Stepping Heavenward, chapter IV part 3
Welcome to Katy’s life, post-Charley!
It is 1834, and Katy has just turned 19 years old. Her schooling is over, and she lives at home with her widowed mother. She enjoys drawing and music, and helps her mother with some sewing. But really, she’s bored. Is there no social scene where she lies? Were Amelia, Charley, and Jane, all of whom appear now to be lost to her, really the only people her age in the area?
Charley’s betrayal—and whatever happened, that’s how Katy is interpreting it—has sent Katy in a bit of a tailspin. She feels “stupid and languid,” and feels deeply ashamed as a Christian.
I was beginning to believe that I was really living a feeble and fluttering, but real Christian life, and finding some satisfaction in it. But that is all over now. I am doomed to be a victim of my own unstable, passionate, wayward nature, and the sooner I settle down into that conviction, the better.
This poor girl would so benefit from a therapist. But Katy does not have a therapist. So instead, Katy goes to see Dr. Cabot, her pastor.
“I am very glad to see you, my dear child,” he said.
I intended to be very dignified and cold. As if I was going to have any Dr. Cabot’s undertaking to sympathize with me! But those few kind words just upset me, and I began to cry.
“You would not speak so kindly,” I got out at last, “if you knew what a dreadful creature I am. I am angry with myself, and angry with everybody, and angry with God. I can’t be good two minutes at a time. I do everything I do not want to do, and do nothing I try and pray to do. Everybody plagues me and tempts me. And God does not answer any of my prayers, and I am just desperate.”
“Poor child!” he said, in a low voice, as if to himself. “Poor, heart-sick, tired child, that cannot see what I can see, that its Father’s loving arms are all about it?”
What is Dr. Cabot’s advice to Katy?
“Go home and say over and over to yourself, ‘I am a wayward, foolish child. But He loves me! I have disobeyed and grieved Him ten thousand times. But He loves me! I have lost faith in some of my dearest friends and am very desolate. But He loves me! I do not love Him, I am even angry with Him! But He loves me!'”
Katy goes home and does just that and … it helps.
I knelt down to pray, and all my wasted, childish, wicked life came and stared me in the face. I looked at it, and said with tears of joy, “But He loves me!” Never in my life did I feel so rested, so quieted, so sorrowful, and yet so satisfied.
Katy suddenly feels bright and cheerful.
Feb 10.-What a beautiful world this is, and how full it is of truly kind, good people! Mrs. Morris was here this morning, and just one squeeze of that long, yellow old hand of hers seemed to speak a bookful! I wonder why I have always disliked her so, for she is really an excellent woman.
We even have this exchange:
I went into mother’s room and put my arms round her and told her how I loved her. She looked surprised and pleased.
“Ah, I knew it would come!” she said, laying her hand on her Bible.
“Knew what would come, mother?”
“Peace,” she said.
Katy writes a letter apologizing for losing her temper to Amelia, and then she writes a long letter to her brother James, whom she says she’d been neglect. Then she hems the handkerchiefs her mother had asked her to, that she’d been putting off, and then she wonders that she can to “think of anything to do for God.” I assume we’re to view this as ironic.
So Katy goes back to Dr. Cabot, whom she finds preparing his sermon. She tells him she wants to do something for God, but that she cannot think what.
“I only wanted to ask one thing,” I said. “I want to do something for God. And I cannot think of anything unless it is to go on a mission. And mother would never let me do that. She thinks girls with delicate health are not fit for such work.”
“At all events I would not go to-day,” he replied. Meanwhile do everything you do for Him who has loved you and given Himself for you.”
I did not dare to stay any longer, and so came away quite puzzled.
Katy does not understand, and goes away unsatisfied. She wants to do something for God, but still can’t figure out what.
But Katy’s brief weeks of brightness and peace ultimately do last, and she is plunged down again into despair.
Feb. 19. It has seemed to me for several days that it must be that I really do love God, though ever so little. But it shot through my mind to-day like a knife, that it is a miserable, selfish love at the best, not worth my giving, not worth God’s accepting. All my old misery has come back with seven other miseries more miserable than itself. I wish I had never been born! I wish I were thoughtless and careless, like so many other girls of my age, who seem to get along very well, and to enjoy themselves far more than I do.
I am not a mental health professional, but I do find myself wondering whether there’s something more going on here.
Dr. Cabot comes to visit, and they talk once again. He tells her that we do not call babies selfish for loving their mothers, or say that that is a selfish love.
Katy tells Dr. Cabot that she doesn’t know the exact moment when she became a Christian, and that that troubles her. He tells her that she doesn’t have to have an exact moment.
“I believe that the children of Christian parents, who have been judiciously trained, rarely can ‘point to any day or hour when they began to live this new life. The question is not, do you remember, my child, when you entered this world, and how! It is simply this, are you now alive and an inhabitant thereof?”
Here Prentiss is inserting herself into an important theological debate of the time. At one point, it was thought that you had to have a specific moment when you were saved—usually a moment of extreme turmoil and anguish, resulting in a decision to dedicate one’s life to God. But around this time, some theologians—such as Horace Bushnell—began to argue otherwise, contending that children could simply grow up Christian, nurtured in a Christian home.
Okay, change of topic! Many of my readers have commented on how awful Katy’s mother is. Katy’s mother spends a lot of time telling her that she is foolish and selfish, and then, in the whole Charley affair, Katy’s mother spent the whole time talking at Katy, never with Katy.
Keep that in mind as you read this bit of Katy’s conversation with Dr. Cabot:
And now it is my turn to ask you a question. How happens it that you, who have a mother of rich and varied experience, allow yourself to be tormented with these petty anxieties which she is as capable of dispelling as I am?”
“I do not know,” I answered. “But we girls can’t talk to our mothers about any of our sacred feelings, and we hate to have them talk to us.”
Dr. Cabot shook his head.
“There is something wrong somewhere,” he said, “A young girl’s mother is her natural refuge in every perplexity. I hoped that you, who have rather more sense than most girls of your age, could give me some idea what the difficulty is.”
Is it actually any wonder Katy doesn’t want to talk to her mother about these things? In Little Women, Jo and her sisters were quick to go to Marmee with their feelings and foibles. They knew she would listen to them, and that her advice would be kindly and good. Katy doesn’t have that relationship with her mother, and I really don’t think it’s Katy’s fault.
Katy’s mother has made herself inaccessible.
Oh, and later in this same journal entry Katy notes that she is now 12 months sober. And by that I mean this:
It is just a year ago to-day that I got frightened at my novel-reading propensities, and resolved not to look into one for twelve months. I was getting to dislike all other books, and night after night sat up late, devouring everything exciting I could get hold of. One Saturday night I sat up till the clock struck twelve to finish one, and the next morning I was so sleepy that I had to stay at home from church. Now I hope and believe the back of this taste is broken, and that I shall never be a slave to it again. Indeed it does not seem to me now that I shall ever care for such books again.
Novels are bad. Glad we got that solved!
This is take two of Prentiss’ double punch against novels—as you may remember, Katy first developed feelings for Charley while comparing him to the dashing characters in the novels she was reading. And we saw how well that turned out…
Wait, isn’t this a novel?
Feb. 24.-Mother spoke to me this morning for the fiftieth time, I really believe, about my disorderly habits. I don’t think I am careless because I like confusion, but the trouble is I am always in a hurry and a ferment about something.
Way to go, Katy’s mom! That’ll surely give you and Katy the perfect relationship Dr. Cabot is so confused that you don’t already have! Is Dr. Cabot enamored of Katy’s mother, or something?
Anyway, Katy goes on and on and on and on about how discouraged she is, how stupid she feels, how much she tires to pray but can’t, and then when she prays and prays well she feels “all puffed up” and thinks how pleased God must be and then she goes and scolds Susan for misplacing her music. (Susan is the hired help whom, at this point, I think must exist only to put away Katy’s things, which is surely what Katy means by “misplacing.”)
I’m reminded of times when I would worry whether I was truly saved, because I hadn’t sinned very much—I mean, not the big sins—and I didn’t think I was that terrible of a person. I would twist my mind into a pretzel trying to convince myself that I was a terrible person. The reason that I didn’t think I was horrible must be pride, I tried to convince myself, which was itself a horrible sin, ergo, I was a terrible person. After all, I couldn’t be saved unless I thought I was a horrid, wretched person, and I was scared that I didn’t.
Katy goes back to Dr. Cabot, again, but he’s out, so she talks to Mrs. Cabot. Mrs. Cabot tells Katy not to expect everything to come in a day—a field of wheat takes time to grow. Katy again says she wants to do something, She says she wants to be very, very good. But she adds that she also wants to be learned and accomplished, and happy, with a pleasant home and friends who love her. Mrs. Cabot laughs, and says that doesn’t leave much room for heroic acts of goodness.
“Suppose then you content yourself for the present with doing in a faithful, quiet, persistent way all the little, homely tasks that return with each returning day, each one as unto God, and perhaps by and by you will thus have gained strength for a more heroic life.”
This simple paragraph becomes the abiding, underlying foundation of this book. And it comes not from Dr. Cabot, but from Mrs. Cabot. Because the idea that one can do even housework and all manner of little tasks for God becomes so central, I’ll give you the whole conversation:
“But I don’t know how.”
“You have some little home duties, I suppose?”
“Yes; I have the care of my own room, and mother wants me to have a general oversight of the parlor; you know we have but one parlor now.”
“Is that all you have to do?”
“Why, my music and drawing take up a good deal of my time, and I read and study more or less, and go out some, and we have a good many visitors.”
“I suppose, then, you keep your room in nice lady-like order, and that the parlor is dusted every morning, loose music put out of the way, books restored to their places-”
“Now I know mother has been telling you.”
“Your mother has told me nothing at all.”
“Well, then,” I said, laughing, but a little ashamed, “I don’t keep my room in nice order, and mother really sees to the parlor herself, though I pretend to do it.”
“And is she never annoyed by this neglect?”
“Oh, yes, very much annoyed.”
“Then, dear Katy, suppose your first act of heroism tomorrow should be the gratifying your mother in these little things, little though they are. Surely your first duty, next to pleasing God, is to please your mother, and in every possible way to sweeten and beautify her life. You may depend upon it that a life of real heroism and self-sacrifice must begin and lay its foundation in this little world, wherein it learns its first lesson and takes its first steps.”
“And do you really think that God notices such little things ?”
“My dear child, what a question! If there is any one truth I would gladly impress on the mind of a you Christian, it is just this, that God notices the most trivial act, accepts the poorest, most threadbare little service, listens to the coldest, feeblest petition, and gathers up with parental fondness all our fragmentary desires and attempts at good works. Oh, if we could only begin to conceive how He loves us, what different creatures we should be!”
Katy takes Mrs. Cabot’s words to heart and begins to keep her room and the parlor in better order. Her mother notices, but Katy doesn’t feel she deserves the praise. And Katy is also still up and down. One day she will proclaim she had regained her “natural gayety and cheerfulness” and the next she will feel down again, mourning the loss of Amelia’s friendship.
One day Katy’s mother notices that she’s once again in the dumps, and makes this comment:
“Dear Katy, I feel very sorry for you. But I see one path which you have not yet tried, which can lead you out of these sore straits. You have tried living for yourself a good many years, and the result is great weariness and heaviness of soul. Try now to live for others. Take a class in the Sunday-school. Go with me to visit my poor people. You will be astonished to find how much suffering and sickness there is in this world, and how delightful it is to sympathize with and try to relieve it.”
This advice was very repugnant to me. My time is pretty fully occupied with my books, my music and my drawing. And of all places in the world I hate a sick-room. But, on the whole, I will take a class in the Sunday-school.
I wonder whether this book was as successful as it was because it avoided some of the preaching of other books of the time. To be sure, there is absolutely a lot of preaching! But Katy’s response here, finding her mother’s advice “repugnant” and rejecting part of it, tends to dilute some of her mother’s preachiness for the reader.
So! I took us through quite a bit of territory because I wanted to finish the chapter, and basically, all that happened is that Katy is constantly up and down, and that she is fumbling around trying to figure out how she can serve God—and perhaps become happy again. She is lonely, she is at loose ends, and her big momentous decisions are to devote more energy to cleaning her room and the parlor, and to start teaching a Sunday school class.
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