A Severe Mercy

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Overview

Beloved, profoundly moving account of the author's marriage, the couple's search for faith and friendship with C. S. Lewis, and a spiritual strength that sustained Vanauken after his wife's untimely death.

Winner of the National Religious Book Award. A portrait of a marriage and faith as well as of the author's friendship with C. S. Lewis.

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A Severe Mercy

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Overview

Beloved, profoundly moving account of the author's marriage, the couple's search for faith and friendship with C. S. Lewis, and a spiritual strength that sustained Vanauken after his wife's untimely death.

Winner of the National Religious Book Award. A portrait of a marriage and faith as well as of the author's friendship with C. S. Lewis.

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Editorial Reviews

Judith E. Smith
The breadth of Vanauken's reflections is quite remarkable. He is poet, storyteller, and apologist, his writing interspersed with C. S. Lewis's letters. For me, the book evoked tears at many points, confronted me with the lack of rigor with which I think about my own faith, and called me to deeper commitments in my own life. Most of all, it presented a new understanding of God's mercy that I found uncomfortable but provocative-a mercy that can be severe indeed.
Weavings
Los Angeles Times
“[A] deep, uncompromising story about human and divine love.”
Eternity
“A gem of a book . . . delivers an extraordinary impact on the reader.”
New Oxford Review
“A towering and noble work in its own right, wrought by a real craftsman . ..”
Washington Post
“No brief review can do justice to the human depth of this book. It invites us to explore a beautiful dollhouse of love and to witness the destruction of a relation too exquisite to last.”
Christianity Today
“Here is a book for anyone who has truly loved another person.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553230697
  • Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/19/1979
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback

Meet the Author

Sheldon Vanauken (1914-1996) was the author of Gateway to Heaven, The Glittering Illusion, and Under the Mercy, the sequel to A Severe Mercy.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Prologue: Glenmerle Revisited

The country road stretched ahead white in the moonlight and deserted. A single car, an MG-TD two-seater, was creeping along with its lights off and its top down. The driver looked intently at every tree and contour. The few houses were dark and silent, for it was long past midnight. The moon was full, high in the dome of heaven, and the June air was mild, carrying the scent of flowers and growing things.

Ahead on the right appeared a white board fence set back a ways from the road, the long x's, formed by the diagonal boards, running parallel to the road and disappearing over a low hill. The car came to a momentary halt, then moved on a few yards and crept off the road beneath a big oak. The driver uncoiled his long frame and climbed out.

The night was very still, only the faintest rustle of leaves above him betrayed some stir in the air. Somewhere in the distance a lonesome dog barked in a patient and leisurely way.

The traveller, a tall man in the late thirties, stood looking up into the branches of the oak and then began to walk with an easy stride along the road with the white fence on his right. Behind it he could see an old cherry tree: he remembered suddenly the sharp sweetness of sun-warmed red cherries and birds chirping crossly at a boy in their tree. A few hundred yards farther on, over the hill, he came to massive stone gateposts. The gates of Glenmerle. A brief smile touched his lips as he looked at the left-hand gatepost and remembered his small brother on top of it--it was easy to climb from the fence-waving frantically and unnecessarily at the fire engine that had cometo put out a minor fire in a servant's room. Between the gateposts the driveway lay white and still in the moonlight, running straight in to where it curved down a hill into the trees of the park. The house itself, up a further hill, was hidden.

He stood there in the stillness, looking. A tiny breeze touched his face like a brief caress. He closed his eyes for a second or two, fancying as always that she was in the wind. 'Davy?' he murmured. `Dearling ?' Then he walked in through the gates, the gravel crunching where he trod. On either side beyond the poplars that began the avenue lay the gate meadows where the wild strawberries grew. An image leaped into his mind of a sunny white tablecloth and a blue and white bowl heaped with small exquisite red strawberries and flaky shortcake in the thick yellow Jersey cream from the near-by Glenmerle Farm. He swallowed and walked on.

Past the meadows the drive curved steeply down into big trees where the blackbirds lived, and the gravel became dappled with light and shadow. Now, as he descended, he could hear a ripple of water on the left where the stream flowed, and he could see gleams of silver where the moonlight fell upon it. In the shadows fireflies danced. At the bottom of the hill a little glade opened on the right, and--yes, there it was, the round lily pond: but dry now with grass bending over its edge. He looked at it, and suddenly it was full of water, and children stood around it in the sunlight. On its surface sailed a tiny frigate--a present from far-away England--with all sails set and flying the white ensign, followed by a beautifully sailing sloop; he waded in to rescue the frigate when she drove into the lilies. He looked again, and the pool was dry. He went on in the moonlight.

At length he came to a sturdy wooden bridge. Here, long ago, he had said goodbye to his brother and Davy--Davy laughing with sunbeams filtering through the trees upon her brown hair--when he left to join the fleet. Davy, though, a few months later had come eagerly across the blue Pacific to be near him. The real farewell, not even dreamt of then, had been farewell to Glenmerle; for in the war years that were approaching, his youthful vigorous father had died and the estate had had to go. Now, more than a decade later, he stood again upon the old bridge; and Davy, unbelievablyespecially here-was dead, too. And Glenmerle, unchanged as far, as he could see, save for the dry lily pond, lay serene and lovely under the moon.

Across the bridge the driveway swept up another, gentler hill to the house. He could see it plainly now in the flood of moonlight, long and white and spacious. Once, in the years that were gone, there would have been lights whatever the hour, if only a dim glow from his mother's room; but tonight all was dark. He could of course have come in the daytime and been welcomed by the present owner, but he would not see others in this place. Indeed, he would go no farther than the bridge. He looked up the hill at the big comfortable country house with the dark woods behind and the lawns sweeping away in front, first down from the house and then up to South Hill, where he had so often lain as a boy, tracing the stars with his father's shooting telescope. Below the hill in the far lawn stood one willow tree. It seemed bigger than he remembered it. Now that he thought of it, so did the elm in the driveway circle and the cone of shadow that was the blue spruce in the near lawn: it looked more than twice as tall as his tall father. Beyond the spruce the ground sloped down, except for Sycamore Point, a peninsula in a sea of grass where his father had loved to sit beneath the many-trunked sycamore. Beyond the house, towering far above its three storeys, was the mighty beech that he, to his mother's suppressed alarm, had loved to climb; perched twice as high as the house, he would feel the great tree sway in the wind. Far beyond the house and the cottage and the other outbuildings came the grape arbour and then the orchard, stretching back to the tall forest trees. The far corner of the orchard, with woods on two sides, had been called 'his acre'.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 23 )
Rating Distribution

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(19)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 17, 2013

    I¿ve read ASM probably a dozen times and with each reading somet

    I’ve read ASM probably a dozen times and with each reading something new stands out.
    I read it first as a young Christian, newly married and idealistic, and was frankly enchanted by the possibility of a romantic love that need never die. I didn’t notice then, as I do now, what other reviewers point out: that Van’s infatuation with his love is an infatuation with himself. That he and Davy were so self-absorbed that it must have been hard to breathe apart from each other. Or breathe in their presence. I find this far less appealing now as I did when I was young. And it’s always been interesting to me that their ‘Shining Barrier’ was only breached after their conversion. A young woman from England moved in with them for a time and while Davy’s attention, at least in part, turned to her faith, the woman’s attention turned to Van. He claimed to love her – all dutifully explained to his wife - but I wonder if he loved more the idea that she loved him? That he was again the center point of a romance. It’s a good question for the psychologists.
    Much of the book is taken up by Van’s conversion to Christianity. I much more enjoyed Davy’s: an aching yearning for wholeness and love. Van struggles with more mundane issues like embarrassment and cosmology. He writes off the ‘German demythologizers’ with a cavalier swipe of the pen and now, older and agnostic, I wonder why? I forgive Davy who grew up in a religious household but why does Van begin with the a priori thesis that the Gospels tell the truth? He was a historian. Why didn’t his training cause him to delve more deeply into these arguments? He never writes of grappling with textual criticism or the verities of the Gospels. This, at least to me, is a much more central and important question than ‘the gap behind’. Unable to make the leap forward – to become a Christian – he is aghast to learn that there is now a ‘gap behind’ after learning that Jesus is more than just a good chap. A deeper look at those demythologizers might have set him on another course.
    Make no mistake: I love the high mindedness of the book. Van and Davy are immersed in a rarified world of literature, music, art, and travel. This is no working man’s tale. Floating in the pool at Van’s family home they dream of life aboard a sailboat. Living on the sailboat they dream of life at Yale. After an officer’s life in the Navy – in Hawaii - they dream of life in England at Oxford. The book offers up a catalog of great reading and great music. Through their reference to ‘The Humoresque’ I am still in love with Dvorak. I still read Du Maurier and ‘Burnt Norton’. The book presents Christianity in a way that was new to me and non-stereotypical – Van, Davy, and their friends were intellectuals and equally at home in literature or science or history as they were in their faith. I had never encountered these kinds of Christians and the whole idea appealed to me deeply.
    The book is gorgeously written. The prose, though a bit spare, is wonderful. Think Hemmingway on the analyst’s couch. The story is absorbing and thought provoking. It is a wonderful read that I highly recommend to anyone, caveats aside.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2013

    TRAINING HOLLOW

    Blazeclan

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  • Posted March 27, 2010

    Can You Explain Mercy or Grace?

    Because I didn't want the inevitable ending to hit me between the eyes, I delayed finishing nearly every chapter.

    Instead of reading the book from beginning to end, I read a chapter every few days almost like straining clues from a diary in search of clues about the life of a long lost dear friend or loved one. The author captured relationship, devotion, passion and heartache with such ease the reader senses these human issues so tangible it seems they could be bottled and stored to be pulled from a cellar at will.

    His mentor, C. S. Lewis, directs him through a crisis of faith, opens the mysteries of grace, and charges him with a friendly conviction when times get tough. Mercy is defined, grace stands on it's own.

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  • Posted January 23, 2010

    A TRUE real life love story that inspires!

    You learn about their life, their love and their beliefs. Along the way, you will question your own beliefs and ideals. It is an inspiring and heart warming love story with a strong moral message. Perfect to read alone or share with a book group, it is sure to get you thinking and talking. Vanauken was one of the foremost minds of his time and his writing is a treat!

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  • Posted October 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A truly life-changing work.

    There's a very short list of books that I can say have profoundly impacted the way I live my life. This is one of them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2007

    A storyteller who puts you there

    Sheldon Vanauken, who I had the privilege of knowing personally, is the best writer I know of for putting you right into his experiences and letting you be right there with him. This, his masterpiece, is a wonderful and readable introduction to his writing. A student of C.S. Lewis and, like him, an Old Western Man, Van is able to share a profound life and a beautiful relationship with all his readers. You will not regret this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2007

    A Fellow Traveler

    I first learned of Vanauken's book in the Wabash College Magazine published November 2006. At the time, my wife, my college lover of 37 years, was dying of cancer, and the brief description of the book spoke loudly to me. Reading Vanauken is like reviewing our lives, from the early Indiana locale, to Wabash College connections (my son), to the fratnerity house romance. But more, as I read the book, it reminded me of what my wife and I found as long time lovers, the realization that the best love is just two people sharing a common dream, and the crucial need to search for God. It is reminds, painfully, that helping your mate find God is the greatest gift, even if it requires a severe mercy to lead you(me)there. I am rereading it, and each time it digs more deeply into my psyche. The book is a definite gift for friends who experienced the joy of college love and are lucky enough to still hold that love.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 24, 2005

    A very severe mercy, indeed.

    Though I cried a good deal while I read it, I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone. Though it is a sad story, it is filled with hope and truth. You also get to meet C. S. Lewis in a way that you could never meet him through his books--that is, through the eyes of someone who really knew him.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2005

    A 22 year old with a great new view

    We have all read stories about the Prince saving the Princess and their perfect marriage and courtship forever and ever. Well, those are fairy-tales. 'A Severe Mercy' was, to me of course, a human story that everyone can relate to on many many levels. I felt that the struggles that Mr. Vanauken was going through were things that I as a Christian am going through as well. The truth that Sheldon brings to the pages of this book are unsurpassed and a read for anyone who is struggling with Christianity amidst a relationship. I now know what a true Christian marriage is about, the Love for the Lord, and the struggles that keep you there while still loving in a human way. I also found his wife, Jean, to be a remarkably wonderful example of the Christian wife. I will always look up to her as an example of what I need to be in any relationship that I come across. Please read this! You will not be disappointed!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2002

    A moving story

    This book is so incredible!! Ths story of this man's life is one that we can relate to.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2001

    Amazing story of Joy and Grief

    A Severe Mercy was incredibly well written with Vaunauken expressing his feelings and thoughts very clearly throughout. It is a tremendous story of Pagan love turned Christian and the joy as well as the difficulties that resulted. Note: It will make you cry.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2001

    The love of God and the love of God in man.

    A truly intimate look at an idylic love between a man and a woman set against the background of the idylic Love of God for them both. Love, Hope, Faith, Surrender, Perseverance, and Joy are among the themes the reader will be called to reflect on through the couse of the book. This story will move Christians to more personaly perceive the big picture Heaven brings to their everyday lives and challenge non Christians to understand the joy hidden within the sorrow. As Lewis says: 'Christians NEVER say 'goodbye!''

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2001

    WELL-WORTH YOUR TIME

    You many never look at relationships or Christianity in the same light again. A Severe Mercy really gets down to the core of two things: 1) What it really means to share your life with someone and 2)Whether or not Christianity is defensible intellectually. I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks he/she has the answers to the above questions and/or someone who simply would like to read a beautiful love story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2001

    Fairy Tale Love Story Comes True

    This is an exceptionally written piece of work which combines love, tragedy, triumph, and a myriad of other themes. The overall message of the book should be inspiring as well as thought provoking. The love story will cause you to dream, the tragedy will wrench your heart, and the final triumph will send your spirits soaring. C.S. Lewis fans will also enjoy his short appearances.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2000

    One of the hardest books I've ever read.

    I just finished reading it and I can't wait to read Under the Mercy. It's a true story of a love built up between a husband and wife that only God could break down. This book is hard for many reasons but the first is because it is a lesson that everyone needs to learn.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2000

    A Must Read for Anybody

    Examimes the severe mercy that God has. Well-written and a must read.

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    Posted January 24, 2010

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    Posted July 14, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted April 20, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2009

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