Why I Hate Sheldon Vanauken's Book
I just can't bring myself to like Sheldon Vanauken's spiritual classic A Severe Mercy, which is now in production as a film. At this point in my life I kind of hate it.
A Severe Mercy is the story of Vanauken and the love of his life, Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis. The two met in the 1930s and fell in love. They are inseparable, naming their schooner the Grey Goose, "for the grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another." The two lovers create what they call "a shining barrier of love":
The Shining Barrier -- the shield of our love. A walled garden. A fence around a young tree to keep the deer from nibbling it. An fortified place with the walls and watchtowers gleaming white like the cliffs of England. The Shining Barrier -- we called it so from the first -- protecting the green tree of our love. And yet in another sense, it was our love itself, made strong within, that was the Shining Barrier.
While studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis. Sheldon and Davy become Christians, but Sheldon soon begins to feel jealousy as Davy turns more of her attention to God. Shortly after Davy acquires a fatal illness. Sheldon endures intense grief, leaving himself open to what grief can teach him.
He comes to discover the meaning of "a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love." He learns that Davy's death "had these results: It brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealously of God. It saved her faith from assault...And it saved our love from perishing."
I still find it hard to believe that this idea has earned praise from millions of readers and will be immortalized in a film. The idea that God would take a beautiful young life so that Sheldon Vanauken could be a good Christian is repulsive.
I have lived through something similar to A Severe Mercy; the experience left me feeling that God, who the Bible says is love itself, does not selfishly rupture that love. A fallen world, evil, psychology, failing health, something, anything breaks our hearts. I can't believe that God does.
In 2008, I embarked on a five year journey through illness and love that was the most intense and dynamic experience of my life. In the span of about three months I both fell in love and found out I had a potentially life-threatening illness. Looking back, I realize that I was about to live through A Severe Mercy, but in reverse. The illness, sadness and difficulty came early, and then the shining barrier of love.
The woman I fell in love with in 2008 is from India. I'll call her Priya. She was assertive, funny and brilliant, and like a lot of people from India had a very deep belief in God. She also had been the victim of abuse in a previous relationship, a relationship that was ending when we met. She was particularly attached to her car, a little black Nissan, because when her boyfriend kicked her out of the house it was the only thing she had left.
Shortly after we met at a dance, Priya and I fell in love. We talked all night on the phone, texted constantly, began finishing each other's sentences. I would close my eyes when she laughed, the delight of the sound filling my soul with joy.
Yet something would happen that interfered with our future plans. For months I had been feeling tired and sore, with a lot of pain radiating from my abdomen. One morning I woke up feeling I had pulled a groin muscle, and the pain was so bad that I drove myself to the emergency room. I went from a smiling nurse joking about jocks and injuries to being surround by four unsmiling physicians.
I had cancer. I needed to start chemotherapy right away.
For the next couple years, Priya and I erected our own shining barrier of love. As she recovered from her abusive relationship, I slowly got better from lymphoma. To pay medical bills I moved back into my childhood home, where my mother still lived. Priya also stayed with us while she got her life back together. She told her friends in India that we had saved her and had become her family.
One night I prayed to God: if I don't make it, please take care of Priya. Please. Just let her be happy no matter what.
Priya's old boyfriend had tried to restrict her movements, even taking her cell phone. As I returned to health I began to experience a kind of second childhood. I wanted to see all of the things I knew an loved growing up. Priya and I were like two children exploring a beautiful new planet together. We saw tango dancers at the Kennedy Center, gorged ourselves at Indian buffets, and laughed ourselves stupid imitating certain celebrities. Priya had never seen the Atlantic Ocean. On a gorgeous May afternoon I drove us down to the Eastern Shore. When she saw the ocean she wept.
In A Severe Mercy, C.S. Lewis tells a grieving Sheldon Vanauken that "the spring can't last." Like Sheldon and Davy, Priya's and mine didn't. Cancer turned into survival, which lead to trying to find well-paying employment as a journalist in the digital age. She found some stability with a new job and new apartment. We began to argue more frequently. Talk turned to just being friends. Then we just stopped talking. I didn't hear from her for months.
Recently I got a new apartment and my mother decided to move; the old house was just too big for her to take care of anymore. Time was moving on. When the movers were emptying the house out, I decided to call Priya and see if she wanted to see it one last time. She sounded well, and had some news: she had gotten married.
I congratulated her, and told her that all I ever wanted was her happiness. Then I sat in the empty house and wept -- a long, heaving, grieving catharsis. I could see absolutely no reason why God would have brought me through an illness, opened my heart to love, and left me stranded.
I made sure my copy of A Severe Mercy went out with the trash.