What Ben Did on the Sabbath

I’m continuing my occasional series of profiling characters in novels who mention the Sabbath in one form or another. This quote comes from the fictional Kentucky farmer Ben Feltner, as portrayed in Wendell Berry’s “That Distant Land.”


“Ben Feltner never had believed in working on Sunday, and he did not believe in not working on workdays. Those two principles had shaped all his weeks.”


My dad grew up on a cotton farm. One of his brothers and his father continued farming until their deaths, in 2009 and 2010, respectively. One thing about farming–there’s always something to do. Taking a day off takes considerable planning. Farmers don’t get federal holidays or summers. In Southern parts of the country, like where the Drummond land is, even taking off for Christmas Day can be hard to finagle.


But making a commitment to rest one day and work six does shape your weeks. There is an ending and a beginning, and it casts a shadow over every decision you make.


In the story “Pray Without Ceasing,” Ben talks about starting his big projects, like hay cutting, early in the week so they will be completed by the weekend. He uses Saturdays to repair farm equipment and other minor things that don’t get done during the week.


“When the work was caught up and the farm in order, Ben liked to have everybody quit early on Saturday afternoon. He liked the quiet that descended over the place then, with the day of rest ahead.”


I know two farmers–Don and G.W.–who would agree.