St. Teresa of Avila, Chess, and You

Since I am working to recover my long lost chess game, I thought you might like this, from The Way of Perfection 16 by St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church and Patroness of Chess Players.


1.But you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well, and, if he does not know how to give check, he will not be able to bring about a checkmate. Now you will reprove me for talking about games…[but] if we play it frequently, how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will He desire to do so.

It is the queen which gives the king most trouble in this game and all the other pieces support her. There is no queen who can beat this King as well as humility can; for humility brought Him down from Heaven into the Virgin’s womb and with humility we can draw Him into our souls by a single hair. Be sure that He will give most humility to him who has most already and least to him who has least. I cannot understand how humility exists, or can exist, without love, or love without humility, and it is impossible for these two virtues to exist save where there is great detachment from all created things…

This is an error which we all make: if a person gets so far as to spend a short time each day in thinking about his sins, as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything more than name, people at once call him a great contemplative; and then they expect him to have the rare virtues which a great contemplative is bound to possess; he may even think he has them himself, but he will be quite wrong. In his early stages he did not even know how to set out the chess-board, and thought that, in order to give checkmate, it would be enough to be able to recognize the pieces. But that is impossible, for this King does not allow Himself to be taken except by one who surrenders wholly to Him.”

1. Y no os parezca mucho todo esto, que voy entablando el juego, como dicen. Pedísteisme os dijese el principio de oración; yo, hijas, aunque no me llevó Dios por este principio, porque aún no le debo tener de estas virtudes, no sé otro. Pues creed que quien no sabe concertar las piezas en el juego de ajedrez, que sabrá mal jugar, y si no sabe dar jaque, no sabrá dar mate. Así me habéis de reprender porque hablo en cosa de juego, no le habiendo en esta casa ni habiéndole de haber. Aquí veréis la madre que os dio Dios, que hasta esta vanidad sabía; mas dicen que es lícito algunas veces. Y cuán lícito será para nosotras esta manera de jugar, y cuán presto, si mucho lo usamos, daremos mate a este Rey divino, que no se nos podrá ir de las manos ni querrá.

2. La dama es la que más guerra le puede hacer en este juego, y todas las otras piezas ayudan. No hay dama que así le haga rendir como la humildad. Esta le trajo del cielo en las entrañas de la Virgen, y con ella le traeremos nosotras de un cabello a nuestras almas. Y creed que quien más tuviere, más le tendrá, y quien menos, menos. Porque no puedo yo entender cómo haya ni pueda haber humildad sin amor, ni amor sin humildad, ni es posible estar estas dos virtudes sin gran desasimiento de todo lo criado….

4. Mas contemplación es otra cosa, hijas, que éste es el engaño que todos traemos, que en llegándose uno un rato cada día a pensar sus pecados (que) está obligado a ello si es cristiano de más que nombre), luego dicen es muy contemplativo, y luego le quieren con tan grandes virtudes como está obligado a tener el muy contemplativo, y aun él se quiere, mas yerra. En los principios no supo entablar el juego: pensó bastaba conocer las piezas para dar mate, y es imposible, que no se da este Rey sino a quien se le da del todo.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: St. Teresa of Avila, Chess, and You – Via Nova Media

  2. MB says:

    Jesus told us that we would do ‘greater works than these.’ Saints experienced all sorts of legitimate spiritual gifts (so they say) levitation, bilocation, prophecy, mystical experiences, ability to read souls etc. And, then they are the nine levels of prayer, the purgative way, and then contemplation, prayer of quiet, transforming union and so on.

    I have been abused so many times by so many people, that there are days that I feel like I can’t catch my breath. So, I struggle to view God as being kind, or loving, or merciful. Therefore, prayer for me is always just kind of a grind. I’m really bad at it.

    However, I would love to know – Fr. Z, or readers – have any of you ever met someone who was really advanced in prayer? Have you ever personally known someone who was past contemplation in the nine levels? Anyone with legit spiritual gifts (not speaking in tongues – that doesn’t count). Anyone at all?

  3. Hopeful says:

    My heart goes out to you, MB. I can relate somewhat. Would like to see some responses, too!

    My two cents: God is not usually going to work through people in flashy ways, because as He has shown us through Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and so many of the saints, He delights in the small, humble, and unnoticed as they go about their faithful lives for decades accomplishing His will. I think that the legitimate spiritual gifts you mentioned and people who are quite advanced in prayer certainly are present in the world; we just don’t hear about them, and they don’t want to attract attention to themselves.

    As for struggling to see God as kind, I’ll tell you that slowing down a lot in prayer to be very honest and real with God seems to help a little bit. You’ve got to allow yourself, kindly, the time you need to remember that the abuse and evil you’ve dealt with carried abominable lies about who you are and who God is. Read and remember how many times Jesus’s heart was moved with pity for people; how many hard miles and long hours He walked to preach and heal even before His Passion; how He described the prodigal son’s father waiting and watching and running to meet his returning son on the road home. Know that even in rebuking the Pharisees and proclaiming hard truth about the Kingdom of God, it wasn’t because He thought the Pharisees were beyond saving or because He wanted to make things hard for us out of some kind of malice. His words are truth, medicine. Some people need aspirin. Some need surgery.

    If you examine your head and your heart, or at least the way you act, and find major dissonance there, you might discover wounds in need of deeper healing. You might discover that you’ve been looking at the Lord through layers of cracked and distorted lenses from this sick world of sin and death.

    God loves you. He loves you so much. The evil one, hateful, doesn’t want you to receive or believe in that love, and he wants to try to spite God by turning His beloved children against Him. Like in The Hunger Games, remember who the real enemy is. Don’t be discouraged even though prayer is a grind right now. Think small and consistent (faithful).

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