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.

Grades Are Not God

Grades Are Frightening Students Away From Mission

By Russell Fiorella

Lord,
Teach me to be generous,
Teach me 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 ask for reward,
Save that of knowing I do your will.
Amen

Prayer for Generosity, attributed to St. Ignatius

Teaching theology at a Jesuit high school has taught me grades are not God.  Discovering the wonders and struggles of the world and growing into a deeper understanding of oneself is a divine experience.  A student’s edification ought to reflect that. The most inimical word in Jesuit education is “reward.”  While the average student is conditioned to perceive education as a transaction, “If I accomplish this, I will receive this,” a Jesuit educated student should learn out of love. For learning out of love allows students to enter into relationship with the greatest of wonders, the greatest of loves, and hopefully inspires action in love’s name in light of that experience. The illustrious Fr. Pedro Arrupe S.J. summarizes this utmost point better than anyone:

Today’s prime educational objective must be to form men and women for others; men and women who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ…men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of our neighbors.

Finding God in one’s education should be effortless, humbling, limitless, continual.  Finding God should be about broadening one’s perception of reality, using questions big and small as tools for insight. Finding love also requires using one’s heart as a source of courage and a compass for discerning how to realistically make an impact on others for the greater good.  Grades hamper this formational experience.

Jesuit educators ought to be honest about the effect grades have on the mission.  These thoughts and questions I’m posing are meant to stimulate an extremely challenging yet necessary conversation among learning communities, from students to parents, teachers to administrators.  This conversation requires a sizable amount of hard research, open mindedness, creativity, audacity, and a lot of time-time for contemplation, further conversation, and discernment.  A starting point is untangling how words like “success,” “vocation,” “reward,” “desire,” and “failure” among others are understood in the context of Catholic Jesuit education.  Such discussions could create a more refined and widespread understanding of Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity among students at the end of four years.  What follows can only be great.

I have had success intentionally directing my students’ attention away from grades.  Rather than pinning numbers and letters to their performance, I regularly serve my students feedback in the form of detailed written comments or face-to-face consultations.  At the end of each marking period, students take time composing reflective writing pieces. What they gleaned from their reflections helps them determine where they were in their journey before proposing a grade. Instead of me judging their performance, the student and I come to a conclusion together.  Out of over five hundred grades put forward by students this past, perhaps ten were off the mark. Half of those ten probably lowballed.  My students have responded to my less grade-centric approach to learning with resounding appreciation.  At the conclusion of the year they celebrated how the questions, conversations, projects, writing pieces, the general investigation into the human experience made learning infinitely more meaningful. 

No moment has been more inspiring than reading a final reflection from one of my quieter freshmen, Matt.  He expressed how his first year had been difficult-there were problems unfolding at home, friends were hard to come by and so were good grades.  Despite his forgettable struggles, my class proved a memorable adventure leaving a lasting impact:

“I truly looked forward to going to your class each day . . .   It was challenging and fun and not about ‘getting the grade.’’ And although I wasn’t your best student, your class makes me want to look deeper into what we talked about this year. Thank you.“

Matt was certainly not the most intellectual student. But throughout he “learned to learn out of love” and will be returning for his sophomore year.  Entering my third year teaching I continue to pray Saint Ignatius’ Prayer for Generosity, hoping its words become real for students like Matt and all students enrolled at Jesuit schools.  But I also pray Ignatius’ prayer as a reminder of my mission as a Jesuit educator: to form students empowered and inspired to give themselves away to others, for the love of it.

-excerpt from Fiorella’s essay Save That of Knowing I Do Your Will: Grades Are Frightening Students Away From Mission

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