Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review: Stepping Heavenward

Stepping Heavenward. Mrs. Elizabeth Prentiss. 1869/1998. Barbour Books. 352 pages. [Source: Bought]

January 15, 1831
How dreadfully old I am getting! Sixteen! Well, I don't see as I can help it. There it is in the big Bible in Father's own hand:
"Katherine, born Jan. 15, 1815."

Katherine Mortimer is the heroine of Mrs. Prentiss' instructive novel. The novel spans journal entries from 1831 through 1858. Readers see a young--yes, young despite the heroine's declaration that she is oh-so-old--mature into a wife and mother. Our heroine is far from perfect, that is the whole point essentially, to have a heroine who is self-aware enough to realize that she has flaws and weaknesses and that try as she might she can't "try" her way out of them. Just because the heroine is self-aware in some aspects, does not mean she is self-aware in all aspects.

I found Stepping Heavenward to have more strengths than weaknesses. Yes, the focus is on morality and spiritual growth. In today's culture, that may be seen as an automatic negative. A book that seeks to provide wisdom to its readers! How dreadfully old-fashioned! But all in all I liked it.
You cannot prove to yourself that you love God by examining your feelings toward Him. They are indefinite and they fluctuate. But just as far as you obey Him, just so far, depend upon it, you love Him. It is not natural to us sinful, ungrateful human beings to prefer His pleasure to our own or to follow His way instead of our own way, and nothing, nothing but love of Him can or does make us obedient to Him. (29)
Of course there is but one real preparation for Christian dying, and that is Christian living. (227)
Influence. There were people in Katherine's life who influenced her, who challenged her to think, who challenged her to act, who challenged her to decide. These influences weren't all obvious ones. Like her minister, Dr. Cabot. Yes, he was an influence, off and on, but others were as well. Some near her own age, but, many who were older. Influences also came from all classes.
Dear Mother! I wonder how I can ever forget what troubles she has had, and am not always sweet and loving. She has gone now, where she always goes when she feels sad, straight to God. Of course she did not say so, but I know Mother. (22)
It is a pleasant picture to see her with my little darlings about her, telling the old sweet story she told me so often and making God and Heaven and Christ such blissful realities. As I listen, I realize that it is to her I owe that early, deep-seated longing to please the Lord Jesus, which I never remember as having a beginning or an ending, though it did have its fluctuations. (235)
Our dear Helen has been given us for this emergency. Is it not strange that seeing our domestic life should have awakened in her some yearnings for a home and a heart and children of her own. She has said that there was a weary point in her life when she made up her mind that she was never to know these joys. But she accepted her lot gracefully. I do not know any other word that describes so well the beautiful offering she made of her life, first to God and then to us. He accepted it and has given her all the cares and responsibilities of domestic life without the transcendent joys that sustain the wife and the mother. She has been all in all to our children, and God has been all in all to her. And she is happy in His service and in our love. (336)
I had very mixed thoughts on Dr. Cabot. I'm not sure the author ever meant readers to question the advice of Dr. Cabot, but I certainly did! In particular, I thought this advice was AWFUL.
Listen to my sermons from week to week, and glean from them all the instruction you can, remembering that they are preached to you.
In reading the Bible I advise you 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.
As to the other devotional reading, it is better to settle down on a few favorite authors and read their works over and over and over until you have digested their thoughts and made them your own. (88-9)
Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. Katherine spent years--and I do mean years--wanting to hold onto everything that was comfortable. She wanted to want God. She knew that she should be holy and good. But she wasn't willing to surrender herself. She was so very very far away from saying God's will be done. She very much wanted to stay in control and stay comfortable. But by the end of the novel, Katherine has finally, slowly but surely, transformed her thinking.

Difficult people. Katherine wanted EVERYONE in her life to be perfect and understanding. She did not like being around hard or difficult people because by being with them, her own weaknesses came to light. There were people in her life who were daily--hourly reminders even--that she was impatient and quick-tempered and oh-so-selfish. Katherine clung to the thought that if she were only surrounded by good and kind people, then she'd never have reason to ever lose control and lose her temper. But by being in community, a real community, Katherine learns that all of us have strengths and all of us have weaknesses, that we can't ever rely on any one person being perfectly good, perfectly kind, perfectly patient, perfectly wise. God was working on her, REALLY working on her, by bringing people into her life.

Family life. The book addresses questions like what does it mean to be a good daughter? what does it mean to be a good wife? what does it take to be a good mother? what does it take to be a good friend and neighbor? How can a person be more compassionate and less selfish? While some books, some romance books, focus on courtship and the big day--the wedding, this one spends most of the book focused on what comes next, on the relationship between husband and wife. Katherine had a lot of growing to do! Her expectations of marriage were something. She thought marriage meant she'd never, ever, ever be lonely again. That being married would take away her feeling sad or empty. She had a very specific idea of what a husband, a good husband, is like, and when her husband failed to live up to her dreams, then she had some growing up to do. Not that it was all on her side. The book reflects that marriage takes work. That husbands and wives have to work together and treat each other kindly but honestly. She should not make him try to fit her mold and he shouldn't try to make her fit his.
"Katy," he said, "If you can once make up your mind to the fact that I am an undemonstrative man, not all fire and fury and ecstasy as you are, yet loving you with all my heart, however it may seem, I think you will spare yourself much needless pain--and spare me also."
"But I want you to be demonstrative," I persisted (145)
Spiritual Disciplines. I must admit that Katherine's progress or lack of progress, her good intentions, her thousand-and-one attempts to "get right" with God was done realistically. It doesn't matter if the year is 1869 or 2014, some stories stay relevant. Katherine often felt she was alone in that she struggled constantly with prayer and Bible reading. What Katherine did not do in the novel, for better or worse, was study the Bible--as opposed to reading it devotionally. While it mentions that Katherine read spiritual books, I'm assuming that means nonfiction, no titles or authors are mentioned. For all her reading, she had a difficult time of grasping certain fundamental truths. For example, Katherine spent decades of her life stuck on try, on do. Katherine had a hard time grasping the concept that Christianity is a done religion. She got there. She did. But the journey was oh-so-long. And perhaps that is the point. That more often than not, people learn spiritual truths the hard way. That people do, in fact, mature in the faith, in what they believe, in what they know to be so. That a person can believe in God at sixteen, and yet, know him differently, know him better twenty or thirty years later.

I do not love to pray. I am always eager to get it over with and out of the way so as to have leisure to enjoy myself. I mean that this is usually so. This morning I cried a good deal while I was on my knees and felt sorry for my quick temper and all my bad ways. If I always felt so, perhaps praying would not be such a task. I wish I knew whether anybody exactly as bad as I am ever got to heaven at last? I have read ever so many memoirs, and they were all about people who were too good to live, and so died, or else went on a mission; I am not at all like any of them. (20)
Most of the time I spend on my knees I am either stupid, feeling nothing at all, or else my head is full of what I was doing before I began to pray or what I am going to do as soon as I get through. I do not believe anybody else in the world is like me in this respect. Then when I feel differently and can make a nice, glib prayer, with floods of tears running down my cheeks, I get all puffed up and think how much pleased God must be to see me so fervent in spirit. (64)

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

1 comment:

hopeinbrazil said...

This one has been on my TBR list for years. Thanks for your very thoughtful review.