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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

4.29  ·  Rating details ·  14,094 ratings  ·  943 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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4.29  · 
Rating details
 ·  14,094 ratings  ·  943 reviews

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Peyton Smith
Mar 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Trying to condense this book into a tiny review will be rather difficult for me. This is THE FIRST book I recommend to anyone in any conversation any time literature comes up. By turns this book is one of the most romantic, beautifully written, intellectually stimulating, and downright entertaining books I've ever held in my two hands. For months after I finished the book I would see it sitting on my desk and grow sad thinking of how much I missed time with Sheldon and Davie. Countless times I'v ...more
Debbie Petersen
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
Aug 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is a book that I absolutely love, about a couple who decide to live with their love as their God. It's a pretty amazing relationship, and along the way, they encounter the Living God. It's such a lovely story (and it's true!) and heartbreaking at the same time.
The only caveat is that the beginning of the book is dreadfully slow. I urge anyone who starts reading this book to press on past Sheldon's little stroll down memory land, and wait for the good stuff.
And, as an added bonus, our good
Mar 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This is a book I need to buy.. and re-read . Thanks to Booklady for reviewing this one. It was a bit tough for me, at the beginning, getting past the affluent, aristocratic culture of the Vanaukens. I always find that sort of lifestyle a bit off putting: the parties, the yacht clubs, the trips to Europe, etc... but I did manage to get beyond that.. and then the rest of the book was fascinating, as he dealt with deep questions of faith, heaven, loss, loneliness,jealousy, grief. The letters from C ...more
Dec 06, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a lovely memoir which is half love story, one quarter faith story, and one quarter story about the author's exchange of letters with C.S. Lewis. The most interesting and unique aspect of the book was Vanauken's description of the oneness that he and his wife carefully planned and largely realized for a while. They called the concept the Shining Barrier--their way of living which would guard their love above all else because any sort of separation could constitute a wedge between them.
Rachel Amos
Jan 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Told with such sincerity, the author's love story is unlike any I've heard before. Vanauken's prose is exquisite--a delight to read. I would recommend it to any romantic, to any academically-minded believer, to any living soul. This is one I'll read again and again.
Dec 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
By intellect, beauty and pain, Vanauken reveals the unsearchable sovereignty of God in his life. After this and Till We Have Faces, I feel no book can ever again reach so far to the core of me.
Jeff Miller
Dec 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Just wow!
Morgan Kahler
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
This book was very challenging for me to read at times. I even gave up on it once, only to pick it back up the next week because I found my thoughts wandering to it so often. Sheldon's style of writing may have been challenging for me but the story he was sharing drew me in, for I knew right away that it would stick with me. Not only is this a beautiful and inspiring love story between he and Davy but more importantly, it is about their individual journies towards Christ and how that changed eve ...more
Jun 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Logan Maloney
Dec 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is such a good book! After my friend recommended this for me I was hesitant to read it but I am so glad I did. This book will make you laugh, cry, and think very deep about life. It was the perfect mix of intellectual and emotionally moving. This is a story of a couple falling in love and coming to know Jesus mainly through CS Lewis (reading his books and becoming friends with him). It includes many real letters from CS Lewis and is written beautifully (it helps that the author is a poet). ...more
Feb 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a confession more than it is a love story, but it is a very good love story and an excellent confession.
Wendy Blankinship
Aug 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
Thought provoking. Interesting following non believing couple come to faith.
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“It is, I think, that we are all so alone in what lies deepest in our souls, so unable to find the words, and perhaps the courage to speak with unlocked hearts, that we don't know at all that it is the same with others.” 65 likes
“A man in the jungle at night, as someone said, may suppose a hyena's growl to be a lion's; but when he hears the lion's growl, he knows damn well it's a lion.” 27 likes
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