Perhaps the greatest claim to fame of A Severe Mercy is that it includes 18 letters from C.S. Lewis to its author, Sheldon Vanauken. Indeed, the friendship between these two men is central to this book, but beyond these letters, which were so important to Vanauken and to the book as a whole, I (Helen) found this book to be completely captivating, heart-breaking, and hopeful.
A Severe Mercy is essentially the love story of Sheldon and Jean (or Davy, as she was more often called) Vanauken. The two met as non-Christians, and were married ten months later. Their love was absolutely central to their lives; Vanauken refers to it as “pagan love” in retrospect. Several years into their incredible marriage, the two studied at Oxford, and converted to Christianity. C.S. Lewis was instrumental in their conversion – both his books and his friendship encouraged the Vanaukens to accept Christ as Lord. In the years after their time at Oxford, Sheldon came to the realization that he was no longer Davy’s primary love – God was. While Davy’s relationship with the Lord was alive and central to her life, Sheldon’s relationship with God waned. Shortly after Sheldon’s realization of Davy’s new found, stronger love, she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The two were only in their thirties when Davy passed away.
In the aftermath of Davy’s death, Sheldon fully entered into grief, wanting to examine it and experience it completely as he mourned the loss of his wife. As he navigated his grief, Sheldon came to new realizations about who God is, the great love of the Father, and His “severe mercy.” Soon after Sheldon lost his wife, C.S. Lewis’ wife died, and the two men exchanged several letters as they walked out their journeys of grief and faith.
I feel at a loss for words as to how to describe the impact of this book. I bawled my eyes out reading it, but at the same time, it is an incredibly hopeful, God-centered work which celebrates a beautiful marriage, the hope of eternity, and above all, the love of God.
“Suddenly her fingers tightened on mine. She said in a clear weak voice: ‘Oh, dearling, look…’ She didn’t go on, if there was more. I knew that if I said, ‘What is it?’ she would make an effort and go on; but I did not do so. I don’t know why I didn’t. She might have been saying ‘look’ as one who suddenly understands something, or as one who beholds – what? Her voice was so frail, I could not tell which it was. I wished very much to know; I could have asked her; I did not. And I shall not know this side of eternity, for they were her last words: ‘Oh dearling, look'” (A Severe Mercy, 175).