Customer Reviews: A Severe Mercy
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on July 8, 2001
A Severe Mercy is a masterfully crafted autobiography and the story of an intensely deep love relationship, a profound introspective on their path to finding God, and the utimate bereavement the author experiences as his thirty-something wife dies of a terminal illness.
Along the way, their paths cross with C.S. Lewis; personal correspondence with him peppers the book, as does a collection of superb poems written by Vanauken. It explores complex theological, philosophical and aesthetic issues with deep insight and profoundly sharp perspective. I can't recommend it highly enough, it's truly one if the best books I've ever read - a work of art which crosses many dimensions.
Practically speaking, A Severe Mercy explores a number of crucial life issues with breathtaking clarity. First, the second chapter, "The Shining Barrier" distills more insight into the true workings of a wonderful marriage relationship than a dozen garden-variety relationship books from the self-help section of a bookstore. Anyone who wants to understand why their romance has cooled off after five or ten or twenty years of marriage (including myself) could use this chapter alone as a manual for re-kindling the fire.
Secondly, it explores the nature of a difficult spiritual journey in a most articulate way - the emotional, philosophical, theological and personal implications of the claims of Jesus Christ. This book is not in any way a Bible-thumping promo for Christianity; rather it examines the claims of Christ and their implications from logical, historical, aesthetic and personal viewpoints -- in a way that no thinking person can easily dismiss.
I gave this book to friends of mine, a highly educated married professional couple, before they went on a camping trip. They were struggling mightily to reconcile Christianity with their modern worldview and the book was instrumental in helping them accomplish a breakthrough.
Third, it delves into the difficult interior world of a person who is bereft of the love of his life and who must feel the sorrow and loss and yet go on.
A Severe Mercy plumbs the depths of all of these issues via beautiful prose, expertly crafted perspective, and provocative poetry. Highly recommended.
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on February 23, 2006
I have loved this book over the years for all the reasons stated in the other reviews printed here and purchased it again here recently as a gift. You, too, will love the read. However, my comments are regarding the edition that is being offered here. The book quality from this publisher is exceedingly poor and not worth buying. Both the paper and the print are of the cheapest quality and are not worthy of a book of this excellence. Get the book, but get it from a better publisher.
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on April 5, 1999
After putting it off for several years, I finally read A Severe Mercy, between Maunday Thursday and Easter Sunday, 1999. With Christ's Passion, Death, and Resurrection as the background, along with my wife's yearning to leave our Lutheran exile and join the Roman Catholic Church, I cried my way through the book, simply unable to restrain tears of hurt, joy, compassion, sorrow, and very strong empathy. These tears were also shed in the context of Little Lost Marion, Vanauken's story of finding the child Davy had at age 14, and which she put up for adoption, not aborting. Sheldon and Davy never had children, a pre Christian decision a Christian Vanauken came to regret.
Then it hit me. The power of the book doesn't lie primarily in the story of grief and lost love, as poignant and beautiful as it is. Rather, if we stop with Sheldon and Davy's love for each other, we will miss Vanauken's major point: Davy's death as God's "severe mercy" to keep Sheldon in God's love. Davy's death allowed God to destroy the 'shining barrier" of their love, kill that idol, and reclaim Vanauken for himself. Mercy, indeed, if you can handle it, and Vanauken, in God's grace did. Perfect Lenten and Holy Week reading! But also a perfect book to help Christians understand the lengths to which God will go to keep his children and to see that in the great hurts and disappointments of life, God's severe mercy is frequently at work.
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on December 2, 1999
What a beautifully engrossing book. I had known about the kind of book A Severe Mercy was for some years, and had (unconsciously) been avoiding it, for I knew it was a book about, and for, grieving. It is also a story about a sweet, adventurous, wide-awake marriage.
But most of all, it is a message to the reader about the most pure and complete love of all, the love of God for his creation. One should read this book only if one is prepared (Christian or not) to be confronted with the awesome (and undeniable) truth of God's existense and his relentlessly loving pursuit of his children.
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on January 4, 2001
After several readings of this book over the past few years, I can conclude without any hesitation that it is the most moving and unforgettable memoir I've ever read. It is relevant to note that all 29 of the other ... reviewers (at the time of my own writing) rate it a solid 5 stars... it really deserves a sixth. Not only for it's amazing true content, but for the beautiful way in which the author lays it all out. This book will literally captivate your imagination, sweep you away, and tug you towards a deeper understanding of the depths of "inloveness" (a Vanauken term) possible in God-ordained marriage.
Sheldon and Jean Vanauken were living the dream of togetherness that most people only.... well, DREAM about... until they came face to face with the fact that perhaps "perpetual springtime is not allowed." Those words were from their personal friend, the Oxford don C.S. Lewis and addressed to Sheldon as he tried to make sense of his overwhelming grief.
This is the story of a profound love between two people... a love that has its genesis, consummation, and terminus in heavenly places. If your eyes are dry all the way through this book... well, never mind... they won't be.
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on July 10, 2005
"I wanted the fine keen bow of a schooner cutting the waves with Davy and me -- just Davy and me. I didn't want God. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I wanted to be free -- like a Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the colour of fire and loveliness of life. And Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn't want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ."

I read this passage from "A Severe Mercy" over a decade ago. And, each time I read it, it still hits me in the gut....because I see myself so clearly in the words. Upon being published, one reviewer wrote that the book touched him so deeply that, finally, it was like an essay in self-understanding. I echo that sentiment. This book does, indeed, make most books on courtship and marriage seem shoddy....but it also illuminates how great is the mortal capacity for selfishness...and selflessness...and pervasive bliss beyond understanding.

This book shall make you cry, and laugh, and revel in the simplicity and profound wisdom of the 18 letters from C.S. Lewis to Vanauken. But, most importantly, it shall make you question your spiritual depth, your tenacity of life, and your definition of love.
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on August 16, 1999
As I write this I celebrate my 19th anniversary - by myself - Ken having died 3 years ago from a sudden massive heart attack. This book was given to us as a wedding present with a note to read it together. I don't know if I can attribute the wonderful marriage Ken and I had to reading it together on our honeymoon - but I'm sure it contributed. I was blessed to have Ken for 16 wonderful years and that he is the father of my 4 great kids. We were blessed to have read this book together to start our married life. I buy it now as a wedding present for his nephew.
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on February 20, 1998
I was very young when I first read this tender poignant tale of suffering...I hadn't lost a great love to death in my early was woven like a poetic dream and something to aspire to... the imagery was profoundly erotic without being primarily sexual...I think that Sheldon and Davy were what God meant in the book of Genesis (and Jesus echoed in the Gospels) by "two shall become one"....true love...real love...happens maybe once in a lifetime......I have become older and grayer yet this book is as young as my dreams...and having lost true love to death...I cherish the words "and Jack on Aslan's back...our hearts could not be lighter". I finally understand their impact .....His mercy is sometimes severe and our hearts are torn then mended.....forever...and Love lasts long after we are gone...It and we live beyond the grave...and "the problem of our pain" is sometimes only solved beyond the veil...where we no longer just glimpse Glory...we stare it full in the Grief gives way.... Sheldon and Davy are part of the warp and woof of what I have become....and one day we will all be on Aslan's back..round the lampost..."our hearts could not be lighter." I don't see how anyone can madly love Lewis and not fall head over heals in love with "A Severe Mercy".....they(at least in my mind) are inseparable.
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on January 21, 2000
I must say, this work is among the finest I have ever read. I work for a Christian Publisher and have the honor of reading fine work. A Severe Mercy is real and honest. The letters included from C.S. Lewis are mind boggling and astounding. The perspective of the Christian from the secular view is honest and true; the view from the same - now as a Christian, is deep and sincere. Incredible. I would highly reccomend this book to those who are searching for God, struggling with God, or thoes who can look back on a journey of their own after finding Him.
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on September 2, 1999
"A Severe Mercy" is so much more than a love story. Reading through this book quickly doesn't do it justice. You HAVE to take it one chapter at a time and really soak it in. Not only is he telling us how much he loved her, he is showing us how God loves and uses life to teach. I used to live in the town in which this story is told and I've spoken to many of his ex-students, they paint a picture of a man even more amazing than this book lets on. I would also highly recommend Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
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