Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss


JANUARY 1, 1851

IT is a great while since I wrote that. "God has been just as good as ever"; I want to say that before I say another word. But He has indeed smitten me very sorely.

While we were in the midst of our rejoicings about James and Helen, and the bright future that seemed opening before them, he came home one day very ill. Ernest happened to be in and attended to him at once. But the disease was, at the very outset, so violent, and raged with such absolute fury, that no remedies had any effect. Everything, even now, seems confused in my mind. It seems as if there was a sudden transition from the most brilliant, joyous health, to a brief but fearful struggle for life, speedily followed by the awful mystery and stillness of death. Is it possible, I still ask myself, that four short days wrought an event whose consequences must run through endless years ?— Poor mother! Poor Helen!-When it was all over, I do not know what to say of mother but that she behaved and quieted herself like a weaned child. Her sweet composure awed me; I dared not give way to my own vehement, terrible sorrow; in the presence of this Christ-like patience, all noisy demonstrations seemed profane. I thought no human being was less selfish, more loving than she had been for many years, but the spirit that now took possession of her flowed into her heart and life directly from that great Heart of love, whose depth I had never even begun to sound. There was, therefore, something absolutely divine in her aspect, in the tones of her voice, in the very smile on her face. We could compare its expression to nothing but Stephen, when he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. As soon as James was gone Helen came to our home; there was never any discussion about it, she came naturally to be one of us. Mother’s health, already very frail, gradually failed, and encompassed as I was with cares, I could not be with her constantly. Helen took the place to her of a daughter, and found herself welcomed like one. The atmosphere in which we all lived was one which cannot be described; the love for all of us and for every living thing that flowed in mother’s words and tones passed all knowledge. The children’s little joys and sorrows interested her exactly as if she was one of themselves; they ran to her with every petty grievance, and every new pleasure. During the time she lived with us she had won many warm friends, particularly among the poor and the suffering. As her strength would no longer allow her to go to them, those who could do so came to her, and I was struck to see she had ceased entirely from giving counsel, and now gave nothing but the most beautiful, tender compassion and sympathy. I saw that she was failing, but flattered myself that her own serenity and our care would prolong her life still for many years. I longed to have my children become old enough to fully appreciate her sanctified character; and I thought she would gradually fade away and be set free,

As light winds wandering through groves of bloom,
Detach the delicate blossoms from the tree.

But God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts not His ways as our ways. Her feeble body began to suffer from the rudest assaults of pain; day and night, night and day, she lived through a martyrdom in which what might have been a lifetime of suffering was concentrated into a few months. To witness these sufferings was like the sundering of joints and marrow, and once, only once, thank God! my faith in Him staggered and reeled to and fro. "How can He look down on such agonies?" I cried in my secret soul; "is this the work of a God of love, of mercy?" Mother seemed to divine my thoughts, for she took my hand tenderly in hers and said, with great difficulty:

"Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him. He is just as good as ever." And she smiled. I ran away to Ernest, crying, "Oh, is there nothing you can do for her?"

"What should a poor mortal do where Christ has done so much, my darling?" he said, taking me in his arms. "Let us stand aside and see the glory of God, with our shoes from off our feet." But he went to her with one more desperate effort to relieve her, yet in vain.

Mrs. Embury, of whom mother was fond, and who is always very kind when we are in trouble, came in just then, and after looking on a moment in tears she said to me:

"God knows whom He can trust! He would not lay His hand thus on all His children."

Those few words quieted me. Yes, God knows. And now it is all over. My precious, precious mother has been a saint in heaven more than two years, and has forgotten all the battles she fought on earth, and all her sorrows and all her sufferings in the presence of her Redeemer. She knew that she was going, and the last words she uttered-and they were spoken with somewhat of the playful, quaint manner in which she had spoken all her life, and with her own bright smile-still sound in my ears:

"I have given God a great deal of trouble, but He is driving me into pasture now!"

And then, with her cheek on her hand, she fell asleep, and slept on, till just at sundown she awoke to find herself in the green pasture, the driving all over for ever and ever.

Who by searching can find out God? My dear father entered heaven after a prosperous life path wherein he was unconscious of a pang, and beloved James went bright and fresh and untarnished by conflict straight to the Master’s feast. But what a long lifetime of bereavement, sorrow, and suffering was my darling mother’s pathway to glory!

Surely her felicity must be greater than theirs, and the crown she has won by such a struggle must be brighter than the stars! And this crown she is even now, while I sit here choked with tears, casting joyfully at the feet of her Saviour!

My sweet sister, my precious little Helen, still nestles in our hearts and in our home. Martha made one passionate appeal to her to return to her, but Ernest interfered:

"Let her stay with Katy," he said. "James would have chosen to have her with the one human being like himself."

Does he then think me, with all my faults, the languor of frail health, and the cares and burdens of life weighing upon me, enough like that sparkling, brave boy to be of use and comfort to dear Helen? I take courage at the thought and rouse myself afresh, to bear on with fidelity and patience. My steadfast aim now is to follow in my mother’s footsteps; to imitate her cheerfulness, her benevolence, her bright, inspiring ways, and never to rest till in place of my selfish nature I become as full of Christ’s love as she became. I am glad she is at last relieved from the knowledge of all my cares, and though I often and often yearn to throw myself into her arms and pour out my cares and trials into her sympathizing ears, I would not have her back for all the world. She has got away from all the turmoil and suffering of life; let her stay!

The scenes of sorrow through which we have been passing have brought Ernest nearer to me than ever, and I can see that this varied discipline has softened and sweetened his character. Besides, we have modified each other. Ernest is more demonstrative, more attentive to those little things that make the happiness of married life, and I am less childish, less vehement-I wish I could say less selfish, but here I seem to have come to a standstill. But I do understand Ernest’s trials in his profession far better than I did, and can feel and show some sympathy in them. Of course the life of a physician is necessarily one of self-denial, spent as it is amid scenes of suffering and sorrow, which he is often powerless to alleviate. But there is besides the wear and tear of years of poverty; his bills are disputed or allowed to run on year after year unnoticed; he is often dismissed because he cannot put himself in the place of Providence and save life, and a truly grateful, generous patient is almost an unknown rarity. I do not speak of these things to complain of them. I suppose they are a necessary part of that whole providential plan by which God moulds and fashions and tempers the human soul, just as my petty, but incessant household cares are. If I had nothing to do but love my husband and children and perform for them, without let or hindrance, the sweet ideal duties of wife and mother, how content I should be to live always in this world! But what would become of me if I were not called, in the pursuit of these duties and in contact with real life, to bear restless nights, ill-health, unwelcome news, the faults of servants, contempt, ingratitude of friends, my own failings, lowness of spirits, the struggle in overcoming my corruption, and a score of kindred trials!"

Bishop Wilson charges us to bear all these things "as unto God," and "with the greatest privacy." How seldom I have met them save as lions in my way, that I would avoid if I could, and how I have tormented my friends by tedious complaints about them! Yet when compared with the great tragedies of suffering I have both witnessed and suffered, how petty they seem!

Our household, bereft of mother’s and James’ bright presence, now numbers just as many members as it did before they left us. Another angel has flown into it, though not on wings, and I have four darling children, the baby, who can hardly be called a baby now, being nearly two years old. My hands and my heart are full, but two of the children go to school, and that certainly makes my day’s work easier.

The little things are happier for having regular employment, and we are so glad to meet each other again after the brief separation! I try to be at home when it is time to expect them, for I love to hear the eager voices ask, in chorus, the moment the door opens: "Is mamma at home?" Helen has taken Daisy to sleep with her, which after so many years of ups and downs at night, now with restless babies, now to answer the bell when Ernest is out, is a great relief to me. Poor Helen! She has never recovered her cheerfulness since James’ death. It has crushed her energies and left her very sorrowful. This is partly owing to a soft and tender nature, easily borne down and overwhelmed, partly to what seems an almost constitutional inability to find rest in God’s will. She assents to all we say to her about submission, in a sweet, gentle way, and then comes the invariable, mournful wail, "But it was so unexpected! It came so suddenly!" But I love the little thing, and her affection for us all is one of our greatest comforts.

Martha is greatly absorbed in her own household, its cares and its pleasures. She brings her little Underhills to see us occasionally, when they put my children quite out of countenance by their consciousness of the fine clothes they wear, and their knowledge of the world. Even I find it hard not to feel abashed in the presence of so much of the sort of wisdom in which I am lacking. As to Lucy she is exactly in her sphere: the calm dignity with which she reigns in her husband’s house, and the moderation and self-control with which she guides his children, are really instructive. She has a baby of her own, and though it acts just like other babies and kicks, scratches, pulls. and cries when it is washed and dressed, she goes through that process with a serenity and deliberation that I envy with all my might. Her predecessor in the nursery was all nerve and brain, and has left four children made of the same material behind her. But their wild spirits on one day, and their depression and languor on the next, have no visible effect upon her. Her influence is always quieting; she tones down their vehemence with her own calm decision and practical good sense. It is amusing to see her seated among those four little furies, who love each other in such a distracted way that somebody’s feelings are always getting hurt, and somebody always crying. By a sort of magnetic influence she heals these wounds immediately, and finds some prosaic occupation as an antidote to these poetical moods. I confess that I am instructed and reproved whenever I go to see her, and wish I were more like her.

But there is no use in trying to engraft an opposite nature on one’s own. What I am, that I must be, except as God changes me into His own image. And everything brings me back to that, as my supreme desire. I see more and more that I must be myself what I want my children to be, and that I cannot make myself over even for their sakes. This must be His work, and I wonder that it goes on so slowly; that all the disappointments, sorrows, sicknesses I have passed through, have left me still selfish, still full of imperfections.

MARCH 5, 1852.-This is the sixth anniversary of James’ death. Thinking it all over after I went to bed last night, his sickness, his death, and the weary months that followed for mother, I could not get to sleep till long past midnight. Then Una woke, crying with the earache, and I was up till nearly daybreak with her, poor child. I got up jaded and depressed, almost ready to faint under the burden of life, and dreading to meet Helen, who is doubly sad on these anniversaries. She came down to breakfast dressed as usual in deep mourning, and looking as spiritless as I felt. The prattle of the children relieved the sombre silence maintained by the rest of us, each of whom acted depressingly on the others. How things do flash into one’s mind. These words suddenly came to mine, as we sat so gloomily at the table God had spread for us, and which He had enlivened by the four young faces around it—

"Why should the children of a King
Go mourning all their days?"

Why, indeed? Children of a King? I felt grieved that I was so intent on my own sorrows as to lose sight of my relationship to Him. And then I asked myself what I could do to make the day less wearisome and sorrowful to Helen. She came, after a time, with her work to my room. The children took their good-by kisses and went off to school; Ernest took his, too, and set forth on his day’s work, whi1e Daisy played quietly about the room.

"Helen, dear," I ventured at last to begin "I want you to do me a favor to-day."

"Yes," she said, languidly.

"I want you to go to see Mrs. Campbell. This is the day for her beef-tea, and she will be looking out for one of us.

"You must not ask me to go to-day," Helen answered.

"I think I must, dear. When other springs of comfort dry up, there is one always left to us. And that; as mother often said, is usefulness."

"I do try to be useful," she said.

"Yes, you are very kind to me and to the children. If you were my own sister you could not do more. But these little duties do not relieve that aching void in your heart which yearns so for relief."

"No," she said, quickly, "I have no such yearning. I just want to settle down as I am now."

"Yes, I suppose that is the natural tendency of sorrow. But there is great significance in the prayer for ’a heart at leisure from itself, to soothe and sympathize.’"

"Oh, Katy!" she said, "you don’t know, you can’t know, how I feel. Until James began to love me so I did not know there was such a love as that in the world. You know our family is different from yours. And it is so delightful to be loved. Or rather it was!"

"Don’t say was," I said. "You know we all love you dearly, dearly"

"Yes, but not as James did!"

"That is true. It was foolish in me to expect to console you by such suggestions. But to go back to Mrs. Campbell. She will sympathize with you, if you will let her, as very few can, for she has lost both husband and children."

"Ah, but she had a husband for a time, at least. It is not as if he were snatched away before they had lived together."

If anybody else had said this I should have felt that it was out of mere perverseness. But dear little Helen is not perverse; she is simply overburdened.

"I grant that your disappointment was greater than hers," I went on. "But the affliction was not. Every day that a husband and wife walk hand in hand together upon earth makes of the twain more and more one flesh. The selfish element which at first formed so large a part of their attraction to each other disappears, and the union becomes so pure and beautiful as to form a fitting type of the union of Christ and His church. There is nothing else on earth like it."

Helen sighed.

"I find it hard to believe," she said, "there can be anything more delicious than the months in which James and I were so happy together."

"Suffering together would have brought you even nearer," I replied. "Dear Helen, I am very sorry for you; I hope you feel that, even when, according to my want, I fall into arguments, as if one could argue a sorrow away!"

"You are so happy," she answered. "Ernest loves you so dearly, and is so proud of you, and you have such lovely children! I ought not to expect you to sympathize perfectly with my loneliness.

"Yes, I am happy," I said, after a pause; "but you must own, dear, that I have had my sorrows, too. Until you become a mother yourself, you cannot comprehend what a mother can suffer, riot merely for herself, in losing her children, but in seeing their sufferings. I think I may say of my happiness that it rests on something higher and deeper than even Ernest and my children."

"And what is that?"

The will of God, the sweet will of God. If He should take them all away, I might still possess a peace which would flow on forever. I know this partly from my own experience and partly from that of others. Mrs. Campbell says that the three months that followed the death of her first child were the happiest she had ever known. Mrs. Wentworth, whose husband was snatched from her almost without warning, and while using expressions of affection for her such as a lover addresses to his bride, said to me, with tears rolling down her cheeks, yet with a smile, I thank my God and Saviour that He has not forgotten and passed me by, but has counted me worthy to bear this sorrow for His sake.’ And hear this passage from the life of Wesley, which I lighted on this morning:

"He visited one of his disciples, who was ill in bed and after having buried seven of her family in six months, had just heard that the eighth, her husband, whom she dearly loved, had been cast away at sea. ’I asked her,’ he says, ’ do you not fret at any of those things?’ She says, with a lovely smile, ’Oh, no! how can I fret at anything which is the will of God? Let Him take all beside, He has given me Himself. I love, I praise Him every moment.’"

"Yes," Helen objected, "I can imagine people as saying such things in moments of excitement; but afterwards, they have hours of terrible agony."

"They have ’hours of terrible agony,’ of course. God’s grace does not harden our hearts, and make them proof against suffering, like coats of mail. They can all say, ’Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee,’ and it is they alone who have been down into the depths, and had rich experience of what God could be to His children there, who can utter such testimonials to His honor, as those I have just repeated."

"Katy,’ Helen suddenly asked, "do you always submit to God’s will thus?"

"In great things I do," I said. "What grieves me is that I am constantly forgetting to recognize God’s hand in the little every-day trials of life, and instead of receiving them as from Him, find fault with the instruments by which He sends them. I can give up my child, my only brother, my darling mother without a word; but to receive every tire some visitor as sent expressly and directly to weary me by the Master Himself; to meet every negligence on the part of the servants as His choice for me at the moment; to be satisfied and patient when Ernest gets particularly absorbed in his books because my Father sees that little discipline suitable for me at the time; all this I have not fully learned."

"All you say discourages me," said Helen, in a tone of deep dejection. "Such perfection was only meant for a few favored ones, and I do not dare so much as to aim at it. I am perfectly sure that I must be satisfied with the low state of grace I am in now and always have been."

She was about to leave me, but I caught her hand as she would have passed me, and made one more attempt to reach her poor, weary soul.

"But are you satisfied, dear Helen?" I asked, as tenderly as I would speak to a little sick child. "Surely you crave happiness, as every human soul does!"

"Yes, I crave it," she replied, "but God has taken it from me.

"He has taken away your earthly happiness, I know, but only to convince you what better things He has in store for you. Let me read you a letter which Dr. Cabot wrote me many years ago, but which has been an almost constant inspiration to me ever since."

She sat down, resumed her work again, and listened to the letter in silence. As I came to its last sentence the three children rushed in from school, at least the boys did, and threw themselves upon me like men assaulting a fort. I have formed the habit of giving myself entirely to them at the proper moment, and now entered into their frolicsome mood as joyously as if I had never known a sorrow or lost an hour’s sleep. At last they went off to their playroom, and Una settled down by my side to amuse Daisy, when Helen began again.

"I should like to read that letter myself," she said. "Meanwhile I want to ask you one question. What are you made of that you can turn from one thing to another like lightning? Talking one moment as if life depended on your every word, and then frisking about with those wild boys as if you were a child yourself?"

I saw Una look up curiously, to hear my answer, as I replied,

"I have always aimed at this flexibility. I think a mother, especially, ought to learn to enter into the gayer moods of her children at the very moment when her own heart is sad. And it may be as religious an act for her to romp with them at the time as to pray with them at another."

Helen now went away to her room with Dr Cabot’s letter, which I silently prayed might bless her as it had blessed me. And then a jaded, disheartened mood came over me that made me feel that all I had been saying to her was but as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal, since my life and my professions did not correspond. Hitherto my consciousness of imperfection has made me hesitate to say much to Helen. Why are we so afraid of those who live under the same roof with us? It must be the conviction that those who daily see us acting in a petty, selfish, trifling way, must find it hard to conceive that our prayers and our desires take a wider and higher aim. Dear little Helen! May the ice once broken remain broken forever.

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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 May 27, 2024,

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. 27 May. 2024.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 27 May 2024, from