Virtue, according to Aristotle, lies in finding the mean between excess and deficiency in any given area of life. Thus courage is the mean between brashness and cowardice, and self respect a mean between self loathing and pride. Medieval Catholicism could be said to have had an excess of mortification of the flesh, as perhaps could Russia – but modern America has a deficiency. But Aristotle wasn’t Christian, and I find Chesterton’s view much more convincing: that sometimes virtue is a balance of two traits in strong opposition, but held together in tension. Thus for him courage is a strong desire to live combined with a carelessness about the possibility of death; instead of self respect as proper pride, there is extreme humility in the face of our sin, and exaltation in the face of Salvation. Protestantism on its stricter side is more Aristotelian, being strict, but without penetentes or podvigs; we may have just so much pleasure, and in just such a way; may express a suitable amount of repentance, but then cheer up on account of salvation – like complementary colors that mix to get a neutral. They may, for instance, mix Total Depravity with an instance of transformative salvation, and arrive at “well, what do I do with myself now?” before proceeding to invent interesting stories and quests to live out.
Orthodox and Catholics don’t especially believe in a mean, and it leaves room for all sorts of interesting things. Where a Protestant would probably not either wear robes of purple and gold nor keep vigil all night with tears and prostrations, an Orthodox or Catholic might do both at the same time – the robes signifying Christ, who has taken on human flesh and dwelt as one of us, and the prostrations signifying that we are not yet transformed entirely into a new creation, and must in the meantime prevent from whatever separates us from being continually in Him. They might, like Seraphim of Serov, at the same time shine with uncreated light, like Moses on Mt. Sinai, and also spend a year kneeling daily on a stone and crying out for mercy. We’re only so wretched because we are offered something so surpassingly good.
And that brings me to podvig. It’s a kind of ascetic labor that consists of voluntary suffering for the sake of the purification of passions. I think, though, it can also involve involuntary suffering that’s accepted as sent by God. You’ve heard stories of monks standing in freezing rivers while reciting Psalms all night? That’s a kind of podvig. So are those who engage in difficult fasts, vigils, series’ of prostrations, and so on; being a “fool for Christ” (poverty and feigned insanity) is also considered a form of podvig. Some people will tend to dismiss it out of hand as hatred for the body, and I suppose sometimes it might be, but such a take is condemned by the Church. Instead, it requires holding at the same time that one is currently very broken and wretched, that there is a possibility of recovery with God’s help, that the body participates in salvation, and that suffering, when taken rightly, expedites salvation. Most of those beliefs are ingrained in Russia, and foreign to American Christianity, and so we have a difficult time understanding it. I skimmed a book a while back that was by some reasonable, solid Protestant, who wished to bring back some spiritual discipline. He spent about a chapter explaining why Catholic monastic discipline is wrong, because it expresses hatred of the body. Sometimes it may have (on account of a stress on judicial theology there have certainly been times when Catholic asceticism has tended more toward punishment than purification), but in its more legitimate expressions it expresses something different, like the Russian podvig – a belief that the body participates in salvation. Of course, that only makes sense if you believe that we are being saved, rather than have been saved in an absolute sense.
So I believe that podvig is both helpful and neglected because it expresses repentance at the wretched shape a person is currently in and, in the firm hope of salvation, seeks to “work out [his] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is Christ who works in [him],” to bear the Spirit of God in soul and bodily not only at some point after death, or in some way that is not yet manifest as when grace works invisibly within us, but manifestly and in this life. For we not only receive salvation, but are also participants in it.