a coma and can hear only Van's voice. He gets her to eat by saying, "Open your mouth, Dearling," and then he cancels his classes for a while and sits by her, feeding her all her meals that way with a spoon. You just can't brush stuff like that off.

The only other book of his I've heard of (but haven't read) is a short one called The Little Lost Marian. I first found out about this in the Wiki article. Evidently Davy had had a baby, a little girl, as a teenager before she ever met him and had placed it for adoption. Later in his own life, Van decided that he needed to go and find that child, and he did and wrote this short book about it. That's all I know.

My wife loves this book! I never read it though, because one of my wife's peculiar and endearing habits is to give me detailed accounts of the books that she is reading that she enjoys unless I explicitly tell her that I want to read that book. Then I am forced to drop whatever I am reading at the time and read her book so that we can discuss it.

ANYWAY...she agrees with you on your assessment. She told me whatever faults there are they are overcome by the genuine nature of the relationship at the center of the story.

“I am reminded that young love is one of the greatest and most beautiful gifts God has given to mankind.”

Heresy! As someone who must endure the many, endless mood swings unleashed by creatures beset by “young love”, I have forwarded this inflammatory post to the office of the Inquisition. Sweet Lord, communicating with those teenage males of the species in the throes of YL Syndrome is more daunting and less rewarding than teaching geometry to the Piraha tribesman of Brazil. From expansive, gregarious spirits of generosity and rambunctious manhood to forlorn figures of wounded sullenness, all within seconds of receiving a text message or phone call. It fills me with revulsion.

Intensified of course, by the grim realization that one’s progeny are in the shallow, blinkered eyes of the world; better-looking, more virile and vital,and radiant with a goofy idealism un-tempered by the ravages of adulthood. How many nagging injuries to body and ego must I suffer at their patronizing hands? And what of these energetic, well-spoken, clear-eyed fawns of female pulchritude known as “girl-friends”? Sure they show up now after all the heavy-lifting is over – getting up for 5am hockey games, sitting through late-night stage-rehearsals, piano-recitals, chauffeuring up and down the East Coast to various sports venues and waging the homework wars, just to supplant me from my deserved place as the center of my son’s affections. And you have the audacity to call this pathetic state a Divine “gift”. I am confident the Inquisitor will rule otherwise. May your punishment Lydia, be a home filled with the raw emotions and hyper-kinetic energy that only young lovers can wreak. Justice demands it.

Jay, the book is worth reading even if the wife has told you all about it. Reading it is different from a summary and description. :-)

Kevin, as far as supplanting you in your son's affections, I'm afraid you're up against High Authority on that one: "For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh."

But I will say this: One reason that I think young love gets a bad rap among conservatives nowadays is that it is so seldom oriented towards marriage. Part of what gives A Severe Mercy its power is that once Van and Davy fall in love (which happens almost instantly) there is never a question of their being merely boyfriend and girlfriend for some unspecified period of time, or of their love as being just some sort of rite of passage they go through before they grow up and move on to other people, or anything of the sort. They are welded to each other. Pair bonding to the max, and for life, absolutely. Sure, they take it in weird directions, especially since they aren't Christians. For example, they promise that when either of them dies, the other one will commit suicide so that they will never live apart. They have to give that up after becoming Christians. But their young love is young love as, I believe, it was meant to be--as the spring song of a lifelong bond. And they know that and act on that.

But since I'm the mother of three daughters, I imagine I will suffer at some point the doom you wish for me. :-)

Lydia, my objection to young love is driven purely by selfishness(“why is it so quiet around here?”) and the fear of becoming a grandfather under less than ideal circumstances. I am heartened by the fact that the vital institution of courtship is making a comeback with certain circles and only hope its presence is greatly expanded by the time your daughters enter the fray. I want you pilloried, not burned to the stake. Thanks for the excellent post and recommendation on the book.

Oh, Lydia, suffer you shall! :)

Thanks for the comments on the book. I read it long, long ago, and loved it, but have never re-visited it. Just lately it's come into several conversations, so I'm thinking it must be time.

Why in the world would God ever have asked him to do such a thing?
Perhaps the same reason Abraham was asked to make his sacrifice. Devotion becomes confusing when equally divided; it needs a hierarchy to provide resolution.

Re: insightful writing-
"The young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands."
William Faulkner – acceptance speech for Nobel Prize

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