One of my favorite action movies of all time is the 1999 film The Matrix. The plot centers on a group of people whose minds have been liberated from a fictional, computer-generated dream world. All of humanity is being held captive by artificial intelligence, which derives its electrical energy from the body heat of human beings. As they derive this energy, artificial intelligence needs to keep human beings preoccupied and under control and so they connect their minds to this computer dream world called the matrix. The people whose minds have been freed are engaged in a battle against artificial intelligence with the goal of liberating all of mankind. The leader of the group of liberated people, whose name is Morpheus, believes that a certain computer hacker named Neo is the One whose coming was foretold by the Oracle to bring an end to the oppression of artificial intelligence. At one point in the film, there is a scene in which Neo and Trinity have just rescued Morpheus, who was being held captive by agents of artificial intelligence. While the three of them are standing on the rooftop of a skyscraper, Morpheus looks at Trinity and says, “Do you believe it now, Trinity?” He’s asking Trinity if she now believes that Neo is “the One?” Neo protests and tries to tell Morpheus that the Oracle had told him that he was not the One and that he would have to make a choice between Morpheus’ life and his own. Morpheus cuts off Neo while he’s speaking and says, “She (the Oracle) told you exactly what you needed to hear, that’s all. Sooner or later, you’re going to realize just as I did: there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
“Sooner or later, you’re going to realize just as I did: there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” – The Matrix
These words of Morpheus have stuck with me ever since I first heard them, the difference between knowing the path and walking the path. When you think about the events that transpired in the movie, one might think that the Oracle had misled Neo or had given bad counsel. Why would the Oracle tell Neo that he is not the One, when it turns out that the opposite is true? Why would she tell Neo that he would have to choose between Morpheus’ life and his own? Because things did not happen as the Oracle had said, was she wrong? Did she lie to Neo? The answer to these questions is that she was neither wrong nor was she lying. Morpheus said it best: the Oracle told Neo exactly what he needed to hear. If the Oracle is capable of seeing things before they happen, if she is capable of providing helpful guidance and counsel, and if she truly believed that Neo was the One, would it have helped Neo to tell him that directly? Probably not. After all, Morpheus believed that Neo was the One and Neo would have expected the Oracle to confirm Morpheus’ belief. In my opinion, instead of simply telling Neo that he is the One, she subjects him to a test. She tells him that he is not the One and that he would have to choose between himself and Morpheus because she can see Neo’s inner qualities, his inner potential, and seeks to call them forth from within. It was only when Neo’s ego was deflated by the “revelation” that he is not the One and he is faced with a difficult choice that his true quality and virtue begins to shine through. He shows more concern for Morpheus’ life and a disregard for himself. As a result, he inspires Trinity to join him in his rescue mission and not only are they successful, but the lives of all three are spared in the end. At this point, whether Neo knows that he is the One is irrelevant. In fact, knowing that he is the One could have been detrimental to his development. Instead, he chooses to simply walk the path and thus becomes who he truly is. There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
There are many times in our lives when we think to ourselves: “What is going on with our family, with the Church, with the country, or with the world?” “Why is this bad thing happening to me?” “Why do I have to suffer like this?” “Why do I have to constantly deal with the same annoying person day after day?” We might know on some level what Our Lord and his Church teach about Christ’s final victory over sin and death, about the kingdom of heaven, and about the new creation that will come at the end of time, and yet reality often presents a picture that is quite the opposite. Christ may have won the victory against sin and death, but reality often obscures that victory. We still see sin and death everywhere. Does this mean that Christ and the Church have lied to us or that Christ has not really won the victory? No, it does not. So, where is the problem? The answer, if we are honest and humble, is that the problem lies “with ourselves.” I’m not suggesting that we are the only cause of our sufferings or our daily annoyances, but that we often miss the bigger picture.
There are many of us who know the teachings of Jesus and the Church, but we fail to live in accord with them. We know that Jesus teaches us to love God and our neighbor, to love our enemies, to pray for those who hate us and persecute us, to not pass judgment on others, and many other teachings. Yet, when an occasion arises in which we are tested, the worst comes out of us. Instead of blessing those who curse or insult us, we return insults with insults, detraction, or gossip. When we are offended by someone’s words, we seek retribution. We know intellectually what Jesus teaches; we know the path, but it is quite another thing to walk the path.
Jesus teaches us that it is from the fullness of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). If our hearts and thoughts are filled with fear, anger, bitterness, vitriol, and hatred, then regardless of how strong our knowledge of Our Lord’s teaching is, we will speak in accord with the evil in our hearts. If we constantly judge people in our thoughts, then when we are put to the test, we will utter rash judgments and condemnation rather than showing patience, gentleness, and mercy. St. Francis of Assisi teaches that it’s easy to have patience and humility when everything is going well for us. But when someone mistreats us or insults us, then we only have as much patience and humility on that occasion and no more. Our fidelity to God’s Word and to the teaching of Jesus becomes evident primarily when it is put to the test, just as Neo’s inner quality and his heart became evident when he was tested.
Jesus teaches that when a disciple is fully trained, it becomes evident not in the disciple’s ability to merely recite the teacher’s words, but rather in the disciple’s actions (Luke 6:40). The disciple will be like his teacher in thought, word, and action. The disciple imitates the teacher. If we truly wish to be Christians, it’s not enough to simply know about Christ Our Teacher and know intellectually what he has taught. Walking the path is different than merely knowing the path. The quality of our faith is manifested when we are tested with difficulties and hardships. If we come to realize that we do not act like Christ in difficult and trying situations, then we can take the opportunity to humble ourselves and acknowledge before the Lord our weakness and sinfulness. If we find ourselves harboring anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness, we can bring it to prayer and to confession, do penance, and ask the Lord to purify our hearts and make them more like his Sacred Heart, which is meek and humble. With the help of God’s grace, we can allow God to change our hearts from ones filled with the rotten fruit of sin to ones that bear the good fruit of charity. We will not merely know the path, but more importantly we will also walk the path.
– Fr. Matthew Mary