A Severe Mercy, the Shining Barrier and the Secret to Everlasting Love

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A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken definitely ranks as one of my all-time favourite books. It was highly recommended to me by a former pastor of mine and since reading it I’ve given quite a few of this book away to some friends.

Basically, this book is an adventurous true love story. It contains 18 letters by C.S. Lewis as the author was a close friend of Lewis. The author and his wife are also Christians.

Here I don’t intend to write about the whole book but about one particular chapter of it that I love. It’s the 2nd chapter called “The Shining Barrier (the Pagan Love)”. The title of the chapter alone is interesting. The whole chapter is about what the author describes as “The Shining Barrier”. I simply loved his description of what “The Shining Barrier” is all about. Yet why is the sub-title “the Pagan Love”? I believe it is because the human love between two persons – which is what “The Shining Barrier” is all about – is after all human love. And can be called “pagan”. True love is from God and of God and to God – something that the author tells us more later on in the story. So whatever depth of love there is between two human beings, this love needs to be subordinated to the depth of love one receives from God and gives God.

Indeed human love for one another can be in competition with the love we ought to receive from and give to God – and this perhaps is what the book is all about. Vanauken makes this clear in Chapter 6 “The Barrier Breached”. He writes:

…how can the old pagan joy, the Shining-Barrier…be reconciled with Christian joy?

It is true that sometimes when we love man too much, this kind of love cannot be reconciled with our love for God. God needs to take first place – above all other loves.

What does the title of the book “A Severe Mercy” mean after all? It’s about how Vanauken’s wife, Davy, with whom he upheld a “Shining Barrier” with, died. And how this death, in its seeming severity, was actually an act of God’s mercy (“a mercy that was as severe as death, a death that was as merciful as love.”)

It was because of his wife’s death that Vanauken entered into a wonderful relationship with God. Before that death, his love for her took priority. With the death of his wife, things changed. God breached that “Shining Barrier”. It was an act of mercy.

All that I have written before this is a disclaimer for the following extracts from the book. I wrote the above to let us know that as wonderful as “The Shining Barrier” is, it can disrupt one’s relationship with God. Putting human love for one another before God’s love is wrong! Yet, that doesn’t mean that “The Shining Barrier” and the descriptions Vanauken wonderfully writes about “The Shining Barrier” can do us no good. I believe it can. I love the way Vanauken talks about “The Shining Barrier” and so I’m taking some extracts from his book and hope it’ll benefit you in your human-love relationship. We need to erect a “Shining Barrier” – not one that is a barrier between you and God, but one that is a barrier between you and your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse on one side, and all other human beings on the other. Maybe as we benefit from “The Shining Barrier” insights, there will be less cases of divorce. People will start to realise what true love is. It’s more than a feeling, it’s more than anything “sexual”. It’s communication, understanding and sharing, most importantly.

Let me start with “The Shining Barrier” poem that Sheldon and Davy composed:

This present glory, love, once-given grace,
The sum of blessing in a sure embrace,
Must not in creeping separateness decline
But be the centre of our whole design.

We know it’s love that keeps a love secure,
And only by love of love can love endure,
For self’s a killer, reckless of the cost,
And loves of lilactime unloved are lost.

We build our altar, then, to love and keep
The holy flame alight and never sleep:
This darling love shall deepen year by year,
And dearer shall we grow who are so dear.

The magic word is sharing: every stream
Of beauty, every faith and grief and dream;
Go hand in hand in gay companionship –
In sober death no sundering of the grip.

And into love all other loveliness
That we can tease from time we shall impress
Slows dawns and lilacs, traceries of the tress,
The spring and poems, stars and ancient seas.

This splendour is upon us, high and pure
As heaven: and we swear it shall endure:
Swear fortitude for pain and faith for tears
To hold our shining barrier down the years.

Let me now quote you one of my favourite passages in the book which describes what is the Shining Barrier all about:

What emerged from our talk was nothing less, we believed, than the central ‘secret’ of enduring love: sharing.

‘Look,’ we said, ‘what is it that draws two people into closeness and love? Of course there’s the mystery of physical attraction, but beyond that it’s the things they share. We both love strawberries and ships and collies and poems and all beauty, and all those things bind us together. Those sharings just happened to be; but what we must do now is share everything. Everything! 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.’

Total sharing, we felt, was the ultimate secret of a love that would last for ever. And of course we could learn to like anything if we wanted to. Through sharing we would not only make a bond of incredible friendship, but through sharing we would keep the magic of inloveness. And with every year, more and more depth. We would become as close as two human beings could become – closer perhaps than any two people had ever been. Whatever storms might come, whatever changes the years might bring, there would be the bedrock closeness of all our sharing. So we saw our way, horizon beyond horizon, ahead.

And here are some other good passages:

The Shining Barrier – the shield of our love. A walled garden. A fence around a young tree to keep the deer from nibbling it. An fortified place with the walls and watchtowers gleaming white like the cliffs of England. The Shining Barrier – we called it so from the first – protecting the green tree of our love. And yet in another sense, it was our love itself, made strong within, that was the Shining Barrier…

The killer of love is creeping separateness. Inloveness is a gift of the gods, but then it is up to the lovers to cherish or to ruin. Taking love for granted, especially after marriage. Ceasing to do things together. Finding separate interests. ‘We’ turning into ‘I’. Self. Self-regard: what I want to do. Actual selfishness only a hop away. This was the way of creeping separateness. And in the modern world, especially in the cities, everything favoured it. The man going off to his office; the woman staying home with the children – her children – or perhaps having a different job. The failure of love might seem to be caused by hate or boredom or unfaithfulness with a lover; but those were results. First came creeping separateness: the failure behind the failure.

We raised the Shining Barrier against creeping separateness, which was, in the last analysis, self. We also raised it against a world of indecencies and decaying standards, the decline of courtesy, the whispering mockers of love. We would have our own standards. And, above all, we would be us-centered, not self-centered. Against creeping separateness we would oppose the great principle of sharing. We saw self as the ultimate danger to love…

Creeping separateness and sharing were opposite sides of one coin. We rejected separate activities, whether bridge or shooting or sailing, because they would lead to creeping separateness; on the other hand, if one of us liked anything, the other, in the name of sharing, must learn to like it too…

Our thesis that if one of us liked something there must be something to like about it which the other could find was proved again and again…

…a principle of spontaneity: if one of us had an impulse – to stop and listen to a bird, to go for a walk in the night, to cut classes, to do anything – we both followed it always…the principle of the affirmative: if one of us arrived at a belief, we both accepted it unless it could be disproved; we considered that any affirmative was more to be trusted than the negative. If one of us had seen a ghost, not that either did, the other would accept, not scoff…a principle of courtesy: whatever one of us asked the other to do – it was assumed the asker would weigh all consequences – the other would do. Thus one might wake the other in the night and ask for a cup of water; and the other would peacefully (and sleepily) fetch it. We, in fact, defined courtesy as ‘a cup of water in the night’. And we considered it a very great courtesy to ask for the cup as well as to fetch it…

To be the watch upon the walls of the Shining Barrier, we early established what, later, we called the Navigators’ Council. It was in part a ‘truth session’ but, more significantly, it was an inquiry into the ‘state of the union’. Were we fully sharing? Was there any sign of creeping separateness? These Councils would occur fortnightly or monthly. In them we would pour out sherry and begin with a burst of music from some noble symphony, perhaps the singing of the ‘Fifth’, and then we would talk. Often there were decisions to make. Whatever the decision, it would be made upon the single basis of what we called the ‘Appeal to Love’.

The ‘Appeal to Love’ was an essential part of the very structure of the Shining Barrier. What it meant was simply this question: what will be best for our love? Should one of us change a pattern of behaviour that bothered the other, or should the other learn to accept? Well, which would be better for our love? Which way would be better, in any choice or decision, in the light of our single goal: to be in love as long as life might last? No argument could prevail against it. The Appeal to Love was like a trumpet call from the battlements of the Shining Barrier, causing us to lift our eyes from the immediate desires to what was truly important…

The passion, the sexual element, was there: and sexual harmony like sexual playfulness was an important dimension of our love. But it wasn’t itself the whole thing; and we knew that to make it the whole or even the most important element was to court disaster. Those who see love as only sex or mainly sex do not, quite simply, know what love is. They are the blind man assuming that the trunk of the elephant – or perhaps the phallus – is the whole creature. Sex is merely part of a greater thing. To be in love, as to see beauty, is a kind of adoring that turns the lover away from self. Just seeing Davy asleep, defenceless and trusting and innocent, could tear my heart, then in that first spring or a dozen years later. When we first fell in love in dead of winter, we said, ‘If we aren’t more in love in lilactime, we shall be finished.’ But we were more in love: for love must grow or die. Every year on our anniversary we said, ‘If we’re not more deeply in love next year, we shall have failed.’

I’d like to mention 2 things which I’ve learnt from the book and the above quotes about Love.

Firstly, like I already said above (yet I think it’s important to reiterate), love is more than only feelings. It’s more than sexual attraction. A great part of sustaining and unbreakable love between two people only occurs when they understand each other fully. Not just some parts, but all parts of their lives. And this comes about through sharing one’s whole life – interests, thoughts, secrets…etc. All this will then result in “a thousand strands twisted into something unbreakable.” Sheldon puts it so beautifully. Every sharing strengthens the bond between two people. The more sharings, the greater the bond and the better the two people will be able to understand, relate and sympathize with one another in every way.

Let me just mention here the first stanza of one of my favourite songs “Amigos Para Siempre” (“Friends For Life” in Spanish):

I don’t have to say a word to you
You seem to know whatever mood I’m going through
Feel as though I’ve known you forever
You can look into my eyes and see
The way I feel and how the world is treating me
Maybe I have known you forever.

I feel these words describe how relationships should be. We should be so close that we know how the other is feeling without the other person needing to say a word to us.

How does such closeness and bonding between two people come about? How do we come to a stage whereby two people are perfectly on the same “wavelength”?

Sharing our whole lives is the key.

Secondly, love is strengthened between two people when each make it a point to be interested and to like the things and activities that the other person likes! Sheldon says its so beautifully once again:

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.

This is the way to counter “creeping separation”. We can’t let the other person spend time on their own things because they are interested in it and we aren’t really interested in it. NO! Whatever passions the other person share, there must be a reason that the other person is passionate about it. Then we must find it. We must start to be interested in it and develop our own passion for this thing or activity.

Surely no two persons are the same or think the same or like to do the same things. But surely love for the other person will cause us to find out why the other person likes this or that. And love will cause us to understand more about the other person’s interest till eventually we feel the same way that our partner feels for everything!

Having quoted so much from the book about the beautiful “Shining Barrier”, let me end off once again with a reminder that the love between a man and a woman, as great as that is, should not be what Christians pursue ultimately.

C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon that his love for Davy and vice-versa most admirably reflected the ideal of man and wife being “one flesh”, yet he said that this one flesh team cannot “live to itself.” How true! They were made for God, not for love itself nor were they made for each other to satisfy themselves, but rather to serve God!

So let’s celebrate great intimate love that is full of sharing and understanding between two people that creates “a thousand strands twisted into something unbreakable.” Yet let’s not forget it’s God who should always be number ONE in our lives!

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  1. Don’t forget Lewis’s other rebuke, that Sheldon had denied motherhood to Davy, since it was an experience he couldn’t share. If they had had children, he wouldn’t have been so desolate at her loss.
    He could see her in the eyes of their children.

  2. Yes, in his ignorance of romantic relationships, Lewis did say that, though it isn’t accurate, since they decided together not to have children, and they decided together to share everything. The reason in the beginning is that children are designated to the realm of women, thereby creating a barrier, not a bond between spouses.

    Sheldon ALSO retorted that yes, but they did share the experience of NOT having children.

    Had he had children, he may have needed to consider remarrying, which was something he was fortunate enough not to have to do (since, in his particular situation, and with his relationship with Davy, the point was to make something irreplaceable).

  3. In a culture where at least 50% of all marriages end in divorce, the “Shining Barrier” is something to think about. What I like about the Vanaukens is the fact that, at a time when they were little more than children, they sat down and figured out how to make their love last. Sure, they had some things in common, and they were in love. So what? People fall in love all the time. And then, after a year, or 10 years, or 25 years, they part company. Sheldon and Davy decided early on that this would not happen to them. Yes, there was great loss…but that only means they had something worth having.

    I was so sorry that Lewis led Vanauken to believe that God had taken his wife from him because he loved her too much. This is an insult to God. Davy died because we live in a world of entropy and death…nothing more. There is no such thing as loving too much, and no, the love between any two people is never in competition with the love of God. It is the same thing (read the Parable of the Sheep and Goats).

  4. I read this book many, many years ago, and this post makes me want to dig it out and read it again. My husband and I have been married for 18 years, so I would like to read it now and see what my reaction to it is. I remember being profoundly moved when I read it at 18 years of age.

  5. Hello,

    I just stumbled upon this blog and wanted to share my thought on both the subject of children and death:

    1. Davy actually had a child. Before her and Sheldon were together, actually when Davy was 14, she had a daughter and gave her up for adoption. Sheldon’s search for this daughter after Davy died is written about is his book “The Little Lost Marion and other mercies”.

    2. The reason they did not have children was to protect their love. Their society was much different that ours is today and I believe had they lived today, that decision might have been different seeing as today’s society is much more accepting of both parents having a part in parenting. This decision was also made before they were Christians. Sheldon himself even says that he regrets this decision and wishes they might have decided otherwise. I think part of the reason they decided not to have children was also probably because she had so much pain surrounding the circumstances of her only daughter.

    3. Sheldon and Lewis did not believe that God took Dave because Sheldon loved her too much. Rather, God took Davy because Sheldon was worshiping her rather than God. Yes, death being the outcome of all life was part of the reason (duh), but God was being merciful in taking Davy so that Sheldon would look to God for his completeness rather than her. Sheldon always resented God secretly for changing Davy’s heart to one of worship for the Lord rather than of him. And I think Sheldon never would have come to have a personal relationship with God if Davy was in the picture, because he was only a Christian to please her and it was much more of an intellectual thing than a heart thing. Lewis says it was a severe mercy because it was severe that Davy was taken from him but a mercy from God in giving him that which is truly life.

    Those are just my thoughts on the matter. This is a great book!

  6. i read the book a year ago and just finished seaching my house to read it again – only to find it returned to the original owner! but, finding your post was a wonderful little treat, and i was reminded all the more of why i want to read it again! thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

  7. This was the best book I’ve ever read. I’ve read it many, many times throughout the years as well. The chapter about “The Shining Barrier” was also my favorite part and the most beautiful portrayal of true love and closeness.

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