Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss


Mother asked me last evening to sing and play to her. I was embarrassed to know how to excuse myself without telling her my real reason for declining. But somehow she got it out of me.

"One need not be fanatical in order to be religious," she said.

"Is it fanatical to give up all for God?" I asked.

"What is it to give up all?" she asked, in reply.

"Why, to deny one’s self every gratification and indulgence in order to mortify one’s natural inclinations, and to live entirely for Him."

"God is then a hard Master, who allows his children no liberty," she replied. "Now let us see where this theory will lead you. In. the first place you must shut your eyes to all the beautiful things He has made. You must shut your eyes to all the harmonies He has ordained. You must shut your heart against all sweet human affections. You have a body, it is true, and it may revolt at such bondage—"

We are told to keep under the body," I interrupted.

"Oh, mother, don’t hinder me! You know my love for music is. a passion and that it is my snare and temptation. And how can I spend my whole time in reading the Bible and praying, if I go on with my drawing? It may do for other people to serve both God and Mammon, but not for me. I must belong wholly to the world or wholly to Christ."

Mother said no more, and I went on with my reading. But somehow my book seemed to have lost its flavor. Besides, it was time to retire for my evening devotions which I never put off now till the last thing at night, as I used to do. When I came down, Mother was lying on the sofa, by which I knew she was not well. I felt troubled that I had refused to sing to her. Think of the money she had spent on that part of my education! I went to her and kissed her with a pang of terror. What if she were going to be very sick, and to die?

"It is nothing, darling," she said, "nothing at all. I am tired, and felt a little faint."

I looked at her anxiously, and the bare thought that she might die and leave me alone was so terrible that I could hardly help crying out. And I saw, as by a flash of lightning, that if God took her from me, I could not, should not say: Thy will be done.

But she was better after taking a few drops of lavender, and what color she has came back to her dear sweet face.

APRIL 12.-Dr. Cabot’s letter has lost all its power over me. A stone has more feeling than I. I don’t love to pray. I am sick and tired of this dreadful struggle after holiness; good books are all alike, flat and meaningless. But I must have something to absorb and carry me away, and I have come back to my music and my drawing with new zest. Mother was right in warning me against giving them up. Maria Kelley is teaching me to paint in oil-colors, and says I have a natural gift for it.

APRIL 13.Mother asked me to go to church with her last evening, and I said I did not want to go. She looked surprised and troubled.

"Are you not well, dear?" she asked.

"I don’t know. Yes. I suppose I am. But I could not be still at church five minutes. I am nervous that I feel as if I should fly."

"I see how it is," she said; "you have forgotten that body of yours, of which I reminded you, and have been trying to live as if you were all soul and spirit. You have been straining every nerve to acquire perfection, whereas this is God’s gift, and one that He is willing to give you, fully and freely."

"I have done seeking for that or anything else that is good," I said, despondently. "And so I have gone back to my music and everything else."

"’Here is just the rock upon which you split," she returned. "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. But in order to do this we must be wise task-masters, and not require of ourselves what we cannot possibly perform. Recreation we must have. Otherwise the strings of our soul, wound up to an unnatural tension, will break."

"Oh, I do wish," I cried, "that God had given us plain rules, about which we could make no mistake!"

"I think His rules are plain," she replied. "And some liberty of action He must leave us, or we should become mere machines. I think that those who love Him, and wait upon Him day by day, learn His will almost imperceptibly, and need not go astray.

"But, mother, music and drawing are sharp-edged tools in such hands as mine. I cannot be moderate in my use of them. And the more I delight in them, the less I delight in God."

"Yes, this is human nature. But God’s divine nature will supplant it, if we only consent to let Him work in us of His own good pleasure."

New York, April 16.-After all, mother has come off conqueror, and here I am at Aunty’s. After our quiet, plain little home, in our quiet little town, this seems like a new world. The house is large, but is as full as it can hold. Aunty has six children her own, and has adopted two. She says she ways meant to imitate the old woman who lived in a shoe. She reminds me of mother, and yet she is very different; full of fun and energy; flying about the house as on wings, with a kind, bright word for everybody. All her household affairs go on like clock-work; the children are always nicely dressed; nobody ever seems out of humor; nobody is ever sick. Aunty is the central object round which every body revolves; you can’t forget her a moment, she is always doing something for you, and then her unflagging good humor and cheerfulness keep you good-humored and cheerful. I don’t wonder Uncle Alfred loves her so.

I hope I shall have just such a home. I mean this is the sort of home I should like if I ever married, which I never mean to do. I should like to be just such a bright, loving wife as Aunty is; to have my husband lean on me as Uncle leans on her; to have just as many children, and to train them as wisely and kindly us she does hers. Then, I should feel that I had not been born in vain, but had a high and sacred mission on earth. But as it is, I must just pick up what scraps of usefulness I can, and let the rest go.

APRIL 18.-Aunty says I sit writing and reading and thinking too much, and wants me to go out more. I tell her I don’t feel strong enough to go out much. She says that is all nonsense, and drags me out. I get tired, and hungry, and sleep like a baby a month old. I see now mother’s wisdom and kindness in making me leave home when I did. I had veered about from point to point till I was nearly ill. Now Aunty keeps me well by making me go out, and dear Dr. Cabot’s precious letter can work a true and not a morbid work in my soul. I am very happy. I have delightful talks with Aunty, who sets me right at this point and at that; and it is beautiful to watch her home-life and to see with what sweet unconsciousness she carries her religion into every detail. I am sure it must do me good to be here; and yet, if I am growing better how slowly, how slowly, it is! Somebody has said that ’our course heavenward is like the plan of the zealous pilgrims of old, who for every three steps forward, took one backward."

APRIL 30.-Aunty’s baby, my dear father’s namesake, and hitherto the merriest little fellow I ever saw, was taken sick last night, very suddenly. She sent for the doctor at once, who would not say positively what was the matter, but this morning pronounced it scarlet fever. The three youngest have all come down with it to-day. If they were my children, I should be in a perfect worry and flurry. Indeed, I am as it is. But Aunty is as bright and cheerful as ever. She flies from one to another, and .keeps up their spirits with her own gayety. I am mortified to find that at such a time as this I can think of myself, and that I find it irksome to be shut up in sick-rooms, instead of walking, driving, visiting, and the like. But, as Dr. Cabot says, I can now choose to imitate my Master, who spent His whole life in doing good, and I do hope, too, to be of some little use to Aunty, after her kindness to me.

MAY 1.- The doctor says the children are doing as well as, could be expected. He made a short visit this .morning, as it is Sunday. If I had ever seen him before I should say I had some unpleasant association with him. I wonder Aunty employs such a great clumsy man. But she says he is good, and very skillful. I wish I did not take such violent likes and dislikes to people. I want my religion to change me in every respect.

MAY 2.-Oh, I know now! This is the very who was so rude at Sunday-school, and afterwards made such a nice address to the children. Well he may know how to speak in public, but I am sure he doesn’t in private. I never knew such a shut-up man.

MAY 4.-I have my hands as full as they can hold. The children have got so fond of me, and one or the other is in my lap nearly all the time. I sing to them, tell them stories, build block-houses, and relieve Aunty all I can. Dull and poky as the doctor is, I am not afraid of him, for he never notices anything I say or do, so while he is holding solemn consultations with Aunty in one corner, I can sing and .talk all sorts of nonsense to my little pets in mine. What fearful black eyes he has, and what masses of black hair!

This busy life quite suits me, now I have got used to it. And it sweetens every bit of work to think that I am doing it in humble, far-off, yet real imitation of Jesus. I am indeed really and truly happy.

MAY 14-It is now two weeks since little Raymond was taken sick, and I have lived in the nursery all the time, though Aunty has tried to make me go out. Little Emma was taken down to-day, though she has been kept on the third floor all the time I feel dreadfully myself. But this hard, cold doctor of Aunty’s is so taken up with the children that he never so much as looks at me. I have been in a perfect shiver all day, but these merciless little folks call for stories as eagerly as ever. Well, let me be a comfort to them if I can! I hate selfishness more and more, and am shocked to see how selfish I have been.

MAY 15.-I was in a burning fever all night, and my head ached, and my throat was and is very sore. If knew I was going to die I would burn up this journal first. I would not have any one see it for the world.

MAY 24.-Dr. Elliott asked me on Sunday morning a week ago if I still felt well. For answer I behaved like a goose, and burst out crying. Aunty; looked more anxious than I have seen her look yet, and reproached herself for having allowed me to be with the children. She took me by one elbow, and the doctor by the other, and they marched me off to my own room, where I was put through the usual routine on such occasions, and then ordered to bed. I fell asleep immediately and slept all day. The doctor came to see me in the evening, and made a short, stiff little visit, gave me a powder, and said thought I should soon be better.

I had two such visits from him the next day, when I began to feel quite like myself again, and in spite of his grave; staid deportment, could not help letting my good spirits run away with me in a style that evidently shocked him. He says persons nursing ’scarlet fever often have such little attacks as mine; indeed every one of the servants have had a sore throat and headache.

MAY 25.-This morning, just as the doctor shuffled in on his big feet, it came over me how ridiculously I must have looked the day I was taken sick, being walked off between Aunty and himself, crying like a baby. I burst out laughing, and no consideration I could make to myself would stop me. I pinched myself, asked myself how I should feel if one of the children should die, and used other kindred devices all to no purpose. At last the doctor, gravity personified as he is, joined in, though not knowing in the least what he was laughing at. Then he said,

"After this, I suppose, I shall have to pronounce you convalescent."

"Oh, no!" I cried. "I am very-sick indeed."

"This looks like it, to be sure!" said Aunty.

"I suppose this will be your last visit, Dr. Elliott," I went on, "and I am glad of it. After the way I behaved the day I was taken sick, I have been ashamed to look you in the face. But I really felt dreadfully."

He made no answer whatever. I don’t suppose he would speak a little flattering word by way of putting one in good humor with one’s self for the whole world!

JUNE 1.-We are all as well as ever, but the doctor keeps some of the children still confined to the house for fear of bad consequences following the fever. He visits them twice a day for the same reason, or at least under that pretense, but I really believe he comes because he has got the habit of coming, and because he admires Aunty so much. She has a real affection for him, and is continually asking me if I don’t like this and that quality in him which I can’t see at all. We be gin to drive out again. The weather is, very warm, but I feel perfectly well.

JUNE 2.-After the children’s dinner to-day I took care of them while their nurse got hers and Aunty went to lie down, as she is all tired out. We were all full of life and fun, and some of the little ones wanted me to play a play of their own invention, which was to lie down on the floor, cover my face with a handkerchief, and make believe I was dead. They were to gather about me, and I was suddenly to come to life and jump up and try to catch them as they all ran scampering and screaming about. We had played in this interesting way for some time, and my hair, which I keep in nice order nowadays, was pulled down and flying every way; when in marched the doctor. I started up and came to life quickly enough when I heard his step, looking red and angry, no doubt.

I should think you might have knocked, Dr. Elliott," I said, with much displeasure.

"I ask your pardon; I knocked several times," he returned. "I need hardly ask how my little patients are."

"No," I replied, still ruffled, arid making desperate efforts to get my hair into some sort of order. "They are as well as possible."

"I came a little earlier than usual to-day," he went on, "because I am called to visit my uncle, Dr. Cabot, who is in a very critical state of health."

"Dr. Cabot!" I repeated, bursting into tears.

"Compose yourself, I entreat," he said; "I hope that I may be able to relieve him. At all events—"

"At all events, if you let him die it will break my heart," I cried passionately. "Don’t wait another moment; go this instant."

"I cannot go this instant," he replied. "The boat does not leave until four o’clock. And if I may be allowed, as a physician, to say one word, that my brief acquaintance hardly justifies, I do wish to warn you that unless you acquire more self-control-"

"Oh, I know that I have a quick temper, and that I spoke very rudely to you just now," I interrupted, not a little startled by the seriousness of his manner.

"I did not refer to your temper," he said. "I meant your whole passionate nature. Your vehement loves and hates, your ecstasies and your despondencies; your disposition to throw yourself headlong into whatever interests you."

"I would rather have too little self-control," I retorted, resentfully, "than to be as cold as a stone, and as hard as a rock, and as silent as the grave, like some people I know."

His countenance fell; he looked disappointed, even pained.

"I shall probably see your mother," he said, turning to go; "your aunt wishes me to call on her; have you any message?"

"No," I said.

Another pained, disappointed look made me begin to recollect myself. I was sorry, oh! so sorry, for my anger and rudeness. I ran after him, into the hall, my eyes full of tears, holding out both hands, which he took in both his.

"Don’t go until you have forgiven me for being so angry!" I cried. "Indeed, Dr. Elliott, though you not be able to believe it, I am trying to do right all the time!"

"1 do believe it," he said earnestly.

"Then tell me that you forgive me!"

"If I once begin, I shall be tempted to tell something else," he said, looking me through and through with those great dusky eyes. "And I will tell it," he went on, his grasp on my hands growing firmer-"’It is easy to forgive when one loves." I pulled my hands away, and burst out crying again.

"Oh, Dr. Elliott this is dreadful!" I said. "You do not, you cannot love me! You are so much older than I am! So grave and silent! You are not in earnest?"

"I am only too much so," he said, and went quietly out.

I went back to the nursery. The children rushed upon me, and insisted that I should "play die." I let them pull me about as they pleased. I only wished I could play it in earnest.

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Chicago: Elizabeth Prentiss, Stepping Heavenward, ed. White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922 in Stepping Heavenward (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917), Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2022,

MLA: Prentiss, Elizabeth. Stepping Heavenward, edited by White, John S. (John Stuart), 1847-1922, in Stepping Heavenward, Vol. 22, New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1908, 1917, Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2022.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2022, from