When we read St Teresa, it is impossible to refrain from noticing the importance she gives to humility. For St Teresa humility is the foundation of spiritual life and prayer, without which nothing can grow. Humility ‘persuades the Lord to give us all what we want from him’; humility ‘conquers everything’; humility is truth; it is only through the growth in humility that we measure our progress in spiritual life. These are but a few of the examples Teresa uses to underline, at various times, the great humility of Our Lady, and to invite us to understand its empire over God and to draw us to imitate the Mother of God. Humility seems to be the outstanding element that triggers the Grace of God. According to her beautiful expression, it allows us to ‘checkmate’ God!
Here it is expedient to note that Chess was very much in vogue in the Spain of St. Teresa’s day, and that she learned it when she was young before entering religious life. In her first version of the Way of Perfection called “Manuscript of Escorial,” in the first four paragraphs of Chapter 16 (see below) she uses the image of chess playing. Out of consideration for her nuns, however, and in order not to leave on record her knowledge of such a worldly game, thereby promoting bad habits amongst them, she tore them out of the manuscript.
The ‘checkmate’ allegory, it consequently should be recognised, is so expressive, beautiful and theologically very deep that it has rightly become famous, and from the time of Fray Luis de León all the editions have included it, which is an important reason for us to understand. The goal of the game of Chess is for one of the two players, using his pieces, to corner and capture his opponent’s King. In this case the King is said to be ‘in check’, which means ‘threatened with capture’. If the King has no way of removing the threat, it is to be considered ‘captured’ or ‘dead’, that is, ‘Mate’, the lucky player winning and the game being over. Checkmating the opponent thus wins the game. Figuratively speaking then, a checkmate is ‘a situation in which someone has been defeated’. In St Teresa’s own words it means: to ‘corner’ God, drawing Him to us and conquering Him, making Him ours. As can be seen the image is very powerful: being able to seduce God, and draw us into his grace is reminiscent of a “secret of the saints”. The most powerful piece of the game is called the Queen, which has the greatest flexibility of movement therefore greatly threatening the opponent’s King. More will be explained about this important piece later.
It is beneficial for us, in our self-pride, to remind ourselves of this, that God himself is humble (learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29)) – indeed it can be said that He is humility itself! In St. Teresa’s writings she also constantly talks about spiritual life and progress in it, to attain, in the fulness of time, Union with God himself! Therefore it is inevitable for her to insist on humility, increasing humility being our goal until we are united to the Humble-God. This, it must be emphasized, entails extreme vigilance. The more we immerse ourselves in the spiritual life, the greater is our need to be attentive to humility. If our self-awareness reveals to us that there is a struggle, this would tend to denote that a deeply spiritual life is distant from us, and an urgent examination of the state of our humility is vital. Accordingly St.Teresa states that humility and knowing oneself go together. How, then, is our humility to be increased? The answer is obvious: by seeking the truth about ourselves. St Teresa even went so far as to coin the phrase: humility is the Truth. It must be recognised, above all, that there is a need for self-discernment regarding all that comes from God and a need to be grateful to Him for it.
Spiritual Life bears in itself an important fact: the necessity to receive an extraordinary number of graces ! Significantly, in order to receive these and, more importantly, in order to keep them, there is a great need for humility! Rain falls, it can even fall abundantly, but who collects the water? The heights of the mountain or the humble valley?
St.Teresa deals with this question by writing the book the Way of Perfection, primarily in reply to a request by her daughters of the first reformed monastery, to write them something on “contemplation”. This is the origin of the book the Way of Perfection. It is already blatantly obvious that “contemplation” is for St Teresa a pure gift from God, the essence of the supernatural given to us. In writing this book she handed on to them a very significant way of perfection to follow in order to receive the Grace of God, the very secret that triggers the Grace of God.
However, it is interesting to note Teresa’s letter to them before writing the book. Here she indicated that if they wanted her simply to talk to them about the first steps in prayer, that is, ‘meditation’, this could be easily achieved, as all that was needed was her guidance on how to proceed, which they could then put into practice with relative ease. But since they requested she talk to them about the Gift of God (John 4:10) and how to receive it, the matter encompassed a totally different level of functioning. The book of the Way of Perfection becomes, subsequently, her full answer to their request. Ironically in almost the first half of it she seems to address something entirely different, for she talks about three virtues, amongst them humility. In fact, the reader can easily be puzzled by the fact that she fails to enter immediately into the core of the subject. In fact this gives a false impression. In order to explain her present choice of subject-matter and therefore the structure of the book, she takes the example of the game of Chess. As noted above above, for one to win in this game one has corner the opponent’s King and threaten it. Ingeniously, then, the entire first half of her book is devoted by Teresa to ‘set out the pieces of game [correctly]: “you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well” (Way of Perfection 16:1-4). Thus in order to do so, she teaches the three fundamental virtues: humility, loving one another and detachment. She stresses that by practising these virtues with determination and in a ‘perfect’ way (as she describes it), that the human being is properly enabled to give himself sincerely and wholly to the Lord. It is the quality of the gift of ourselves to Him that makes the Lord surrender himself to us: He is conquered or, in other words, He is checkmated.
Working on the three virtues and especially on humility is the direct means by which we offer ourselves to Christ, and by this means, it is possible to attract Him to us. Referring to these virtues the saint says: 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. […] 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. (Way of Perfection 16:1-4) It is at this point that she begins to entrust to the reader the secret of the supernatural encounter with God using the allegory of Chess, namely, in order to win, we need to corner the opponent’s King in a way that totally prevents movement or escape and then attack him (checkmate him). At this juncture he is ‘mate’ which means beaten (conquered), or as Teresa writes: “[…] if we play it frequently [exercising ourselves in the virtues], 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.” (idem.) This secret she entrusts to us is all together searingly beautiful and utterly audacious, but in the language of Love – God’s language – this is his modus operandi.
It is at this very moment that the core of the secret of the spiritual life and of the Prayer of the Heart is imparted to us:
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. (Way of Perfection 16:1-2)
Our Lady’s humility is the secret of the Spiritual Life. This humility is not only capable of receiving God, but is also capable of holding Him and of safeguarding all the received Graces, because growth is not concerned with receiving graces but of becoming capable of not losing them.
Here may we ask God to grant us Mary’s humility, to give us Our Lady herself, to clothe us in Her garments, like those of a bride, and thereby attract Christ to make his home in us!
“Graciously O Lord, Give me Our Lady’s heart,
so I can have not my humility
but her all-powerful humility,
capable of attracting you to her,
and alluring you to dwell for ever in her.”
The following comprises the text from the Way of Perfection just paraphrased above:
“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. 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 practise 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.” (Way of Perfection 16:1-4)