Stepping Heavenward

Author: Elizabeth Prentiss



Miss CLIFFORD came to lunch with us on Wednesday. Her remarkable restoration to health has attracted a good deal of attention, and has given Ernest a certain reputation which does not come amiss to him. Not that he is ambitious; a more unworldly man does not live; but his extreme reserve and modesty have obscured the light that is now beginning to shine. We all enjoyed Miss Clifford’s visit. She is one of the freshest, most original creatures I ever met with, and kept us all laughing with her quaint speeches, long after every particle of lunch had disappeared from the table. But this mobile nature turns to the serious side of life with marvelous ease and celerity, as perhaps all sound ones ought to do. I took her up to my room where my work-basket was, and Helen followed, with hers.

"I have brought something to read to you, dear Mrs. Elliott," Miss Clifford began, the moment we had seated ourselves, "which I have just lighted on, and I am sure you will like. A nobleman writes to Fenelon asking certain questions, and a part of these questions, with the replies, I want to enjoy with you, as they cover a good deal of the ground we have often discussed together":

"I.-How shall I offer my purely indifferent actions to God; walks, visits made and received, dress, little proprieties, such as washing the hands, etc.’, the reading of books of history, business with which I am charged for my friends, other amusements, such -as shopping, having clothes made, and equipages. I want to have some sort of prayer, or method of offering each of these things to God.

"REPLY.-The most indifferent actions cease to be such, and become good as soon as one performs them with the intention of conforming one’s self in them to the will of God. They are often better and purer than certain actions which appear more virtuous: 1st, because they are less of our own choice and more in the order of Providence when one is obliged to perform them; 2d, because they are simpler and less exposed to vain complaisance; 3d, because if one yields to them with moderation, one finds in them more of death to one’s inclinations than in certain acts of fervor in which self-love mingles; finally, because these little occasions occur more frequently, and furnish a secret occasion for continually making every moment profitable.

"It is not necessary to make great efforts nor acts of great reflection, in order to offer what are called indifferent actions. It is enough to lift the soul one instant to God, to make a simple offering of it. Everything which God wishes us to do, and which enters into the course of occupation suitable to our position, can and ought to be offered to God; nothing is unworthy of Him but sin. When you feel that an action cannot be offered to God, conclude that it does not become a Christian; it is at least necessary to suspect it, and seek light concerning it. I would not have a special prayer for each of these the elevation of the heart at the moment suffices.

"As for visits, commissions and the like, as there is danger of following one’s own taste too much, I would add to this elevating of the heart a prayer to moderate myself and use precaution.

"II-In prayer I cannot fix my mind, or I have intervals of time when it is elsewhere and it is often distracted for a long time before I perceive it. I want to find some means of becoming its master.

"REPLY.-Fidelity in following the rules that have been given you, and in recalling your mind every time you perceive its distraction, will gradually give you the grace of being more recollected. Meanwhile bear your involuntary distractions with patience and humility; you deserve nothing better. Is it surprising that recollection is difficult to a man so long dissipated and far from God?

"III.-I wish to know if it is best to record, on my tablets, the faults and the sins I have committed, in order not to rum the risk of forgetting them. I excite in myself to repentance for my faults as much as I can; but I have never felt any real grief on account of them. When I examine myself at night, I see persons far more perfect than I complain of more sin: as for me, I seek, I find nothing; and yet it is impossible there should not be many points on which to implore pardon every day of my life.

"REPLY.-You should examine yourself every night, but simply and briefly. In the disposition to which God has brought you, you will not voluntarily commit any considerable fault without remembering and reproaching yourself for it. As to little faults, scarcely perceived, even if you sometimes forget them, this need not make you uneasy.

"As to lively grief on account of your sins, it is not necessary. God gives it when it pleases Him. True and essential conversion of the heart consists in a full will to sacrifice all to God. What I call full will is a fixed immovable disposition of the will to resume none of the voluntary affections which may alter the purity of the love to God and to abandon itself to all the crosses which it will -perhaps -be necessary to bear, in order to accomplish the will of God always and in all things. As to sorrow for sin, when one has it, one ought to return thanks for it; when one perceives it to be wanting, one should humble one’s self peacefully before God without trying to excite it by vain efforts.

"You find in your self-examination fewer faults than persons more advanced and more perfect do; it is because your interior light is still feeble. It will increase, and the view of your infidelities will increase in proportion. It suffices, without making yourself uneasy, to try to be faithful to the degree of light you possess, and to instruct yourself by reading and meditation. It will not do to try to forestall the grace that belongs to a more advanced period. It would only serve to trouble and discourage you, and even to exhaust you by continual anxiety; the time that should be spent in loving God would be given to forced returns upon yourself, which secretly nourish self-love.

"IV.---In my prayers my mind has difficulty in finding anything to say to God. My heart is not in it, or it is inaccessible to the thoughts of my mind.

"REPLY.-It is not necessary to say much to God. Oftentimes one does not speak much to a friend whom one is delighted to see; one looks at him with pleasure; one speaks certain short words to him which are mere expressions of feeling. The mind has no part in them, or next to none; one keeps repeating the same words. It is not so much a variety of thoughts that one seeks in intercourse with a friend, as a certain repose and correspondence of heart. It is thus we are with God, who does not disdain to be our tenderest, most cordial,-most familiar, most intimate friend. A word, a sigh, a sentiment, says all to God; it is not always necessary to have transports of sensible tenderness; a will all naked and dry, without life, without vivacity, without pleasure, is often purest in the sight of God. In fine, it is necessary to content one’s self with giving to Him what He gives it to give, a fervent heart when it is fervent, a heart firm and faithful in its aridity, when He deprives it of sensible fervor. It does not always depend on you to feel; but it is necessary to wish to feel. Leave it to God to choose to make you feel sometimes, in order to sustain your weakness and infancy in Christian life; sometimes weaning you from that sweet and consoling sentiment which is the milk of babes, in order to humble you, to make you grow, and to make you robust in the violent exercise of faith, by causing you to sweat the bread of the strong in the sweat of your brow. Would you only love God according as He will make you take pleasure in loving Him? You would be loving your own tenderness and feeling, fancying that you were loving God. Even while receiving sensible gifts, prepare yourself by pure faith for the time when you might be deprived of them and you will suddenly succumb if you had only relied on such support.

"O forgot to speak of some practices which may, at the beginning, facilitate the remembrance of the offering one ought to make to God, of all the ordinary acts of the day.

"1. Form the resolution to do so, every morning, and call yourself to account in your self-examination at night.

"2. Make no resolutions but for good reasons, either from propriety or the necessity of relaxing the mind, etc. Thus, in accustoming one’s self to retrench the useless little by little, one accustoms one’s self to offer what is not proper to curtail.

"3. Renew one’s self in this disposition whenever one is alone, in order to be better prepared to recollect it when in company.

"4. Whenever one surprises one’s self in too great dissipation, or in speaking too freely of his neighbor, let him collect himself and offer to God all the rest of the conversation.

"5. To flee, with confidence, to God, to act according to His will, when one enters company, or engages in some occupation which may cause one to fall into temptation. The sight of danger ought to warn of the need there is to lift the heart toward Him by one who may be preserved from it."

We both thanked her as she finished reading, and I begged her to lend me the volume that I might make the above copy.

I hope I have gained some valuable hints from this letter, and that I shall see more plainly than ever that it is a religion of principle that God wants from us, not one of mere feeling.

Helen remarked that she was most struck by the assertion that one cannot forestall the graces that belong to a more advanced period. She said she had assumed that she ought to experience all that the most mature Christian did, and that it rested her to think of God as doing this work for her, making repentance, for instance, a free gift, not a conquest to be won for one’s self.

Miss Clifford said that the whole idea of giving one’s self to God in such little daily acts as visiting, shopping, and the like, was entirely new to her.

"But fancy," she went on, her beautiful face lighted up withenthusiasm, "what a blessed life that must be, when the base things of this world and things that are despised, are so many links to the invisible world and to the things God has chosen!"

"In other words," I said, "the top of the ladder that rests on earth reaches to heaven, and we may ascend it as the angels did in Jacob’s dream."

"And descend too, as they did," Helen put in, despondently.

"Now you shall not speak in that tone," cried Miss Clifford. "Let us look at the bright side of life, and believe that God means us to be always ascending, always getting nearer to Himself, always learning something new about Him, always loving Him better and better. To be sure, our souls are sick, and of themselves can’t keep ’ever on the wing,’ but I have had some delightful thoughts of late from just hearing the title of a book, ’God’s method with the maladies of the soul.’ It gives one such a conception of the seeming ills of life ; to think of Him as our Physician, the ills all remedies, the deprivations only a wholesome regimen, the losses all gains. Why, as I study this individual case and that, see how patiently and persistently He tries now this remedy, now that, and how infallibly He cures the souls that submit to His remedies, I love Him so! I love Him so! And I am so astonished that we are restive under His unerring hand! Think how He dealt with me. My soul was sick unto death, sick with worldliness, and self-pleasing and folly. There was only one way of making me listen to reason, and that was just the way He took. He snatched me right out of the world and shut me up in one room, crippled, helpless, and alone, and set me to thinking, thinking, thinking, till I saw the emptiness and shallowness of all in which I had hitherto been involved. And then He sent you and your mother to show me the reality of life, and to reveal to me my invisible, unknown Physician. Can I love Him with half my heart? Can I be asking questions as to how much I am to pay towards the debt I owe Him ?"

By this time Helen’s work had fallen from her hands and tears were in her eyes.

"How I thank you," she said softly, "for what you have said. You have interpreted life to me! You have given .me a new conception of my God and Saviour!"

Miss Clifford seemed quenched and humbled by these words; her enthusiasm faded away and she looked at Helen with a deprecatory air as she replied:

"Don’t say that! I never felt so unfit for anything but to sit at the feet of Christ’s disciples and learn of them."

Yet I, so many years one of those disciples, been sitting at her feet, and had learned of her. Never had I so realized the magnitude of the work to be done in this world, nor the power and goodness of Him who has undertaken to do it all. I was glad to be alone, to walk my room singing praises to Him for every instance in which, as my Physician, He had "disappointed my hope and defeated my joys" and given me to drink of the cup of sorrow and bereavement.

MAY 24.-I read to Ernest the extract from Fenelon which has made such an impression on me.

"Every business man, in short ;every man leading an active life, ought to read that," he said. "We should have a new order of things as the result Instead of fancying that our ordinary daily work was one thing and our religion quite another thing, we should transmute our drudgery into acts of worship. Instead of going to prayer-meetings to get into a ’good frame’ we should live in a good frame from morning till night, from night till morning, and prayer and praise would be only another form for expressing the love and faith and obedience we had been exercising amid the pressure of business."

"I only wish I had understood this years ago," I said." I have made prayer too much of a luxury, and have often inwardly chafed and fretted when the care of my children, at times, made it utterly impossible to leave them for private devotion-when they have been sick, for instance, or in other like emergencies. I reasoned this way: ’Here is a special demand on my patience, and I am naturally impatient I must have time to go away and entreat the Lord to equip me for this conflict.’ But I see now that the simple act of cheerful acceptance of the duty imposed and the solace and support withdrawn would have united me more fully to Christ than the highest enjoyment of His presence in prayer could."

"Yes, every act of obedience is an act of worship," he said.

"But why don’t we learn that sooner? Why do we waste our lives before we learn how to live?"

"I am not sure," he returned, "that we do not learn as fast as we are willing to learn. God does not force instruction upon us, but when we say, as Luther did, ’More light, Lord, more light,’- the light comes."

I questioned myself after he had gone as to whether this could be true of me. Is there not in my heart some secret reluctance to know the truth, lest that knowledge should call to a higher and holier life than I have yet lived?

JUNE 2.-I went to see Mrs. Campbell a few days ago, and found, to my great joy, that Helen had just been there, and that they had had an earnest conversation together. Mrs. Campbell failed a good deal of late, and it is not probable we shall have her with us much longer. Her every look and word is precious to me when I think of her as one who is so soon to enter the unseen world and see our Saviour, and be welcomed home by Him. If it is so delightful to be with those who are on the way to heaven, what would it be to have fellowship with one who had come thence, and could tell us what it is!

She spoke freely about death, and said Ernest had promised to take charge of her funeral, and to see that she was buried by the side of her husband.

"You see, my dear,’ she added, with a smile, "though I am expecting to be so soon a saint in heaven, I am a human being still, with human weaknesses. What can it really matter where this weary old body is laid away, when I have done with it, and gone and left it forever? And yet I am leaving directions about its disposal!"

I said I was glad that she was still human but that I did not think it a weakness to take thought for the abode in which her soul had dwelt so long. I saw that she was tired and was coming away, but she held me and would not let me go.

"Yes, I am tired," she said, "but what of that? It is only a question of days now, and all my tired feelings will be over. Then I shall be as young and fresh as ever, and shall have strength to praise and to love God as I cannot do now. But before I go I want once more to tell you how good He is, how blessed it is to suffer with Him, how infinitely happy He has made me in the very hottest heat of the furnace. It will strengthen you in your trials to recall this my dying testimony. 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."

Yes, the radiant face, worn by sickness and suffering, but radiant still, said in language yet more unspeakably impressive,—

"To learn Christ, this is life!"

I came into the busy and noisy streets as one descending from the mount, and on reaching home found my darling Una very ill in Ernest’s arms. She had fallen, and injured her head. How I had prayed that God would temper the wind to this shorn lamb, and now she had had such a fall! We watched over her till far into the night, scarcely speaking to each other, but I know by the way in which Ernest held my hand clasped in his that her precious life was in danger. He consented at last to lie down, but Helen stayed with me. What a night it was! God only knows what the human heart can experience in a space of time that men call hours. I went over all the past history of the child, recalling all her sweet looks and words, and my own secret repining at the delicate health that cut her off from so many of the pleasures that belong to her age. And the more I thought, the more I clung to her, on whom, frail as she is, I was beginning to lean, and whose influence in our home I could not think of losing without a shudder. Alas, my faith seemed, for a time, to flee, and I see just what a poor, weak human being is without it. But before daylight crept into my room light from on high streamed into my heart, and I gave even this, my ewe-lamb, away, as my free-will offering to God. Could I refuse Him my child because she was the very apple of my eye? Nay then, but let me give to Him, not what, I value least, but what I prize and delight in most. Could I not endure heart-sickness for Him who had given His only Son for me! And just as I got to that sweet consent to suffer, He who had only lifted the rod to try my faith laid it down. My darling opened her eyes and looked at us intelligently, and with her own loving smile. But I dared not snatch her and press her to my heart; for her sake I must be outwardly calm at least.

JUNE 6.-I am at home with my precious Una, all the rest having gone to church. She lies peacefully on the bed, sadly disfigured, for the time, but Ernest says he apprehends no danger now, and we are a most happy, a most thankful household. The children have all been greatly moved by the events of the last few days, and hover about their sister with great sympathy and tenderness. Where she fell from, or how she fell, no one knows; she remembers nothing about it herself, and it will always remain a mystery.

This is the second time that this beloved child has been returned to us after we had given her away to God.

And as the giving cost us ten-fold more now than it did when she was a feeble baby, so we receive her as a fresh gift from our loving Father’s hand, with ten-fold delight. Ah, we have no excuse for not giving ourselves entirely to Him. He has revealed Himself to us in so many sorrows and in so many joys; revealed Himself as He doth not unto the world!

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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 June 17, 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. 17 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: Prentiss, E, Stepping Heavenward, ed. . cited in 1908, 1917, Stepping Heavenward, D. Appleton and Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 17 June 2024, from