Sheldon Vanauken: His Story & Legacy, a post by Elaine Hooker

The Wade Center’s collection focuses exclusively on seven British authors; however, the depth of our collections is extensive and can include some remarkable related and contextual materials.

The Wade Center’s Sheldon Vanauken collection, although indirectly related to C.S. Lewis, preserves an important example of the personal influence of Lewis’s life and his writings. Sheldon Vanauken, one of C.S. Lewis’s many regular correspondents, exchanged approximately 24 letters with Lewis over a ten-year period between 1950 and 1960. Unbeknownst to the two men at the time, they would not only share a religious journey from nominal faith to atheism and back again to Christianity, but also the experience of caring for a spouse through illness and death and then grieving the loss as a widower.

VausbookAs historical resources, archives offer a unique “sneak peek” into various aspects of a person’s life. The Vanauken Collection contains typescripts and proofs of several works by Sheldon Vanauken (A Severe Mercy, Gateway to Heaven, and Under the Mercy) along with photographs of awards, photocopies of articles, reviews, and Vanauken’s review briefs and letter logs related to his literary work. Also included are biographical research materials on Vanauken from Will Vaus, author of Sheldon Vanauken: The Man Who Received “A Severe Mercy” (Hamden, CT: Winged Lion Press, 2012), which were incorporated into the Vanauken collection in Spring 2015 by Wade Center archival intern Lisa Krajecki. Two particularly unique items are a created facsimile of his wife Jean “Davy” Vanauken’s personal annotated King James Bible and one of her own watercolor paintings. Davy’s Bible is our “featured artifact” in this blog post, and its importance becomes evident once the story behind it is told.

Vanauken first wrote to Lewis in December 1950, during his “second look” at Christianity, having abandoned the faith of his childhood in the name of truth. Like Lewis, Vanauken had discarded the faith of his youth and become a “small, fierce atheist” (Encounter with Light, p.1). However, while a student at Oxford University, Vanauken decided he should revisit Christianity once more. During this time of questioning, he read Lewis’s books (among others), and wrote to Lewis with some of the theological questions that surfaced as a result of his reading:

  • Is faith a childish thing to be discarded when one matures intellectually?
  • Was the universe created by God, or did it just happen?
  • If God exists, can He be known intimately?
  • Is there proof that Christ was the Son of God?

Lewis recognized the deep questions of a serious searcher on a spiritual journey. He had, after all, been on such a journey himself. On December 23, 1950, at the close of only his second letter to Vanauken, Lewis writes:

“…I think you are already in the meshes of the net! The Holy Spirit is after you. I doubt if you’ll get away.”

Vanauken did eventually embrace Christianity as a result of a variety of factors including the influence of C.S. Lewis, and in particular the strong connection he shared with his wife Davy.

EncounterIt is interesting to note that the exchange of letters between Vanauken and Lewis were not unusual. C.S. Lewis conscientiously answered every letter he received. He viewed his correspondence as a devotional act and a Christian duty, and it grew into a task that occupied a great deal of his time and energy. The letters between the two and Vanauken’s own conversion story were first published in a booklet titled Encounter with Light by the Church of the Covenant, Vanauken’s church, in 1961. The story also appeared in a 1968 issue of His magazine (v.29, n.3, p.6-11), and two years later was published by the Wade Center; it is still available for purchase today. Vanauken later expanded the story of his journey to faith into chapter 4 of his autobiography A Severe Mercy, published in 1977 and winner of the National Book Award in 1980 in the religion/inspiration category.

A_SEVERE_MERCYA Severe Mercy expands the story begun in Encounter with Light, to include Vanauken’s relationship with his wife Davy, chronicling their intense love affair through their meeting, marriage, subsequent individual conversions to Christianity, and her eventual illness and death.

The love story of Davy and Van, as he was known to his friends, is an intense one. He describes them as being in love almost from their first meeting. After knowing each other ten months, they were secretly married and hoped to maintain their love in a perpetual springtime. They had intentions to share everything, keeping no secrets from each other. When they began to reexamine Christianity in Oxford, they both read the same books and discussed them with each other. However, Davy came to faith first. As Van describes it, she had a visceral experience of her own sin and guilt, and an emotional need for the absolution Christianity offered.

A few months later, on March 29, 1951, Vanauken declares that he wrote in his notebook:

“I choose to believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—in Christ, my lord and my God. 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…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. It’s all I can do: choose.” (Encounter with Light, p. 23-24)

Three years later, Jean “Davy” Vanauken was diagnosed with terminal liver disease. She died six months after her diagnosis. Vanauken was left alone to reconcile his grief and his Christian faith. Vanauken’s correspondence with Lewis is part of how he processed this loss, very much like Lewis would later do in A Grief Observed.

Perhaps as Vanauken grieved, he also created the artifact now retained in this archive, the annotated King James Bible fashioned after the one belonging to Jean “Davy” Vanauken. Notes inside the Bible explain that Davy’s Bible was threadbare and falling apart, so this one was remade by transcribing her marks and notes from that volume to this. This Bible also contains a loose insert near the title page with passages from Matthew written on it, as well as several glued inserts. Click on the images below to enlarge them.

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The Bible Vanauken used to transcribe Davy’s annotations following her death.

Bible002

Title page of the Bible.

Bible001

Inscriptions in the Bible.

Bible005

Sample page showing the careful annotations in the Bible.

To learn more about Sheldon Vanauken and his life see the following materials in the Wade Center’s collections:

Books by Sheldon Vanauken:

  • Vanauken, Sheldon. Encounter With Light. Wheaton, Ill. : [s.n.], [1970; reprinted ca. 1978].
  • Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy. San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1977.
  • Vanauken, Sheldon. Gateway To Heaven. San Francisco : Harper & Row, 1980.
  • Vanauken, Sheldon. The Glittering Illusion: English Sympathy For The Southern Confederacy. Columbia, S.C. : Southron Press, 1985.
  • Vanauken, Sheldon. Mercies: Collected Poems. Front Royal, Va. : Christendom College Press, 1988.
  • Vanauken, Sheldon. Under The Mercy. Nashville : T. Nelson, 1985.

Books about Sheldon Vanauken:

  • Vaus, Will. Sheldon Vanauken: The Man Who Received “a Severe Mercy.” Hamden, CT : Winged Lion Press, 2012.

2 thoughts on “Sheldon Vanauken: His Story & Legacy, a post by Elaine Hooker

    • We have one painting by Davy at the Wade Center titled “Wave of God” (email in advance if you’d like to view it so we can ensure it is pulled and available). Not uncertain where her other artwork is. You can contact author Will Vaus to see if he knows, and we’d be glad of an answer in a follow-up post to hear what you learn: http://www.willvaus.com/contact.

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