Knights, Castles, and Ignatian Prayer
By Russell Fiorella
Gracing the circular table in my office is a large vinyl chess board with each of its 32 black and white pieces stationed at their starting squares. I had little experience playing one of the world’s most ancient games prior to my first years teaching religion at St. Peter’s Preparatory in Jersey City. Until one late autumn afternoon while passing through the seldom traveled mathematics corridor I decided on a whim to purloin a set from a colleagues’ stockpile of tournament chess equipment. What made me do this was not entirely clear, but since unraveling the board months ago, chess has revealed itself as a tool for Ignatian prayer, a vehicle enabling my high school students to begin plumbing their spiritual selves and have fun doing it.
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. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, a chess player himself, expressed a similar thought 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.
Benjamin Franklin understood chess as a sort of exercise for developing mental athleticism fit to outwit rivals, see beyond distractions, and navigate complex problems encountered in his daily political, business, and science related ventures. Chess also grooms a sense of confidence and fearlessness, poise and composure, stability and courage. And upon closer inspection, chess might be more than aerobics for the intellect.
Saint 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. In most cases, Gospel pericopes provide scaffolding for contemplation, awakening one’s spiritual senses with images from the shores of the sea of Galilee or the mountains outside Jerusalem. Grasping the purpose of each of these methods of prayer is rather simple for any adult. But reaching the hearts and minds of teenagers is an entirely different ballgame. Every high schooler in America is subject to the frenetic pace and braying of contemporary life. Their phones alone make them casualties of an avalanche of updates from personal Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter accounts, video after video of Fortnight battle royales, click baiting, Fantasy Football tickers, text messages, memes, news feeds, Spotify playlists, and addictive single player arcade games. The young men attending St. Peter’s are no exception. The media flitting across my boys’ screens is orientating their attention away from what lies within them waiting to be discovered.
This disconnection with the interior life bothers me and I fear for my boys’ spiritual growth and the greater fallout. Given the presence of tech, the typical fourteen year old boy rejects the potent conditions for prayer-solitude, focus, vulnerability. Although in my experiences, periodic doses of quiet in a formal setting like a classroom has the power to work against these challenges. Most class periods I taught this school year began with silence and stillness. I remember the first few times when I invited gaggles of freshmen to sit up straight in their chairs, close their eyes, and remain quiet and motionless until directed otherwise. Within seconds someone stirred from their fixed posture, shuffling their feet, sniffing loudly, dramatically exhaling, or even laughing shamelessly. I was a little discouraged by these fidgets and outbursts in the early going. Silence and stillness was so unfamiliar to my students’ programming. Halting their squirrelly rhythms caused wacky involuntary reflexes, indicating this was not going to be an easy fix. So over the course of weeks students built up a tolerance for silence and to my surprise the boys quickly developed a craving! I realized when they made their appreciation known that we were ready for more advanced exercises.
Introducing teenagers to prayer in our postmodern context requires reaching them where they are in their daily lives. From my experience, the chessboard is that place. It’s a safe wager that the world’s chess titans would rather play with each other in a quiet chess hall opposed to a coffee table in the middle of Times Square. After a few weeks of silence training, my classroom was primed for chess playing mixed with spirituality. I now turn again to Ben Franklin and his list of skills chess imparts on its players:
By playing at Chess then, we may learn:
1st, Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action …
2nd, Circumspection, which surveys the whole Chess-board, or scene of action: - the relation of the several Pieces, and their situations; …
3rd, Caution, not to make our moves too hastily...."
Foresight and circumspection--learning from prior mistakes, recognizing familiar situations, and projecting what moves might come in the later stages of the game--are woven into a formidable chess player’s decision making. The same could be said of one’s imagined prayer space as past misjudgements are reflected on, present moments are considered, and future events are forecasted, hoped and prepared for. The third skill, caution, is also invaluable to chess players and likewise develops as one proceeds deeper into their spiritual journey. But perhaps what is most striking is Benjamin Franklin’s attention to the relationships between chess pieces and how they impact each other. Contemplating and meditating on our relationships enlivens the spirit of God within us, bringing us to notice and celebrate meaning and love for our closest companions in life.
I remember 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 by assuming a prayerful state. Then at my word they quietly, and excitedly, executed their opening moves. Five minute segments of playing alternated with journaling sessions responding to reflection questions about Ignatian spiritual speak. In the opening stages of the exercise, for example, are the questions I posed to students introducing 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 a 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 Gospels facing 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 beholding the questions, and then responded in writing. The melding of activity and imagination in a contemplative setting seems ideal for young adults practically bursting with energy. What’s more, as students are invited to linger over their anxieties and fears they are accompanied not only by their armies of rooks and knights, but also by Christ. Loneliness is one of the unfortunate feelings experienced by young women and men in spite of our unprecedented interconnection. The comforting presence and empathy of Christ beside them hopefully reminds them that they are not alone in facing their fears.
Over the next few days the focus of our prayers shifted from the personal to the relational. Cura personalis, Latin for “Care for the Whole Person” was another principle contemplated:
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 responding.
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 savor 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 wondrous 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, teammates, leaders. Words like “joy,” “passionate,” and “wondrous,” seek to elicit responses related to 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, becoming more aware of the sacred hidden within the ranks of pawns and knights that normally would be missed. Privately reading the boys’ journal responses afterwards, it was obvious the spirit was at work as many disclosed deep feelings about meaningful people, places and things.
Chess has yielded extraordinary results in the classroom as well as in a less formal setting. With a smile, I think of the characters who have visited my office over the past year looking to play a quick game during lunch and share a conversation: Matt Coronel-over-confident, slick, always rushing his moves, Ian MacMillian-a stout rugby player with an Edwardian demeanor, he never protects his queen, Tom Narramore-constantly calculating and recalculating, we have scored more draws than wins and loses combined. Each student I’ve encountered at St. Peter’s is unquestionably unique and I have had the pleasure of learning about more about their passions, talents, and backstories before the chess board. As a result of this alternative form of table (or perhaps board) fellowship, strong teacher-student relationships have been forged.
As our youth continue to plunge deeper into the tech ridden postmodern age and its information overhaul, self-centeredness, and noise, silence and contemplative prayer will be drowned out unless creative means are put into action. Merging Ignatian spirituality with chess is my weapon of choice. What’s yours? I do not think it is difficult to find answers to these pressing questions. Simply look to the ordinary, look to what students enjoy! 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.