Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Love Story (review of A Severe Mercy)

(repost from 2007)

The best book I've read so far this year isn't on my Bookstack Challenge List, but it was on the shelf, so I guess it counts. I'd seen it recommended in one of Terry W. Glaspey's books, and had been meaning to read it for awhile--and one night I just picked it up and started in.

The book is A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, published in 1977. The plot of the story is no secret (just read the back of the book): Van (the husband) meets Davy (the wife); they go sailing; they become Christians; Davy dies; and life goes on.Oh, and the middle of all that they go to Oxford and become friends with C.S. Lewis.

This is a book about falling in love: intensely, desperately, "intoxicatingly" (to quote Terry Glaspey). With another human being, and with Christ. Van and Davy don't do anything by halves. At the beginning of their relationship, they set up rules that most of us would find extreme: they will do nothing apart, they will have no separate interests or activities that would interfere with or change their love. In their view, that includes having children, since children might cause an imbalance in their two-ness. They are more interested in pursuing both outdoor and intellectual adventures--together, of course.

However, this isn't a brief "Love Story"; the Vanaukens' marriage lasts for about eighteen years, and they become Christians in their thirties. When they start to consider Christianity, naturally they turn to books: the whole Christian literary canon, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot's later poems, Chesterton, Sayers, Newman, the medieval writers. But, interestingly, it's Christians rather than books that help convince them that Christianity might be true. The Christians they meet at Oxford are intelligent, joyful, and not very "Puritan"; they drink wine, spend evenings (often at the Vanaukens' flat) discussing everything in creation, and sing liturgical goodnights to each other at unholy hours. This is community; this is a kind of magic circle that's all the more magical because of the realization that it's both temporary and eternal. Most of the people involved will leave Oxford for whatever comes next; but at the same time there are bonds being formed that will last the rest of this lifetime and into the next.

In the same way that Van and Davy first fall in love with each other, the two of them fall in uncontested, unswerving love with Christ; and one of the only points of friction between them is that Davy seems to take her new relationship with the Lord even more seriously than Van does, if that's possible.One might ask if this love story with Christ is just as much about falling in love with England, Oxford, and stimulating friends, including Lewis, as it is about God. Does that make it less true? Obviously not, because the real test comes when the Vanaukens return to the U.S. (Van gets a college teaching position). Although they are disappointed by mainstream churches and miss England a lot (they drink a lot of tea and find the houses way too warm), God begins to build a growing circle of believers and seekers around them.

This part of the story sounds much like the beginnings of L'Abri: a student has questions and comes over to talk; then she brings a friend...I found this fascinating because it proves you don't have to live in the Alps to reach out to people, or even hang a "Knock for Christian inquiry" sign on your door. If God's writing the story, He opens the door at the right time, or at least provides the right person to knock.

All too soon, the partnership comes to an end with Davy's illness and death at the age of forty. In some ways, I found this less interesting (or at least less surprising) than the first part of the story, although it continues to show the Vanaukens' devotion both to each other and to the Lord. (At one point, Van coaxes Davy out of a coma by talking to her for hours on end.)

The last part of the book focuses on the period afterwards, especially on Van's continuing correspondence and friendship with C.S. Lewis, through the time of Lewis's marriage and then his death.Would I want a marriage as intense as the Vanaukens'? Not if it meant forgoing our children--but they made that decision long before they became Christians. (Did they ever reconsider their choice?)

Still, there's much to learn from them about love that serves the other person's needs and pushes aside a lot of the small daily irritations, just for the sake of the relationship. The detailed discussions on faith (including C.S. Lewis's letters to Van) are worth reading and re-reading; we are privileged to observe great minds sharpening themselves on each other. Sheldon Vanauken's descriptions of that time at Oxford are so good that we can almost feel like we were there, on one of those unforgettable winter nights with bells ringing out all around.

3 comments:

Tim's Mom said...

Fascinating! I may look for a copy.

Tim's Mom said...

Edit that - I just bought a (used) copy. I can't wait to read it!

Aimee said...

I loved "A Severe Mercy" and have picked up many used copies and pass them on to friends. What an excellent review you've written. Thanks for the good reminders about that deep kind of love. And yes, those descriptions of their Oxford community made me want to jump right in!

Aimee

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