A Severe Mercy (Harper & Row, 1977) chronicles the autobiographical-journey of Sheldon Vanauken and his wife Jean “Davy” Davis from their first meeting at Wabash College through their 17 years of marriage, much of which they kept secret from their parents. In Severe Mercy, “Van” describes his love for Davy as quite pagan; that is, they made a commitment to share everything with one another, to the exclusion of having children, since childbirth was something they could not share together.
They constructed what they described as the “Shining Barrier” that would protect their love and devotion from all external influences. But that Barrier was “invaded” (Van’s word) by Christ when they became involved with a small group of Christians at Oxford University. Davy was the first to “cross the room” to shift her primary alliance and become a committed Christian. Van crossed over later, albeit somewhat begrudgingly.
Then tragedy struck. Davy contracted a virus in the summer of 1954 that quickly took her life on January 17, 1955. She was 40 years old.
A Severe Mercy describes the agonizing struggle Van experienced after the death of his deepest love, partner, and wife. Through correspondence with Oxford Don C.S. Lewis, Van came to grips with this terrible loss, and learned that genuine Christian faith does not guarantee life-long happiness; rather, it offers the resident presence of the true God throughout all life’s twists & turns.
Throughout our own journeys it is true that all of us will find ourselves in places we never expected. We can prepare for some of them: but others will hit us like a bolt out of hell. Life will seem a flowing stream of pain, recovery, and rebirth. Some of us can pass through this progression better than others. Some of us never quite enter the recovery stage. Rather, we languish and fade in our own anguish.
We may believe, like Van and Davy, that we can erect a “Shining Barrier” of love, or isolation, or stoicism, and insulate ourselves from others, from the outside world, from being hurt. If you’ve been on this earth any length of time you know that does not work. But what does work? What can keep us from being hurt? What can protect us.
The simple answer is—nothing. The hurt, the betrayal, the pain, will all come. But the nurturing of personal identity and integrity, establishing a deep faith in God and growing deep friendships, goes a long way toward providing both genuine safety and security in those times of uncertainty. Remember, “… I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
For what it’s worth,