Vanauken: I Loved Lewis Like a Brother

Sheldon VanaukenOne of the strongest friendships C. S. Lewis forged with an American was with Sheldon Vanauken, who studied at Oxford in the early 1950s. Neither he nor his wife, Davy, were Christians when they arrived, but after reading some Lewis, and via letters with that famous author, they both were converted while in residence there.

The connection became more than that of an author and correspondent. They met regularly; Lewis even came to their apartment for fellowship. When their time in Oxford ended, and Vanauken returned to America to a professorship of his own, that relationship didn’t end; in fact, it deepened due to a tragic circumstance.

Just a couple of years later, Davy was diagnosed with a fatal illness that took her life a few months afterward. Lewis’s letters to Vanauken during her illness and afterward helped shape the latter’s thinking toward the trials of life and how to face the death of a loved one.

One of the letters Vanuaken wrote to Lewis seemed to hint at suicide as a possible answer for the pain he was experiencing. Vanauken also confessed in the letter that he and Davy had not sought to have children because they had been concerned that a child would damage their own closeness as a couple.

Lewis took Vanauken to task on both of those points. How did Vanuaken know that his wife, after her conversion, still maintained the attitude of not having children, he queried. Perhaps he had denied her something she truly desired. As for the question of suicide, he was adamant that it would be folly to think he would be reunited with her in that way: “You might be digging an eternally unbridgeable chasm. Disobedience is not the way to get nearer to the obedient,” he admonished.

Severe MercyThat letter also is the source of a phrase that Vanauken later used as the title for his book: a severe mercy. Here’s how Lewis put it, in context:

One way or another the thing had to die. Perpetual springtime is not allowed. You were not cutting the wood of life according to the grain. . . . You have been treated with a severe mercy.

You have been brought to see . . . that you were jealous of God. And from us you have been led back to us and God: it remains to go on to God and us.

Vanauken did not recoil from Lewis’s honesty; rather, he embraced it. The quote I have used at the beginning of my new book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, that I thought best epitomized Lewis’s American relationships comes from Vanuaken’s response to this letter in his own book:

It was a very deep friendship on my part: no man ever did so much to shape my mind, quite aside from Christianity, which of course shaped my whole life. I have never loved a man more. And I must believe, from things he said and wrote to me, that he felt both friendship and affection for me. . . . After this severe and splendid letter, I loved Lewis like a brother. A brother and father combined.

Lewis was like a brother and/or a father to many of his American correspondents. Reading through his letters is like feasting on a rare combination of honesty, wisdom, and humility.

Lewis & Humility

Sheldon VanaukenSheldon Vanauken was an American studying in Oxford in the early 1950s. He was supremely pagan in worldview and lifestyle. Then he started reading C. S. Lewis. As a student of literature, he immediately was drawn to Lewis’s Space Trilogy, then began digesting his apologetic works. He decided, since Lewis was at Oxford also, to contact him, and a correspondence between them developed.

Lewis dealt with all of Vanauken’s major questions: the uniqueness of Christianity with respect to all other religions; the need for humility and “bending the knee” to Christ as Lord of all things in one’s life. Vanauken, with Lewis’s help, bent his knee one day and became a convinced Christian. Vanauken’s wife also gave her life to Christ as a result of reading Lewis.

What’s interesting is to see Lewis’s perspective on the role he played in the Vanaukens’ conversion. It gives insight into Lewis’s own character, and the prominence of humility in someone who could easily have puffed up his role. Instead, here is how he explained his contribution:

C. S. Lewis 8I hope my interest in you both is something less blasphemous than that of a Creator in a creature (it wd. anyway be begetting not creating, see Philemon 10).

My feeling about people in whose conversion I have been allowed to play a part is always mixed with awe and even fear: such as a boy might feel on first being allowed to fire a rifle. The disproportion between his puny finger on the trigger and the thunder & lightning wh. follow is alarming.

And the seriousness with which the other party takes my words always raises the doubt whether I have taken them seriously enough myself. By writing the things I write, you see, one especially qualifies for being hereafter “condemned out of one’s mouth.” Think of me as a fellow-patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier, cd. give some advice.

God will always use a person for His purposes who doesn’t think too highly of himself. I believe Lewis’s books and essays continue to bless readers today, in large part because of the quality of his personal character. It shines through in everything he wrote.

Lewis and God’s Severe Mercy

In a post a couple weeks ago, I referenced a new book about C. S. Lewis I was reading. Alister McGrath’s C. S. Lewis, a Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, while not a full biography, nevertheless provides a satisfying interpretation of what motivated Lewis at various stages of his life. Its primary value, though, is his analysis of the significance of the variety of Lewis’s writings, noting how he shifted his emphases throughout his literary career. He began as an apologist and science fiction author, then altered his focus toward the imaginative world we all know as Narnia, as well as the engaging novel Till We Have Faces and commentaries on Biblical themes.

Beyond that, I appreciated the insight into his academic world—the rigors of daily tutorials, the struggle to research and write the kinds of works required in academia, and the dismay of university politics, which, in his case at Oxford, led to one disappointment after another, as he was always turned down for promotion. This was in spite of his fame and popularity in the wider world. McGrath explains that it was that very popularity that grated on his colleagues. They felt his popular writings were “beneath” him. Ah, the elegant snobbery that emanates from prideful hearts.

After completing this book, I had a great desire to return to another book I hadn’t read for over thirty years. I had often thought I wanted to reread it, but it took the Lewis biography to inspire me to do so. A bestseller in the late 1970s, A Severe Mercy relates a tale that involves Lewis directly. The author, Sheldon Vanauken, shares the true story of his relationship and marriage to Jean, better known as “Davy.” They began as pagans—Vanauken’s own term for them—who sought to selfishly guard their love against all distractions or threats. Gradually, their pagan love is transformed into love for God, which opens the door for a new understanding of godly love for one another.

One of the catalysts for this change is the time they spend in Oxford as graduate students. It is there they come under the influence of a number of Christian authors, the chief of which is Lewis. He befriends the Vanaukens and aids in the regeneration of their minds, helping them see the world through Christian eyes. The book includes a generous sampling of letters from Lewis to Vanauken that were newly revealed at the time of its publication.

The greatest lessons learned, though, come through Davy’s illness and death. Vanauken has a way with words, as befits a disciple of Lewis, and the poignancy of his experience with his wife’s death, the manner in which it teaches him the difference between selfishness and genuine love, and Lewis’s role in helping him to see the death as one of God’s severe mercies, is riveting. There are tears as Vanauken tells the tale, but also joy and the revelation of a closer walk with the God who is mercifully severe with us, for our own good.

I highly recommend these two reads. They engage both the mind and the heart.