Building a personal encounter with God – this year’s Carmelite Conference at Boar’s Hill, Oxford (and online)

This coming weekend, there’s a very special conference taking place at the Carmelite Priory in Oxford (or with online viewing – live or later – if preferred). The priory and retreat centre are in a most beautiful setting, there is always a warm welcome from the community of friars, and the atmosphere is peaceful and prayerful yet also dynamic: there is the Centre for Applied Carmelite Spirituality which runs courses on prayer and spiritual direction; a spiritual review, Mount Carmel magazine; a publishing house, Teresian Press; and the well-stocked Carmelite Book Service!

Among the Centre’s events is the conference, which is entitled Made in God’s Image: A Fresh Vision for Human Flourishing; it also has an emphasis on Edith Stein, whose writings cover a wide range of issues, and for whom 2022 is the centenary year of her reception into the Catholic Church. The presentations comprise a stimulating variety of approaches: interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve, issues of identity, an exploration of the soul in the light of spiritual anthropology and pastoral care, and aspects of Edith Stein’s life and teachings.

My own topic is on Edith Stein and the Scriptures – the word of God being a privileged way of encountering the image of God and helping us to live out our call to grow ever more deeply into God’s likeness.

Edith’s discovery of the Scriptures was quite remarkable. As a young person growing up in a Jewish family, she naturally gained a familiarity with the biblical books. Yet faith didn’t play a part in her life until a gradual awakening at university, followed by her conversion on reading the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. And then came this surprising statement: that on becoming a Catholic, she felt truly Jewish for the first time in her life!

The Scriptures in their totality were now opened up to her with all their power! A Jesuit priest who knew her well described her spirituality as “the fulfilment of the Old Covenant in the New”. She really does seem to have a role to play in awakening us to our own Jewish heritage, in terms of our being “grafted onto” the Chosen People (cf. Romans 11:17-24). And this is such a unifying factor in much of her ideals and writings – and very possibly an original contribution among the saints – that I feel this could well be the focal point, if ever Edith Stein were to be made a Doctor of the Church.

One key aspect of being in the image of God comes from how Edith followed the Carmelite Rule with its instruction to “ponder the Lord’s law day and night and keep watch in prayer” (cf. Psalm 1:2; 1 Peter 4:7). The notion of pondering the law evoked for her the lifelong study of the Hebrew Scriptures within Judaism; but as she now recognised the law to be Jesus himself in person, she advises us never to finish studying the Gospels so that we can try to become like him. Yet “studying”, in this context, can also and even especially mean to contemplate the person of Jesus, who is the fulfilment of the law. In this way, meditation with the mind gradually gives way to contemplation with a loving gaze.

Edith tells us that we truly need to pray the Gospels, as indeed we have since been taught by Vatican II (Dei Verbum25). This point is all the more important as without a relationship with God – a “personal encounter”, as Edith expresses it – the images of Jesus in the Gospels on their own are unlikely to create a deep knowledge of him. It’s rather like being shown photographs of an unfamiliar person: from looking at the surface of an image, we don’t learn a lot about what he or she is like. But if we know the person deeply and intimately, then all the details in the photographs are added to an ever richer, living portrait that we hold within our hearts.

Edith’s teachings on prayer, so as to grow in the likeness of Christ, take us yet further into contemplation. That’s because our own efforts at imitation, however necessary, can only take us so far. Transformation into God’s likeness is always received – in the silence and stillness of prayer in which we remain transparent before God and open to his creative action in the very depths of our being. As Edith writes: “No human eye can see what God does in the soul during hours of inner prayer. It is grace upon grace.”

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of Edith’s writings is her tracing of the evolving spiritual reality of the Holy of Holies, housing the presence of God – from the Temple of Solomon, to the soul of Jesus, and to our own soul, which is “God’s temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16). This is something I’ll be exploring a bit more at the conference, but it’s just worth noting for now that this brings us to the heartbeat of Edith Stein and of the Carmelite tradition: the indwelling of God in the soul, which is possibly one of the Church’s best-kept secrets. Edith refers to those who strive to “unveil Christ in the heart of another”. What invaluable work this is, and how it changes life to know of this inner presence! We are never alone.

But in this whole quest of growing in the likeness of God, the most moving fact of all is that it’s all God’s initiative! God wants us to be like him, as his true friends (cf. John 15:15), sharing in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). John of the Cross gives us an insight into the utter humility of God when he writes that it is the property of love to make the lover equal to the beloved” (cf. Spiritual Canticle 28:1).

God saw that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, so he created Eve from Adam’s side. And God doesn’t wish to be alone, either. The church was born on Calvary, as we see symbolised in the outpouring of the blood and water from the side of Christ, and where we see Mary, the new Eve and symbol of the Church, standing by the side of the new Adam – a line of development that Edith also traces. Jesus wants all of us to be with him (John 17:24) – by his side, as his beloved bride, where we belong for all eternity! I don’t think we can ever get our heads around just what a wonder all this is, and that God longs for us to love him in return.

Ultimately, to grow in the likeness of God is never just a personal project of holiness: the Christian life is always about being given for others, in imitation of God who is love (1 John 4:8). And this is the model Edith places before our eyes:

“God is love, and love is goodness giving itself away.”

Dr Joanne Mosley


You can still book now – residential, online or watch later: