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Love Meets Death or Why Sheldon Vanauken Gets on My Nerves

I have begun to catch on that when something bothers me—a speaker, a movie, or a book like A Severe Mercy—my irritation is probably a symptom of a disease that needs healing. Like the cough that I curse for its irritating persistence, the irksome message may be precisely what I need to purge me of things putrid and get me breathing right.
In Sheldon Vanauken’s spiritual autobiography of the love he shared—and lost—with his wife, Jean Davis (“Davy”), the mediocrity of my love for God is diagnosed and exposed. A severe blow, and mercifully so.
From chapter one, this is a story about a love lost; Vanauken begins with a grief-laden nighttime visit to Glenmerle, the estate where he and Davy fell in love. “We met angrily in the dead of winter,” he begins. But almost instantly it is springtime for these magically compatible college students, bound by their love of the sea and poetry and things beautiful. Davy is “gay and sweet and eager. Straight too. And valiant.”
In their first months together, Vanauken and Davy strategically build “the Shining Barrier” for their love, a sort of “fence around a young tree to keep the deer from nibbling on it,” a defense against the “creeping separateness” they see to be love’s enemy. The Barrier, above all else, is built on sharing everything—books, hobbies, music, poems, diaries, down to code words and whistles that make them seem telepathic.
Pop psych might call it “enmeshment.” Kahlil Gibran in The Prophet might argue, “And stand together yet not too near together / For the pillars of the temple stand apart, / And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.” Yet this couple gives themselves to comprehensive sharing as a way of being “us-centered, not self-centered.”
The Shining Barrier also means total trust, a following of the other’s spontaneous impulses, acceptance of each other’s experiences and the principle of courtesy—defined as “a cup of cold water in the night.”. If ever a question or conflict arises, either partner makes “The Appeal to Love,” asking, “What would be best for our love?” and then choosing to do just that.
Moreover, the Shining Barrier is pagan. God, if he or it exists, is only the Source of the world’s beauty. In that sense, they are worshippers—bowing to beauty, of which their love is the highest form.
Their dreams lead them to live aboard a sailboat, where they hope together to escape time. In their travels, they glimpse timeless eternity in the beauty of the sea and their love.
Later, they study at Oxford, and find themselves surrounded by Christians who are joyful in their faith, yet remarkably—disturbingly—intelligent. Unable to blithely dismiss it as foolish, they decide to give Christianity a reasoned look, “to be fair.” C.S. Lewis, then a professor at Oxford, enters their story through his books and then letters to Vanauken, which are instrumental in their conversion to Christianity. At Oxford, their love for Jesus Christ and the beauty of worshipping the Author of beauty becomes the latest and most exalted thing they share.
But back home, past the honeymoon of their new faith, Vanauken sees that he is “jealous of God,” because his wife’s devotion has eclipsed her focus on them. The Shining Barrier has been breached, and it is God Almighty Who has broken through. What does their love, born in pagan lightheartedness, mean now that Love Himself is their Master?
The couple learns that Davy has a terminal disease; within months she is gone. What does love mean now? Vanauken first probes the corners of his grief with a play-by-play “Illumination of the Past.” He then tries to work out the meaning of it all. In the process, his friend C.S. Lewis suggests that Vanauken “has been treated with a severe mercy.” Vanauken describes it as “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.”
Besides being a case study on grief and loss, A Severe Mercy treats themes including beauty, time/timelessness, longing for joy, the dance of faith and doubt, conversion and much else that arises in the Vanaukens’ love story.
This reading, however, I found plenty of reasons for the book to get on my nerves. The Jane Austin-allergic male in me suffered through the sentimental account of the two privileged youths’ long chatty walks in the countryside and large breakfasts cooked by servants. My cheese-o-meter pegged whenever I came to one of Vanauken’s sonnets. I shook my head each time he tried to sound English, including affectedly British spelling throughout the book.
I was most annoyed at the self-absorption of the couple. Was it really all about them? What of social justice? Come on guys! What about building the Kingdom of God in ways that transcend your cute little marriage, syrup-sweet though it may be?
This weekend I was looking down my nose at a friend who said she misses the “relational sermons” given by her old pastors. Her current pastors actively preach social justice, which I am all about. “Relational sermons! Good grief!” I was thinking. “Who needs that? Haven’t we got that down by now? What we need is prophetic preaching calling us to live out the call of Jesus (blah, blah, blah—insert self-righteous trumpeting of my current religious focus). That’s what we should be all about!”
I have been looking down my nose at Sheldon Vanauken for the same reason—all relationship, no “big issues.” I mean, isn’t that dangerous, pagan even?
Yet maybe the converse danger I run is that of moving toward a focus on the outward changes of social justice so righteously that I neglect the core relationship that empowers me to make a real impact in Jesus’ name. Might this oh-so-relational book restore balance to my quest for doing what Jesus would do “in the real world”? And in the end is there any world more real than relationships?
Davy and Van moved from total absorption in each other to a love for each other, absorbed together in Christ. Their move was from a tunnel vision focus on their own love—a good thing, pagan though it was—to the broader focus of God’s love and work in the world.
My shift perhaps needs to be from my narrow focus on doing what Jesus taught—a good thing, yet potentially pagan without God—to my love for Him, to building a Shining Barrier for Jesus and me. How might my focus on social justice be enhanced if my real focus were on the principles of that Shining Barrier with God: sharing all with the Father, total trust in the Spirit, courtesy with Christ?
What might my life look like if I made the Appeal to Love—“What would be best for our love, Lord?”—at every crossroads? What if I knew, as Vanauken and Davy agreed early on, that my love relationship with Jesus must grow or die, that each lilactime, I would know “a deeper inloveness, more close, more dear”?
Vanauken tells the story of a love that is of God long before the lovers know God. Even in its pagan phases (a la Song of Solomon), the book offers a vivid picture of intimate relationship that is us-centered, not self-centered. And by its end, the journey of intimacy leads to Love Himself; it goes from “us” to “us and God” to “God and us.”
Honestly? What bothers me most about this book is the distance I have yet to travel on that journey.
Michael Bennie works to promote the happiness of his four princesses (his wife, 4-year-old, and twin 3-year-olds) who rule the mountain cabin he calls home (you can read his parenting blog here. In his time off, he is a counselor at Arroyo Valley High School in San Bernardino, CA.
A Severe Mercy is available from

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