I am teaching a new (to me) course this semester on prayer and worship, and took a bit of a chance with it in both focus and texts. But it seems to have paid off rather handsomely. We have just finished reading Gleb Pokrovsky's translation of The Way of a Pilgrim: The Jesus Prayer Journey Annotated and Explained (Skylight, 2001), 138pp.
There are, of course, numerous other translations extant of this classic work, but the Pokrovsky edition works for undergraduates in part because of the helpful annotations on the facing page which explain unusual terms, geographical and biblical references, and other recondite matters.This text is short, simple, and very accessible. Nevertheless, I was not sure what they (i.e., students who, with one exception, have never even heard of Eastern Christianity before, and who generally hail from relatively conservative WASP families with little experience of the world beyond the Mid-West) would make of the story, but we have had numerous really excellent discussions in class about it, and the simple faith and resolute purpose of the pilgrim have been deeply impressive to many more students than I would have expected. They admire his determination and his sincere and humble search without pretenses--travelling around praying, reading Scripture, and talking to people about the search for God, especially in the face of great suffering and loss.
Though some in the academy have not caught on to the fact yet, today's students have radically different interests from those of the last two or three generations, a point documented with wonderful and lavish detail in an invaluable book from Barbara Walvoord: Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).
In this superlative survey of tens of thousands of students and faculty across the country, Walvoord uncovers the reality that today's students are not seeking to "deconstruct" some religious tradition or to pour on the "acids of modernity" or read everything through a "hermeneutic of suspicion." They are not interested in being taught to be suspicious or "critical" thinkers because they don't have anything truly substantial to criticize or deconstruct in the first place, having been bereft of coherent traditions because of their 60s-era parents. Unlike their parents with their tedious self-preoccupation and endless social agitation, students today are often confused, incoherent, but nonetheless sincerely open to asking very different questions and coming to very different conclusions than their parents. While not necessarily invested in or impressed by religious institutions, they are deeply impressed by people who themselves lead lives of religious discipline. Moreover, they are, in my experience, vastly more pro-life than just about any other comparable group, but at the same time gay marriage is a non-issue to them. (If anything unites such seemingly disparate positions, it is probably the notion of "rights": babies have the right to life, and gays have the right to be left alone to do what they want.)
Along with reading The Way of a Pilgrim, I also decided we would watch the 2006 Russian film Ostrov (The Island), and here again I was unsure what to expect--perhaps they would be bored, perhaps thinking this was too much film noir, or perhaps they would not find the humour in it. But they found Fr. Anatoly to be indeed a funny holy fool whose life interested them and raised profound questions.
I think, then, that there is something to be said for talking about prayer indirectly, and for understanding a life of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage narratively rather than directly didactically--a point I learned in part many years ago in one of the first of many books by Stanley Hauerwas that I read with great profit: A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic. In other words, The Way of a Pilgrim is a more engaging and less threatening introduction than, say, Dummie's Guide to Prayer or, say, 101 Tips to an Incredible, Mind-Blowing Prayer Experience!!!!