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A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy and Triumph
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A Severe Mercy: A Story of Faith, Tragedy and Triumph

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  16,175 ratings  ·  1,131 reviews
A heart-rending love story described by its author as “the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers” about the author’s marriage and search for faith.


Vanauken chronicles the birth of a powerful pagan love borne out of the relationship he shares with his wife, Davy, and describes the growth of their relationship and the dreams that they share.

A beloved,
Paperback, 240 pages
Published May 26th 2009 by HarperOne (first published January 1st 1977)
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Average rating 4.27  · 
Rating details
 ·  16,175 ratings  ·  1,131 reviews

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Debbie Petersen Wolven
Jul 07, 2008 rated it did not like it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: couples deeply in love; converts; those suffering the loss of a beloved
Recommended to booklady by: Karen L.
A Severe Mercy can almost be called a foreshadowing of A Grief Observed. But of course that is only from our perspective looking back on the four lives involved. Sheldon Vanauken wrote A Severe Mercy about the love of his life, Jean "Davy" Palmer Davis. It's a beautiful love story, one of the most idyllic I've ever read, perhaps too idyllic, but poignant and breathtaking all the same. The book traces their relationship from courtship through the early pagan (the author's term) years of marriage ...more
Barnabas Piper
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I’ve rarely read a more moving, beautiful reflection on faith, life, death, grief, and eternity. It stirred my heart and opened my eyes. Tremendous book.
Sylvain Reynard
Jan 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: spirituality
This book is the story of a remarkable and true love story between the author and his wife. Their paths lead them to Yale and then to Oxford, where they become friends with C.S. Lewis. Eventually, they end up in Lynchburg, VA, when Vanauken becomes a professor of English at Lynchburg College.

A line from this book ended up in one of my favourite Bruce Cockburn songs, "Fascist Architecture." See if you can find it.
Jan 26, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: mmd-2016
I struggled with this book. I really enjoyed the letters from C.S. Lewis, but Vanauken's writing - and even his story in general - left me cold. There were a few well-written passages, but overall he was far too wordy and his descriptions of his virtually perfect wife and their life together seemed ridiculous, and finishing the book was not a joyful endeavor.

He reminds me of that guy you avoid at functions - he's got some good stories, but he talks on far too long and has a very high opinion of
Nov 15, 2008 added it
Recommended to Josh by: Sarah Baker
I hated these people for much of the book, though I feel bad for that now. Ridiculous in their idealism. Tried to establish principles to live by, and broke other principles in establishing those. Also incorporated convenient traditional and Christian principles to support the ones they already wanted to follow. Then they broke those when convenient, often without noticing (but with me noticing, margin-scrawling in crumbling pencil).

Also this story was about romantic love, and I only like that w
K.D. Absolutely
Jul 18, 2009 rated it liked it
Thanks to Tata J for lending me another unforgettable book! This is the second love story that made me cry (honest). The first third of the book is your typical Nicholas Sparks story. It actually reminds me of The Notebook so as I thought it would be an easy read, I continued on. On the second part (after The Shining Barrier), C. S. Lewis as introduced. It had the feeling of a religious book and I got a bit thrown out and started complaining to my wife that the book is boring. However, this earl ...more
Brice Karickhoff
Feb 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This was one of my top 5 favorite books I have ever read. It won’t be that way for everyone, but for my particular taste, it was nearly the perfect book. For the second time this month (Gulag Archipelago being the first) I feel entirely incapable of writing a review to do justice to this book. And this time, I basically won’t even try.

This book tells the story of a couple who falls in love with each other, then with Jesus years later, and then faces tragedy. The book is written by the husband,
Jun 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I do not often cry when reading books. Books frequently move me deeply but that does not usually evidence itself in tears. This book though...I needed tissues 2 pages into the Prologue. I don't know exactly why - I connected to it more than almost any book that I've read before. I related to the emotions and experiences that were described so vividly and poetically. I loved being able to see C. S. Lewis through the eyes of someone who knew him personally. And I loved knowing that there were othe ...more
Jan 14, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: re-reading
This is my second re-reading, first in my late teens and now in my early twenties. It has meant so much more to me now, this second time. Such a beautiful, unforgettable and yet terribly hard story. It's been a long time since I've cried so much over a book. I loved "the Shining Barrier"- what an image! I loved seeing Lewis as the faithful and (at times) painfully honest friend.
From the last chapter:
"When he [Lewis] died, I remembered his great shout across the Oxford High Street: 'Christians N
Apr 24, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This book is amazing. Anyone who has really loved someone, or aspires to real love will take so much from this. It also has some beautiful things to say about grief and loss. Poetically written and so inspired!
Elizabeth Moore
Apr 23, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Severe mercy. That’s a rather chilling way to describe something containing so much hope and freedom.

Mercy can often be misunderstood, thrown down and trampled upon by our raw emotions. How can something so good cost so much? Isn’t mercy the act of setting free; a pardon from a much deserved punishment? Why then this sting? Could it be that mercy comes at a high price? Perhaps. And if so, does it come at the expense of the giver or the receiver?

I’m not here to answer these questions. I would
Sherwood Smith
I've had a somewhat ambivalent reaction to this book, which some friends have praised highly, reading it over and over, and others have regarded with extreme skepticism, even derision (usually in those who can't stand C.S. Lewis).

The beginning is a description of a passionate love affair so all-consuming that it reads claustrophobic, even obsessive. Though the author describes how he and his wife "Davy" came gradually to Christianity through letters to and from C.S. Lewis, it reads to me as if h
Aug 24, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: reflective readers, the romantic, the grieving, even the skeptic of Christianity.
Shelves: walk-of-faith
The first half plus of the book I found enchanting and enriching. It was eye-opening to me as an on-looker at the beauty of relationships between man and woman, of the mystery of God’s drawing grace and penetration of skepticism (with some real kickers from Lewis about the threshold or leap of faith…see pg. 88). There is true depth and a special resonance with much of Vanauken’s musings for me, such as his thoughts of beauty. It seems to strike a human tone—many things in his book. After Davy’s ...more
Talia DeBenedictis
Feb 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is a beautiful love story, speaking to what love truly is. Sheldon and Davy are simple but also unique, adventurous but also traditional. There story is full and good and Sheldon writes of it beautifully. This book hit hard emotionally. Sheldon writes of feelings and thoughts so eloquently and honestly in a way I connected with deeply. I felt as though I was experiencing and learning with him!

A quote that I particularly loved and I think captures the book: “At all events, joy flowered
Jan 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
I was given this book after the sudden death of a good friend. Anyone who has loved and lost will relate to Sheldon, an incredible writer and observer, and have difficulty not shedding a few more tears. Sheldon got to a depth of feeling and humanity that I didn't expect in expressing love. I think many would be jealous of a couple who managed to stay in the summer of their love for 15 years and wish for their own "Shining Barrier" to ward off anything that would harm love's growth. Fans of C.S. ...more
JP McLane
Aug 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A truly special book. It is not only the love story of a man and a woman but also the story of the quiet relentless pursuit of them by God. A must read for everyone.
Jess Villie
Apr 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This story was so moving! It felt like such a gift to get a window into their personal faith and love story, as well as more insight into CS Lewis’s life and friendships.
David West
May 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I haven’t read many memoirs, but I can’t imagine many being as moving as this book. There are so many dimensions to it that I think so many readers would enjoy. It’s a conversion story, it’s a confession, it’s the story of a friendship, it’s a story of loss, and of moving on in Love. There is wisdom in every page and the letters from CS Lewis are dripping with wit. I think those letters alone could convert a curious non-Christian!
Overall it’s amazing: a bit slow at times, but a short read so I s
Joanna Mounce
Jan 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is a memoir of a widower who recounts his marriage and conversion to Christianity. While perusing the reviews, I noticed a lot of people mention that they hated the author, and I giggled because I felt the same way. However, I still wanted to give it 5 stars because I loved the book despite the messenger. The book opens with the author visiting his family manor and reflecting on his dead wife, and right from there you can tell he is an annoying rich man. Him and his wife live on a yach ...more
G.M. Burrow
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It's appropriate that this book was given me by a dear friend with this inscription: "Thank you for sharing with me so many moments made eternity." Because while A Severe Mercy is about many things—love, loss, grief, England, idolatry, sacrifice, resurrection—it struck me deepest as a book about friendship.

There's the man-and-wife friendship between Vanauken and his wife ("Davy"); the brother bond between Vanauken and C.S. Lewis; the happy connection that springs up when any Lewis fan feels like
Aug 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
My reaction to this book has been mixed. If not recommended to me by a very good friend whose judgment I trust, I probably would not have persevered past the first one fourth of the book. Not because of the writing, which is of excellent quality, but because of my frustration with the idealistic couple in their youth: all of their naive confidence in their Shining Barrier grated against something inside me. But then came their time in Oxford and all that came after it, and I began to understand ...more
Oct 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Favorite memoir of all time, and the most recommendable book.
Jul 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
One must accept a memoir on its own terms; it's not primarily a story crafted to create a effect or convey a theme, but an exploration of something that occurred. This occurred to me as I read A Severe Mercy and found it at times too verbose, repetitive and self-indulgent. But Vanauken's narrative is a genuine effort (or record of a past effort) to figure out the significance of events before and after his wife's death. He insightfully tackles questions about the nature of love and grief, and th ...more
Apr 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sophie Muir-Taylor
Jun 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book was breathtakingly beautiful- truly one of the most deep and moving stories I have ever read. If you love poetry, C.S Lewis, romance, and questions that humanity has always wrestled with. This book is for you!!
Philip Hazelip
Nov 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Beautiful story, both a deeply touching and convicting read.
Josh Clemans
Enjoyed the read. Initially comes off as a bit sentimental and self-absorbed. Vanauken sees himself as tragic greek hero, but, to be fair, he is to some extent. The parts with letters from Lewis were especially good. Interesting to see Lewis’ tone writing in a casual context.
Susanna Paul
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully recorded journey of a man's relationship with God strengthened through the grief of losing his wife.
Jun 25, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: missiobooks, memoirs
I'm torn. On the one hand, I'm excited to write my first negative review on goodreads. On the other hand, I have to write a negative review.

You know when people attempt to make a point (ex: 'There is no God!') and they emphasize how utterly unlikely it was they *they* should have reached said conclusion ('I used to the most religious person ever!') in an odd way of appealing to authority? ('The distance between my old beliefs and my new ones makes me an expert, and now, you should trust my opini
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“He had been wont to despise emotions: girls were weak, emotions–tears– were weakness. But this morning he was thinking that being a great brain in a tower, nothing but brain, wouldn’t be much fun. No excitement, no dog to love, no joy in the blue sky– no feelings at all. But feelings– feelings are emotions! He was suddenly overwhelmed by the revelation that what makes life worth living is, precisely, the emotions. But then– this was awful!– maybe girls with their tears and laughter were getting more out of life. Shattering! He checked himself, showing one’s emotions was not the thing: having them was. Still, he was dizzy with the revelation. What is beauty but something is responded to with emotion? Courage, at least, is partly emotional. All the splendour of life. But if the best of life is, in fact, emotional, then one wanted the highest, the purest emotions: and that meant joy. Joy was the highest. How did one find joy? In books it was found in love– a great love… So if he wanted the heights of joy, he must have it, if he could find it, in great love. But in the books again, great joy through love always seemed go hand in hand with frightful pain. Still, he thought, looking out across the meadow, still, the joy would be worth the pain– if indeed, they went together. If there were a choice– and he suspected there was– a choice between, on the one hand, the hights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.
Since then the years have gone by and he– had he not had what he chose that day in the meadow? He had had the love. And the joy– what joy it had been! And the sorrow. He had had– was having– all the sorrow there was. And yet, the joy was worth the pain. Even now he re-affirmed that long-past choice.”
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