TUPELO • “God’s first language is silence.”
Those words were penned by the late Father Thomas Keating – the American Trappist monk who pioneered the practice of centering prayer, in which silence is central.
In centering prayer, Keating said participants are invited to “participate in the Ultimate Mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions.”
Every Thursday morning, Sheri Boettcher, Linda Rienert, and Liria Frerer gather for centering prayer in an intimate, candle-lit room at St. James Catholic Church. The subtle ringing of a Tibetan singing bowl signals the beginning of “the sit” – the time of silence where participants are invited to “rest in God.”
Boettcher, Rienert and Frerer are the remnants of a group that started in the early 2000s, after a workshop on centering prayer at St. James.
Sheri Boettcher has been with the group since its inception. She said the premise of centering prayer is to quiet the mind and make yourself available to God.
“It’s a prayer of releasing everything and just being with God,” she said. “Not thinking, not asking, just being present and resting your mind. God is always present to us; we’re just not always present to God.”
Boettcher said while the premise of centering prayer is simple, the practice is difficult.
“It’s not always fun to do ‘the sit,’” she said with a grin. “It’s simple, but it’s not easy. When you try to settle in, the first thing that happens is your ‘monkey mind’ starts running away.”
Using a “sacred word” helps to quiet the mind in centering prayer, Boettcher said.
“You choose a sacred word,” she said. “‘Yahweh,’ or ‘peace,’ or ‘surrender’; any word that speaks to your heart. You settle yourself and very gently and silently say your sacred word. Every time a thought enters your mind, you gently repeat your sacred word.”
Unlike other forms of prayer in which the goal is to ask God for particular outcomes, Boettcher said centering prayer focuses on presence.
“Thomas Keating said ‘Centering prayer is consenting to the action and presence of God.’” she said. “Sitting with that presence in silence is so important, and so beautiful. Sometimes you have tears and you don’t know why. Something so deep is happening.”
Liria Frerer is a counselor with Family Resource Center in Tupelo and a commissioned teacher in the practice of centering prayer. She said centering prayer helps move participants into a state that is hard to articulate.
“It’s so intimate,” she said. “It’s beyond words and expression at this deeper level. It’s more of the heart, and the further you go with it, the more subtle and lovely it becomes.”
As a counselor, Frerer said centering prayer helps enable the healing of old wounds.
“Thomas Keating called it ‘divine therapy,’” she said. “It helps to heal us from within, from our unconscious wounds, the things we’ve pushed down, even our own biases. The time and space of centering prayer allows those things to come up.”
Frerer said while some think of centering prayer as a modern permutation of prayer, it harkens back to the contemplative tradition of the early Christian community.
“The first 1,500 years of Christianity were centered in contemplation,” she said. “But at that time it was kept in the monasteries and wasn’t being shared with common people. Father Keating took that tradition and made it accessible by putting it in language that ordinary people could understand.”
Though centering prayer is rooted in silence and stillness, Frerer said it leads to greater levels of wakefulness and joy in life.
“There’s a waking up that happens,” she said. “It’s about being more alive and enjoying things more, like music for instance. It’s a path that enlivens all other aspects of my life.”
Frerer said even in difficult seasons, the practice of centering prayer has kept her grounded and secure in her faith.
“It’s the strength of my life,” she said. “When everything else falls apart, that core is there, and I’m just trusting that God is doing what God needs to do.”
Linda Rienert, the group’s third member, has an almost palpable aura of inner quiet. She summed up centering prayer’s benefit nicely:
“It’s like sitting with someone you really love,” she said. “You don’t have to say anything; you’re just comfortable in their presence.”