Sheldon Vanauken, who was the author of some of the most eloquent and moving meditations of death and loss since C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, finally has gone through the portals of eternity himself. Or, to put it in a way he would have much preferred: He has at last sailed his beloved Grey Goose into its final harbor.
Vanauken, known to his friends as “Van,” will be remembered primarily for his classic book, A Severe Mercy, which told the remarkable story of his falling in love with, and marrying, a beautiful, intelligent, and vivacious woman named Jean, whom he nicknamed “Davy.” In the book, he recounts their gradual realization that their passion for one another had erected a “shining barrier” between themselves and God. When they moved to Oxford so that Vanauken could pursue a graduate degree, they encountered C. S. Lewis, both in his writings and in the flesh. After much thought and discussion came conversion to Christianity and a great release of joy. Then, only a year and a half after leaving Oxford, Davy was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Six months later she was gone.
In the second half of A Severe Mercy, Vanauken writes about Davy’s acceptance of death, of the consolation he received from C. S. Lewis, and of his own struggle to understand the loss of Davy—a loss Lewis had called a “severe mercy” from God.
A Severe Mercy has consoled and enlightened thousands of readers. The book marked a turning point in Van’s life: the act of writing it, about fifteen years after Davy’s death, helped him to emerge out of a period of drift and doubt. But from the moment he completed the book, his faith was rekindled and he would go on to become one of our best Christian apologists, in the tradition of his mentor C. S. Lewis. Eventually he converted to Catholicism and many of his closely-argued essays graced the pages of Crisis and the New Oxford Review. His other books include his collected poems, a fascinating study of British support for the Confederates in the Civil War, and two other autobiographical volumes, Under the Mercy and The Little Lost Marion and Other Mercies.
Van was a Virginia gentleman, an anachronism in our crass late twentieth-century American culture. His love for the beauty of the world—from sailboats to Greek islands to collies to classic mystery novels—was thoroughly sacramental and infectious. Van was an unabashed romantic. But he truly had first-hand knowledge of Eros at its highest pitch; even his faith was based on what Chesterton called the “romance of orthodoxy.” At times, perhaps, his writing could verge on the sentimental, but then Van had deeper and more profound sentiments than most of us ever will.
The truth is that the wound of Davy’s death never entirely healed. Van came to understand that his own inner world could be given meaning by offering it up to his wounded savior.
Once, as Van and C. S. Lewis were going their separate ways after a pub lunch, Lewis turned back and bellowed from across the street: “Christians never say goodbye.” So we won’t say goodbye to Van, only: Fare well. There can be no doubt that Van and Davy have made one of heaven’s greatest reunions.