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.