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