Stepping Heavenward: A Timeless Classic

“Write what you know.”
It’s good counsel, and, if followed, results in a kind of authenticity that can’t happen if the author attempts to write outside her realm of real-life experience. Maybe that’s why people are still reading Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss, a fictional journal that follows the life of Katherine Mortimer from her first entry at age 16 [“How dreadfully old I am getting!”] to her final entry just before her death.

Like the author, Katherine lost her father at a young age and suffered from a variety of physical ailments.  The intersection between fiction and reality becomes even more pronounced as Katherine struggles to allow her suffering to “do its perfect work” in her life.  Through weariness and discouragement, through joy and fresh resolve, the message of Stepping Heavenward is ageless and relevant to wives and mothers set in all times (and might just encourage their men-folk, too).  Written in 1869, the quaint style and slow pace is charming, and I smiled at the extreme modesty of that era in which babies just appeared in the narrative with only veiled references to pregnancy (and certainly none whatsoever to the delivery!), and I winced at the eagerness of mothers to have their children’s gums lanced to ease teething discomfort [really??] and at the prevalence of infant mortality and debilitating illnesses.

These were hard times compared to the 21st century, and yet Elizabeth harnesses Katie’s sufferings and points her readers to a God who “notices the most trivial act, accepts the poorest, most threadbare little service, listens to the coldest, feeblest petition, and gathers up with parental fondness all our fragmentary desires and attempts at good works.  Oh, if only we could begin to conceive how much He loves us, what different creatures we should be!”

It was heartening to see Katie’s trajectory of growth and to receive her offerings of homely wisdom:

“One must either stop reading the Bible altogether, or else leave off spending one’s whole time in just doing easy, pleasant things one likes to do.”

(And this was written in the days before binge-watching Netflix was a thing . . .)

In an era when women were not encouraged to read deeply or to flex their theological muscles, Elizabeth Prentiss offered solid teaching on various topics, all embedded within the narrative arc of Katie’s life.

On the sacred versus secular dichotomy:

“You speak of going back to your music as if that implied going away from God.  You rush from one extreme to another.  The only true way to live in this world, constituted just as we are, is to make all our employments subserve the one great end and aim of existence, namely , to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”

On mothering:

“What a fearful thing it is to be a mother!  But I have given my children to God.”

“When you speak contemptuously of the vocation of maternity, you dishonor, not only the mother who bore you, but the Lord Jesus Himself, who chose to be born of a woman, and to be ministered unto by her through a helpless infancy.”

On perfectionism:

“I am a little afraid of ‘good people.’ I fancy that they are always criticizing me and expecting me to imitate their perfection.”

On prayer:

“I have learned, at least, to face and fight such distractions, instead of running away from them as I used to do.  My faith in prayer, my resort to it, becomes more and more the foundation of my life, and I believe . . . that nothing but prayer stands between my soul and the best gifts of God.”

On perseverance through trials:

“There is no wilderness so dreary but that His love can illuminate it, no desolation so desolate but that He can sweeten it.  I know what I am saying.  It is no delusion.  I believe that the highest, purest happiness is known only to those who have learned Christ in sick-rooms, in poverty, in racking suspense and anxiety, amid hardships, and at the open grave.”

If the author’s name, Elizabeth Prentiss, rings a bell, check your nearest hymnal, for in addition to Stepping Heavenward, Elizabeth also wrote “More Love to Thee,” and I will share the lyrics below.  You can also click here to see a YouTube video of the hymn sung by Fernando Ortega.

More love to Thee, oh Christ, more love to Thee!
Hear Thou the prayer I make on bended knee.
This is my earnest plea
More love, oh Christ, to Thee
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Once earthly joy I craved, sought peace and rest
Now Thee alone I seek, give what is best.
This all my prayer shall be
More love, oh Christ to Thee
More love to Thee, more love to Thee!
Elizabeth Prentiss wrote with the aim of encouraging others along the path of a fierce discipleship.  I’ve been intending to read Stepping Heavenward ever since the days when Elisabeth Elliot was recommending it on her radio program, and now, since it is in public domain, it is available very inexpensively in various editions.  The author joins Peter in exhorting her readers to “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.”  The struggle to pray, to be patient, and to care for others is very real, but so is the comfort that God brings to the heart that looks to Him for daily strength.
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I read this book in community with Emily Whitten as part of a series called World Radio Classic Book of the Month.  Each month, Emily introduces World Magazine readers to one more timeless treasure.   Last month my high school senior and I dove into Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell.  I encourage you to subscribe to World Magazine for sound words about news and culture, and then to join Emily and me for the upcoming series of classic reads which I believe will include Knowing God by J.I. Packer (and who doesn’t want to read or re-read Packer?).

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