A Hail

Davy Vanauken

On this day 100 years ago, something happened that would dramatically impact the course of my life: Jean Palmer Davis was born, known more intimately to the world as Davy Vanauken, beloved wife and heroine of Sheldon Vanauken’s A Severe Mercy. I’ve written elsewhere of that book’s place in my heart, and Philip and I candidly consider Van and Davy some of our dearest friends. Their story of a Christ-invaded love challenged us deeply; their longing for a ‘timefull’ life has leant courage to many of our own dreams as a couple. But on this day, I want to single Davy out and honor her. From my first encounter with her via the pages of her husband’s book, I recognized a kindred soul. Her gaiety, her courage, her wayfaring heart all shone out in living color. I quickened to our common love for England, her appreciation of a good cup of Darjeeling and a country drive under a Virginia sky; I admired the plucky spirit of her sailboat days, and the way she interpreted important experiences in her life through painting. Davy was born six years after one of my grandmothers, and six years before the other, but I’ve never thought of her as anything but a contemporary comrade–and a very beloved one, at that.

Though Davy’s always in my heart, all this past year I’ve held the thought of her poignantly close. She was my age when she found out she was ill, a month out from her 40th birthday. And six months later she was dead. A lamp put out in its prime; a life so full of living cut short by dark providence. But no life is so expendable in the Kingdom’s accounting. Davy is, of course: she lives, not only in Van’s book, but at home in the timelessness they sought so earnestly together in life. And she lives in the witness of untold thousands whose lives were touched by the radiance of her love: for Christ, for her husband, and for the world. I’m not the only one who can say that their life is more because Davy lived, or that the thought of her lends courage to live a life of extravagant love. But I am one of them, and it’s a fact for which I consider myself most supremely blessed.

My friendship with Davy has made my life more beautiful than it would have been without her. She both calls me higher in devotion to Christ and sends me lower in practical application of it. She showed me the Low Door through which imperfect human attempts at love must pass in order to reach the Wonderland-like refinement of Love itself. I keep a picture of her on my writing desk, a faded image of a dark-haired girl with a cheeky smile, perched in the bosun’s chair of Gull, their 18-foot sloop, and whenever I look at it, I can almost hear her say, Be brave. Keep small enough to get through that Low Door. Let your love be big enough to change the world.

Sixty years and two days after Davy was born I made my rather red and mewling appearance on this earth. On Sunday I celebrate my 40th (!!) birthday, and I think it’s quite fitting that the festivities commence today with a coastal cruising sailing course that Philip and I signed up for back in the spring, the next step towards a dream which Van and Davy sparked with their vision of a white-winged schooner under sail.

This tribute isn’t at all what I want it to be, and the poem that follows certainly falls short of what’s in my heart. But I wanted to acknowledge such a momentous “earth time” occasion of something that, in God’s good love and mysterious ways, puts helpless chronos to shame.

Happy Birthday, beloved Davy. I’ll be toasting you in Darjeeling today.

Under the Mercy,


Ave, Davy! Hail, sweet sister! Your bright
Brave spirit breathes a warmth unchilled through years
Of old earth-time, and death’s not dared your light
To dim. By Mercy’s art your star swung near
To mine across an epoch’s swarthy bowl
And flung a spark of glory, holy fire,
Enkindling kindred shining in my soul.
So kindly did that ember sear, desire
Undreamt-of blazed to life and deathly snows
Of fear dissolved. Such high Civility!–
(Your lover’s tears were turned to gems, you know.)
–And yet, o’er all I praise your Courtesy:
Undying lamp illumining Low Door
Of Love’s most noble off’ring evermore.

Image source: Sheldon Vanauken: The Man Who Received A Severe Mercy by Will Vaus, used by gracious permission of the author. The colorized version originally appeared on his blog.

15 Responses to “A Hail”

  1. Lisa says:

    A Severe Mercy is one of my all-time favourites as well. Thanks for posting this, a reminder of that lovely book which chronicled, in part, the life of this remarkable person. I will raise a cuppa in her honour tonight, too!

  2. Lillian Q says:

    Lanier, I must thank you for introducing me to Davy! Thank you for this tribute to her and the absolutely beautiful poem!!

    Under the Mercy,

  3. Stacy says:

    Happy Birthday, Lanier. I hope your day brings all you wish for…

  4. Dianne L says:

    Happy Birthday! I bought A Severe Mercy after reading what you wrote about it in a previous post, but I haven’t read it yet. I so enjoy reading your posts and often go back to review old ones.

    Dianne L

  5. Happy birthday, Lanier! I turned 30 (!!!) last month and there’s no doubt that entering a new decade is a serious and solemn event. It’s not devoid of peace and joy, of course, but there is a gravity about realising that a new decade as well as a new year is dawning. I hope and pray that your forties are even more beautiful than your twenties and thirties, that dreams come true and desires are fulfilled, that your love for Christ is ever more a beautiful and sustaining source of life for you and Philip individually and together. Many blessings upon you, friend across the miles.

  6. P.S. Friends who are truly companions across the years (even the centuries!) are such a blessing. Thank you for sharing one of yours here. The poem is beautiful!

  7. Esther says:

    You have written us another sonnet! And the world is a richer place for it.

  8. Sheena says:

    Happy birthday for Sunday, Lanier! I turned 40 earlier this year, and am surprised by how excited I am feeling about this decade. Have a wonderful time on your sailing course, and be soaked in the wonder of being in a wild place that is the ocean. God grant you joy and glad anticipation for this next leg in your journey.

  9. Oh, Lanier, how beautiful!

    It was your post on The Rabbit Room about A Severe Mercy that got me to suggest it as our book club book back in January. (Thank you so very much for introducing me to Davy and Van and for sharing their story with me!) Upon finishing it, I immediately gave it to my husband to read, and he faithfully read the first nine chapters over the next few months, but he is not a huge reader (much to my horror) and is easily distracted by newness.

    Last week, our family was staying in a cabin on Camano Island, and my husband had brought the book to finish. (Bless him!) I picked it up instead and read the last 50 or so pages, and wept all over again. And then wept again reading your post here: I was re-reading the end of A Severe Mercy on Davy’s birthday, and I didn’t even know it. And the fact that that same day I took my first sail in nearly a year strikes me as beautiful, too. The timing! Kairos is a mysterious and wonderful thing. (I almost wish I had had internet access so I could have read your post that day and known.)

    Thank you for sharing your sonnet. These lines bring tears:

    By Mercy’s art your star swung near
    To mine across an epoch’s swarthy bowl
    And flung a spark of glory, holy fire,
    Enkindling kindred shining in my soul.

    I love your generous heart, Lanier, and am so grateful for your written celebrations of life and the things and people you love. You bless me.

    I hope you had the very happiest of birthdays!

  10. A belated birthday wish here, although I think I typed a quick wish on Facebook! I just returned home from spending a week in South Haven, Michigan with my children and grandchildren.

    It was their gift to me (and my husband, of course) on the occasion of my 60th birthday on Monday. After dealing with my own illness now for so many years, I think they were just glad I made it to 60.

    How grateful I am for YOUR birth. You have brought such beauty into our lives, not to mention introducing me to Goudge. May this next year be one of great blessing.

  11. […] the 100th birthday of Sheldon Vanauken, author of my favorite book of all time, A Severe Mercy. Having honored dear Davy with a sonnet on her illustrious centennial, I could not bear to let this day pass without acknowledging our great chum Van in like manner […]

  12. Jody says:

    I knew you were a kindred. The post just before this made me think of Van and Davy somehow when I read it… And several times I have thought of you and your husband being something like them. Now I know why.

    A belated happy birthday to you… Go under the Protection.

  13. […] A Hail: If you’ve ever read A Severe Mercy, don’t miss this tribute to Davy VanAuken by Lanier Ivester. […]

  14. […] A Hail I had to share this because Davy Vanauken made an impact on my life, too. I first read A Severe Mercy when I was 22 years old, and about to be married. […]

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