Remembering Van

October 1997By David Hartman

David Hartman is the Minister of the Harrodsburg Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

The Little Lost Marion and Other Mercies.  By Sheldon Vanauken. Franciscan University Press. (800-783-6357). 272 pages. $12.95.

Full disclosure of the reviewer’s relation to the author is a requirement. In this case that duty becomes a pleasure — becomes, in fact, a profession of love and a modest attempt at eulogy — for the author is the late Sheldon Vanauken, and I count it among my singular blessings to have known Van not only as a writer but also as a friend, and first of all as a teacher.

Many who studied under him at Lynchburg College thought him the finest teacher they ever had. Thousands were moved by the story of love, grief, and God’s abiding grace in his memoir A Severe Mercy, and many were tugged to Rome by reading its sequel, Under the Mercy. Those who read the books and sought him out, by letter or by pilgrimage to his little house in Virginia, found a wise and generous counselor and a faithful correspondent.

I first met him in September 1969. I was a new freshman at Lynchburg College, a conservative Southern school of middling academic status, and Prof. Vanauken was assigned as my acting faculty advisor. When I knocked on his door I encountered a man with the bulk of John Wayne, hair down to his shoulders, and an accent that I would later hear described as “mid-Atlantic.” He was the oddest middle-aged man I had ever met, and he spent a significant part of our conference railing against the Vietnam War, in language a sailor would have found congenial. Since my father was in the military and my family was conservative Presbyterian, I was, to say the least, taken aback. When we finally got around to filling out my schedule, he asked which teacher I would like for the required course on Western Civilization. Out of courtesy, I said it would be interesting to take it from him. “Interesting” of course is an all-purpose euphemism. But never has courtesy served me so well.

In the classroom Vanauken was magisterial. He spoke knowledgeably of “the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome.” While he lectured, he sat, and bivouacked in his chair he was as immobile as a stump. But the world he drew us into three times a week — a world far removed from my freshman fixation on cheerleaders, draft status, and getting hold of a six-pack for the weekend — was a transcendent and heroic place. To this day, I am liable to discourse at length on why Homer’s Iliad marks the dawn of Western literature, why Pericles was a statesman to be emulated, or why Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Euripides rank with Shakespeare as the greatest of playwrights. Van once gave a lecture on Socrates that — so help me — cured my hangover. He made the very idea of civilization seem winsome and fragile, and he dispelled whatever notions I might have entertained about the romance of barbarism. Van was besotted by history, art, literature, and the manifold glories of the mind, and he enabled any student with the attention span of a higher mammal to be besotted as well.

In his classroom, the word “Vietnam” never came up; but on campus his antiwar stance made him well known and frequently reviled. Van was faculty adviser to the Southern Student Organizing Committee, a slightly more genteel version of the SDS. He invited me to attend a meeting at his home and, though I was no radical, I went. Van lived in a small, one-room house stuffed with books, and he held forth from a large bed jammed into a corner. He said that if any of us was arrested for antiwar activities — which at that time consisted of picketing the Lynchburg post office, the only federal building in town — all we had to do was call him and he would post bond: the mnemonic for his phone number was VIOLINS.

The students sprawled on his floor that night went into the usual 60s cant about the evils of the Establishment and the imperatives of dialectical materialism. It was only when one young radical launched into a soliloquy on how God had betrayed him that Van quietly interrupted and gave a most persuasive defense of orthodox Christianity. The room fell silent. If I had been taken aback by his politics, they were taken aback by his faith. His hair length and antiwar convictions allowed him passage through their barricades, but his profoundly unfashionable faith seemed to put him back beyond the pale. I loitered after the others had left, and mentioned that I was intrigued by what he had said about Christianity. He gave me a booklet he had written entitled “Encounter with Light” (in which I recall seeing for the first time the name C.S. Lewis).

In class and out, Van was intriguing. I learned he had been a naval officer at Pearl Harbor. (“Which side?” snarled one surly local.) In class, he passed around fading postcards of the Acropolis, of Oxford, of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. All contained brief inscriptions on the back that began “Davy and I...” (whoever Davy was). Once — only once — did I hear him use the phrase, “When I was married.” (Clearly divorced, I remember thinking.) In my sophomore year, I took a few more courses from him, and invited him to address a chapel service, which he did eloquently and authoritatively.

After that, I pretty much lost contact with him. I would see him occasionally on campus, but I had other concerns. In my junior year, I took an introductory Bible course from a smirking professor of religion and emerged, flushed and triumphant, as an atheist. In my senior year, the Vietnam War ended (at least for Americans) and even more consequentially (for me anyway) so did the draft. It is a fact about Vietnam-era idealism that many male collegians were considerably more exercised about the draft than about the war. Because Van was a former naval officer, decades past draft age, and had no draftable son, his own opposition to the war was free of self-interest. His public stance had precipitated veiled warnings from the college administration about the security of his tenure, and may have been the motive behind a cross that was burned on his lawn. It wasn’t until years later that I fully appreciated the depth of Van’s courage and the purity of his convictions.

Since I had spent nearly four years envisioning a postgraduate future that started with a letter from the draft board and ended somewhere in a rice paddy, the change in prospects, though welcome, was disorienting. After college, I drifted about a bit. I was finding my fellow atheists as unpalatable as I was finding myself. Though I believed Jesus of Nazareth to have been a sterling fellow, much to be admired, I thought Christianity intellectually indefensible. One sleepless night I was rummaging in a dresser drawer and came upon “Encounter with Light.” I read it again — this time I understood it — and realized that I had never ceased to possess the intellectual defense of Christianity that I had thought did not exist. I came close to dialing VIOLINS at three o’clock in the morning, but I didn’t; I didn’t call Van at all. Two years later, I went to divinity school. It was atheism, Van’s booklet had helped me to see, that was intellectually indefensible.

In my second year at divinity school, I received from Lynchburg an alumni flyer announcing the publication of A Severe Mercy. I ordered it, read it, and was transfixed as mystery after mystery was unveiled. The Davy of the postcards had been Van’s wife. C.S. Lewis had been their friend and spiritual mentor at Oxford. Before Oxford, Van and Davy had reveled in their private and pagan love, building a “shining barrier” against the world. But there, amid Oxford’s dreaming spires (abetted by Lewis’s wide-awake intellect), the Hound of Heaven had caught them. They became followers of Christ. After Oxford came his professorship at Lynchburg College, where, Van observed, “the students...were not only not students, they were semi-literate.” (Ouch.) And there in Virginia, after 10 years of marriage, Davy died of an undiagnosable illness. Her death was “the severe mercy,” the final collapse of the shining barrier that Christ had breached at Oxford. “Perpetual springtime is not allowed,” Lewis wrote to a grieving Van.

Within a week of receiving A Severe Mercy, I had read through it twice, and wept both times. Others have written — more eloquently than I — of the impact that book has had on their lives. I consider it the most beautiful book on love, loss, and grace I have ever read.

After div school graduation and ordination, I spent a summer working at a hospital in south London. One night, staring out at the expansive graveyard which provided the view from my room in Tooting (London’s equivalent of the South Bronx), I decided to read A Severe Mercy again. Once again, I wept. That week I wrote to Van, mentioning that a decade before I had been his student, and trying to describe how much the book had meant to me. By return mail I received a postcard from him, in minuscule script, in which he said that he had been in London the week before, and if he had known I was there he would have looked me up. He invited me to call on him in Virginia, and said I was now in an “apostolic succession” which included George MacDonald, Lewis, and himself, and that he had decided that if A Severe Mercy had been written for only one person, it had been written for me. I felt as Elisha might have felt on receiving his anointing from Elijah; nor was the effect lessened when a fellow worker, on reading the card, glanced at me and said, “Looks like the line of succession has pretty well petered out.” My gratification was not lessened even when I learned, some years later, that Van had expressed the same sentiments to many others.

Back in the States, I discovered dozens of people who had been touched by A Severe Mercy. Having been Van’s student endowed me with a credibility I did not deserve but exploited nonetheless, specifically with my prospective in-laws, who, loving Van through his book, had presumed that some of his qualities must have rubbed off on anyone who had benefited from his tutoring. Still, nine years after receiving his invitation, I hadn’t called him. A residual deference prevailed.

How much of the reviewer does one include in what is ostensibly a book review? I married; became the father of three; moved back to Virginia. A sequel to A Severe Mercy was published, entitled Under the Mercy. It was about many things, but it was primarily about Van’s conversion to Catholicism from the Episcopal Church. Whatever Van did, he did because he thought — not felt, but thought, rigorously and on the basis of evidence — it was the right thing to do. Could it be that on the issue of Catholicism, Van was right as well? In 1988, I was at a meeting on the Lynchburg College campus. I had brought along copies of the two Mercy books. On a break, I dialed VIOLINS and said, “Professor Vanauken, I’m sure you have no idea who I am, but I am a former student of yours who has been deeply impressed by your books. Would it be at all convenient sometime this weekend for me to run by and ask you to autograph them?”

“Why don’t you pop around now?” he said. I did — down the hill behind the women’s dormitory, to the small white frame house on Breckenbridge with the silver Morgan in the detached garage. Nothing had changed from 20 years before. When he opened the door, I thrust the books at him. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting anything,” I said. “Why don’t you come in?” he asked.

The moment of his time I had requested stretched into a two-hour visit. He didn’t recall my having been his student, but when I produced the postcard he had sent to London, he turned to a notebook on a side table. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Here’s something from the letter you sent.” And he read it. I was astounded. Not only did Van answer every letter he received — and the volume he received was prodigious — he also recorded excerpts from many of them.

When the sun had passed below the yardarm, he offered Scotch and soda; throughout our talk, I (though a recovering nicotine addict) bummed cigarettes from him. We talked of a number of things, but mostly we talked of why he had become a Catholic. “Because I believe it’s true,” he said. He offered an article from a journal I’d never heard of, New Oxford Review. The author, James J. Thompson Jr., a semi-lapsed and grieving Catholic, recounted his encounter with Vanauken and told how Vanauken, through the good offices of his priest, Fr. Tony Warner, had helped bring him back into the fold. I eventually departed, reeking of smoke, tipsy from the Scotch, and exhilarated by the conversation. It was the start of many conversations, and many more letters.

In letters and in person, Van was encouraging, insightful, and full of good cheer. He criticized my article manuscripts, reviewed my screenplays, and appraised my novel-in-progress. He expanded my circle of friends: Fr. Tony Warner became a confidant; his “adopted cousin” Loring Ellis in South Carolina became a gracious correspondent. Again and again I encountered people who knew him by reputation. A couple in Virginia whose son was slowly dying mentioned A Severe Mercy. I yelped: “I know the author.” That evening, I wrote Van and asked if he would write the family. He wrote them immediately, a gracious missive which, they told me later, had consoled them greatly. No doubt there are hundreds of others who can relate similar tales of his kindness.

He could also be curmudgeonly. He was once invited to give a classroom lecture at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, and when the questions after the lecture showed no sign of abating, he lit up a cigarette — a shocking breach of Falwellian protocol. “What were they going to do?” he later growled. “Expel me?” He was fond of strolling into the sacristy while his long-suffering priest robed for Mass, lighting up, and offering suggestions on the upcoming homily. I once joined Van for Mass at Holy Cross in Lynchburg. He sat near the front, and while the congregation recited the newer version of the Nicene Creed, he boomed out the old. “Why did you do that?” I asked later. “I learnt the Creed in my youth,” he said, “and I’m too damned old to learn another!”

As Van aged, his predilection for unfashionable causes became more pronounced. He had always been a Southern sympathizer and a lover of Virginia: In his later years he became an apologist for the Confederacy. One hastens to point out that Van was not a racist. In the early 1960s he had invited black friends to worship with him among his genteel Episcopalian congregation. When the anxious vicar fretted that doing so might cause people to leave, Van retorted, “Let them! The Christians will remain!”

The one time I felt the force of his wrath was when, responding to a jeremiad against gun control he had published in the NOR entitled “Guns, Freedom, and the Coming Caesar,” I drafted for the NOR a jesting article which sketched Van as a romantic antiquarian who didn’t really mean what he said. I added that he probably didn’t even own a gun, but that if William Tecumseh Sherman should ever ride by he’d try to pot him with his typewriter. Van was furious. “It was shameful of you to say that!” he wrote. I withdrew my submission, and Van was effusive in his forgiveness.

I learned something important from that embarrassment: While he was indeed a contrarian — I had seen that at Lynchburg College — the values by which he lived were rooted deep within him: courage, love of freedom, devotion to the faith. He was an absolutely principled man. One could easily envision him as a knight in the Fourth Crusade, turning his sword against his fellows when they tried to sack Constantinople; or as a Confederate officer, valiant in defense of the South but missing no opportunity to denounce the evils of slavery. He was never a man of his age; he was a man for all ages. When I read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, I always find myself visualizing Johnson with Vanauken’s face.

I last saw him in September 1996, a few weeks before my wife and I separated. I had told him of our marital difficulties and asked for his prayers, and he assured me that they were ongoing. A few days after our meeting, he sent a letter in which he said that my sadness had caused him great anxiety: “Wd. it not be helpful,” he wrote, “to say to your wife, ‘Darling, what is in me that you would most like to change?’” I showed her the sentence. “He has a good heart,” she said. I asked her what I should change about myself; she asked me the same; we told each other; we had another in a series of arguments. We had a few more, and I moved out. The day I left, the mail brought from Van a copy of The Little Lost Marion and Other Mercies.

So — at last — to the book review. Little Lost Marion is a collection of essays and stories Van wrote over the years, many of them for New Oxford Review. It opens with an account of the child the unmarried Davy bore at 15 — the “little lost Marion” of the title — and Van’s quest to find her. Ultimately, though, this essay is about the sanctity of life, the sheer irreplaceability of each of God’s human creatures. It is the equal of the best work Van — or any writer of the 20th century — has done. There are also charming stories about sailing with Davy in the Florida Keys and on the Chesapeake Bay. There are powerful essays on home life, on the place of awe in the Mass, the theology of the Seamless Garment, and homosexuality, all of them apologetics for Christian orthodoxy, all of them written with a force of conviction and clarity of argument that cause one to recollect that Vanauken was an Oxonian, an acute student of history, and an intimate of C.S. Lewis. Other pieces in the collection are, well, mixed. “Guns, Freedom, and the Coming Caesar” is no more convincing now that it was on first, or second, reading. As for the science fiction story “New World Aborning” — science fiction was not his métier.

As I said, Little Lost Marion arrived the day I moved out. I intended to write Van and tell him of the separation, but I hadn’t the heart. It wasn’t that I feared confessing that my marriage had failed; I did not want him to know his counsel had not had its desired end. One day in early November, I visited a divorcing friend to give him a copy of A Severe Mercy, and returning to my apartment I found in the mailbox an envelope that bore Van’s return address but was written in an unknown hand. Inside was a card, with a drawing of a collie gazing at a tombstone, and the words:

Sheldon Vanauken

b. August 4, 1914

d. October 28, 1996

“But I just gave his book to someone,” I murmured. I brought the card along to the laundry room — grief is occasional, but dirty clothes are forever — and after loading the washer I looked at the card again. “Damn Van!” I yelled. “Damn him for dying! Damn him for dying just when I needed him most!” Can we forgive the anger of the bereaved at the deceased, and the utter self-absorption of the grieving?

That night, I stood outside and stared up at the stars, mourning the death of my friend. And then — an act of mercy on God’s part, no doubt — I remembered the destiny for which Van had lived: union with Christ, reunion with Davy, in God’s Kingdom forevermore. “He’s with Davy,” I thought. One trusts that God, through the grace revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord, does indeed have a home — and even a new role — for this faithful servant, this valiant knight-errant whose courage and charity illumined so many lives.

I miss him terribly. Many others will share my belief that he was the best, the wisest, the most generous of teachers, writers, and friends.

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