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Nikolai Zernov was not naïve to think that the messianic myth of Russian Orthodoxy could be suppressed with a strike of a pen. He knew of the universal nature of Russian culture, language and spirituality and offered to transform the myth: “Russia has placed before the Christian conscience a task of sanctifying all life, the transfiguration of all creation through the practice of love and compassion. If the Russian Church could help all Christians to fight the temptation to use force sinfully, then Russia would accomplish its global mission. Then Moscow could play a deciding role in the history of development of the Christian conscience on earth, and she could truly qualify as the Third Rome in the sense that she would make the ancient Rome irrelevant.”

My parents benefited from this painful yet salutary reconciliation of myth and destiny. My mother, who became a Russian-language teacher in Paris, translated Berdyaev’s “The Russian Idea.” Written during the battle of Stalingrad, the philosopher developed a similar idea of the transfiguration of creation. As for my father, he was engaged in Syndesmos, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth created in 1958 near Paris. A founder of this movement was the theologian and priest John Meyendorff, a close friend of my father’s. The goals of this movement, which is now present in more than a hundred youth organizations and theological institutions all over the world, were to express the universal character of Orthodoxy and to work toward the sanctification of life.

My parents married at St. Sergei Institute in 1961. By then, elements of the Orthodox communion no longer wanted to be identified as Eastern exclusively. If the Russian Church was to lead, they reasoned it had to be universal; geography should not limit the reach of the church. Orthodox intellectuals discovered that beyond the Greek and Slavic traditions of Orthodoxy, equally authentic expressions of African, American and Asian Orthodoxy exist.

This renewed Orthodox openness to the world, which coincided with the opening of Vatican II, spawned a generation of Orthodox scholars who wrote in the early 1960’s a range of books dedicated to the subject. These include Meyendorff’s “The Orthodox Church: Yesterday and Today,” Alexander Schmemann’s “The Historical Path of Orthodoxy,” Kallistos Ware’s “The Church of Seven Councils” and Olivier Clément’s “The Orthodox Church.”

From their exile in Paris, my family persevered in their attempt to preserve the Russian spirit, waging a David-and-Goliath battle despite the powerful ideological machine of communism. They managed to do so from a base that was poor and increasingly divided from within, only because they passionately believed that the real Russia was profoundly spiritual, that in the works of Akhmatova, Chekhov, Dostoevski, Lermontov, Pushkin and Tolstoy, among others, one could find the great messages of love and compassion.

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