A Severe Mercy
By Sheldon Vanauken
Reviewed by David Swanzy

   A Severe Mercy was written in 1977 and last reprinted in 1987 by HarperOne. Other than the Holy Bible, it remains my all-time favorite book.
There is so much to share with my readers that it is difficult to do the book justice. Simply stated, it is rather overwhelming to have a writer clearly relate the various stages of a slow but steady spiritual growth within the context of a love story.
   There are many quotes and a few self-contained stories that express Vanauken's Christian faith. The story of Gypsy, given below, is a condensed version of one of them. Vanauken used his wheat-colored collie dog, Gypsy, to illustrate the Fall and Original Sin.

  Gypsy grew up with Van in the country and had several hundred acres of hills and woods in which to roam. She delighted in this and enjoyed a comfortable bed and meals with a loving master. She knew she should not chase chickens and should obey certain commands, such as follow, come, or lie down. After all, to obey and to worship the master was natural to her dog nature.
   There came a day when, as Gypsy was prowling on the far hill past the springhouse, two things happened at once: the master called her and a rabbit fled across the hill. Gypsy wheeled and raced toward her master, as she had always done. Then she stopped. It entered her mind that she did not have to obey. Perhaps her master did not understand about that rabbit. And after all, she was a free dog, so she whirled and raced after the rabbit. Having been free to choose, she made a choice.
  It was hours later when she came home. She saw the master waiting for her, but she did not rush to him, leaping friskily as she had always done. Something new came into her demeanor: guilt. She crept up to him like a snake on her belly. Undoubtedly she was penitent at the moment. But she had a new knowledge—the possibility of sin—and it thrilled her heart.
  Nevertheless, she was very obedient the next day and the day after that. Eventually, though, there was another rabbit and then another, and she did not even hesitate. Soon, it was the mere possibility of a rabbit, dropping eventually the rabbit thing altogether and disobeying whenever that choice offered her excitement.
  Her master loved her still but trusted her no longer. For a time she lived in a pen and went for walks with a rope around her neck. Even so, her master gave her chances to obey of her own free will. Had she chosen to obey she would once again have had perfect freedom to wander the hills and woods.
  But she did not return to her earlier obedience. If she were out of reach, she always chose to run away. Her master could have easily ended her rebellion with a rifle, but he continued to hope she might still become her obedient self again.
  One day, during a journey by car with her master, the thrill of a new and different forest was just too tempting for Gypsy. She jumped out and fled, possibly to chase a lone rabbit or simply to roam. Her master called with a note of sharp urgency but she continued her rush into the unfamiliar forest. After hours of searching, her master returned home alone without her.

 

  Gypsy, if she still lived, wandered the woods and roads as an outcast. She became dirty and matted with burs. No doubt, stones were thrown at her and she was often hungry. She was hopelessly lost and unable to find her way back home. Her free-will choice of chasing the rabbit rather than obeying her master had led to other similar choices until she no longer had a choice.

 

  Perhaps selected quotes, together with this story about Gypsy, may provide a concise and accurate review of what A Severe Mercy is really about.

 

"Some people run away from grief, go on world cruises or move to another town. But they do not escape. Memories spring into their minds, scattered perhaps over the years. There is, maybe, something to be said for facing them all deliberately and straightaway."

"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. I didn't want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free—like Gypsy. I wanted life itself, the color and 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."

"The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness. But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians. When they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths. But, though it is just to condemn some Christians for these things, perhaps, after all, it is not just, though very easy, to condemn Christianity itself for them. Indeed, there are impressive indications that the positive quality of joy is in Christianity--and possibly nowhere else. If that were certain, it would be proof of a very high order."

"He had been wont to despise emotions: girls were weak— emotions and tears were weaknesses. 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. What is beauty but something that is responded to with emotion? Courage, at least, is partly emotional. All the splendor 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.

"Signs must be read with caution. The history of Christendom is replete with instances of people who misread the signs."

"My fundamental dilemma is this: I can't believe in Christ unless I have faith, but I can't have faith unless I believe in Christ. This is 'the leap.' If to be a Christian is to have faith (and clearly it is), I can put it thus: I must accept Christ to become a Christian, but I must be a Christian to accept him. I don't have faith and I don't as yet believe; but everyone seems to say: 'You must have faith to believe.' Where do I get it? Or will you tell me something different? Is there a proof? Can Reason carry one over the gulf.… without faith?"

"One who has never been in love might mistake either infatuation or a mixture of affection and sexual attraction for being in love. But when the 'real thing' happens, there is no doubt. 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. So with the genuine inloveness."

"All our most lovely moments are perhaps timeless."