Man of Science, Man of Faith

Two answers—different, though not so different as they seem—to the timeless question: Why do I exist, and what am I supposed to do with my life?

Reporters like to say their job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And to some degree, that’s how I saw it, too.

For more than a decade, I’ve spent my days wading through the grim realities of the world—mass shootings, disasters that decimate entire communities, atrocities quietly carried out by authoritarian regimes. I’ve seen both touching kindness and horrific cruelty and have tried to expose and make sense of both.

I once thought of my job as being not so different than that of my father, a minister who spent his life searching the world for truths and bringing words of comfort to the suffering. But these days, I am not so sure.

From the time I was young man, I had the goal of following in my father’s steps and devoting my life to ministry and the religious realm—or at least pursuing those topics in my writing. My expertise became the mystical and canonical, in the concept of forces that could not be seen, much less proven and measured by empirical method.

In recent years, my work had become increasingly personal, and I’d come to view my work—examining people and the world around me—like that of a psychologist, who studies the minds of others in hopes of finally understanding himself.

• • •

In journalism, some reporters change jobs and subject-matter beats constantly. Others find their specialty and stick with it for years and decades. That takes time, commitment, and sacrifice, but it’s often the only way to develop a network of sources and expertise in a subject.

I had none of the above when I moved to the science desk this year. It was an unexpected proposition for someone like me; until then, my career had focused on the two driving obsessions in my life, China and religion.

Just a few weeks into my new job as science correspondent, I got a call from an old source from my days as a religion reporter. There’s a man you should meet, she told me.

His name was Jaime Maldonado-Aviles, and he had worked for years as a neuroscientist at the laboratories of Yale University. That is, until recently, when he decided to give it all up and quit science entirely to pursue the prospect of becoming a priest.

I met him one day this fall on the campus of Catholic University of America, where he was taking classes as a seminarian.

He showed up to the coffee shop already wearing his clothes as a priest-in-training—a jet-black shirt, topped with a small white collar. And as we talked—sharing the stories of how we had arrived at this point in our lives—the conversation at times took on the feel of a confession. We were fellow travelers, each coming from a land foreign to the other, crossing paths along the border.

I asked Jaime what had caused him to leave science.

He told me how three years ago—at the pinnacle of his career as an Ivy League researcher, having finally received the offer of a tenure-track position—he felt a nagging sensation inside.

By that point, the feeling had been plaguing him for years, especially at moments of success: when he learned that a paper years in the making had been accepted for publication, say, or after winning a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship. It wasn’t so much a feeling as it was the lack of feeling—an emptiness that made such moments ring hollow.

When he was finally offered the tenure-track job—a goal he had been working toward for years—he thought back to something a teacher had told him at the Catholic high school he’d attended: “Pray so that you study what God wants you to study.”

He thought of his father back in Puerto Rico, a medical lab technician whom he had followed into science. He recalled how, despite grueling hours in the lab, his father made time every night to retreat to a corner of their house and pray, searching for guidance.

Like his parents, Jaime also prayed daily and attended church, but he found himself questioning whether he’d ever truly listened for God’s voice.

“I lived a pretty compartmentalized life. I did my science during the week, and then went to Mass on the weekend,” he said. “I took pictures of stained neurons, tried to understand how the cells interacted. But I rarely thought about the miracle of how that worked. How we become who we are, how we are able to even exchange ideas and have these complex relationships with other people. What the mechanisms are of the soul.”

Illustration by Anna Hall

• • •

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of falling asleep on the hard pews of an old church in Saskatchewan, Canada. I remember the strange dreams I would have, drifting in and out of consciousness, as my father’s words washed over me from the pulpit.

In those days, my father preached in Chinese to a group of elderly immigrants who had spent their lives working menial jobs in convenience stores, hair salons, and restaurants in the remote Canadian hinterland.

His words were so foreign to me back then.

It wasn’t just the language that confused me, as a boy of seven or eight. It was the concepts: Faith. Forgiveness. Kingdoms in heaven. Broken bodies on crosses.

On weekends, I tagged along with my parents as they made the rounds from one home to another, listening to their parishioners describe the pain in their bodies as they approached death, the pain in their hearts as they sifted through the life behind them. Looking for purpose, searching for signs of God himself. My father would often comfort them with a soft word or a choice verse from his cracked, black-bound Bible.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized the power in his words.

I remember, as a teenager, encountering an old woman who took my hands one Sunday, clasping them in a delicate, paper-thin grip. She told me in Chinese that my father’s words were a gift. That they had on many occasions moved her to tears. That in the darkest time of her life they had revealed to her the voice of God.

This happened again and again as I became an adult and met other former parishioners of my father.

I came to see the healing one could bring as a minister, the difference one could make in people’s lives. Eventually, I assumed, this would be my calling as well—to go to seminary and help others as my father had before me.

But it didn’t happen that way.

As a young man, I prayed, asking God if this was my path, and was met with silence. I enrolled in a class at a seminary, a course on the prophets of the Old Testament. I thought I would feel a natural kinship with these ancient men, truth-tellers from eras past. But the course—like much of seminary—was not what I expected. It focused on the academic underpinnings of theology rather than its application to the world outside or how to help people.

By the end, I was thinking hard about what I knew was required from a minister’s life—the sacrifice and humility—and came to the difficult realization that I fell deeply short on both counts.

And so, to my father’s and my own surprise, I became a reporter.

• • •

Three hours into our conversation, Jaime notes with slight embarrassment the students milling around us in the coffee shop.

At 38, with an entire other life and career behind him, he is considerably older than most of them, he points out. Now halfway through his studies at the seminary, he will be 41 when he takes his vows.

I ask him about that nagging feeling he felt at Yale and how he came to believe it was from God.

During his work in the lab, he said, his thoughts would often wander back to his teenage years and the one time he had felt truly alive: during a mission trip to Venezuela.

He remembered the anxiety he had over leaving behind everything he knew. For a few months that summer, he joined a group working in an impoverished region several hours outside Caracas. Before he left home, his mother forced him to take a belt with a hidden pouch sewn into it, where she had hidden $80.

Four nights into the trip, while sleeping in an empty local school, his group was robbed by men armed with guns. The men took all their money and passports. One man even grabbed Jaime’s shoes and jeans. But before slipping out the door, the man left behind the belt Jaime’s mother had given him.

Afterward, as he and another boy—clutching Jaime’s belt, the only money they had left— tried to get new passports at the US consulate, they were told the fee was steep: $80 exactly.

The whole thing could easily be explained as coincidence, Jaime admitted, the way the rational mind is always working to find meaning and narrative in the chaos of life. But to him, it felt like nothing less than a message from heaven—that by sacrificing his home and traveling to another place in search of God, he had put himself in a position to hear him.

That feeling of providence, communion with something greater outside of himself—that’s what he felt was missing in his lab.

• • •

When I began working as a religion reporter at my newspaper, I thought I had finally found my calling in life. The two halves of my world, converging at last as one.

The work felt urgent, important, fulfilling. I roamed the halls of churches, synagogues, and mosques, talking to people as they searched for God and confronted life’s deepest questions. Often, I discovered, what lay at the center of many people’s hearts was this central question: Why do I exist, and what am I supposed to do with my life?

I wrote about a woman who heard God telling her to start a church in the middle of a supermarket. I followed her as she preached in the checkout lines and rubbed oil on the foreheads of those willing to be anointed as they paid for their week’s worth of groceries.

I wrote about a Muslim-American soldier who heard Allah’s call for him to enlist in the US Army, only to question it amid death threats from fellow soldiers during the War on Terror.

I wrote about a group of young men at a rural seminary in Maryland who were on the cusp of taking their final vows to enter the priesthood. I asked them how it felt then, at a time when the Catholic Church was in the throes of its sex abuse scandal. They told me how it suddenly seemed strange to tell someone you wanted to become a priest, as if you were admitting something was wrong with you. They spoke of their own doubts and conflicting desires, especially to marry and start a family.

For many of them, the choice boiled down to a belief in their vocation.

We use the term nowadays as just another word for occupation or career, but in earlier times, vocation referred literally to a call from God. It stems from the belief that God creates us with unique traits and gifts so that we can be used for a specific purpose. Finding your life’s vocation meant you had heard the voice of God.

“You realize it isn’t about you,” one seminarian told me during my visit. “It’s about what God has intended.”

As a religion reporter, I believed I had discovered my vocation.

But just months after my visit to the rural seminary, I found myself on a plane to China—dispatched by my newspaper to fill in for a correspondent who had to leave the country for a month. It made sense. I spoke Chinese and had long been interested in China’s strange and sometimes brutal system of governance.

The trip, however, changed me. I became obsessed with the country, with the massive change underway and the suffering often inflicted by that change and China’s morally fraught government.

My two months in China turned into five years. And after it was over, I found myself returning to the United States, no longer certain of this notion of vocation—the idea of being called to one thing as a way of finding meaning and making a difference.

I was no longer a religion reporter—the goal I thought my whole childhood had been preparing me for. I was no longer a China correspondent—the fever that had gripped me and burned through all else in my life.

I spent two years after my return to the United States wandering across the country, parachuting from one disaster zone to another. Until my editors asked me to consider a new assignment: science.

• • •

I ask Jaime how he finally made the decision to abandon his work in neuroscience.

He told me about a sermon he heard at Mass during his last years doing postdoctoral research at Yale. The sermon was about an encounter Jesus has with a rich young man.

The man tells Jesus he has followed every commandment to its fullest and asks what he still must do to win eternal life. Jesus tells the man there is just one thing missing, an empty hole in the rich man’s life.

“Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor,” Jesus tells him. “Then come, follow me.”

At this, the story goes, the rich young man’s face falls, and he leaves in sadness because he knows he cannot bring himself to do it.

When Jaime heard this sermon at Yale, he said, he started thinking to himself whether research was truly how he was supposed to spend the rest of his life. He thought about how he would feel if he were to die in a matter of years, what his biggest regret would be.

And he decided that even if he didn’t know for sure whether that empty feeling inside was God calling him, his biggest regret would be not having tried to find out.

Some believe that science is the only way to arrive at truth and certainty, he told me, but he has never believed that to be the case. “Science is how we observe and measure things in this world, but there are things beyond this world, beyond what we can observe. That is where God exists.”

He tells me that even now—three years into his training to become a priest—he still has doubts at times and feels the nagging emptiness inside.

The difference, he said, is that he is also growing in faith. “That is the definition of faith, giving yourself over in trust.”

• • •

There’s a sermon my father often preached when visiting a new church. I always thought it was his best one, although he would never have put it in those terms.

As my father got older, he began to teach more at seminary and preach less. His sermons, as a result, became a bit colder, more intellectual in their examination of the text. But somehow, whenever he taught the story of Jesus’s visit to the two sisters Mary and Martha, he would revert back to old form.

There was something about the source material—perhaps the parable-like nature of it, or the way the story boiled the world down to these two polarizing, contradictory sisters.

Up on the pulpit, my father would reenact with almost comical physicality the busybody sister, Martha, bustling about the house, cooking and fussing over the preparations that came with hosting the world’s savior in your home.

Then, my father would stoop into a frozen crouch and talk of how, amid all the bustle, the other sister, Mary, simply sat rapt at Jesus’s feet and listened.

Eventually, the exhausted Martha couldn’t hold in her frustration any longer. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” my father would exclaim in Martha’s voice. “Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” Jesus replied, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

In the decades since I first heard this story, I’ve often thought of myself in terms of those sisters. Sometimes, I see all of humanity as a collection that can be sorted into Marthas and Marys.

Martha—the rational, pragmatic part of us—focused on what is before us, what we can see. Mary—our more intuitive, emotional part—drawn to the inexplicable, the impossible, and able to recognize it for what it is. The head and the heart.

As a boy, I felt bad for Martha, reprimanded for just trying to do what she thought was right. As a teenager, I felt an unearned degree of superiority toward her, for missing the obvious, more important thing—the fact that the Messiah himself was in her home, speaking to her, calling to her.

But as an adult, I have felt frustration more than anything at Jesus and his words. “Mary has chosen what is better,” he says. “Few things are needed. Indeed, only one.” And yet, he never spells out, for the sisters or us, what that one thing is.

I have, at various points in my life, felt a degree of anger at this capricious nature in the Bible and religious teachings in general and doubted their value. If that one thing was so important, why not just come out and say it? Why send us forth into the world, combing through the wreckage of life, trying in vain to figure it out for ourselves?

At times, I’ve doubted whether the one thing even exists. And I’ve come to the conclusion that many things in this world, and people most of all, do not fit so easily into tidy parables.

For my father, however, the climax of the story was never the visit, but what happened later. In his sermons, he often focused more on Jesus’s final visit with the two sisters—just days before the world would turn on him, before his broken body would be hoisted up onto the cross.

During Jesus’s last visit, my father would point out, Mary bought a pint of expensive perfume, worth an entire year’s wages. She poured it onto Jesus’s feet and began using her own hair to wipe them clean. When others began criticizing her for wasting, in an instant, that exorbitant perfume, Jesus rebuked them: “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing.”

From the pulpit, my father would pause at these words to quietly reenact the scene, his hands rubbing his hair over the imagined feet of Jesus. Often, the congregation would be stunned by his actions, watching in a rapt, eerie silence.

It would always strike me later as almost comical, the image of my father—a man more serious than any I’ve known in life—doing this silent pantomime on the stage. But in the moment, it was hard not to feel the weight of that silence, to smell the perfume in the air and sense the utter commitment represented by Mary’s actions.

When you finally find that one thing in life, my father concluded, you cherish it. You go out and buy the most expensive perfume that exists and you use it all up, even sacrificing your own body and life for it.

• • •

People often describe science in terms of certainty, data and evidence, but there are aspects of the field that are as mired in mystery and beauty as any religion—that require searching not just for truth but for our humanity.

In my new job, my reporting focuses on the moral gray areas of science. I write about people pushing on the frontiers of research to see if they can make the impossible possible. And I write about the soul-searching ethical questions they often encounter in that process.

But a few days before my meeting with Jaime this fall, I was asked by the science desk to help cover the total eclipse that would soon pass over America.

I spent several days researching the history of eclipses through time and was moved by accounts that stretch back to some of the earliest recorded instances of man’s awareness of himself and the world around him.

In account after account, I read of how our ancestors over the millennia looked up at the sky on days like the one this past August, and what they saw there filled them with fear and wonder. In light of the sudden darkness in the sky, many struggled to explain this force that was clearly bigger than themselves. It spawned myths, altered belief systems, reshaped the way entire civilizations saw the world and themselves.

On the day of the actual eclipse, I was on the phone, talking to a network of thirty-some reporters and freelancers whom our newspaper had stationed across the country. My role was to gather their accounts and weave them together into one coherent story—to try to make some sense of this scientific and surprisingly emotional day.

I spoke to scientists who broke down into tears at the beauty of the sight. I wrote about parishioners outside a church, screaming prayers and praises to God when the moment of totality finally arrived. I wrote about an elderly woman in Idaho City, who looked up and could not help thinking of the son and husband she had buried—the two lights in her own life now gone dark.

And just before 2:42 p.m.—when the partial eclipse was supposed to pass over my own office in Washington, DC—I stole away to the roof for a few minutes to catch a glimpse for myself.

From the top of our building, I watched the darkness spread and felt the air grow cold.

I thought about how many in previous centuries had looked at the sun, darkening in this way, and read into it foreboding signs of the apocalypse. And others who had seen in it the exact opposite—signs of hope, confirmation of God’s existence.

I thought about those times in my own life when, like Jaime, I believed I had heard God speaking to me. Those rare moments when the world almost seemed to darken and narrow until there was just one thing before me, the faint sound of a whisper.

Afterward, back at my desk, it seemed strange to me how the way we view eclipses nowadays has changed so dramatically from that of our ancestors. It is now a social media event. There are livestreams on cable news. Online tools from NASA for tracking each phase. Even the special filtered glasses distributed at museums and libraries. None of that existed before.

And yet, little of the experience itself has changed.

There is still something inexplicable about it. Like a rare glimpse into another world.

In most religions, Christianity included, light usually represents God, clarity, truth. But the reverse is true with eclipses. It is only during the darkness, scientists note, that we are able to truly see and study the Sun and its corona. It is only in the dark that we are able to see what is normally hidden.

And we emerge afterward, our eyes blinking, our minds still adjusting to the transition from a place of mystery and awe, back into the normal explainable, predictable, and knowable world.

Even so, we carry the memory within us. That glimmer of truth we once saw in the dark.

About the Author

William Wan

William Wan is the Washington Post’s science correspondent. He previously served as the Post’s religion reporter, roving national reporter, and China correspondent in Beijing. He was part of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist team for the Fort Hood shootings, has been named religion writer of the year, and has won international awards for his investigations on human rights abuses.

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