Has Our Attention Span Stunted Our Spiritual Appetite?

For our wedding, my husband’s boss gave us a copy of A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, writing slant inside the cover, “Zach and Steph, their hearts have so much to teach. Learn and live.”

It was not an easy book to digest. I picked it up, and put it back down, for months. But I always came back, because if ever there was a book that was the result of opening a vein on paper, this is it.

A Severe Mercy is deeply honest in a romantic throwback style–a couple falls in love, buys a sailboat and breaks a bottle of baptizing wine on its bow, they travel to study at Oxford, living cheap in a small flat with a hot pot, and befriend C.S. Lewis, who is instrumental in their eventual coming to faith. But perhaps most romantic, and most heartbreaking, of all is the moment when Sheldon realizes he is no longer Davy’s first love. The jealousy he feels for her Savior is very real, unclouded by years of faith grown familiar, still new and sharp. As Sheldon says himself, “This book is, after all, the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.” 

And that it is. Through painful renegotiation, Sheldon comes to terms with his beloved’s new first love, and he slowly wrestles to make it also his own.

I was saddened by a review of this book by a woman who disliked it because she felt the “C.S. Lewis plug” was a cheap marketing ploy, played up beyond the truth of their acquaintance. This seems telling about our expectations of books and authors today. We expect them to pull out a bag of tricks. And tragically, somewhere in the process, bad art has conditioned us to be suspect of good art.

A Severe Mercy goes against the grain of the books that are published today, but it is one of the most honest books I have read in a long time. It threads an organic grace through its pages that I did not find as calculated. It is a slow read, not a page-turner, but something to savor. I can fly through the Hunger Games in a weekend and get caught up in the grip of its plot, but I won’t underline a single sentence. My copy of A Severe Mercy is jagged with ink, prose I could not bear to lose.

Neither does the book hook the reader in by dazzling solutions to felt needs, but it ministers to something even deeper, like those people you hear about who unknowingly carry around head injuries for years and finally receive healing.

Our attention span is shrinking, yes, but I have a theory that our capacity to be awed remains the same. We need what is sacred and what is beautiful as much as ever, only our hunger for it has been stunted. Sheldon writes it best, “If, indeed, we all have a kind of appetite for eternity, we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in a society that frustrates our longing at every turn.”

Thank God for books that are harder to read, that stretch the limits of attention and distraction, that cultivate spiritual imagination, that strike a deep nerve that provokes us to longing.

What books, or art, or movies, or other mediums have you encountered recently that have challenged you in a similar way?


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  • http://www.kevinscottwrites.com/ Kevin Scott

    I’ve intended to read this book for years and never got around to it. Thanks for reminding me. Your review makes me want to read it all the more. 

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      It’s a gem. I hope you enjoy!

  • http://www.christiepurifoy.com Christie Purifoy

    This is one of my favorite books. I rarely re-read, but I always come back to this one every few years.

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      I’m sure I would benefit from that as well. Even just this morning, re-reading through my underlined sections, I was nearly crying over my coffee! In the best way :)

  • http://twitter.com/labellaverita Angela M. Shupe

    I’ve not read this, Stephanie, but will definitely look for it after reading your review. Thanks for sharing it.

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      Let me know what you think of it! It’s up there on my list of favorite memoirs. 

  • Lesa Engelthaler

    One of most favorite romantic books! your post is well put and needed. 

    Favorite line, ” My copy of A Severe Mercy is jagged with ink, prose I could not bear to lose.”So true, so is mine.  

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      Thanks again Lesa, I can tell a good book by how much I’ve written in it!

  • KarenYates11

    My husband and I read A Severe Mercy while dating and living apart from each other (I was in Europe and he was in California). It’s still one of my favorite books of all time. Creeping separateness is something we remember and guard against still.

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      That sounds like a story of its own! I didn’t get into that here, but one of the things I love about the book is the principles they added to their passion. Even if couples talk about these things we don’t often name them like Davy and Sheldon did, but naming can keep us remembering and following them. 

  • http://everydayawe.com/ Stephanie Spencer

    You really made me want to read this book! I have added it to my list.

    I realized awhile back that though I love blogs, I spend a lot of time reading them, to the expense of other things. And blogs, for the most part, are written quickly and meant to be read quickly. I want to take more time to read things that take longer to digest, but then also, more deeply satisfy.

    I have been lazy with this kind of reading, lately. Thank you for the reminder to do more.

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      I guess I should say that clearly, I love blogs! I love Twitter. I enjoy all of these things and don’t consider them “lesser” forms, just different genres than a book that makes me stop and think. I think I need and benefit from both. 

      • http://everydayawe.com/ Stephanie Spencer

        Yes, I agree. I love them too! That’s the problem…

        Blogs & Twitter are more accessible and instant, so they become like my fast food. Sometimes the healthier things for me are the things that take longer to digest.

  • http://twitter.com/sharidragovich Shari Dragovich

    Ah, yes. I’ve heard of this book, remembered it, forgot it when ordering books and remembered it again afterwards. It is officially going on my amazon wish list now. Your review is beautiful. I tend towards books I must savor and read slowly. Somewhere, half way through I often wonder why, but then am never disappointed when done. 

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      That’s great, Shari. Sometimes I have to work my way into them, truth be told, but yes I always love it when I get into them. I would love to see your book wish list! 

  • http://twitter.com/wakeuswedrown Jeremiah Dowling

    Oh my goodness! I can’t get away from this book! One of my mentors told me that I should read this when I find myself in a serious relationship, and I’ve been debating for months when if I should start reading through it with my girlfriend… I’m glad you put up this review… thanks! 

  • Tuttleedward


    I read your entry on Crosswalk this morning and was encouraged by your insight. I have lamented the lack of “good art” for years. I have realized that so much has to do with our worldview. If the culture is our measure of what is good and bad then we are all shortchanged.

    Several of us are putting together a meeting of sorts. I hate to call it a conference because it then becomes something just to attend. We want to speak to the heart of artists and challenge them to reconcile and reconnect with the Church and hopefully deepen their desire to create lasting work.

    For too many of us the catharsis has become the goal. But the catharsis is cleansing to get us to where we are changed, where we can hear better, where we connect with the heart of God and let Him create through us. I joke that catharsis comes from the same root as cathartic, which is basically another word for laxative. When we become satisfied with the unfinished work of catharsis we are like a baby content to sit in its soiled diaper.

    I am eager to read more of your posts. Thank you for this work.

    Ed Tuttle

    • http://www.stephindialogue.com Stephanie S. Smith

      Ed, thanks for reading! I like what you say about catharsis, funny but true. I also didn’t have the room to flesh this out in my post, but sometimes art speaks into a need that is not necessarily “felt” until it has been well satisfied. Best with your art meeting and discussion, sounds like a great idea!