Teaching Ignatian Prayer through Chess

As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and omnipresent noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action.

by Russell Fiorella

The point of chess is to checkmate, or to force the opposing king into a position where it is unable to occupy an unthreatened space. It may sound simple, but within a few opening moves, the amount of possible combinations swells exponentially to near infinity. While each player controls her or his movements, they can only forecast how the opposing army shifts, parries, advances, making the game uncannily similar to the dynamics of life. Benjamin Franklin, an ardent chess player himself, expressed something similar in his “Morals of Chess:”

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.

Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, cherished active prayer through meditation and contemplation in his Spiritual Exercises. Prayerful meditation is filtered primarily through the mind, inviting participants to linger over meaningful relationships, ideas, symbols, and words. Contemplative prayer on the other hand is about harnessing the imagination in order to induce the heart to discover authentic emotions and desires.

Every high schooler in America is subject to the frenetic pace and braying of contemporary life. Introducing teenagers to prayer in our postmodern context requires creatively reaching them where they are in their daily lives. Entering into a good game of chess usually means finding a quiet setting and over time my classroom gradually became favorable for chess playing mixed with spirituality. Again, I turn to Ben Franklin and his list of skills chess imparts on its players: foresight, introspection, and caution.

Foresight and circumspection require a great degree of imagination. Learning from prior mistakes, recognizing familiar situations, and projecting what moves might come in the later stages of the game are intimately woven into a formidable chess player’s decision making. The same is true of one’s imagined prayer space. The third skill listed, caution, is also invaluable to chess players and likewise develops over the course of one’s spiritual journey. Perhaps what is most striking is Benjamin Franklin’s attention to the relationships between pieces and how they impact each other. God is revealed in others. Searching the heart’s inner chambers calls for strong companions. Thus it is through contemplating and meditating on our relationships with others that enlivens the spirit of God within us.

I remember with a smile first introducing chess and prayer to my freshmen as part of their unit on Ignatian Spirituality. Our task was to learn about the principles and charisms that ground Ignatian spirituality like discernment, consolation and desolation, detachment, Finding God in All Things, For the Greater Glory of God and cura personalis. After excitedly setting up their boards, my boys readied themselves, assuming a pensive, prayerful state. Then, quietly, they executed their opening moves. Five minute long segments of playing alternated with journaling sessions responding to reflection questions pertaining to Ignatian spiritual lingo. An example in the opening stages of the exercise are the questions I posed to students to introduce detachment:

“Detachment” means exactly as it sounds-letting go of fears that keep you from fighting like a lion, having fun, being happy, finding God.
Imagine you are an actual general commanding your army of knights, bishops and pawns. What fears do you bring with you to this battle? There are many examples of Jesus in the Gospel confronting his fears, like in the garden of Gethsemane when the Roman soldiers were hunting him. Like us, Jesus experienced tremendous fear when confronting death. Imagine he is near you as you write about what personal fears or “dragons” you face in your life.

With eyes closed the boys listened, paused for a few moments to behold the questions, and then responded in their digital journal. The melding of activity and imagination in a contemplative setting seems ideal for young adults. And these questions along with others in the opening movements of chess and prayer are pertinent to the formation of an adolescent’s unique character.

Over the next few days the focus of our prayer shifted from the personal to the relational. Cura personalis, Latin for “Care for the Whole Person” was another principle contemplated over:

There are many dimensions to you. Imagine now that each of your pieces represents a certain part of who you are. Consider each question carefully before writing. 

Pawns (Soldiers) Who are some of your closest friends, supporters? Describe your feelings towards them? 

Queen (Leadership) Who in your life serves as a role model or leader? Why? 

Castles (Strongholds) What are you most passionate about? What activities or people bring you the most joy?  

Knights (Cavalry) What do you savour doing physically day to day? Do you play a sport? Walk or run?  

Bishops (Faith) Where do you find the presence of God in your life? What is most wonderous or mysterious to you? What are you most curious about?  

King (Your Flag) What values do you hold as most important? Why?

Most of these questions are associated with relationships-role models, friendships, family. Words like “joy,” “passionate,” and “wondrous,” seek to draw out responses predicated on desires and feelings. It’s important to note that writing is an essential component of this process, as it immerses students further into a prayerful state. When we write, we think more actively and intentionally, become more aware of things that normally would go amiss if we did not intend to write about them in the first place. Noticing traces of the sacred is the business here.

As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and omnipresent noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action. I do not think it is difficult to find answers to these pressing questions. Simply look to the ordinary, look to what students enjoy! Purposefully merging Ignatian spirituality with chess is my weapon of choice. And while adapting Ignatian prayer to chess in the classroom has been encouraging, what is more encouraging are my boys’ earnest desires months afterward to play, and pray, over one more game. Checkmate.

-adapted from Russell Fiorella’s essay Knights, Castles, and Ignatian Prayer”  

accessible at https://russellfiorella.wixsite.com/sacraterras/mp-3-projects-exodus

Russ Fiorella teaches Old and New Testament studies at St. Peter’s Preparatory, an all-boys Jesuit high school in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Ora et Labora et Magis: A Response to Skipping Class

It wasn’t just that they wanted to get out of class; our students were earnestly seeking ways to manage the demands placed on them . . .

by Mark Dushel

In a recent issue of The Hawkeye, the student newspaper at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, one of our seniors wrote an Op-ed piece calling for leniency for seniors to skip class in the midst of completing college applications. Unsurprisingly, his recommendation was met with great enthusiasm by his classmates. However, what I was surprised by was why his classmates were so receptive to his idea. It wasn’t just that they wanted to get out of class; our students were earnestly seeking ways to manage the demands placed on them and skipping class to work on something else seemed like a reasonable suggestion to them.

The student who wrote the article is certainly correct in saying that the pressure of completing college applications, excelling in their teams and clubs, along with the challenging workload we give our students takes a toll on everyone. As a campus minister at the Prep, I see how this stress affects our students everyday. I also began to think about what we, as a Jesuit School, and I myself, as an Ignatian educator, can offer spiritually in order to help our students grow from these challenges.

For us as a school to help provide students with the tools to respond to these challenges, I felt that it was important for me to offer my own suggestions for how each Prepper, (and in turn, those of us entrusted to care for these students), may approach the demands our responsibilities place on us.

            I first encountered Ignatian Spirituality as a student at Boston College where I met many great Jesuits and Ignatian educators who helped me understand what it means to strive for the Magis: to seek more. However, it took meeting a Benedictine monk for me to conceptualize exactly how I could go about striving for the Magis in my day to day life.

As a graduate student of theology, I had the fortune of getting to know a Benedictine monk named Michael working on his PhD. Michael invited me to visit his monastery in Minnesota to learn about what it means to be a monk. For Benedictines, the core of their spirituality is captured in the phrase ora et labora, prayer and work. Anselm Grun, a Benedictine monk and writer, explains in his book Benedict of Nursia: His Message for Today that “more crucial than a balanced partnership of prayer and work is their internal connection. Work is to help us to pray well, and prayer is to help us to do our work well.”

As I spent time in a Benedictine Abbey, I was amazed at how full each day was. I woke up early, exercised, prayed, worked in the woodshop building furniture, prayed again, studied for an exam, prayed again, cleaned the monastery, prayed again, made candles, prayed again, and watched college football before I went to bed (after night prayer, of course).

It was a lot of prayer and a ton of work. Through each I built friendships, deepened my relationship with God, and stretched myself physically and intellectually. I had the kind of days I hope our students have every day they come to 17th St. and Girard Ave. Most importantly, I learned that surrounding myself with a community built on ora et labora helped me accomplish much more than I can on my own. Grun says that “when we work out of prayer we will still get tired, but we will not be exhausted. It is a good tiredness. We have the feeling of having done something for God and other people.” In short, working out of prayer gives us a clear way to strive for the Magis.

Dealing with our busy schedules and increased responsibilities is not something that goes away. Our students will learn after graduation that as we get older, people will ask more and more from us. Building the skills to deal with them here and now is an important step for our students to become “Men and Women For and With Others.” Building the skills to deal with them requires us to learn to entrust our work to God so that we approach our work generously and lovingly.

I don’t think the answer to our busy lives is to do less. In fact, as the great charisms of both the Jesuits and Benedictines teach us, these busy times may be where God is inviting us to learn how much more we are able to do.

Lord, teach me to be generous,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to look for any reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.
Amen.

Mark Dushel is Campus Minister for Retreats and Liturgy at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, Philadelphia, PA

Imagining your classroom

by Margaret Felice

he began to marvel at the difference and to reflect upon it, realizing from experience that some thoughts left him sad and others joyful.

This is how Ignatius describes, in his autobiography, the realization that his heart’s reactions to his imaginings were a way of hearing God’s voice and discerning God’s will. As a champion daydreamer, I have always been drawn to this part of Ignatius’s story, and to the valuing of the imagination that comes with it.

Summer months, with long days and more relaxed schedules, are a perfect time to daydream. On long care rides, or while sitting and enjoying the sun, I might imagine a new retreat to offer at school, or design a handout for a lesson. Vacation’s clear-headedness frees up space for the Spirit’s voice to sneak in with guidance and encouragement.

In addition to imagining certain programs or activities, I have found great value in simply imagining my classroom environment.

There are many ways to organize a classroom, and many ways to serve students well. What’s right for you will take into account your needs, your students’ needs, and the larger environment of the school community. Depending on your experience and length of employment, you have varying degrees of knowledge of those things. What you do know, is what kind of teacher and person YOU are, and your students are better off if you are teaching to your own strengths.

When you imagine your classroom different ways, which feels right to you? Students taking different seats every class? Students in assigned seats? Students taking advantage of window ledges, radiators, and corner benches for their work, or students sitting at desks? Do they ask you to go to the bathroom, or silently take a bathroom pass, or just walk out of the room? Depending on your context, any of these could be a fine way to approach your class environment, but if one is going to make you uncomfortable, there’s no reason to organize your class around it.

Once you have decided, be strategic about how you are going to implement it. It’s acceptable to shape some classroom procedures around your preferences, but it’s not acceptable to ask students to be mind readers. Tell them what your expectations are. To use a mundane example: If there is a bathroom pass, have it ready on the first day, explain what the policies are, and repeat them until everyone is acclimated.

Be thorough in your imaginings – if you imagine a daily introduction of the saint of the day, and that feels like something that would energize you and your students, keep going with your thoughts. Would there be a daily handout? How would you make it a routine? Is there a creative way to assess what you are introducing? The more you have thought through your plans before the year begins, the easier they will be to implement.

If you’re really feeling ambitious, spend some time imagining how you will handle conflicts. What happens when a student doesn’t do his or her homework, or when they break a significant rule, or when a parent challenges your grading, or when a colleague says something frustrating? If you spend some time imagining what your ideal reaction would be, you’re more likely to be your best self when you’re dealing with a challenging situation.

We do a lot to prepare for these first days of school. In between the organizing, cleaning, poster-hanging and roster-reviewing, try to find a few moments alone with your thoughts to see where your imagination leads you in your teaching this year.

Initial quotation from A Pilgrim’s Testament: The Memoirs of St. Ignatius of Loyola, as transcribed by Luis Gonçalves da Câmara and translated by Parmandanda R. Divarkar. Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1995

Margaret Felice is an educator, writer, and musician. She teaches religion and music at Boston College High School and is an Assistant Director of the Liturgy Arts Group at Boston College. She is the author of 2019: A Book of Grace-Filled Days (Loyola Press) and is writing two booklets on teen spirituality for Twenty-Third Publications which will be published in 2020. Margaretfelice.com