Sheldon Vanauken benefited directly from what so many contemporary churchgoers have benefitted indirectly—that is, hearing and reading insights from C.S. Lewis on issues of great importance to us and our faith. Most Christians at some point in their walk with the Lord have read Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters, or have read The Chronicles of Narnia as children and reread them later as adults for fun. Vanauken, a World War II vet, became friends with C.S. Lewis while he was at Oxford and exchanged a series of letters, preserved in the book, where Lewis speaks directly to challenges Sheldon faces in his life.
The book centers on the romance between Sheldon and his sweetheart Davy, with whom they make a pact that no earthly force could ever mar or come between them and their love for each other: the “Shining Barrier,” through which no earthly force could penetrate. All seemingly goes well as they share everything they can in life as self-described amorous pagans, including a delightful sailing schooner called the Grey Goose, so-named because a “grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another.” Everything goes according to plan until Davy first and Sheldon become Christians under the influence of a number of Christian friends at Oxford, including C.S. Lewis.
From there, Sheldon and Davy’s love initially deepens as they become less selfish and their lives are filled with rich conversations over spiritual things, but Sheldon becomes jealous of Davy’s love for God. Sheldon realizes that Davy’s love for God was once solely reserved for him. While they pledged no earthly force would penetrate the Shining Barrier, God controls all the forces upon earth and is far more worthy of Davy’s love and devotion than Sheldon could ever be. Sheldon begrudgingly realizes this, but Davy becomes sick with kidney failure and over an agonizing year of sickness, dies, leaving Sheldon alone to make sense of the grief and of his own envy.
The insights Sheldon has over the nature of love, of the loss of a loved one, and of the nature of eternity make this book exceedingly worthwhile to read. Sheldon and Davy do not necessarily have a storybook romance, but their devotion to each other and to share all the rich experiences of life are worthwhile for young couples to read.
Meanwhile, Sheldon’s self-confession of his jealousy that Davy grows far more in love with God than him reminds us that, at its heart, all earthly loves are a pale imitation of the love God has for us and of the relationship God wants to have with us. If we make our marriage to our spouse take the place of our relationship with God, we can turn it into something twisted and unnatural. Sheldon’s jealousy of God, because Davy loved God more than she loved Sheldon, could have ruined their marriage, had God not taken Davy to Himself through her kidney failure. This is the very nature of idolatry, and Sheldon realizes God showed His kindness to both Sheldon and Davy by removing Davy from the world, as painful as that loss may be.
In the end, Sheldon realizes that their love for each other was merely a preparation for Heaven. Sheldon describes their best moments together, whether at Oxford or on the Grey Goose, as “timeless” moments, wherein neither of them noticed the clock or remembered even what day it was because they were so in love with each other. Sheldon muses that perhaps eternity is something like this, when we are free to enjoy without interruption all of the goodness and blessings of God in Heaven.
Indeed, the love that they shared was a reflection of the desire that all people have to be known and loved by God. Sheldon’s life seems to provide the backstory for C.S. Lewis’ amazing insight that if we have a desire for something that no earthly good or joy can satisfy, then it seems we were made for another world entirely. This is acted in the context of an insanely loving marriage that would have been predictably all-too-tragic, had it not for the redemptive undertones Sheldon found in the death of his beloved wife. Sheldon and Davy yearned for, and imperfectly found, the kind of love in each other that God wants to have with us, and which we would have perfectly in Heaven once God calls us home. Hence, the title for the book, provided in a letter by C.S. Lewis, as the loss of a loved one which makes the living spouse grieve for Heaven in a way no other means could have induced him to do so, such a loss is indeed, “a severe mercy.”
Given the importance Sheldon attaches to Lewis’ insight, and the fact that Lewis incorporates this idea into so many of his books, I have reproduced the letter in its entirety:
“Your letter is a wonderfully clear and beautiful expression of an experience often desired but not often achieved to the degree you and Jean achieved it. My reason for sending it back is my belief that if you err-read [a letter in which you detailed how you wanted to relive much of the romance you had with Davy by looking through old letters and photographs] often, till you can look at it as if it were someone else’s story, you will in the end think as I do (but of course far more deeply and fruitfully than I can, because it will cost you so much more) about a life so wholly (at first) devoted to US [i.e., Sheldon & Davy]. . . . One way or another the thing had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. There are various possible ways in which it could have died tho’ both the parties went on living. You have been treated with a severe mercy. You have been brought to see (how true & how very frequent this is!) that you were jealous of God. So from US you have been back to US AND GOD; it remains to go on to GOD AND US. She was further on than you, and she can help you more where she now is than she could have done on earth. You must go on” (209-210).
Vanauken, Sheldon, A Severe Mercy. New York: HarperCollins, 1980. Available at Amazon