“Much of my experience of life has cost me a great price and I wish to use it for strengthening and comforting other souls.”
I never go into our public library without checking out their discard/donation rack first. That’s where I got my practically complete “Great Books of the Western World” for $20, for goodness sake! You just never know how a little vigilance might pay off.
But lately the offerings have been pretty sparse. And feeble. Same things on the shelf visit after visit. Then, one day, there was this. The spine was eye-catching, if you’re into old books, even if you haven’t heard of the title. Which I had.
It’s a Lamplighter reprint of a book which the publisher says is a favorite of Elisabeth Elliot, Kay Arthur, and Joni Eareckson Tada. Then he ends his “Testimony” almost with a disclaimer:
“I have heard that some have lost interest in the book before reaching the half-way mark. And equally I have heard that it was after the half-way mark that their lives were forever changed.”
So, I was prepared to have to work through it. I read Stepping Heavenward during my very limited morning quiet time. Rather than having to work through it, I kept having to keep an eye on the clock so I didn’t forget to finish getting ready for work.
At first it was difficult for me to put a finger on exactly why a story, in diary form, about a 16 year old girl’s struggles with her Christian life so appealed to me. Perhaps because her struggles seem like what we likely all have struggled with to some degree. I may not have been as rebellious when I was 16 as Katherine is, but I remember the feeling of preferring anyone’s advice to my mom’s. What could she possibly know about being a teenager? I know I often wondered if I really loved God, and what that should look like if I did.
Often, stories written in diary or letter form irk me because the author doesn’t quite know how to tell her story naturally. Frankenstein comes to mind. No one wastes time in a letter reminding the letter’s intended recipient such things as how the writer and written-to met years ago. It’s awkward for a diarist to tell “Dear Diary” things it ought to know already just to fill the reader in. Elizabeth Prentiss manages to avoid these hazards and tells her story with neither too few, nor too many, nor too obvious details. Part of the appeal of this story is that the reader knows it is not going to remain a story about a 16 year old girl. Katherine is going to grow, mature, and continue to struggle on her path heavenward.
The diary begins on Katherine’s 16th birthday in 1831 and ends in 1858 with her contemplating the possibility that her current illness may be her last. In this relatively short life, she suffers from ill health and almost every possible kind of loss. Along the way she intentionally practices giving each of her gifts back to God.
“Of course there is but one real preparation for Christian dying, and that is Christian living.”
This is not a syrupy sentimental 19th century morality tale. Nor does it come across as didactic. Though the story is fictional, many of the experiences mirror those of the author, Elizabeth Prentiss, who suffered from frail health and painful losses during her lifetime. She wrote the beloved hymn “More Love to Thee” after the loss of a child.
More love to thee, O Christ,
More Love to Thee!
Hear thou the prayer I make
On bended knee;
This is my earnest plea:
More love, O Christ, to thee,
More love to thee!
Once earthly joy I craved,
Sought peace and rest;
Now thee alone I seek,
Give what is best;
This all my prayer shall be;
More love O Christ, to thee,
More love to thee…
Katherine is a young woman who genuinely battles her natural selfishness, willfulness, and discontent in order to come to a right relationship with Christ. She is on the mountaintop one day, down in the dumps the next. Experience and enforced confinements temper the extremes of her character as she matures.
“I am always expecting something from life that I never get. Is it so with everybody?”
Very few works of fiction have made me cry. Katherine’s struggles are so authentic that they wrung my heart. I found myself closely identifying with her, though my personality is so different from her and my struggles have not been the same. Perhaps anyone who has suffered loss can identify with another’s pain though it isn’t, can’t be, identical. I can definitely thank God that mine have not been the same as hers.
And consider the prescience:
“People ask me how it happens that my children are all so promptly obedient and so happy. As if it chanced that some parents have such children, or chanced that some have not? I am afraid it is only to true, as some one has remarked, that ‘this is the age of obedient parents!’ What then will be the future of their children? How can they yield to God who have never been taught to yield to human authority? And how well fitted will they be to rule their own households who have never learned to rule themselves?”
I pray that I will have such an attitude toward my own end.
But before I go I want 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 the 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!”