But even the unknown past is present in us, its silence as persistent as a ringing in the ears. When I stand in the road that passes through Port William, I am standing on the strata of my history that go down through the known past into the unknown; the blacktop rests on state gravel, which rests on county gravel, which rests on the creek rock and cinders laid down by the town when it was still mostly beyond the reach of the county, and under the creek rock and cinders is the dirt track of the town’s beginning, the buffalo trace that was the way we came. You work your way down, or not so much down as within, into the interior of the present, until finally you come to that beginning in which all things, the world and the light itself, at a word welled up into being out of their absence. And nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day, always the now that is in time and the New that is not, that has filled time with reminders of Itself.(“Pray Without Ceasing” from Fidelity, by Wendell Berry, Pantheon Books, 1992)
(Today’s sermon is an adaptation of Pray Without Ceasing by Wendell Berry)
The story Pray Without Ceasing, by Wendell Berry begins in the little village known as Port William, KY. Told in the first person by Andy, we learn that the story will be about his grandfather on his mother’s side, Mat Feltner. “The man of whom I once was pleased to say, “He is my grandfather,” has become the dead man who was my grandfather…but the past is present also.” Even though he’s been dead 25 years, Andy says, “I know his hands, their way of holding a hammer or a hoe or a set of checklines, as well as I know my own.”
Just as his grandfather Mat is known in Andy, Mat’s father Ben is known in Mat – and the known history of the Feltner’s in the town of Port William begins with Ben.
The story of Ben begins in July of 1912 when Ben Feltner, ‘who so far as was known had had no enemies, had been killed by a single shot to the head from a .22 caliber revolver. The assailant, Thad Coulter, upon turning himself in had said, “I’ve killed the best friend I ever had.”
It seems that Thad Coulter loaned his son Abner money to start a grocery store in a nearby town of Hargrave. In fact, he had secured the loan for his son with his own farm as collateral. Many questioned the wisdom of this. Sure enough, “before two years were out, Abner repaid his father (Thad’s ) confidence by converting many small private fritterings and derelictions into an undisgsuiable public failure; and thereupon by riding off to somewhere unknown on the back of a bay gelding borrowed ostensibly for overnight trip to Port William.”
Embarrassed and dejected, father Thad realized he was going to lose his farm. Even with help, he’d have to pay for it again, and he was close to 60 years old. After two days mostly propped up against a post in his barn, drinking heavily and talking aloud to himself about betrayal, ruin and the coldheartedness of Hargrave bankers, he turned to the only person he could think to ask for help, his dear friend Ben Feltner. Ben had helped Thad buy his farm in the first place. But given that Thad had been drinking for two days straight, Ben was astonished ‘by the look of him.’ He listened to Thad, thinking, his ‘language and ranting in that place would not have been excusable had he been sober.” Finally, Ben stopped him saying, “I don’t believe I can talk with you anymore. Go home, and get sober and come back. And then we’ll see.” Only after persistent urging from the 72 year old Ben did Thad finally leave Ben’s house. But Thad did not return home, remaining on the Feltner property all night, talking to himself.
Finally, the next morning, the Feltners saw coming up the road Thad Coultner’s team of horses driven by Martha Elizabeth, Thad’s daughter. She did not plead with her father, but simply took hold of him, took him to the wagon, gently helped him up into it and turned the team around and drove home.
After Thad went home, Ben decided to head into Port William to see if he could find some other Coulters in town. Farmers and others were sitting on benches and kegs or squatting on their heels under the shade trees in front of stores. Finally, Ben found Thad’s cousin Dave Coulter and the two of them acknowledged That was in a fix; with Dave acknowledging that his cousin didn’t drink much, but when he did, it was awful. In that moment, without warning, Thad Coulter rode up and pulled out his gun, shooting Ben without a word. Shooting his best friend in cold blood in the middle of the day in the middle of town.
Two other people were close by that morning at the blacksmith’s shop. One was Mat Feltner, Ben’s son. Hearing the shot, he ran to the street and saw his father on the ground. After kneeling momentarily beside the now dead Ben, he rose, Mat rose up from his father’s side “a man newly created by rage.’
Meanwhile Jack Beechum was in the general store and hearing the commotion went outside. Upon doing so, he saw first the crowd and then Mat running toward him out of it. “Without breaking his own stride, he caught Mat and held him.”
Jack had no time to think…but as soon as Jack had taken hold of Mat, he understood that he had to hold him. And he knew that he had never taken hold of any such thing before. He had caught Mat in a sideways hug that clamped his arms to his sides.” Even though Mat was half the age of Jack, Jack held on.
“Something went out of him. And what went out of Jack came into Mat. Or so it seemed, for in that desperate embrace Mat became a stronger man than he had been. A strength came into him that held his grief and his anger as Jack had held him. Jack only knew of this strength in Mat because only as he sensed it was he able to turn him loose.
Finally, as they stood winded and wet with sweat, after watching Martha Elizabeth (Thad’s daughter) walk by in the road, Mat said, “I’ll go tell Ma. You bring Pa, but give me a little time.”
When Mat arrived back at the Feltner farm, his mother sensed something was amiss. Mat told his Ma, “I’m sorry, Pa’s dead. Thad Coulter has shot him.”
In his cresting anger in the minutes before he…fired the one shot that he had ever fired in anger in his life, Thad Coulter knew a fierce, fulfilling joy…But even before the town was out of sight behind him his anger and his joy began to leave him. It was as if his life’s blood was running out of him, and he tried to staunch the flow by muttering aloud the curses of his rage.
He rode and walked himself to the sheriff in the Hargrave, the next town over. Patiently and steadfastly, his daughter Martha Elizabeth had followed him on foot, always within sight, maybe three quarters of a mile behind him. “It seemed that she knew everything he knew and loved him anyhow. 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 into the world and then had failed it.
Entering the sheriff’s office, he said, “I killed a man…the best friend I ever had.” He was locked up. Martha Elizabeth arrived shortly after hoping to see her father. At first, she was told she’d have to wait until the morning. She did not go home but simply sat on the stoop outside the jail. Realizing she had nowhere to go, the jailer let her in to visit her father.
“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 ThadCoulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterwards.’ This is what Thad saw…He saw his guilt. He had done what he could not undo, he had destroyed what he couldn’t make. But in the same moment he saw his guilt included in love that stood as near him as Martha Elizabeth and at that moment wore her flesh. It was surely weak and wrong of him to kill himself (which he did overnight in the jail cell), but surely God’s love includes people who can’t bear it.” If God loves the one’s we can’t, then finally maybe we can. All these years (relatives have) thought of Thad sitting in those shadows, with Martha Elizabeth standing there and his sore old hands over his face.”
Back in Port William, Ben’s son Matt and his mother and aunt tended to Ben’s body, and to the increasing stream of visitors, including a self-described posse who came seeking Mat’s permission to take justice into their own hands by hanging Thad on the spot. Knowing Thad had turned himself in, they thought it would be easy, and only right.
“No gentlemen. I appreciate it. We all do. But I ask you not to do it. If you want to, come and be with us. We have food and you all are welcome.”
Mat had said, in all, six brief sentences. He was not a forward man. This, his grandson believes, was the only public speech of his life.
“I see him standing,” the grandson continues these many decades later, “standing on his porch in the deepening twilight asking his father’s friends to renounce the vengeance that a few hours before he himself had been furious to exact.”
This is the man who will be my grandfather – the man who will be the man who was my grandfather. The tenses slur and slide under the pressure of collapsed time. For that moment on the porch is not a now that was but a now that is and will be, inhabiting all the history of Port William that followed and will follow. I know that in the days after his father’s death, my grandfather renewed and carried on a friendship with the Coulters, with Thad’s widow and daughters, with Dave Coulter and his family, and with another first cousin of Thad’s, Marce Carlett, my grandfather on my father’s side. And when my father asked leave of the Feltners to marry their daughter Bess, my mother, he was made welcome.
Though the Coulters still abound in Port William, no Feltner of the name is left. But the Feltner line continues joined to the Coulter line, in me and I am here. I am blood kin to both sides of that moment when Ben Feltner turned to face Thad Coulter in the road and Thad pulled the trigger. The two families, sundered in the ruin of a friendship, were united again first in new friendship and then in marriage. My grandfather made a peace here that has joined many who would otherwise have been divided. I am the child of his forgiveness.
The title of this story comes from the little book in the New Testament called 1st Thessalonians – Pray Without Ceasing. In Thessalonians it is coupled with Rejoice always, …give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.
Often it appears to be an overwhelming statement, suggesting the life of a monk or a hermit. Maybe, however, it is a way in the world, and an awareness of what lives within us. Maybe to ‘pray without ceasing’ speaks not so much to what we do, but as Andy realized, who we are.
Maybe to pray without ceasing is to know in our bones that “nothing is here that we are beyond the reach of merely because we do not know about it. It is always the first morning of Creation and always the last day.”
I’m often asked how is it to be a Christian pastor in an era when so much of Christianity is defined by a hateful, closed hearted faith. This story of Berry’s, which is indeed just a variation of our story, reminds us that this faith we live far surpasses our lives, our understanding or the church’s zero/sum approach to ‘the right way of being Christian.’ What we search for, Andy’s story reminds us, is not new. It lies within us in some way. It is not easy, it is not without conflict or confusion, but it is also not without the simple beauty of all those who influence us, have shaped us, and carry on with us in our hearts.
Might our journey be one of joyful and humble discovery, fervent mindfulness to what is around and within us. Might we pray without ceasing, ready always to stand on the porches of our lives, facing the challenges and the evils around us, welcoming others in for a plate of food.