Podvig. This beautiful Russian term cannot be translated into a single English word, but is best understood to us English speaking people as ascetic struggle; striving against our passions in order to grow closer to God. Podvig is an essential element to life in Christ - one that I’ve been learning to embrace over the past six years.
As I look round and listen to friends who attend(ed) some of our megachurches in America, I’m perplexed by the comforts provided to congregants. With various worship services, some with contemporary music, others with traditional to afford members a choice... top of the line theater, sound and lighting equipment, big screens to project images to the back of the crowd, coffee bars and a mall like atmosphere outside of the sanctuary ... tell me again, where is the sacred worship of Christ? Oh, thanks, I see it now -- down the neon corridor and left at the nondenominational sign with the cross olive branches painted across it.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to bring the Gospel message to the multitudes” is the mantra of the megachurch pastor. Comfy seats, full tummies, professional entertainment - all to usher you toward the foot of the Cross ..? Don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT saying the Word of God cannot be heard in such places, I just wonder how it is that members can get past their coziness to work out their salvation in fear and trembling.
Enter in, podvig ~ a complete 180 from the idea of comfortable worship and salvation. Let me share a true story to illustrate my point:
Six years ago, I was walking in a deep valley. I was questioning the true nature of worship, watching my church dwindle to 15 members on a good Sunday, and going through a season of depression in my personal life. I felt isolated, willing to quit church all together, and yet, it was only through my occasional encounters with Orthodoxy that I felt a measure of relief - of emotional healing. It was then that I discovered church as a hospital rather than a learning center. As a christian of 30 + years, it was in the Orthodox Church that I discovered - for the first time - what sacred worship is all about.
On the 40 minute commute to church, I was bringing my two young children, then 2 and 6 years old with me. This was no easy task. They frequently bulked at going to a new church which made it difficult to get them fed, dressed and out the door... let alone the time of tears and arguing in the car on the way there. And I should add here - this is nothing new to many moms out there! This very situation is a recurrent theme of conversation I have with other moms even to this day.
But here’s the thing... forcing myself to go to church anyway, praying that God would make peaceful this chaos in my mornings, going through the gauntlet was a means of receiving God’s grace and producing spiritual fruit. This is why Holy Scripture tells us to rejoice through our trials, for they produce virtue in us. (Romans 5)
Getting to church was my podvig six years ago; praise God for his faithfulness because nowadays my family rejoices in going to church! Our willingness to embrace difficulty, to take the high road to follow Christ has produced so many blessings, not the least of which has been an attitude adjustment towards ascetic struggle; God bless the Russians and the depth of their Orthodox spirituality.
As a side note, I found the beautiful painting here. I think my love affair with Russia is growing...