Nature's Temple

Ladders to Heaven: A Legend

A children’s book author, Juliana Ewing was born Juliana Gatty in 1841. The daughter of a vicar, she grew up in a large family in Ecclesfield, Yorkshire, England. Educated at home, she was encouraged to write by her mother, who edited Aunt Judy’s Magazine, a publication for children later edited by Ewing and her sister. Ewing married a major in the British army, and the couple moved to New Brunswick, Canada. During her three years there, she sent home letters with watercolor illustrations of her life and surroundings. Ill health prevented Ewing from traveling abroad with her husband to his other postings, and she lived in England until her death on May 13, 1885.

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Ewing’s writings for children are rooted in family life and folk traditions. Her books include A Flat Iron for a Farthing: Or Some Passages in the Life of an Only Son (1872), Lob Lie-By-the-Fire: or, The luck of Lingborough, and other stories (1874), Jackanapes (1883), and The Peace Egg and a Christmas Mumming Play (1887). Her 1865 story “The Brownies” inspired the name for the Brownies of the Girl Scouts. In “Ladders to Heaven” (an old name for Lilies of the Valley), the characters’ fates are inextricably linked to their relationship with the natural world, and the message is a timely one for an environment under assault like it never has been under assault before. This story is taken from Ms. Ewing’s Last Words: A Final Collection of Stories, published by Roberts Brothers (Boston) in 1891. In its preface, Horatia K.F. Gatty, noted her sister’s affection for “the practical cultivation of flowers, which had been one of the favorite pursuits of her girlhood” and how the story “The Game of the Earthly Paradise” had been “received with great delight by the readers: one family of children adopted the word “Mary-meadowing” to describe the work which they did towards beautifying hedges and bare places; and my sister received many letters of enquiry about the various plants mentioned in her tale. These she answered in the Correspondence columns of the Magazine, and in July 1884, it was suggested that a ‘Parkinson Society’ should be formed, whose objects were ‘to search out and cultivate old garden flowers which have become scarce; to exchange seeds and plants; to plant waste places with hardy flowers; to circulate books on gardening amongst the Members;’ and further, ‘to try to prevent the extermination of rare wild flowers, as well as of garden treasures.’)

 

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Ladders to Heaven

There was a certain valley in which the grass was very green, for it was watered by a stream which never failed; and once upon a time certain pious men withdrew from the wide world and from their separate homes, and made a home in common, and a little world for themselves, in the valley where the grass was green.

The world outside, in those days, was very rough and full of wars; but the little world in the Green Valley was quiet and full of peace. And most of these men who had taken each other for brothers, and had made one home there, were happy, and being good deserved to be so. And some of them were good with the ignorant innocence of children, and there were others who had washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.

Brother Benedict was so named, because where he came blessings followed. This was said of him, from a child, when the babies stopped crying if he ran up to them, and when on the darkest days old women could see sunbeams playing in his hair. He had always been fond of flowers, and as there were not many things in the Brotherhood of the Green Valley on which a man could full-spend his energies, when prayers were said, and duties done, Brother Benedict spent the balance of his upon the garden. And he grew herbs for healing, and plants that were good for food, and flowers that were only pleasant to the eyes; and where he sowed he reaped, and what he planted prospered, as if blessings followed him.

In time the fame of his flowers spread beyond the valley, and people from the world outside sent to beg plants and seeds of him, and sent him others in return. And he kept a roll of the plants that he possessed, and the list grew longer with every Autumn and every Spring; so that the garden of the monastery became filled with rare and curious things, in which Brother Benedict took great pride.

The day came when he thought that he took too much pride. For he said, “The cares of the garden are, after all, cares of this world, and I have set my affections upon things of the earth,” And at last it so troubled him that he obtained leave to make a pilgrimage to the cell of an old hermit, whose wisdom was much esteemed, and to him he told his fears.

But when Brother Benedict had ended his tale, the old man said, “Go in peace. What a man labors for he must love, if he be made in the image of his Maker; for He rejoices in the works of His hands.”

So Brother Benedict returned, and his conscience was at ease till the Autumn, when a certain abbot, who spent much care and pains upon his garden, was on a journey, and rested at the Monastery of the Green Valley. And it appeared that he had more things in his garden than Brother Benedict, for the abbey was very rich, and he had collected far and near. And Brother Benedict was jealous for the garden of the monastery, and then he was wrath with himself for his jealousy; and when the abbot had gone he obtained leave, and made a pilgrimage to the cell of the hermit and told him all. And the old man, looking at him, loved him, and he said:

“My son, a man may bind his soul with fine-drawn strands till it is either entangled in a web or breaks all bonds. Gird thyself with one strong line, and let little things go by.”

And Benedict said, “With which line?”

And the hermit answered, “What said Augustine? ‘Love, and do what thou wilt.’ If therefore thy labors and thy pride be for others, and not for thyself, have no fear. He who lives for God and for his neighbors may forget his own soul in safety, and shall find it hereafter; for for such a spirit—of the toils and pains and pleasures of this life—grace shall alike build Ladders unto Heaven.”

‘It is a lily, as white and as fragrant as the Lily of the Annunciation, but much smaller. It hath a rare and delicate perfume, and having white bells on many footstalks up the stem, one above the other, as the angels stood in Jacob's dream, the common children call it Ladders to Heaven.’
‘It is a lily, as white and as fragrant as the Lily of the Annunciation, but much smaller. It hath a rare and delicate perfume, and having white bells on many footstalks up the stem, one above the other, as the angels stood in Jacob’s dream, the common children call it Ladders to Heaven.’

‘It is a lily, as white and as fragrant as the Lily of the Annunciation, but much smaller. It hath a rare and delicate perfume, and having white bells on many footstalks up the stem, one above the other, as the angels stood in Jacob’s dream, the common children call it Ladders to Heaven.’

Then Benedict bowed his head, and departed; and when he reached home he found a messenger who had ridden for many days, and who brought him a bundle of roots, and a written message, which ran thus:

“These roots, though common with us, are unknown where thou dwellest. It is a lily, as white and as fragrant as the Lily of the Annunciation, but much smaller. Beautiful as it is, it is hardy, and if planted in a damp spot and left strictly undisturbed it will spread and flourish like a weed. It hath a rare and delicate perfume, and having white bells on many footstalks up the stem, one above the other, as the angels stood in Jacob’s dream, the common children call it Ladders to Heaven.”

And when Brother Benedict read the first part of the letter he laughed hastily, and said, “The abbot hath no such lily.” But when he had finished it, he said, “God rid my soul of self-seeking! The common children shall have them, and not I.”

And, seizing the plants and a spade, he ran out beyond the bounds of the monastery, and down into a little copse where the earth was kept damp by the waters of the stream which never failed. And there he planted the roots, and as he turned to go away he said, “The blessing of our Maker rest on thee! And give joy of thy loveliness, and pleasure of thy perfume, [223]to others when I am gone. And let him who enjoys remember the soul of him who planted thee.”

And he covered his face with his hands, and went back to the monastery. And he did not enter the new plant upon his roll, for he had no such lily in his garden.

Brother Benedict blesses the flowers
Brother Benedict blesses the flowers

Brother Benedict’s soul had long departed, when in times of turbulence and change, the monastery was destroyed, and between fire and plunder and reckless destruction everything perished, and even the garden was laid waste. But no one touched the Lilies of the Valley in the copse below, for they were so common that they were looked upon as weeds. And though nothing remained of the brotherhood but old tales, these lingered, and were handed on; and when the children played with the lilies and bickered over them, crying, “My ladder has twelve white angels and yours has only eight,” they would often call them Brother Benedict’s flowers, adding, “but the real right name of them is Ladders to Heaven.”

And after a time a new race came into the Green Valley and filled it; and the stream which never failed turned many wheels, and trades were brisk, and they were what are called black trades. And men made money soon, and spent it soon, and died soon; and in the time between each lived for himself, and had little reverence for those who were gone, and less concern for those who should come after. And at first they were too busy to care for what is only beautiful, but after a time they built smart houses, and made gardens, and went down into the copse and tore up clumps of Brother Benedict’s flowers, and planted them in exposed rockeries, and in pots in dry hot parlors, where they died, and then the good folk went back for more; and no one reckoned if he was taking more than his fair share, or studied the culture of what he took away, or took the pains to cover the roots of those he left behind, and in three years there was not left a Ladder to Heaven in all the Green Valley.

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The Green Valley had long been called the Black Valley, when those who labored and grew rich in it awoke—as man must sooner or later awake—to the needs of the spirit above the flesh. They were a race famed for music, and they became more so. The love of beauty also grew, and was cultivated, and in time there were finer flowers blossoming in that smoky air than under many brighter skies. And with the earnings of their grimy trades they built a fine church, and adorned it more richly than the old church of the monastery, that had been destroyed.

The parson who served this church and this people was as well-beloved by them as Brother Benedict had been in his day, and it was in striving to link their minds with sympathies of the past as well as hopes of the future, that one day he told them the legend of the Ladders to Heaven. A few days afterwards he was wandering near the stream, when he saw two or three lads with grimy faces busily at work in the wood through which the stream ran. At first, when he came suddenly on them, they looked shyly at one another, and at last one stood up and spoke.

“It’s a few lily roots, sir, we got in the market, and we’re planting them; and two or three of us have set ourselves to watch that they are not shifted till they’ve settled. Maybe we shall none of us see them fair wild here again, any more than Brother Benedict did. For black trades are short-lived trades, and there’s none of us will be as old as he. But maybe we can take a pride too in thinking that they’ll blow for other folk and other folk’s children when we are gone.”

Once more the fastidious* flowers spread, and became common in the valley, and were guarded with jealous care; and the memory of Brother Benedict lingered by the stream, and was doubly blessed.

For if he is blessed whose love and wisdom add to the world’s worth, and make life richer in pleasant things, thrice blessed is he whose unselfish example shall be culture to the ignorant or the thoughtless, and set Ladders to Heaven for the feet of those who follow him!

(*It is well known that Lilies of the Valley are flowers which resent disturbance, though they are perfectly hardy and vigorous if left in peace.)

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