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Vanauken's A Severe Mercy: Quotes & Summary

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Sheldon Vanauken's ''A Severe Mercy'' is the autobiographical story of the author and the love of his life. It tells the story of their dual and personal journeys to find faith and God, and how that affects their love.

Love Is All Things

Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy tells the true story of Vanauken (Van) and his wife Jean Davis (Davy) in the 1930s. Van and Davy meet when they are only 19, but they seem to have an automatic connection. They marry quietly and become inseparable. Van says of his love for his wife that ''he was suddenly overwhelmed by the revelation that what makes life worth living is, precisely, the emotions.''

Both Davy and Van seem to believe their love is a barrier, ''the Shining Barrier'' that will keep away anything that might separate them. They want to put their love above everything else in their lives. Although Van realizes the risk of being hurt is great, he decides that the love he and Davy share is worth it. He says ''If there were a choice- and he suspected there was- a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.''

Once World War II starts, Van is stationed in Hawaii, where Davy follows. Luckily, Van stays in Hawaii throughout the war, allowing the couple to be together. Once the war is over, they realize their dream of going to Oxford in England to attend school. This is where everything changes for them.

Seeking Faith

At Oxford, they meet the Christian community, which is very influential there, including C.S. Lewis who becomes their friend (their correspondence with him is placed in the book). The fact that men and women of note are believers makes Van and Davy think about faith themselves. Davy pursues faith more, while Van is more reluctant. He says ''…though I wouldn't have admitted it, even to myself, I didn't want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn't want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free--like Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the color and fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn't want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ.''

During their journey of faith, Van becomes jealous of Davy's relationship with God and her passion for the Christian faith. This creates a serious struggle for him. He realizes, as he watches his wife and her friends' journey with God, that Christianity will always come first for Davy. He states ''it is not possible to be 'incidentally a Christian'. The fact of Christianity must be overwhelmingly first or nothing. This suggests a reason for the dislike of Christians by nominal or non-Christians: their lives contain no overwhelming first but many balances.''

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