Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss

Stepping Heavenward, by Elizabeth Prentiss, is the fictional diary of a young Christian woman named Katherine as she goes from her teen years into adulthood, being a wife and mother, and living a relatively simple life. Stepping Heavenward was written and published in 1869, and the story takes us right into the time period, as we watch the daily chores, duties, successes, and grievances of the main character.

The book begins with Katherine's first diary entry on January 15, 1831. She exclaims fervently that she is now sixteen-years-old and is getting "dreadfully old." She then goes on to talk about her day much like any sixteen-year-old of that century or our own. She focuses on the weather, what she will wear, how she would much rather stay in bed, and a few things about her new years resolutions. We see at the very beginning that Katherine has a close relationship with her mother, but like any girl her age, also experiences conflict. They argue about the proper footwear Katherine will wear out into the snow, as well as her generally rebellious attitude. Katherine responds to many things with great emotional outbursts, for which she always manages to berate herself later.

Still within the pages recording the first day, we see that Katherine is taught to study, memorize, understand, and live out the promises of God in the Bible. She is taught not only to learn them, but to internalize them and make them real in her own life. Her mother encourages her to spend a bit of time each day pondering on God's word. At first, Katherine shows that she begrudgingly opens her Bible and seems to find verses that only make her feel solemn, but as we watch her grow and mature over the years, we see her begin to take heart in what she learns. As she enters her 20s, Katherine learns how to read the Bible; she is taught to "choose detached passages, or even one verse a day, rather than whole chapters... study every word; ponder and pray over it till you have got from it all the truth it contains." Katherine does just this.

One of the things Katherine learns in her ponderings is that one "can will to prefer a religion of principle to one of mere feeling; in other words, to obey the will of God when no comfortable glow of emotion accompanies the obedience." As the years pass, Katherine marries a doctor and lives not only with her husband, but with her husband's very difficult sister. The sister has an argumentative and sour disposition from the start, yet Katherine does her best to keep her cool and have a good attitude. She learns the hard way that she is not the best housekeeper, through the cutting remarks and constant sighs of her sister-in-law, but Katherine is a fast learner. She holds her tongue, cries in private, and devotes herself anew every day to drawing strength from God, and to doing her best at everything.

In time, Katherine becomes her own worst critic. She takes to looking back on her past year at all her journaling entries, and finds that she did not do the work of a Christian that she had set out to do. But in looking back, as we all often do, she turns and looks forward with new hope and a positive outlook, knowing, by the grace of God, that she will do better in the months to come.

At one point, late in the book, after Katherine has several years of marriage and has borne her children, she accompanies her husband to see a sick woman. The cantankerous old woman asks her where her joy comes from, and Katherine, thinking not only about her family and the other joys in her life, is reminded of God's faithfulness and ever present help in all she has seen and done. She gladly goes on to share this with the woman, and visits her several times after.

The book ends with Katherine in poor health at the age of 45. She looks back on her life, the ups and downs, successes and failures, and knows that the best is yet to come. All in all, Stepping Heavenward is an uplifting and encouraging book for those of any age who are seeking to follow God.

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