A Severe Mercy

book by Sheldon Vanauken

A Severe Mercy (1977) is an autobiographical work by Sheldon Vanauken about love and the search for faith.


  • So many of the books, the best-loved ones, had been about England, and of course the poems were England itself.
    • Ch. 1
  • That nameless something that had stopped his heart was Beauty.
    • Ch. 1
  • He was suddenly overwhelmed with 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!
    • Ch. 1
  • Lewis had been his mainstay in this half-year of sounding the depths of his grief. It was he who had said that Davy's death was a severe mercy. A severe mercy — the phrase haunted him: a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love. For it had been death in love, not death of love. Love can die in many ways, most of them far more terrible than physical death; and if all natural love must die one way or another, Davy's death — he and she in love — was the death that hinted at springtime and rebirth. Sitting there on the rough wood of the bridge, he remembered his absolute knowing — something beyond faith or belief — in the moments after her death, in that suddenly empty room, that she still was. She had not ceased with that last light breath.
    She and he would meet again.
    • Ch. 1
  • We met angrily in the dead of winter.
    • Ch. 2
  • If one of us likes anything, there must be something to like in it — and the other one must find it. Every single thing that either of us likes. That way we shall create a thousand strands, great and small, that will link us together. Then we shall be so close that it would be impossible — unthinkable — for either of us to suppose that we could ever recreate such closeness with anyone else. And our trust in each other will not only be based on love and loyalty but on the fact of a thousand sharings — a thousand strands twisted into something unbreakable.
    • Ch. 2
  • [Her death] saved our love from perishing in one of the other ways that love could perish. Would I not rather our love go through death than hate?
    • Ch. 2
  • When she was launched, Davy christened her, breaking a bottle of wine against the lovely-curving bow, and crying as the schooner slipped into the water: "Keep us out of the set ways of life!"
    • Ch. 3
  • 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.
    • Ch. 4
  • A choice was necessary: and there is no certainty. One can only choose a side. So I — I now choose my side: I choose beauty; I choose what I love. But choosing to believe is believing.
    • Ch. 4
  • But I — I a Christian! I, who had been wont to regard Christians with pitying dislike, must now confess myself to be one.
    • Ch. 5
  • But, though I wouldn't have admitted it, even to myself, I didn't want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance.
    • Ch. 6
  • It was a whip-poor-will whistling his liquid song, another one answering in the distance. We sat there a long time, holding hands, as the stars came out. This was the Virginia we loved.
    • Ch. 6
  • Davy, too, was saying farewell to the wind, farewell to the wind and sky, watching it all go, fade away, die — and thanking God. And yet she was human, heart-breakingly human, and she did not want to die.
    • Ch. 7
  • We had had what we had chosen, not business success or scholarly acclaim but a great love.
    • Ch. 7
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
  • As nearly as a lover can do, I was seeing the whole of her — a wholeness I would never lose — and knowing her soul.
    • Ch. 8
  • The future dream charms us because of its timelessness; and I think most of the charm we see in the "good old days" is no less an illusion of timelessness.
    • Ch. 9
  • Sometimes — more precisely, some-not-times — we find "the still point of the turning world". All our most lovely moments perhaps are timeless.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
  • We live in time as we live in the air we breathe. And we love the air — who has not taken deep breaths of pure, fresh country air, just for the pleasure of it? How strange that we cannot love time.
    • Ch. 9
  • Instantly I was overwhelmed — by Oxford. The air itself — the familiar mixture of coal smoke and mist.
    • Ch. 10
  • If, indeed, grief is a response to the presence — seeming or real — of the dead, then the end of grief might correspond to some necessary turning away on their part.
    • Ch. 10
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