BOOK REVIEW - by Mike Busch
A Severe Mercy : a story of faith, tragedy, & triumph
by Sheldon Vanauken
2009 HarperOne; 1977 Harper & Row
This is the true story of the author Sheldon & his wife Davy's marital and spiritual relationship. There are two significant parts of this book - 1) The purpose and design of the "Shining Barrier" philosophy of their marriage, and 2) Their friendship with C.S. Lewis, whom God uses to answer their questions about God through letters, and ultimately ushers them out of their "pagan" (the author's word) darkness into the light of a relationship with Christ.
The Shining Barrier was developed in their friendship before the idea of marrying entered their relationship. In their playful dating days, the idea sprang out of a typical conversation of what each would want out of a marriage. In finding instant agreement on their crafted principles, their love and commitment in marriage was automatic. Their Shining Barrier was a real barrier - hedge of protection -for their marriage to cultivate a "severe" intimacy and thus very purposefully maintaining their "inloveness" that they were experiencing at the start of their union. Although not expressly listed in the book, I counted thirteen principles to the Vanauken's Shining Barrier - all but one (no children) are excellent goals for any marriage. I will list a few to motivate you to read this provocative section of the book. 1) Share everything and revisit anything that would not be shared. This guards against "creeping separateness." 2) The principle of courtesy. Commit to serving the other anytime - even to get cup of water for the other in middle of the night, if asked. 3) The Appeal to Love. All decisions are made on the basis of what's best for the marriage and opposing individual pleasure and desire.
If you are a C.S. Lewis fan, this book will be a most enjoyable and intriguing "required read" for you--as it was for me. Eighteen personal letters of Lewis's are included revealing an intimate side of this renowned author, apologist and professor as he corresponds on subjects such as Christian commitment, understanding God, marriage and death. This surprise inclusion of letters turned out to be equally, if not more, enjoyable compared to the Vanauken's love story.
Both Vanauken and Lewis share a similar experience of loss and grief - the deaths of their wives - resulting in published works for each. This book and Lewis's A Grief Observed provide insight and comfort for anyone dealing with loss of any kind.
The book's title A Severe Mercy seems an oxymoron. The answer to its meaning is offered by Lewis to the author in one of the included letters. It took me reading that particular letter a few time to grasp the meaning and bring closure to the book and to the Vanauken's love story. Don't give up on this book in the middle - you will be richly rewarded and challenged at the end.