AT ABOUT THE TIME of the falling away of the Roman Church, the Orthodox Church was enlarged by the conversion of an entire nation. This was the Slavic nation of Russia. The steps towards this conversion first began in the year 863 when two missionary monks from the Byzantine Empire, Sts. Cyril and Methodius, set foot in Bulgaria and other Slavic lands. Through their labors, Christianity eventually reached Russia. Though they were from distant Constantinople, they were familiar with the Slavic people and language from their childhood. Since the Slavic people had no written language, St. Cyril devised the Slavonic alphabet from Greek in order to translate the Holy Scriptures. Hence the alphabet used in Slavic countries today is called the “Cyrillic” alphabet.
Although Sts. Cyril and Methodius brought the Gospel to the Slavic nations, the full conversion of the Russian people took place one hundred years later. Russia was almost totally pagan at that time, although there were small pockets of Christianity thanks to the lahors of the Apostle Andrew. Apostle Andrew had preached throughout the land of Russia and placed crosses both in Kiev and on the Lake Ladoga island of Valaam in the north.
Almost a thousand years after Sr. Andrew, in 988, the Russian Prince Vladimir decided that an official religion was necessary for his country. In search of the true faith he then investigated all the major religions of the world, sending an envoy to visit their churches and temples. After having observed different religions, the envoy returned to the Prince and said, When we went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, we knew not whether we were in Heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men and their service surpasses those of all other nations.” The Prince accepted the Orthodox Christian Faith, was baptized, and ordered that all the idols of the nation he destroyed.
It was not long before the entire Russian land became a bastion of Christian spiritual life filled with many saints. Soon churches covered the land, monasteries filled the vast wilderness, and golden domes were seen towering over every city and village.
Then in 1453 a great tragedy occurred. The seat of the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople was overtaken by the Muslim Turks who had been warring against Christian nations for hundreds of years. The fall of Byzantium led to the rise of the New Byzantium—Holy Russia. It seemed as if Russia was called upon to preserve the Orthodox Faith. The first Rome had departed from Orthodoxy and the second had fallen. Thus, Moscow became the third Rome.
Just as in Byzantium, every aspect of life in Russia was centered around the Church and Christian spiritual life, yet there still arose the need for a much deeper, God-centered life that only the desert can offer. In Russia the harsh wilderness became the desert that offered solitude and austerity for the God-centered life called monasticism. The founding father of Russian monasticism was St. Anthony of Kiev (1073). After having been formed as a monk on Mount Athos, Greece, he returned to his homeland and settled in a cave in Kiev. In a short time a whole monastery arose around that cave. Soon the monastic ideal spread throughout all of Russia, even to its deepest wilderness.
During the thousand years of Russian Christianity there were always saints who continued the spirit of the early Christian Church. For example there was St. Seraphim of Sarov (t1833), a monk who from childhood lived a very pure life. He had the gifts of healing and unceasing prayer, and was seen surrounded by a magnificent, unearthly light. This was the same Divine light that Christ shown upon His Apostles so long ago and that His Apostles brought to the ends of the world.