As I write this, I'm wearing a heart monitor strapped my chest. Don't worry, I'm not hospitalized, nor am I dying (so far as I know). It's a portable monitor called a Holter, and I'm wearing it for 48 hours to track the palpitations I've been having for about a week.
If you've never had one, a palpitation is when one chamber of your heart fires out of sync with the others. It feels (to me) like a couple of hard beats, followed by an adrenaline rush. I've recently cut coffee from my diet, as that brings them on. But even without that morning fuel, the palpitations have still been dogging me.
A few days ago, I went to see a doctor, and in doing so had to confront a reality I long knew was there. We discussed dietary risks and exercise. Then came the topic of anxiety or stress. Bingo. That's my constant companion these days.
Can you elaborate?
Well, my parish is growing and with it my responsibilities. We've got numerous inquirers, and are busy renovating the church we recently bought. These are all great blessings, but I suppose I constantly feel like I'm struggling to keep pace. I also tend to internalize stress, and sometimes parishioners can be "challenging" -- so yeah, that's a factor.
Then came the epic surprise of my visit. The doctor asked if I ever pray or meditate, particularly in a way that involves being still and centering myself. She asked if I incorporate chanting into my prayers, as it's something she prescribes to patients who need to lower their blood pressure.
As a priest, I found these questions supremely ironic. I pray all the time (it's my job) -- and as an Orthodox priest, most of it is chanted. But do I really pray in a way that involves calming and quieting myself, and seeking peace in my heart?
That's at the very heart of the Jesus Prayer (or Prayer of the Heart), which itself is at the heart of Orthodoxy: to sit quietly, and slowly repeat "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," while noticing one's breath and tracking each repetition with knots on a prayer rope.
I keep a prayer rope in my pocket always. But is it simply a hidden decor, in that I seldom truly use it? Apparently, I needed a doctor's prescription.
The other day, as I waited to see the cardiologist I was referred to, I took out my prayer rope and used if for those 20 minutes. My blood pressure and heart rate were so significantly lowered that the cardiologist asked, "Do you always have such a low pulse?" Only when I pray.
I've got this monitor strapped to my chest. It will soon come off. But when it does, I'll strive to continue monitoring my heart, with the prescription for prayer that my doctor ordered.