My Favorite Fiction Part 4: Stepping Heavenward by Mrs. E. Prentiss

stepping-heavenwardAs I prepared to write this fourth installment of my favorite fiction, I took a well-worn copy of Stepping Heavenward off my shelf and read the words written inside the cover. “Presented to Amanda Barber on the occasion of her fifteenth birthday, April 9, 2000.” Thirteen years later, I am still so glad my sister and her husband decided to give this little volume to me. I don’t recall how many times I’ve read this book, but it has been many more than twice. Written by Elizabeth Prentiss, the same woman who penned the hymn “More Love to Thee, O Christ,” Stepping Heavenward is the diary of young Katy and her spiritual journey. Katy begins her diary at age sixteen and often ruminates about what it means to be a Christian. She struggles with the tension between her natural desires for a smooth life, unwrinkled with troubles, and the Christian life which usually involves trouble and self-denial. She wants all of the Christian’s virtue without experiencing the trouble and suffering and self-discipline that bring about the fruits of the Spirit. She writes, “Somehow I have been behaving quite nicely lately. Everything has gone on exactly to my mind. Mother has not found fault with me once, and Father has praised my drawings and seemed proud of me. He says he shall not tell me what my teachers say of me lest it should make me vain…We are all very happy together when nothing goes wrong.”

Ah, but things do go wrong, don’t they? And Elizabeth Prentiss’ theme throughout this book is that spiritual growth only happens through the suffering that God sends to prune us and make us more fruitful. The second and third verses of her well-loved hymn are enlightening.

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, O Christ, to Thee,

More love to Thee, More love to Thee!

Let sorrow do its work, Send grief and pain;

Sweet are Thy messengers, Sweet their refrain,

When they can sing with me:

More love, O Christ, to Thee,

More love to Thee, More love to Thee!

As Katy grows older, marries a doctor and bears children, we see her gradual transformation from silly little school girl who must have nearly perfect circumstances to be happy in life, to mature wife and mother who learns to accept everything that comes to her as a gift from God. After two months of marriage, Katy’s father-in-law and spinster daughter come to live with the newlyweds. Father is gloomy and dour. Martha is grim and efficient. The two stay on with Katy and her husband for the next several years. Their personalities grate on Katy and bring her bad traits and character flaws into the light. Throughout her married life, Katy experiences the joys of love and all of its disappointments.  Years later, Katy says about marriage, “Happiness, in other words love, in married life is not a mere accident. When the union has been formed, as most Christian unions are, by God Himself, it is His intention and His will that is shall prove the unspeakable joy of both husband and wife and become more and more so from year to year. But we are imperfect creatures, wayward and foolish as little children, horribly unreasonable, selfish, and willful. We are not capable of enduring the shock of finding, at every turn, that our idol is made of clay and that it is prone to tumble off its pedestal and lie in the dust till we pick it up and set it in its place again.”

Suffering bouts of ill health and the deaths of loved ones, Katy’s love for God grows. Her last entry includes this paragraph, “It was the personal love of Christ of which my precious mother so often spoke to me, which she often urged me to seek upon my knees. If I had known then, as I know now, what this priceless treasure could be to a sinful human soul, I would have sold all that I had to buy the field wherein it lay hidden. But not till I was  shut up to prayer and to study of God’s word by the loss of earthly joys, sickness destroying the flavor of them all, did I begin to penetrate the mystery that is learned under the cross. And wondrous as it is, how simple is this mystery! To love Christ and to know that I love Him—this is all!”

I think we all know in our heart of hearts, that spiritual growth requires pain. After all, we begin our lives as Christians by nothing less than dying. We never stop dying, really. We die to our desires when God doesn’t  grant them. We die to our hopes when they never come to pass. We loosen our clutches on the outcome of our lives when God shows us for the umpteenth time that the control we think we have is a mirage. With each new death, comes more trust in God, more willingness to undergo trials and pains and disappointments if they will only teach us to love Him more.

Though I’m not married with children, this book has been a huge encouragement to me. I hope it will prove the same to you! It speaks of God’s patience with our sins and our human frailty as He leads all of us one step at a time and hand-picks our trials, tailored to our weaknesses.

 

…I have learned that he only is truly happy

 who has no longer a choice of his own

 and lies passive in God’s hand.

~ Elizabeth Prentiss

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