I finished A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, though I doubt I shall ever be finished it. What a stunning book. To begin, it is written by a lover and lecturer of English Literature, who scatters the pages with original poetry and allusions to classics. Then it contains eighteen letters from CS Lewis, written during the authors own journey to faith and later during his grief. For anyone who appreciates CS Lewis and his novel and penetrating insights on life’s dilemmas, these are worth reading. Then there is the story.
In brief, it is an autobiography, the story of a couple of who find a love somewhat enviably deep and beautiful, and attempt to build a life the same. They erect what they called “The Shining Barrier” around their love, to protect it from a “creeping separateness”, and pursue a dream of a life sailing pleasant shores on their own yacht, as the means they see as mostly likely to give them unhurried time to bask in love and beauty.
But then they find themselves in Oxford, where they come under the influence of a circle of intelligent and erudite Christians, and also of CS Lewis, and of God himself no less. After much thought and the reading of many books they take the leap, hand over their lives to Christ, and there follows a time of wonderful friendship and fellowship and late-night fireside conversations, of God and theology, of the reading aloud of poetry and books. (I wanted to be IN the book during this time, so much did I want to be part of it.)
Fractures begin to appear in their relationship, when Davy (the wife) goes further and swifter along the way to surrendering her whole life to God than her husband (what precisely is going on here is complex, and I won’t try to tell it), and so one night she offers up her life in prayer for her husband’s faith, in essence. Almost exactly one year later she dies.
As I said in an earlier post, her dying is one of the saddest tellings I have ever read, and I cried, oh I cried. But the main thing that moved me so profoundly, and perhaps most importantly, in this book, is how two people, whose hearts seem drawn to all the things I feel my own to be, come to realise that all their longing for love, for beauty, for endless time to enjoy those, for joy, are actually intimations of God and of eternity. We’re told this, we’d say we know this, but how they came to see and experience it to be true is powerfully realised the book.
In found the musings on why we grieve so over the passing of time, and want so badly for some moments to last forever, and look so fondly on the past, and persistently feel there isn’t time enough, and have dreams of a future that seem charming in their timelessness, as all being echoes of eternity, resonating deep in my own being.
Then there is the tale of the danger we do to our souls when we cling too tightly to, or pursue too earnestly, anything other than Christ. The letter CS Lewis writes Sheldon when he is informed of their shining barrier, and of their refusal of children as an impediment to their own sharing and closeness, is fierce, yet also loving. It is the reason why Lewis himself calls the death of Davy a severe mercy.
In Sheldon’s grief, CS Lewis sends him his poem, Five Sonnets (which I actually posted back in 2009 and think is magnificent), and in it CS Lewis writes:
Pitch your demands heaven-high and they’ll be met.
Ask for the Morning Star and take (thrown in)
Your Earthly love.
It’s nothing other than what Jesus said long before in Matthew 6:33. Yet why so often do we not believe, or not even want to believe, that it is actually Christ we really want, and, moreso, need. Lewis himself knows this is no easy lesson to send to the heart. He knows the appealing alternatives in the face of disappointment and grief are anger ('Anger’s the anaesthetic of the mind') and despair ('There’s a repose, a safety (even a taste of something like revenge?) in fixed despair') yet we are called not to linger there but to climb the 'crazy stair' to God, to set out on 'half-hopeless labours, learning not to hate, and then to want, and then (perhaps) to win a high, unearthly comfort'. (These are all lines from the poem, which aren't actually discussed in the book, I've just included them here.)
I don’t think I have been able to render it with the glory it deserves in this post, or yet distill it into words, but I found myself so encouraged that, truly, Christ (the Morning Star) is what I do most deeply want, and also the only thing I am sure to receive. I also heed the warning that it is to the peril of our souls (and even to the peril of the very earthly loves) that we live otherwise.