St Teresa, Patron Saint of Chess

by Bill Wall


Teresa (Teresa Sanchez de Cepeda y Ahumada) of Avila (March 28, 1515 – Oct 4, 1582), also called Saint Teresa (Theresia de Jesus) of Jesus, was a prominent Spanish mystic and is considered the patron saint of chess (Patrona del Ajedrez).  She is also the patron saint of headaches.  Her symbol is a heart, an arrow, and a book.  She was known as The Roving Nun.


Patron saints of churches started out as martyrs, then chosen because of some connection to that region.  By the Middle Ages, the practice of adopting patron saints had spread beyond churches to ordinary interests in life.  Saints were usually chosen as patron of occupations that they actually held, or that they had patronized during their lives.


Chess or other games were not permitted in her convents, but she did mention chess in one of her works, The Way of Perfection, a special guidance for fellow sisters of the Carmelite Order, written in 1566.  In chapter 16, she used an analogy to chess to describe the preparations for prayer, with apologies for mentioning so worldly a game alongside so heavenly a pursuit.  Teresa advised her sister nuns to play chess in the monasteries, even against the rules, in order to “checkmate the Lord.”  Her point was that a person who wishes to play chess must do a great deal of study and then a great deal of practice to become a champion.  The same was true of a person who wished to approach God through prayer in order to receive contemplation.   In her Valladolid manuscript, she tore out these pages about chess because she thought they were too secular, but they were later added by modern editors.


"I hope you do not think I have written too much about this already; for I have only been placing the board, as they say. You have asked me to tell you about the first steps in prayer; although God did not lead me by them, my daughters I know no others, and even now I can hardly have acquired these elementary virtues [humility and keeping silent when falsely accused]. 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, as we do not play them in this house and are forbidden to do so. That will show you what kind of a mother God has given you -- she even knows about vanities like this! However, they say that the game is sometimes legitimate. How legitimate it will be for us to play it in this way, and, 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.


You will ask, my daughters, why I am talking to you about virtues when you have more than enough books to teach you about them and when you want me to tell you only about contemplation. My reply is that, if you had asked me about meditation, I could have talked to you about it, and advised you all to practice it, even if you do not possess the virtues. For this is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it. No one, however lost a soul he may be, should neglect so great a blessing if God inspires him to make use of it. All this I have already written elsewhere, and so have many others who know what they are writing about, which I certainly do not: God knows that.


But 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 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."


St Teresa of Avila, Camino de Perfeccion (The Way of Perfection) Chapter 16, paragraphs 1 - 2; c. 1567


Teresa was born on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain was cared for by Augustinian nuns.  She learned how to play chess and once saved a soldier’s soul by teaching him chess.


Her books (Way of Perfection, Interior Castle, Foundations, and her autobiography) have been translated into several languages.  Apart from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, her works are the most widely read today of any Spanish author.  She was harassed by the Inquisition because of here intense erotic language in some of her works.  During her lifetime, she founded 17 new convents of nuns and 15 new monasteries of the men’s order.


She was beatified in 1614 by Pope Paul V, and canonized in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.


In 1970, she was named Doctoris Ecclesiae (Doctor of the Church) by Pope Paul VI, the first woman to be so named.  The only other female Doctors of the Church are Saint Catherine of Siena and Theresa of Lisieux.


The Catholic Church assigns one date out of the year for every canonized saint — known as the saint’s feast day. The saints are remembered on their individual feast days with prayers. Teresa died at the age of 67 on October 4, 1582, but the very next day the Gregorian calendar was used (from the Julian) resulting in her feast day being moved to October 15.


Other saints that played chess include Genadio de Astorga (865-936), Rudesind (907-977), Thomas Becket of Canterbury (1118-1170), Thomas More (1478-1535), Francis Xavier (1506-1552), Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) , Francis de Sales (1567-1622), and Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591).


In 900 A.D. , Genadio de Astorga, the Bishop of Astorga from 909 to 919,was introduced to chess. He was the first Christian saint associated with chess. His disciples referred to Genadio’s devotion to chess as a help for concentration and as “an approximation to God.” Some of his ivory chess pieces, known as the Mozareb chess pieces, are preserved in the Mozarabic monastery in Leon, Spain. The pieces are considered even today by the local folklore as miraculous talismans.


Thomas Becket liked to relax over a leisurely game of chess during the long winter evenings.


Francis Xavier was fond of chess and could usually be found at a friend’s house playing chess.


There is an anecdote that Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan, was playing chess among friends and someone asked what would they do if they were just told that they were about to die and that Christ was at hand for Judgment Day.  One person said he would start praying.  Another said he would go straight to confession.  A third person said he would rush off to church and prostate himself before the Blessed Sacrament.  But Charles replied that he would continue his game of chess, for that he begun it for the glory of God, and should continue it for the same end; whatever was done with a single view to God was a holy and meritorious act.


Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva, wrote in his book, Introduction to the Devout Life, that chess was an entirely lawful recreation.  A game of chess was a game of skill and was both lawful and good unless you spent five or six hours on the game, then one’s mind would be spent and weary.  Saint Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers, authors, and journalists.


Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072) was against chess.  In 1061, the Italian cardinal bishop of Ostia, Peter Damiani wrote a letter to the pope-elect Alexander II (pope from 1961 to 1073), and to Archdeacon Hildebrand (who was Pope Gregory VII from 1073 to 1085), complaining that priests were playing chess. He was particularly outraged that his traveling companion, the Bishop of Florence, was seen playing chess in public. Damaini labeled chess as a game of chance, like dice, which was banned. Damaini was ignorant of chess and prejudiced against it. He said that playing chess made” a buffoon of a priest.” Damiani’s denunciation of chess led to a number of ecclesiastical decrees which put chess among the games forbidden to the clergy and monastic orders. Damiani became a saint and was made a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church by Pope Leo XII in 1823.  His feast day is February 21 (originally February 23).


Saint Bernard was against chess.  In 1128, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) forbade the Knights Templars from playing chess. The prohibition of chess play was extended to other orders. He became a saint and was given the tile “Doctor of the Church” and canonized in 1174.


Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (1568-1591) is the patron saint of games.