A pilgrims progress: new Briercrest history professor has an interesting career path

Posted: August 20, 2012

An assigned reading for a spiritual formation class fine-tuned the focus of Joy Demoskoff’s career path.

When Briercrest’s new assistant professor of history had completed her master’s degree in Russian history at Queens University in Ontario, she decided to take a course at Tyndale University College called Prayer Paths to God.

“The instructor had us read a book called The Way of a Pilgrim, which is a Russian spiritual classic,” she explained. “It really grabbed me. I thought, ‘If I could study this for the rest of my life, that would be really interesting and really meaningful for myself and for the church too.’”

Demoskoff was deeply influenced by the book’s message.

“It’s about a Russian pilgrim,” she said. “One day he’s attending the Orthodox liturgy and he hears the passage where the Apostle Paul says, ‘Pray without ceasing’ and he thinks to himself, ‘How is this possible?’ He goes on a pilgrimage wandering around the Russian countryside trying to find out how to pray without ceasing.”

The class began to give Demoskoff a deep interest in the Russian church.

“I’m very interested in monastic life,” she explained. “What we can learn from people who commit their whole lives to the pursuit of holiness and pursuing God.”

That interest was the starting point of Demoskoff’s search for a dissertation topic.

“In my readings I came across this (19th century) practice of sending people to do penance at (Russian Orthodox) monasteries – sometimes to be imprisoned in monasteries,” she explained. “I was curious about that.”

As Demoskoff searched, she found there hadn’t been a lot written about the practice, so she decided to make it the topic of her PhD dissertation.

The New Brunswick native admits that a topic involving the Russian church is very different from her Protestant upbringing, but she feels it has relevance for today.

“There’s a lot of debate about church and state within the Russian Orthodox Church,” she explained. “A lot of work being done right now is on ‘lived religion’ . . .  religion as an aspect of daily life. So I thought this topic would help me get at the question of daily life in the monastery and also the relationship between church and state in Russia.”

Brian Gobbett, Briercrest’s associate professor of history appreciates the work Demoskoff has done on this topic.

“This exploration of the relationship between “lived” and institutional religion is at the cutting edge of a great deal of scholarship that has aided our understanding of the roles that religion plays in society, including our own,” he said. “We are thrilled to invite Joy and (her husband) Jeremy into our learning community. Joy comes to us with impeccable academic credentials having completed her undergraduate studies at Crandall, an MA at Queen’s and being very nearly done with her PhD at the University of Alberta.”

Demoskoff is excited about sharing her passion for Russian history and theology with her students at Briercrest this year.

“I think Russia is a really neat starting point for thinking about the world and the past,” she said. “Their history is very different from ours as Canadians. They’ve made so many amazing contributions to world culture. There’s so much to gain by exploring their history.”

The history professor’s husband shares her love for Russia. The couple spent three weeks in Russia this summer co-teaching English at St. Petersburg Christian University.

“We shared a class,” Demoskoff said with a smile. “We have a two year old, so we went as one teacher between the two of us.”

Even though they are world travelers, the couple is happy to be landing in Caronport.

“I was always interested in Christian education,” Demoskoff said explaining how she chose to apply to teach at Briercrest. “I was kind of keeping an eye on the different Christian universities across Canada. My husband was born in the prairies and was very excited about the possibility of it working out to come back.”

The history professor has several goals for the coming school year.

“I hope to get connected with the students, develop myself as a teacher and hopefully finish my dissertation.”