A Severe Mercy and the Redeemer of Man

The last assignment for my students this semester is Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. It is the story about love, conversion, and death. He has a beautiful description of his young love and marriage to his wife Jean, nicknamed Davy. Their love was their religion; he said they made a “Shining Barrier”around themselves and their love. They loved each other and they loved beauty. They go abroad, to Oxford, for study and there they encounter C. S. Lewis and a circle of Christians who teach and study at Oxford. That at the outset broke a barrier for them, challenged an assumption — intelligent people cannot possibly believe in Christianity. Yet there they were — physicists, literary critics, historians — believers. Sheldon and Davy, although sceptical, are both attracted to Christianity.  They were attracted by the joy — “The best argument for Christianity is Christians — their joy, their certainty, their completeness.” (85) C. S. Lewis exchanged correspondence with Sheldon and this helped them make their towards faith. Lewis at one point warned him, “The Holy Spirit is after you, I doubt if you will get away.” And sure enough, reading the gospel brought him to Christ and Lewis helped him to see the way to frame the question of faith — not as a proof but as a matter of trust in people, and probability of narrative. His wife came to faith earlier than he did. But she was with him as he made the final step or leap to faith. There are some very rich passages in this book, itself a compelling narrative. Here is one to ponder about the role of beauty in his conversion:

I was coming to love the Jesus that emerged from the New Testament writings. I had impulses to fall on my knees and reach out to him. I suspected all of the yearnings for I knew not what that I had ever felt — when autumn leaves were burning in the twilight, when wild geese flew crying overhead, when I looked up a bare branches  against the stars, when spring arrived on an April morning — were in truths yearnings for him. For God. I yearned towards him. (94)

It is very suggestive of St John of the Cross, a spontaneous reaching out in a mystical mode. In the Spiritual Canticle he says: “My heart was kindled . . . the desires and affections are all stirred and in that loving enkindlement of the heart are changed into divine affections and the soul through love is reduced to naught save love only. And at this season of love,  there takes place this stirring of the reins of the desires of the will which is much like to a torture of  yearning to see God.” C. S. Lewis was spot on — “The Holy Spirit is after you, I doubt if you will get away.”

And he does finally choose to believe because “Christianity has the ring, the feel, of unique truth. Of essential truth. By it life is made full instead of empty, meaningful instead of meaningless. Cosmos becomes beautiful at the Centre, instead of chillingly ugly beneath the lovely pathos of spring.” (99)

He wrote a superb poem about his leap of faith, entitled “The Gap.” The last two lines are very powerful (Our only hope: to leap into the Word/That opens up the shattered universe) but the entire poem must be read:

Did Jesus live? And did he really say
The burning words that banish mortal fear?
And are they true? Just this is central, here
The Church must stand or fall. It’s Christ we weigh.

All else is off the point: the Flood, the Day
Of Eden, or the Virgin Birth–Have done!
The Question is, did God send us the Son
Incarnate crying Love! Love is the Way!

Between the probable and proved there yawns
A gap. Afraid to jump, we stand absurd,
Then see behind us sink the ground and, worse,
Our very standpoint crumbling. Desperate dawns
Our only hope: to leap into the Word
That opens up the shattered universe.

The conversion of Sheldon and Jean offer a remarkable testimony to the approach to Christ outlined by  John Paul II in Redeemer of Man. There he proclaims “Man cannot live without love.  He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” §10 This reality Sheldon and Jean discovered and tried to protect and nourish. But they soon came to learn that “this is why Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals man to himself’.” Sheldon had premonitions of the cross in his very perceptions of beauty. It took his Oxford friends to show him its real meaning. This is the pattern John Paul II proposes:

the Redemption that took place through the Cross has definitively restored his dignity to man and given back meaning to his life in the world, a meaning that was lost to a considerable extent because of sin. And for that reason, the Redemption was accomplished in the paschal mystery, leading through the Cross and death to Resurrection.§10

Thus it is the path for us all to step out in faith so we affirm that “in Christ and through Christ man has acquired full awareness of his dignity, of the heights to which he is raised, of the surpassing worth of his own humanity, and of the meaning of his existence.”§11 As Sheldon and Jean struggle with her untimely death they also learn that “love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the “futility of creation”, it is stronger than death.” C. S. Lewis told Sheldon that her death was a “severe mercy.” And again John Paul II said  “This revelation of love is also described as mercy; and in man’s history this revelation of love and mercy has taken a form and a name: that of Jesus Christ.”

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