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.

Sometimes It Just Sucks

Sometimes teaching RE does suck. but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.”

never give up_2

Dale Clarke

“Can we have a lesson in the chapel?” This comes from Martin as I walk into my Year 9 Religious Education classroom (“Ninth Grade” – please excuse my Australian terminology). Martin has his schoolbag on one shoulder and a chip on the other. After five periods of English, Math, History and so on, he’s not in the mood for class. I do my best to fend off Martin’s question with some humour.

“A lesson in the chapel? I think maybe you just want to lie on the pews again.”

Marc tries a different tact.

“Can we take special intentions for prayer?”

“Yes, we’ll have three special intentions.” Yesterday’s prayer to start the lesson had descended into a filibustering to block any beginning of formal lesson time. I am onto them.

Marc’s not happy: “Only three? What – doesn’t God care about our prayers?”

“Yes, I’m sure he does – more than me anyway.” My response comes with a fading dose of jest. I can feel the boys’ resistance to my lesson starting to wear down my defence. My sarcasm is setting in.

Ernie walks in and doesn’t beat around the bush: “I hate RE.”

The above scenario involves only a little bit of creative embellishment, but represents the deflating battlefield that teaching Religion can sometimes be.

 

At the start of the year, I had great difficulty with my Year 9 class. There were a handful of students who seemed to be disruptive, and it was affecting many other class members, to the point where the culture in the classroom was not one conducive to class discussion, or productive work, or, well, teacher happiness! The silver lining of this situation, I thought, was that I would have something worthwhile and inspiring to write about for my blog entry, once I was able to turn the boys around. At this point you might be scrolling down to find the answer for how I turned this difficult class around. Well, keep scrolling – maybe there’s something useful in the comments!

As of “press time”, my Year 9 class is still a struggle. There are certainly breakthroughs. One of my more challenging students, Xavier – “I’m not doing this, it’s stupid” – is often the one who asks the most insightful or provocative questions (often out of turn): “Wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Wouldn’t they have thought of themselves as Jews then?” Yes, Xavier! Great question. Probably. What do you think? These discussions, prompted by genuine questions from the mouths of my students, are what I am for in teaching Religion. As a Jesuit educator, I strive to be a guide, an informed companion, rather than merely an instructor.

But as many Religion or Theology teachers discover, sometimes it just sucks. It’s hard. One of my attempts to spark involvement in my uninterested class was to take a nature walk – move in groups of three towards the school’s gardens, with two questions to discuss on the way. When you get there, be ready to share your ideas with the class. I had even allocated the small groups, so as to avoid troublesome combinations.

As I carried up the rear of the walking groups, I noticed two boys had taken a detour ­– Xavier and Martin, two of the very boys I had tried to separate. “We just wanted to go over to the statue to pray.” Where’s that eye-rolling emoji when you need it?

So amid classroom discussions falling flat, students disengaging, and occasional displays of dissent towards Catholic education, what works for me?

  • With my lovely Year 9s, role play or creating skits has worked well, particularly when it is to begin a lesson on scripture. I provide a scene, sometimes with a modern twist like “it’s set on George St, Sydney,” and they go to work preparing and then performing the scene in groups of four or five.
  • Bringing in the issues of the day – recently there was a crisis within the Australian Cricket Team and allegations of ball tampering. Think “Deflategate”, but imagine everyone in the country was a Tom Brady fan, and that the guilt was admitted in a series of teary press conferences. This fed into a fruitful discussion of Christian ethics, the Beatitudes, and sin.
  • Choosing to love. Maybe the hardest one. Sometimes it takes a while to warm to a class. But by deliberately taking small steps like welcoming each student to class as they arrive and saying goodbye as they leave, both parties are humanised.  They see me as a person, and I remember that they are lovable students often with a lot of baggage that they are bringing to school each day.

Perhaps most significantly, as Lauren Bjork pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, what works is to lean on our colleagues. It’s helpful to hear “Oh, I teach that group, yeah they are a difficult group”, and it’s even more helpful to hear what is working well for that teacher. What works in one context won’t work in another (as I discovered when I went from teaching all-boys in Sydney to teaching all-girls in Los Angeles!), so it makes sense to tap into the minds of those sharing our workspace.

So I didn’t find the answer for how to turn it around. It is my hope to have provided a sense of solidarity if you too have had the energy sucked from you from time to time by an “I hate RE” or an “RE sucks” sentiment. Sometimes teaching RE does suck, but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.” And I believe that is always happening – for students, and teachers too as we learn, grow, and hone our craft.

 

*Names of students have been changed to protect anonymity. Then in a moment of frustration after a lesson, they were changed back to real names. Then they were altered again.


Dale Clarke teaches Religious Education (9th, 10th, 11th grade) and English (10th and 12th grade) at Saint Ignatius College, an all-boys high school in Sydney, Australia.