For our wedding, my husband’s boss gave us a copy of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, writing slant inside the cover, “Zach and Steph, their hearts have so much to teach. Learn and live.”
It was not an easy book to digest. I picked it up, and put it back down, for months. But I always came back, because if ever there was a book that was the result of opening a vein on paper, this is it.
A Severe Mercy is deeply honest in a romantic throwback style–a couple falls in love, buys a sailboat and breaks a bottle of baptizing wine on its bow, they travel to study at Oxford, living cheap in a small flat with a hot pot, and befriend C.S. Lewis, who is instrumental in their eventual coming to faith. But perhaps most romantic, and most heartbreaking, of all is the moment when Sheldon realizes he is no longer Davy’s first love. The jealousy he feels for her Savior is very real, unclouded by years of faith grown familiar, still new and sharp. As Sheldon says himself, “This book is, after all, the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.”
And that it is. Through painful renegotiation, Sheldon comes to terms with his beloved’s new first love, and he slowly wrestles to make it also his own.
I was saddened by a review of this book by a woman who disliked it because she felt the “C.S. Lewis plug” was a cheap marketing ploy, played up beyond the truth of their acquaintance. This seems telling about our expectations of books and authors today. We expect them to pull out a bag of tricks. And tragically, somewhere in the process, bad art has conditioned us to be suspect of good art.
A Severe Mercy goes against the grain of the books that are published today, but it is one of the most honest books I have read in a long time. It threads an organic grace through its pages that I did not find as calculated. It is a slow read, not a page-turner, but something to savor. I can fly through the Hunger Games in a weekend and get caught up in the grip of its plot, but I won’t underline a single sentence. My copy of A Severe Mercy is jagged with ink, prose I could not bear to lose.
Neither does the book hook the reader in by dazzling solutions to felt needs, but it ministers to something even deeper, like those people you hear about who unknowingly carry around head injuries for years and finally receive healing.
Our attention span is shrinking, yes, but I have a theory that our capacity to be awed remains the same. We need what is sacred and what is beautiful as much as ever, only our hunger for it has been stunted. Sheldon writes it best, “If, indeed, we all have a kind of appetite for eternity, we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in a society that frustrates our longing at every turn.”
Thank God for books that are harder to read, that stretch the limits of attention and distraction, that cultivate spiritual imagination, that strike a deep nerve that provokes us to longing.
What books, or art, or movies, or other mediums have you encountered recently that have challenged you in a similar way?
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