When a spacecraft returning to Earth comes within the controlling power of the planet’s gravitational force, the crew can change the attitude of the spacecraft (the orientation relative to the direction of travel) but they cannot change the direction of travel. They are, in a sense, plummeting towards an inescapable destination, the ground. But by turning a little to the right or left, and raising or lowering the nose a bit, they adjust the attitude of the craft. And by influencing the inescapable pull of gravity on the ship, they take control of exactly where and how they will land. Without adjusting the ship’s attitude, they would certainly crash fatally in some obscure place or simply burn up while descending through the atmosphere.
Human existence is, in a sense, very much the same. We are hurtling through time towards the inescapable destination of our personal death, Judgement, and eternity. We cannot escape this direction of travel but, like the ship, we can use what powers of influence we do have in order to determine our ultimate destination: heaven or hell.
Our powers of the body (the senses, mobility, the brain) and of the soul (reason, desire, and zeal) all influence our attitude in a manner that aids our safe arrival or results in our destruction. It could be said that our battle with the passions (that which we suffer because of the Fall) is the battle to stay on course, in submission to the inescapable velocity towards our destination, rather than rejecting what we cannot escape and denying our direction of travel.
Gratitude is an incredibly powerful influence on the course of our journey. It is the soul’s power of desire (also called appetite) when properly focused on all the good things given by God in His mercy and love for us: our life, loved ones, friendship, food, clothing, shelter, rain, sunshine, Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas on the way. By maintaining the attitude of gratitude we experience, most importantly, peace. This peace then fosters satisfaction, joy, freedom from cares, detachment from material things, and ultimately a prayerful inner stillness.
Quite oppositely, when the power of desire is turned towards all the things in life that we have the ability to want, but don’t possess or are unable to attain, the same power that produces gratitude manifests itself darkly as despondency. Focusing on wanting a better house, an easier job, gratifying relationships, increased material possessions, more money, better looks, fashion — and the constant comparing of ourselves to others — leads to anger, sadness, deep dissatisfaction, agitation, anxiety, prayer-less inner darkness, and ultimately spiritual — if not literal — suicide.
True gratitude begins with observing and giving thanks to God for everything we actually have, even the hard things. In time it turns into not wanting anything more than what God has already chosen to give. Saint Dorotheos of Gaza tells us, “He who has no desires has all he desires.” Springing from gratitude comes true, uninhibited repentance for we begin to see all the bad attitude we’ve been practicing. It blossoms in steadfast joy and hospitality: the desire to share with our neighbor all the good God has given us.
“Heaven to mankind. Come in mankind. Your attitude is good. You are clear to land. Welcome home!”