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.