Wendell Berry tells his short story “Pray Without Ceasing” in varying levels of time. The “present” is technically Andy Catlett as an older man, a grandfather himself, thinking about his own grandfather, Mat Feltner. Andy then thinks back to when he was about thirty years old and his grandfather was dying. In finding an old newspaper, the thirty year-old Andy visits his grandfather and asks his grandmother, Margaret, to tell him what happened on a July day in 1912 (the date of the newspaper) when Thad Coulter shot and killed his best friend, Ben Feltner – Mat’s father and Andy’s great-grandfather.
Berry also skillfully lets the reader know about the shooting right up front. As he tells the story through Margaret Feltner to Andy, he lets it spiral in to the actual shooting then spiral out from the event with the aftermath, consequences and ultimate redemption. These spirals take the form of numerous points of view but they do so in a manner that is still fitting for Margaret Feltner to talk about. Her home is a small town. She’s talked a lot to her friends, neighbors and family over the years. It makes sense that she would know as much as she does.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of Margaret’s story revolves around Martha Elizabeth, Thad Coulter’s daughter who continues to love her father in the face of his crime:
She loved him, minute by minute, not only as he had been but as he had become. It was a wonderful and fearful thing to him that he had caused such a love for himself to come in to the world and then failed it. He could not have bowed low enough before it and remained above ground.
And Margaret’s further insight into this relationship as told to her grandson might sum up the whole story:
“People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it is terrible, in a way. Think of all it includes. It included Thad Coulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterwards.”
“Pray Without Ceasing” is included in Wendell Berry’s collection of short stories That Distant Land.