Lasers and Discernment – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


A University of Waterloo researcher was recently named one of the Nobel Prize winners in physics. Donna Strickland told the media that the path to the Nobel Prize started with a high school decision four decades ago, when a description of a McMaster University program on lasers caught her eye. That produced a gut-level feeling that the versatile laser beams were not only useful, but supremely cool. “I just wanted to do something fun.” She describes herself as a “laser jock.”

Dr. Strickland is one of just three women in history to win the Nobel for physics after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

Other than what I read in the media about Strickland, I know absolutely nothing. I’d love to hear more about her discernment around that gut feeling that helped establish the path for her life. It may have been rooted in coolness, but we know that it has required tremendous hard work.

Her interior movement is precisely what can be so important for any of us in our choice of a life path.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit life?” The rich young man in today’s Gospel asks that of Jesus. I have often prayed with the story. My prayer usually takes me in the direction of the Ignatian magis.

Magis is a Latin word that refers to the greater good. Recall that Ignatian discernment is concerned with choosing the greater of the good choices that are offered to me, not choosing between good and evil.

Quite simply, I can actually do many good things, especially if I am young and keen and talented. No doubt Strickland had many options before her. Most of us do. Unless we are a superhuman, we simply cannot do everything. We have to make choices. Discernment helps me to name and choose the greater of those options that are before me.

This Gospel story is often offered to young men and women who are praying and discerning God’s call to them – whether to a religious vocation, or, just as importantly, to the correct path for their life. Would I find my path and peace in being married?

Should I be a parent? Can I see myself in the priesthood or some form of religious life? Is my future in lasers or the stars or brain science or copyright law or helping people walk again or helping heal trauma? Let’s start with our gut feelings and passions. Where do our dreams take us?

Many successful women and men show us that our life path doesn’t have to be dull or achieved by just-falling-into-something. Donna Strickland shows us that it starts with our passions and dreams.

Ever since I encountered it some years ago, I’ve always liked this line from Brian O’Leary, an Irish Jesuit. “The spirit of Ignatius is like a suppressed coil of steel, and its verbal expression demands the use of the comparative again and again. Complacency is a feeling unknown to him. There is always that higher mountain to be climbed, that faster race to be run, that more loving service to be offered.”

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

  • Charles Pottie-Pâté sj
    Posted at 16:05h, 14 October Reply

    Good reflection…..and quote, Phil. Thank you.

  • Jenny Cafiso
    Posted at 10:50h, 22 October Reply

    Great simple way to convey a deep insight Philip. Thank you.

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