(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In “Pray Without Ceasing,” the first of five stories in Fidelity (1992), Andy Catlett recounts the day in July, 1912, when his great-grandfather, Ben Feltner, was shot by his friend and kinsman, Thad Coulter, over an imagined slight. An old newspaper article about the murder stimulates Andy’s recollection of how his grandfather Mat Feltner, Ben’s son, was able to break the cycle of violence and revenge.

Thad’s problems began when he learned that he would lose his farm, heavily mortgaged to finance his son Abner’s grocery in Hargrave. Abner defaulted on the loan, and Thad could not repay the bank. Drunk and belligerent, Thad went to Ben Feltner’s farm early one morning to ask for help. When Ben showed him to the door and told him to return when he was sober, Thad felt insulted and cursed his friend.

Their paths converged later that Saturday in Port William. Ben had come to seek advice from Thad’s kinsmen, and Thad had come seeking revenge. Thad shot Ben down in front of his son, Mat, who was physically restrained from pursuit by his friend, Jack Beechum. Mat’s hard-won moral restraint contrasts with Thad’s physical and moral degradation after the murder, as he sank into self-loathing and abused his wife, daughter, and mule. Thad’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth, pursued her father as he fled before finally surrendering to the sheriff in Hargrave. Despite Mary Elizabeth’s consoling efforts, Thad hanged himself in his prison cell that night.

At Ben Feltner’s wake, Jack Beechum supported Mat’s nonviolence. Miss Della Budge, Jack’s former teacher, advised them to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). When a mob appeared outside the Feltner house to organize a lynching, Mat renounced vengeance and instead invited them either in to eat or to disperse.

“Pray Without Ceasing” illustrates the power of nonviolence and forgiveness to break the cycle of violence and revenge. Mat’s moral courage heals the wounds of violence and restores family ties broken by a rash, impulsive act. Mat’s peacemaking reunites two families, first in friendship and later in marriage. Grandson Andy Catlett is the child of that forgiveness.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Cornell, Robert. “The Country of Marriage: Wendell Berry’s Personal Political Vision.” Southern Literary Review 16 (Fall, 1983): 59-70.

Ditsky, John. “Wendell Berry: Homage to the Apple Tree.” Modern Poetry Studies 2, no. 1 (1971): 7-15.

Freyfogle, Eric. “The Dilemma of Wendell Berry.” University of Illinois Law Review 1994 (2): 363-385.

Hass, Robert. “Wendell Berry: Finding the Land.” Modern Poetry Studies 2, no. 1 (1971): 16-38.

Hicks, Jack. “Wendell Berry’s Husband to the World: A Place on Earth.” American Literature 51 (May, 1979): 238-254.

Merchant, Paul, ed. Wendell Berry. Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1991.

Morgan, Speer. “Wendell Berry: A Fatal Singing.” Southern Review 10 (October, 1974): 865-877.

Nibbelink, Herman. “Thoreau and Wendell Berry: Bachelor and Husband of Nature.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 84 (Spring, 1985): 127-140.

Pevear, Richard. “On the Prose of Wendell Berry.” Hudson Review 35 (Summer, 1982): 341-347.

Smith, Kimberly K. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

Smith, Kimberly K. “Wendell Berry’s Feminist Agrarianism.” Women’s Studies 30 (2001): 623-646.