How the Interior Life is Like the Game of Chess

“This King does not allow himself to be taken except by one who surrenders wholly to him.” —St. Teresa of Ávila

(photo: Register Files)

In June 2019 news outlets reported an unexpected find.

A medieval chess piece, missing for nearly 200 years, had turned up at a family home in Edinburgh, Scotland. The family in possession of the piece had kept it in a draw for 50 years before discovering it was one of the long-lost fabled Lewis Chessmen.

What came to be known as the Lewis Chessmen were discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. How these 93 chess pieces, found by a grazing cow, arrived on the island is not known. The pieces are believed to be Norwegian in origin, with experts dating them to around A.D. 1200. At the time of their discovery five pieces were missing: one Knight and four Warders (equivalent to today’s Rook). The excitement around the latest find of a Warder is not difficult to comprehend not least because the Lewis Chessmen remain among the biggest draws at the institutions that share the chess pieces’ ongoing exhibition — namely, London’s British Museum and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

It seems that the Scottish family who discovered the piece had had it in their possession for decades without knowing its provenance. Only after taking it along to an auction house in London was the discovery made and owners then grasped the full significance of the 3.5-inch piece carved from walrus ivory. Questions remained as to how exactly it came into the possession of the family, however. They said that an antiques’ dealer ancestor had purchased it from an Edinburgh antiques store in 1964. How it came to be in that antiques shop in the first place remains a mystery. What is less of a mystery, however, is that the Warder — bought for less than $10 in 1964 — fetched $925,000 at auction in London July 2.

The origins of the game of chess are shrouded in the mists of time. Some say the game originated in India, others that it sprang from the Arabic world. No one really knows. What is known is that the Lewis Chessmen were crafted by and for what was then Catholic Europe. Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that some Catholics have taken a dim view of the game of chess. St. Bernard of Clairvaux called the game “a carnal pleasure;” St. Louis dismissed it as merely boring; both banned it from their respective realms. The 14th-century reformer John Wycliffe described the game as a form of lechery; Savonarola went further and threatened the inhabitants of Florence with eternal damnation if caught playing chess.

Others in Catholic Europe, however, took a different approach. St. Charles Borromeo enjoyed playing chess with his friends. Once, the future saint and his friends were asked what they would do if during one of their games they were told Judgment Day was at hand. The others present made pious protestations. But St. Charles replied that he would continue with his game of chess; having begun it for the glory of God he should continue it until its end. St. Thomas More is known to have played the game and to have suggested that chess would be the game of choice in Utopia. It is said that St. Francis Xavier was keen on chess and even saved a soldier’s soul by teaching him to play it. In his Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), St. Francis de Sales encouraged the playing of the game if, characteristically, he counseled moderation. It is said that St. Thomas Becket played chess with King Henry II, a fact which, in light of later events, takes on a greater, even more sinister, relevance. Curiously, one of the greatest exponent’s of the spiritual significance of the game of chess is none other than St. Teresa of Ávila.

St. Teresa wrote The Way of Perfection during the years 1565–66. Initially, she removed from the original manuscript the first four paragraphs of Chapter 16, which pertain to the subject of chess and the interior life. It seems from this excision that, after all, she had decided not to record her thoughts on such a worldly game. Fortunately, later editors restored the paragraphs. Chess was very much in vogue in the Spain of St. Teresa. It had been only a few years earlier in 1561 that the game’s first world champion, a Catholic priest named Rodrigo (Ruy) López de Segura, published his celebrated treatise on chess entitled Libro de la invencion liberal y arte del juego del axedrez (Book of the liberal invention and art of the game of chess).

In Chapter 16 of The Way of Perfection St. Teresa draws an analogy between the tactics deployed playing the chess pieces with the development of our faculty for divine love. She makes it clear that some may reprove her for talking about games “as we do not play them in this house and are forbidden to do so.” But, in true Teresian style, she goes on to state that this “will show you what kind of a mother God has given you — she even knows about vanities like this!” She then reveals not just an in-depth knowledge of the interior life but also of the strategies needed to be a good chess player, especially the skill of using the most effective piece on any chessboard, namely the Queen.

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.

St. Teresa proceeds to use the game to demonstrate that knowledge of the rules — of chess or the interior life — is not enough in itself to acquire a final “checkmate.”   

“Contemplation, daughters, is another matter. 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 chessboard, 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.”

Today St. Teresa is patron saint of chess players.

It is perhaps no coincidence that she is also patron saint of headaches.