Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Severe Mercy

by Sheldon Vanauken

Grade: 4 1/2 stars

Thoughts: Amazing book telling the story of how the author, "Van", and his wife Jean ("Davy") met each other, married, met C. S. Lewis, converted to Christianity, and suffered through Davy's illness and eventual death (not a spoiler--he gives it away in the first chapter).

Beauty was a very strong theme in this book. Their journey started with beauty, with a pagan appreciation of creation, and ended with a fuller, though more sorrowful, appreciation of Beauty Himself. Here's a quote on beauty from right near the beginning:

"[Beauty was] for him the link between the ships and the woods and the poems. He remembered as though it were but a few days ago that winter night, himself too young even to know the meaning of beauty, when he had looked up at a delicate tracery of bare black branches against the icy glittering stars: suddenly something that was, all at once, pain and longing and adoring had welled up in him, almost choking him. It was long afterwards that he realised that it had been his first aesthetic experience. That nameless something that had stopped his heart was Beauty. Even now, for him, "bare branches against the stars" was a synonym for beauty." (pg. 7)

Linked strongly to beauty, and also mentioned frequently throughout this book, were ideas on eternity and timelessness. I've always found Lewis's descriptions of this to be the most inspiring I have ever read, and Vanauken obviously has similar ideas. The description of the "moment made eternity" (pg. 69) on their boat the Grey Goose is too long to quote here, but it is profound and I understand completely what he is describing, though I don't think I've ever experienced it to quite the same degree.

There were of course many other interesting observations and discussions. I liked his thought near the beginning about emotions, that "maybe girls with their tears and laughter were getting more out of life" (pg. 8). I liked the idea they had that "one might wake the other in the night and ask for a cup of water; and the other would peacefully (and sleepily) fetch it", and that "[they] considered it a very great courtesy to ask for the cup as well as to fetch it" (pg. 31). I try to explain this idea to people when they're feeling bad for asking me to do something--that they are actually doing me as great a courtesy as I am doing them. They don't often want to accept that, but I was happy to see someone agrees with me at least. I also found his discussion on women vs. men on page 194 rather interesting, although too short. It's a topic I think about frequently, and haven't yet decided my thoughts on. I believe he discusses this further in Under the Mercy, though, so I shall look forward to that.

An added bonus are the letters by C. S. Lewis to Vanauken (shown in this book in their entirety), which are little gems of Lewisian wisdom. I am very glad I discovered them. I found his letter about homosexuality (pg. 146) particularly interesting. (You can find the relevant part of that letter online.)

I would love, in conclusion, to quote the last chapter on loss and beauty, sorrow and joy, but this is not the place for it. Go read it yourself.

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