Letters To Vanauken

My former wife claims he ruined our marriage. Maybe so. A friend’s mother handed me a copy of Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy almost as an afterthought. “You might like it,” she said. “I know I wish I read it when I was younger.” I swallowed it whole. It tells a love story, true, but it’s so much more. It’s as much about living with art, and conversation, and travel, books, and science, as it is about love.  I was a Christian then, and had never read anything that mixed Christianity with these things. The group I ran with just didn’t see the use. Vanauken’s book was a diving board, catapulting me into a sea of poetry and philosophy and great literature. It’s a coat I put on and have never taken off.

One morning, at a diner, having pancakes, and in a flash of hubris, I dashed a letter off to Vanauken to tell him how much I enjoyed his book. How he introduced me to new ideas and made me think hard about the path I was on. (This was long before anyone had a computer and email was not the nuisance it is now. I doubt I had even heard of it.)

I was amazed, a couple weeks later, when I received back from him a hand-written note with his name and address emblazoned across the front of the postcard. He thanked me and said that he enjoyed my letter. Good god! He enjoyed my letter? This started a letter-writing relationship that lasted for a couple years, culminating in his last letter to me, about his most recent book. He told me that my thoughts were, “exactly what he was hoping for: not analysis or a formal review, but feelings, and how I was transported to another time and place.” I walked on air for a fortnight.

Meeting The Great Man

Vaunauken and wife Davy from the Lynchburg College Archives.

Just like my first letter to him, I called him from out of nowhere when I was driving home from New Jersey. We were in Williamsburg, satisfying my addiction to history, and I had an idea. And just like the first time I wrote him, calling him now seemed to define crazy. I phoned information on the payphone, asked for his number, and they put the call through. He answered, and I introduced myself. “Dennis,” he said. “How are things in Seattle?”

I couldn’t believe that he knew who I was. Here he was, a professor, an Oxford student, the author of my favorite book, and we were chatting like pals. I went right to the point and told him that we were in Virginia driving to Seattle and wondered  if we could make a detour and come to meet him?

“Of course,” he said. “Here’s my address. Let’s say Sunday at 1:00?”

We drove to Lynchburg and found his house easily. Not many homes in mid-80’s Central Virginia sported a Triumph TR-3 in the drive. He opened the door when we knocked and led us in. He sat on his bed, which occupied most of the living room, and chain-smoked the entire time we visited. I couldn’t help but think of the time that Moody met Spurgeon, who was sporting a cigar. “What? You smoke?” quipped Moody. “What?” said Spurgeon. “You’re fat?” My wife and I sat in chairs. He had a few trinkets strewn about that I recognized from his books. I remember nothing of what we talked about, but we had a wonderful time left after an hour or so not wanting the overstay our welcome. Surely he must be busy writing another masterpiece? My then-wife never could get over his smoking.

I think, sometimes, about how easy it seemed. Heck, I hardly let the kids play in the front yard unaccompanied now, for fear that they can be stolen. But, I never perceived a hint of hesitation from Vanauken about welcoming us. Something about true Christianity and welcoming strangers comes to mind.  I still have his stack of letters, rubber-banded in a short stack, tucked away somewhere. It was so kind of him to befriend us and talk to me through letters about writing and art and about books. I’m so glad this happened before the Internet became pervasive. We all acted according to a protocol one performed when meeting strangers. Niceties.  I’m not sure that either Vanauken or I would take the same liberties today that we did then.

A few years ago, I reread A Severe Mercy and noticed a thread of self-centeredness needling through the work. Not in the parts that opened my eyes long ago, but in his actions. His wife, much like mine at the time, traipsed along behind, happy to do what ever he pleased. I found out too, that as a professor, he didn’t assign grades, but invited students over to his house, one at a time, and let them argue for whatever grade they thought they earned. Seems a little odd to me.

Speaking of niceties and manners, here’s a piece I wrote on Medium about a social media experiment I did where I discovered the other side of that coin.

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