The Original Mother Teresa and the Game of Chess

It would be hard to find an adult in the 21st century that has never heard of Mother Teresa. Our Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) is nothing short of iconic in the Western and Eastern world. She remains an inspiration to Christians and non-Christians around the globe.

Most people, however, know very little of the original Mother Teresa. She is known as Saint Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Teresa is celebrated as one of the most influential Christians in history regarding prayer. Teresa was not only a monumental leader of women; she was also a renowned leader of men, helping to reform the Carmelite monasteries throughout Spain among both male and female members of the order.

(PICTURE: St. Teresa of Avila by Peter Paul Rubens (1615). One must assume that this painting, which was completed only decades after her death, bears some similarities to her likeness. It is not much different, in fact, than some early paintings of Teresa. I chose this one, shamelessly, because of its notoriety. Also because Bernini’s statue of Teresa is a bit to scandalous for my modest posts on this site.)

Teresa is also quite quotable, and sometimes in humorous fashion:

-From Christianity Today’s Once when praying about her many trials and sufferings, she thought she heard God say, ‘But this is how I treat my friends.’

Teresa replied, ‘No wonder you have so few friends.’”

-In her renowned work regarding the mystical nature of prayer and the soul, the Interior Castle, Teresa wrote,

“I thought of the soul as resembling a castle formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal, and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions . . . Let us imagine, as I said, that there are many rooms in this castle, of which some are above, some below, others at the side; in the center, in the very midst of them all, is the principal chamber in which God and the soul hold their most secret intercourse.”

-From The Way of Perfection, 2.4:

“I dare to affirm that he who despises all earthly goods holds sway over them.”

Filed under the somewhat random category is that Teresa was also a chess player. In fact, some have called St. Teresa “the Patroness Saint of the Game of Chess.” She is known by this moniker in Spain more than anywhere else, where they call her Patrona del Ajedrez.

(PICTURE: A post-card from Spain depicting St. Teresa, “The Patroness of Spanish Chess,” and stamps which read the same thing.)

As you will see, St. Teresa alludes to the fact that many of the nuns under her supervision were surprised that she had become so familiar with such a frivolous game. Games were in fact forbidden in their convent. She finds her use of the game somewhat humorous, adding, “. . . what a mother God has given you, skilled even in such vanities as this!”

This part of her book was actually left out of certain editions, likely because it was perceived to be a form of impropriety with the forbiddance of games in their formal life. Nevertheless, St. Teresa seems to have fond memories of her chess-playing days and she seems to relish her less-bridled roots just a bit, if only but for a moment.

Random? Not at all. As I hope you will see, Teresa’s beautiful word picture connects an intimate knowledge of the game of chess to communicating intimately with God in prayer. Teresa believed there was a strategy to prayer – that one might be successful at winning God’s favor and also at winning in life. That strategy was and is humility, and God’s favor is drawn to it…

(From The Way of Perfection 16.1-2, digireads (2007), page 97-99):

The Game of Chess

Do not imagine that a great part of my work [regarding prayer] is done. No, I have only been “placing the board” for the game. You asked me to teach you the foundation of prayer, my daughters, although God did not establish me on this foundation, for I am almost destitute of these virtues; yet I know no other. But, be sure that anyone who does not understand how to set the pieces in the game of chess, will never be able to play well, nor, if he does not know how to give check, will he ever succeed in effecting checkmate. You may blame me for speaking of a game, for such things are neither played nor permitted in our convent. This will show you what a mother God has given you, skilled even in such vanities as this! Still, they say that sometimes the game is lawful, and how well it would be for us to play it, and if we practiced it often, how quickly we should checkmate this divine King, so that He neither could, nor would move out of check! The Queen is His strongest opponent in the game, and all the other pieces help her.

No queen can defeat Him so soon as can humility. It drew Him from heaven into the Virgin’s womb, and with it, we can draw Him, by a single hair, into our souls. And doubtless, the greater our humility, the more entirely shall we possess Him, and the weaker it is, the more reluctantly will He dwell within us. For I do not, and I cannot understand, how humility can exist without love, or love without humility, nor can either of these virtues be held in their perfection without great detachment from all created things . . . if anyone thinks about his sins every day for a certain time (as he is bound to do, if he is a Christian in anything but name), we at once call him a great contemplator, and expect him to possess the sublime virtues that accompany such a state: he even thinks so to himself; but he is quite wrong. He has not yet learned how to “place the board,” but thinks he can effect checkmate simply by knowing the names of the pieces –in this he is deceived; the true King will not let Himself be taken, except by the one who is entirely given up to Him.


Teresa was born on March 28, 1515 in Avila, Spain. After spending part of her adolescence being cared for by Augustinian nuns, she decided to join a Carmelite convent in Spain. She was committed to her early life as a nun, but she would take more serious and severe vows during mid-life. The catalysts for her acceleration in commitment were three years of paralysis following an illness, and a vision while viewing a statue of “the wounded Christ.” She decided to pursue a life of deeper poverty of suffering in order to fulfill what she believed to be the true calling of the ascetics, and she taught a large number of vow-taking women to do the same.

Along with John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz), Teresa helped to found a reformed, mystical order of the Carmelites. It is believed that John sought Teresa for help in reforming the male Carmelite orders because she had been so successful with the women. She was a bright, personable, and gifted entrepreneur of sorts and successfully founded some fourteen Carmelite monasteries. Because her religious experiences were often characterized by more mystic and ecstatic manifestations, many Catholics were wary of her methods of prayer. Nevertheless, her three most important works, Life of Teresa of Avila (autobiography), the Way of Perfection, and the Interior Castle left an indelible mark on the Catholic church and the history of Christian teaching on prayer, voluntary poverty, and purposeful suffering.

In 1582, at the time of her death, Teresa was said to have been reciting passages from the Song of Songs.

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4 thoughts on “The Original Mother Teresa and the Game of Chess

  1. I have hers and John’s works-John’s in Spanish and english. The Spanish mystics are hard-core, but their devotion to knowing God fully is nothing short of heroic, nothing less than sacrificial; I admire them for a spirituality much deeper than mine-and many others in these days of easy-believism.

  2. Love this passage, Eric. Thank you. Don

    “Teresa’s understanding of disengagement is not ascetic. On the contrary, for
    Teresa true suffering comes from being in the world and serving others.
    Spiritual progress is measured neither by self-imposed penance nor by the
    sweetest pleasures of mystical experiences but by growth in constant love for
    others and an increasing desire within for the will of God.”

  3. Eric, Just wanted to let you know that I used your image of St. Teresa for an article on my site – “What Does the Bible Say about Women in Ministry?” – – which will publish 10/7/11 at 11am EST. Have also subscribed to your site.


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