Monday, September 28, 2015

A Severe Mercy

A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken

A friend put this book in my hands assuring me I would like it & she was right.  I quickly was caught up in the story of Sheldon & his wife Jean (Davy).   The two met in their college years in Virginia and instantly connected.  A deep, all-consuming love for each other developed, and a decision to so commit to their love that they must share everything – all thoughts, emotions, books read and experiences.  They even decide not have children because it could come between their love.  It’s a somewhat alarming opening chapter, but necessary to explain all that follows later.

When the opportunity to study at Oxford arises, they excitedly move across the Atlantic.  In their early days they make a number of close friendships, all with people who happen to be Christians.   Their exposure to intelligent, well-read men & women who take their faith seriously caused both to decide to investigate Christianity properly.  They started by reading a number of works by C.S. Lewis and decide to write to him, which begins a long friendship and many years of letter-writing.  As a number of Lewis’ letters are included in full, it also gives a clearer picture of him as a letter-writer than the biography C. S. Lewis: A Life did.

Over time Davey and then Sheldon come to faith.  
it was the rather chilling realisation that I could not go back.  In my old easy-going theism, I had regarded Christianity as a sort of fairy tale; and I had neither accepted nor rejected Jesus, since I had never, in fact, encountered him.  Now I had.  The position was not, as I had been comfortably thinking all these months, merely a question of whether I was to accept the Messiah or not.  It was a question of whether I was to accept him – or reject…   This was not to be borne.  I could not reject Jesus.  There was only one thing to do, once I had seen the gap behind me.  I turned away from it and flung myself over the gap towards Jesus.  (p98-99)
At first I had, as Davy had had, an astonishing assurance and certainty about my choice, despite the doubts that had harried me so long.  I believe that a new Christian is given a special grace – joy and assurance – in the beginning, however feeble the choosing.  Until the new-born Christian has learned to stand and walk a little.  (p103) 
In the following years they continue to think through what it means to be a Christian and how that affects their previous plan of total-commitment to each other.   Davey then becomes chronically ill and Sheldon nurses her to her death (in her thirties).    This is not a spoiler – the back of the book says as much.

There is much in this book to recommend it – it is a genuine deep and true love story, it is the story of real conversion and the change that it brings, it is the realisation that death might not be the worse thing that could happen between two lovers, it is a moving insight into grief, and it is beautifully written.  Vanauken has sprinkled it liberally with his own poetry and the letters between him and Lewis.   As a result of reading it, I have turned back to some of Lewis’s writing, which has also been very encouraging.

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