This “must read” Christian book was gifted to me a handful of years ago with the message “you will love it.” Perhaps that put too much pressure on me (the fact that it was a gift from a dear relative or the fact that I was supposed to love it), but it took me quite a while to get started. Eventually, though, I decided to conquer it. It may have taken several months, but I did finally finish it!
“No brief review can do justice to the human depth of Vanauken’s book.”
The Washington Post sums up my struggle in ever getting this review posted. A Severe Mercy is written most sincerely and with much intimacy, describing an exceedingly beautiful relationship between the author and his wife and their journey to finding Jesus.
We know upfront, because of the description on the back cover, that his wife is to die at some point in the book. Upon reaching that part in the story one evening, I told my husband even though I knew it was going to happen, it was still emotional. Vanauken has a remarkable talent with words and I appreciated his gift of pulling me into his life’s story.
A Severe Mercy is an almost overwhelming juxtaposition of hope and heartache. The book takes us on their personal journey of studying Christianity (with the desire to argue against it) and eventually falling headfirst into the arms of Christ, making a radical change to their life goals, their relationship with each other and their overall awareness of “the bigger picture.” Before they even became Christians, this is one of their journal entries:
The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians — when they are sombre and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths. But, though it is just to condemn some Christians for these things, perhaps, after all, it is not just, though very easy to condemn Christianity itself for them. Indeed, there are impressive indications that the positive quality of joy is in Christianity — and possibly nowhere else. If that were certain, it would be proof of a very high order.
They knew something was up. Their struggles, conversations, experiences and examples within friend circles all helped them reach the ultimate goal: that of knowing and accepting and loving Christ Jesus as their Savior. But the book is written in such a way that it will totally affect anyone who has struggled with this — he touches on so many personal aspects of the mental struggle of surrendering to God or being bold among friends or not being jealous of his wife’s time with God and much more. For example, when he was a new Christian and momentarily worried of what his non-Christian friends would think, this is what he declared to himself:
I was half inclined to conceal my faith, and yet it seemed to me that if I were to take a stand for Christ, my lord, I must wear his colours.
One of the greater parts of this book are verbatim correspondence Vanauken had with the famous C.S. Lewis. These letters made me like Lewis even more than I already have. Granted, I don’t agree 100% on all of his theology (nor Vanauken’s, for that matter), but he said some profound things in just these simple, handwritten, personal notes to his friend. In one particular letter, he was responding to Vanauken’s announcement of his newfound Christianity and mentioned this:
There will be a counter attack on you, you know, so don’t be too alarmed when it comes. The enemy will not see you vanish into God’s company without an effort to reclaim you. Be busy learning to pray…
What better lesson for us all today? Whether we are new Christians or not.
Vanauken goes on and covers all sorts of fascinating yet familiar aspects of the Christian conversion — seeing hypocrisy rampant in churches or just struggling how to live in our world while also being as different as God calls us to be. But he soon reaches the part of his story where he loses his dear, sweet wife whom he has successful convinced the reader to fall in love with, too.
With deep introspection, he walks through his mourning process. He receives wise snippets from C.S. Lewis in various letters and continues to stay committed to Jesus through all of it. It’s difficult to summarize the final chapter, which, entitled “The Severe Mercy,” is one of the most important ones. Vanauken begins a long description of why the death of his wife was the severe mercy in his life. To truly understand why a death can be merciful and what he means by it, you really need to read the whole book. He paints the picture better than I possibly ever could. His analysis of what his faith might have been had she not died is particularly interesting.
Honestly, through much of the beginning sections, I wasn’t going to rate this book very high. I wasn’t even going to finish it (indeed, it did collect dust for a few months), but it’s the entire picture you need. The build up of their romance and relationship sets the scene for later situations. I realize that is vague, but it’s true. In the end, I would recommend this book to you, with the caveat that you don’t automatically accept his (or Lewis’s) theology or believe that I fully agree. It’s an important book to read for many reasons.