181 Vanauken’s “Severe Mercy”

Following my wife Roberta’s death, the most meaningful book I’ve read is Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy (New York:  Bantam Books, c. 1977).    I’d read and appreciated it when it was first published three decades ago, but reading it with the weight of sorrow pressing down upon me made its message particularly powerful.  The guiding premise—a phrase from C.S. Lewis, who called the death of Vanauken’s wife a “severe mercy”—is most especially pertinent, for though God is “merciful” He does not always please nor necessarily deal gently with us.  The book also contains a number of Lewis’s letters, and therein lies part of its values for us Lewis fans.  What is striking about his letters is, 1) that Lewis would take the time to write them, given the rather minimal personal contact he’d had with Vanauken, and, 2)  depth of their thought.  That a man could, one assumes without much forethought or revision, simply dash off letters filled with such powerful insights is simply amazing!  

Compressing the book’s contents into a paragraph of memories evoked when he returned to his boyhood home, Vanauken “remembered his childhood, [but] what was really filling his mind was Davy, Davy so loved, so dear, and now a sixmonth dead.  It was she—she alone—that had brought him back to Glenmerle in the night, the girl he had loved here, the girl he had married and continued to love for a decade and a half until that winter dawn when she had blindly touched his face a last time and died with her hand in his.  Since then grief, the immensity of loss, had filled his life.  And yet, amidst the tears and the pain, there was a curious hint of consolation in one thought:  the thought that nothing now could mar the years of their love.  As he had written to his friend, C. S. Lewis in England, the manuscript of their love had gone safe to the printer” (p. 11).  Still more:    “Sitting there on the rough wood of the bridge, he remembered his absolute knowing—something beyond faith or belief—in the moments after her death, in that suddenly empty room, that she still was.  She had not ceased with that last light breath.  She and he would meet again:  ‘And with God be the rest!’” (p. 11).   

Fleshing out the book’s theme, Vanauken tells the romantic story of two young adults meeting, courting, and ultimately marrying.  In the process they constructed a “Shining Barrier” and tried to live exclusively for each other—an absolute bond secured by “the co-inherence of lovers” (p. 31), an important phrase taken from Charles Williams.  “Pagans that we were, we were not reminded of Christ’s ‘one flesh’ for marriage; if we had been, we might have felt a faint alliance with Him” (p. 32).  Following some time in Hawaii where he was stationed during WWII, and several months sailing about in the “Grey Goose” (so named because grey geese mate for life), so that they could follow their desire to be both totally united and unencumbered by other ties, they crossed the Atlantic and Sheldon entered Oxford University to pursue a graduate degree in literature.

At Oxford things dramatically changed, for here they experienced an “encounter with light” in large part because of the influence of C.S. Lewis.  Truth-seeking young scholars, they decided to look seriously at Christianity, simply because of its historical importance.  A friend recommended they read Lewis, and they fortuitously began with his space fictions trilogy—Out of the Silent Planet; Perelandra; and That Hideous Strength.   Vanauken is grateful that they began with the fiction rather than the apologetical works of Lewis, for “the trilogy showed me that the Christian God might, after all, be quite big enough for the whole galaxy” (p. 81).  In addition to Lewis, however, they read G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Dorothy Sayers, and T.S. Eliot, whose “description of the state of being a Christian lingered in our minds:  ‘A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)’” (p. 81).  Lewis, however, proved most influential, appealing to both their imaginative and logical faculties.  Though the Vanaukens only met him a few times, Lewis’s written works (and subsequent letters) proved decisive in their journey of faith.  

Davy first assented to the claims of the Christ.  She had, even before considering the Faith, been convicted of her sins, which “had come out and paraded before her, ghastly in appearance and mocking in demeanour” (p. 63).   Sheldon in time followed, though for years his “conversion” would be somewhat less transforming than hers.  He did, however, ask C.S. Lewis if (given his awakened religious interests) he should consider a clerical vocation.  Lewis wisely urged him to envision a tent-making apostolate and Vanauken continued to pursue his literary interests.  When it came time to return to the United States, Vanauken briefly met with Lewis, and as they parted the cheerfully grinning Oxford tutor said, “‘At all events we’ll certainly meet again, here—or there” (p. 123).  Crossing the street, Lewis turned to wave a final farewell.  “Then he raised his voice in a great roar that easily overcame the noise of the cars and busses.  Heads turned and at least one car swerved.  ‘Besides,’ he bellowed with a great grin, ‘Christians NEVER say goodbye!’” (p. 123).  

Sheldon was offered a teaching position at a small college in Virginia, Lynchburg College, and the Vanaukens returned to familiar fields and began a somewhat idyllic existence.  He enjoyed teaching, and she pursued her own interests, especially volunteering for projects and teaching Sunday school in the local Episcopal church.  She became increasingly devout as well, diligently studying Scripture, praying, and helping host weekly meetings of students in their home.  They were, occasionally, alerted to certain currents within their denomination that were rapidly watering down traditional doctrines, and they “resolved to stand firm for the Faith once-given, and we began to be glad for the unswerving faith of Rome.  The place of last resort” (p. 126). (Many years later, he explains in Under the Mercy—a less successful sequel to A Severe Mercy—his entrance into the Roman Catholic Church.)  

Concurrently, Davy (earlier in her life quite the radical feminist, insisting on equality in every realm) became more “wifely.”  Amazingly, “She was accepting St. Paul on women and wives” (p. 137).  She remained ever patient and forgiving, despite some of his failings.  “And I knew without her saying that she had, somehow, come to a new understanding that God in His ample love embraced our love with, it may be, a sort of tenderness, and we must tread the Way to Him hand in hand.  We understood without words that we must hold the co-inherence of lovers and be Companions of the Co-inherence of the Incarnate Lord:  She in me and I in her; Christ in us and we in Him” (p. 149).  I have thought much about these words, applying them to my bond with Roberta, and I like them very much:  Companions of the Co-inherence of the Incarnate Lord:  She in me and I in her; Christ in us and we in Him.  

Then came her illness.  What seemed, initially, something of little consequence turned terminal.  When the doctor informed Vanauken there was no hope for her recovery, he suffered the “worst day” of his life.  They were both still young.  She’d seemed so vibrant, so healthy.  She lingered for several months in the hospital and suffered no pain.  But she was dying.  And he knew—in words that best describe something of what I too knew and prayed for in the days before Roberta passed away:   “If she died, I might—since, under God, I must not act to follow her—I might live for years.  Those years and all of beauty thy might contain I put into the ball.  And then I offered-up all of it to the King:  take all I have ever dreamed, all I may ever long for including the death I shall certainly long for:  I offer it up, oh Christ, for her, for her best good, death or life.  This was my offering-up.  I asked God to take all, all that was or would ever be, in holy exchange, not for her spared life which would be my good but not perhaps hers, but for her good, whatever it might be.  Later I would pray that she might recover but only if it were for her good.  That offering-up was perhaps the most purely holy and purely loving act of my life” (pp. 158-159).  

Immediately following that moment of prayerful surrender, he saw a rainbow on the horizon.  He refused to presumptiously assume that God put the rainbow in place especially for him, but he thankfully affirmed that “God would know from the beginning of what we call time that I should be making my prayer and seeing the rainbow” (p. 159).  And it was a great consolation in a time of sorrow.  Thus he could stand by Davy’s bedside and say:  “I love you . . . whatever it is to be, for ever” (p. 160).  Love—only love—forms the core of the good life.  For as Vanauken discovered:  “love is the final reality; and anyone who does not understand this, be he writer or sage, is a man flawed in wisdom” (p. 165).  In it all,  “Davy strove to do God’s will.  More important, she strove to make her own will conform to God’s will:  to will what He willed.  Her prayer—and mind, too, often—was the prayer from one of Charles Williams’s novels:  “Do—or do not.”  She wanted, humanly, to live; and she, humanly, feared death:  yet she was surrendered to God” (p. 165).  Soon after she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma four years ago, Roberta sent an e-mail to a circle of friends expressing precisely the same commitment.

In those dire days, strangely enough, they were sublimely happy, “even under the sentence of death!” (p. 166).  They were happy, largely, because, as Vanauken wrote:  “If there’s anything I’m sure of, it is that heaven is a coming home” (p. 167).  At the very end, he took Davy’s wedding ring, which had been removed since her finger has shrunk.  “Then I put it upon Davy’s third finger, saying in a low voice:  ‘With this ring I thee wed . . . for all eternity.’  I do not know whether she heard; but I think she did, for her fingers tightened the least bit” (pp. 175-176).  Though I didn’t say the same words, I shared Vanauken’s sentiment and commitment.  A few days before Roberta died a nurse asked me if I wanted her wedding ring removed, since her hands were swelling.  Without even thinking I said no!  For 44 years that ring represented our undying vows, and I was not about to abridge the commitment made long ago.  And there has always been—as many of the poems I wrote her reveal—an eternal dimension to the love that I felt and still feel for her.  Responding to this sense of eternal love, C.S. Lewis wrote to Vanauken, crafting sentences that certainly apply to me today:  “’Like you I can’t imagine real Eros coming twice.  I still feel married to Joy’” (p. 231).

When Davy died, Vanauken says:  “As I stood there in that suddenly empty room, I was suddenly swept with a tide of absolute knowing that Davy still was.  I do not mean that I thought her body might still live; I knew it didn’t.  But past faith and belief, I knew quite overwhelmingly that she herself—her soul—still was” (p. 177).   A similar assurance came to me the day after Roberta died.  I awakened from a sound sleep, exactly 24 hours after she breathed her last breath, her hand in mine, with a sweet conviction that she was, in fact, still with me.  Call it what you may, explain it however you wish, the truth is I felt strongly impressed by the persistence of her being.  What it all means only God knows.  But I know how helpful such periods of conviction are to us who mourn the death of a beloved spouse.  

Thereafter Vanauken went through a year of mourning—“grief unalloyed”—described in an invaluable chapter titled “The Way of Grief.”  To him (and for me knowing this is a great comfort) “grief is a form of love—the longing for the dear face, the warm hand.  It is the remembered reality of the beloved that calls it forth.  For an instant she is there, and the void denied” (p. 182).  He mourned deeply, and “for over a year, there was no day I did not weep, and I did not find that tears cut me off from her” (p. 182).  Mysteriously, “we were, in some way, together.  . . . .  But in a not-at-all mystical sense she lived, she was vivid and alive, in me.  Our love continued.  The final severance was not yet” (182).  When he shared these impressions with C.S. Lewis, this reply came:  “’It is remarkable (I have experienced it), that sense that the dead person is.  And also, I have felt, is active:  can sometimes do more for you now than before—as if God gave them, as a kind of birthday present on arrival, some great blessing to the beloved they have left behind’” (184).

To Vanauaken—as to me during the past five months—the loss of his wife, “after the intense sharing and closeness of  the years, the loss and grief was, quite simply, the most immense thing I had ever known”(187).  Commenting on his sorrow, C.S. Lewis gave this sage advice:  “There is great good in bearing sorrow patiently:  I don’t know that there is any virtue in sorrow just as such.  It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can” (p. 189-190).  To us who might want to wallow in our misery, Lewis’s injunction is clear:  be up and about and live as cheerfully as possible!

To deal with Davy’s death, Vanauken devoted himself to writing a (never published) history of their life together—facilitated by the extensive journals they both kept.  It was a powerful time of introspection as well as remembering.  Significantly:  “It came to me quite early on in this study of times past that she—that Davy—did, in fact, know what I was doing and approved.  And even more strongly I received, or seemed to receive, an intimation that she, whatever she was and in whatever state, was missing me, too.  I have no evidence for the truth of this beyond my own growing conviction that it was so” (p. 193).  The process of writing enabled him to discern her uniqueness.  And he just knew that “the unique person abides.  Always” (p. 196).  

In addition to writing, he took lots of walks in the country—a practice I too follow (as I’ve always done—though running was generally my preferred approach!) and find it—particularly in the Rocky Mountains I love—most comforting.  Like Vanauken, I find “there were no tears, ever, in the country:  there were too many intimations of heaven,” for he was reminded that even in the few years they shared together there “had been love and joy and beauty” (p. 197).  “And it seemed to me that we were bound each to each, she in me and I in her, through all eternity, both of us Companions of the Co-inherence.  Although the tears would be with me for many a day to come, I was content” (197).

Such contentment comes only when we rest assured of life everlasting.  The only thing that sustains me in these days in the expectation of the eternal life Jesus promised—an eternity with Him and her.  Indeed, inasmuch as she is with Jesus and Jesus is with me she is with me too, as one of my friends, Barbara Hornbeck, assured me in a note she wrote.  That we have a natural hunger for life eternal is one of the most demonstrable facts in the history of man.  “Thus, Lewis says, ‘if a man diligently followed this desire [for joy], pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.’  This, I think, is what C. S. Lewis’s life and writings are about; and mine, too” (p. 209).  

At times (playing games, working intently on challenging and rewarding tasks, listening to music) we seem to slip into a timeless state, an ecstasy, that foretells something of the reality of eternity.  Such a moment, Vanauken says, “suggests that we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures.  It suggests that we were created for eternity”  (p. 204).  So too he and Davy hungered for a love that lasts forever.  And with her passing, he came to believe that:  “Although I must live long years in time beyond Davy, somehow I felt certain that we should go on to the Eternal Majesty together, nor would she be conscious of delay” (p. 206).  

His thoughts regarding eternal life—and an eternity of loving his wife—were fueled by correspondence with C.S. Lewis, who judged their marriage most admirable.  “Davy and I, in Lewis’s words, ‘admirably realised’ the Christian ideal of man and wife as One Flesh’” (p. 214).   In one of his letters, Lewis said:  “About the nature of the relation between spouses in eternity I base my idea on S. Paul’s dictum that “he that is joined with a harlot is one flesh.”  If the lowest, most corrupt form of sexual union has some mystical “oneness” involved in it (and by the way what an argument against “casual practice!”) a fortiori the married & lawful form must have it par excellence.  That is, I think the union between the risen spouses will be as close as that between the soul and its own risen body” (p. 207).  Ultimately, Vanauken accepted Davy’s death as a “severe mercy,” something that was certainly not per se good but somehow meaningful within the context of God’s good will for all His creatures.   He explains:  “Our love—under the aweful shadow—was deep and clear.  If God saved our love—and, indeed, transformed it into its real and eternal self—in the only way possible, her death, it was for me, despite grief and aloneness, worth it”  (p. 221).  

A Severe Mercy closes with an “Epilogue” entitled “The Second Death.”  Two years after his wife’s death he returned to Oxford, mainly to revisit the places that had meant so much to him.  And he hoped to chat a bit with his mentor, C.S. Lewis.  While there he had a remarkable, memorable dream.  Davy appeared, vividly to him.  He describes the dialogue he remembered:

 “Can you tell me one thing, dearling?  Are you–well with me sometimes?  I’ve sometimes thought you might be.”

“Yes, I am,” she said.  “I know all your doings.”

“Thank God!”  I said.  Then I said, very casually.  “And my letters to you—have you, um, read them?  Over my shoulder, maybe?”

She knew—we always knew—that it was important to me.  Her arms around me tightened, and she said in a low voice, “Yes, dearling.  I’ve read them all.”

And then our eyes met in that look of perfect understanding—that look of   knowing—that I had missed more than any other thing.  After that, we just sat there on the edge of the bed, holding each other, cheek to cheek.  There was more said, and there was laughter.  And I was pervaded with bliss” (p. 224).  

Reflecting upon the dream, Vanauken said:  “It must, I decided, on some level contain truth.  It was a sort of  “All shall be most well.”  It left me with a serene, peaceful happiness that lasted a long time” (p. 225).  Many of you know me, and I am one of the least likely of men to “dream dreams and see visions.”  Indeed, though I know we all dream I have hardly ever remembered any dreams at all.  So far as I know, I never dreamed about Roberta before her death.  But in the nearly five months I’ve lived without her I’ve had a few dreams.  Though they lack the detail and dialogue Vanauken’s dream contained, they did much the same for me.  Whatever one makes of dreams, the few I’ve had have given me a sense of serenity and peace—an assurance that “all shall be well!”  Such phenomena, Vanauken suggests (perhaps following an insight proffered by Lewis in a conversation), may very well indicate “that if the dead do stay with us for a time, it might be allowed partly so that we may hold on to something of their reality” (p. 228).

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