A Severe Mercy is three kinds of love story. It begins as the universal love story—youthful, physical, emotional, passionate. Sheldon Vanauken tenderly describes his wife Davy and their early relationship—visceral and spiritual "pagan love." They were self-contained, exclusive, absorbed with each other, the worldly ideal of affection.
But then he tells another kind of love story. It's less romantic, less physical, and more real. Under the guidance of C.S. Lewis whom they studied under at Oxford, first Davy and then Sheldon became Christians and found their love for each other overshadowed by their love for God. At first Sheldon is threatened by his wife's abandon, but her zeal and his own inner journey bring him to the same passion and together they pursue Christ, whose presence perfects and matures their love for each other.
Then Davy dies and Vanauken introduces the third love story, of Christian brothers for one of their own. Lewis was dealing at the same time with his own wife's illness and death, and Vanauken includes letters the two exchanged, helping each other understand death and loss. The progression of loves from the most human to the most spiritual contrasts selfish and selfless love, how the two relate to each other and share elements.
This is a heartbreaking book, tenderly and beautifully written. Vanauken's reflections are honest and relatable. This is a mystical biography, a romance, speculative theology, a spiritual primer, and a grappling with the problems of death and suffering. Those who haven't lost a loved one will still benefit from Vanauken's book; those who have, even more.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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