Praying, discipling and exploring together: Two friends help each other discern religious vocations
July 2, 2021
“What a great favor God does to those he places in the company of good people!”
– St. Teresa of Avila
David and Jonathan – Peter and Paul – Felicity and Perpetua – Francis and Clare – Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross – John Paul II and Teresa of Kolkata.
These saints and many others show how throughout history God has intertwined the lives of his children, to encourage each other in holiness, help each other discern his plans for them and offer prayers and support.
It still works today, as Lauren Kopp and Erin Jones can testify.
The two young women, recent graduates from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, have served as disciples for each other since high school and throughout their time at the Saint John Paul II Newman Center in Omaha.
They participated in Bible studies together, shared how the Lord has spoken to them in prayer, harmonized in song before him in the Blessed Sacrament, and accompanied one another on the same retreats, conferences and convent visits.
Now both are set to enter religious life in separate Carmelite communities about 5 miles apart in the St. Louis metropolitan area. They share the same entry date: Aug. 15, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Throughout their discernment, the women have been nurtured in their faith by devout family members, friends and mentors. But their friendship has given them a unique means of support.
“We’ve really been discerning together a lot for this,” Erin said. Lauren has “watched all of my discernment, and I all of hers. It’s been really fruitful to have a friendship where we’re kind of in the same place about a lot of things.”
“Lauren has been such a gift to me,” Erin said. “We’ve been able to help each other, go on retreats with each other, walk with each other through all of this. That’s been so beautiful.”
The two met at Mercy High School in Omaha, where both were in show choir, with Lauren a grade ahead of Erin.
While Erin was still in high school, Lauren invited her to join the Bible study that she would be leading the next year at the Newman Center. Once both were residents there, “we just grew in our friendship,” she said.
They shared the same friends and many of the same loves: meditative prayer, a calling to religious life and an admiration of the priesthood and the priests they met, she said.
“It’s not uncommon for people to build each other up in love of God and love of other people,” said Father Andrew Roza, archdiocesan vocations director, associate pastor at the Newman Center and spiritual advisor to the young women.
“I think that they have been a welcome source of encouragement for each other, to reassure each other, and their friends as well,” he said. “When you’re discerning something like this, there can be doubts that pop up. So having another person who’s on the same basic track, who kind of gets it, can be a very welcoming thing.”
Lauren, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha, will be joining the Discalced Carmelites of St. Joseph, a cloistered community with limited contact with the outside world.
Erin, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Omaha, will be joining the Carmelite Sisters of Divine Heart of Jesus, a discalced community that is both contemplative and active. Its apostolic works of charity include caring for children and the elderly.
DRAWN TO CARMEL
Contemplative prayer, the hallmark of Carmelite communities, attracted both Erin and Lauren.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that both Lauren and I are called to Carmel because we’ve been in discipleship together through the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) model,” Erin said. “We were able to share a lot with each other about our hearts and what the Lord is doing and about our prayer.
“We were always amazed at how similar we were,” she said. “We just speak the same way. So it was not surprising at all that Lauren also felt drawn to Carmel, but to the cloister. So that was kind of fun to see the differences as we started to discern there.”
“They boost each other,” said Adam Jones, Erin’s father. “It’s kind of amazing how God touches you through everybody else around you and encourages you in so many different ways.”
Both Lauren and Erin said they initially felt some reluctance about religious life.
“I always thought that I would get married and have a family,” Erin said. “Just always, never a doubt in my mind. I’m the oldest of six, so I was always kind of taking care of the little ones and playing mommy.”
“Then my junior and senior year of high school, I was starting to pray more consistently. I would go to an hour of adoration every week at my parish … and I just started feeling this kind of knocking at my heart.
“I didn’t really want to even articulate to Jesus what I thought was going on, this feeling that maybe getting married and having a family wasn’t actually what the Lord was asking from me. I didn’t like that at all.
“So I kind of ignored it for a long time.”
Lauren said she never really thought about a religious vocation until someone asked her to consider it.
“I really started to be open to the religious life my senior year of high school, the end of my senior year,” she said. “I was going to a Steubenville retreat, and I was in a small group of women. The small group leader had said, ‘Is anyone discerning the religious life? Has anyone thought about it?’ Everyone looked around and no one raised their hands. Then she said, ‘Well, just be open to it.’ I was like, ‘What is she talking about?’ because I didn’t really know any young sisters at the time at all.”
“So after she said that, ‘Just be open to it,’ then I really opened my heart to the Lord and said, ‘Jesus, if this is something that I should be open to, then help me be open to it.’ And that was really the beginning of my journey. I continued to pray with Mary in college: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.’”
Erin also started opening up to a religious vocation during her senior year in high school, especially during an archdiocesan March for Life pilgrimage to Washington, D.C.
God “used a lot of things on that trip to get my attention, particularly these two young men who came up to me (separately) at different times and said, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about the religious life?’”
“It just hit my heart,” she said. “I would say that was really a turning point for me. The Lord really got my attention. And for the first time I just said, ‘OK, Lord, I think you might – all capital letters MIGHT – be calling me to the religious life.’”
Erin said she reached the end of her senior year with a little more openness to a religious vocation, but still not quite articulating it back to God.
“Maybe if he keeps pushing it, maybe I’ll discern the religious life,” she thought. “So I went to a Steubenville conference – also with the archdiocese – that was a really huge moment for me. …
“I had an image of the Lord down on one knee, asking me to be the one. They brought out Jesus in the monstrance for adoration, and tears were just streaming down my face. The second I saw him I said, ‘Lord, if you’re asking this from me, if you’re asking me to be your bride and to discern religious life, I want to say yes a thousand times!’
“So I came into college definitely with that mindset. I was way more open to discerning. I really felt like that was maybe what the Lord was asking me.”
The St. John Paul II Newman Center equipped the women with what they needed to discern their vocations.
“This place was God’s gift to me,” Lauren said during an interview at the Newman Center.
FOCUS “has been really pivotal in my whole conversion,” she said. “I started going to daily Mass and holy hour when I started to go here, and I started spiritual direction here. I wouldn’t have a daily prayer life had I not lived here, had not been part of this community, and I wouldn’t have the friends that I have.”
“We’re able to live here,” Lauren said, “and that really makes a difference because you’re constantly in community. You wake up and you’re with your friends. … It’s like I’m living in a convent already because the Lord’s just right down the hall.”
“I started praying every day in college,” Erin said, “starting out with 30 minutes a day in the chapel. And it changed everything. I actually started to, you could say, date Jesus. I really started to get to know him more, in an even deeper way.”
Spiritual direction from Father Roza has been especially helpful, Erin said.
“He is really incredible and helps me to see how the Lord is speaking to my heart, when it’s the Lord and when it’s not, and then how to say yes to him.”
Through locally organized visits to convents in the region, called Little Way Nun Runs, and convent retreats, Lauren and Erin explored religious vocations further.
After visiting several religious communities, both felt called to the contemplative prayer life of the Carmelites.
“I loved Carmel, and my heart felt drawn there,” Erin said. “I’d always loved Carmelite saints, like St. Therese (of Lisieux), St. Teresa of Avila” and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. “I love the way they pray, and I’m just drawn to them and I always have been, so I kind of knew at this point that I really felt like I was called to Carmel, but I wasn’t at peace with the idea of a cloister.”
On a St. Louis trip, she met an active, missionary Carmelite community that runs a daycare and a retirement community.
“My heart just exploded being there with them,” she said. “Everything about them seemed to line up with every desire of my heart, from the deepest to the most surface desire that I had.”
The sisters invited her to a retreat a couple months later.
“So I took Lauren with me, and the theme of the retreat was holy desires. So we just focused on all of these desires of our hearts.”
“I was amazed the whole time at how the Lord seems to be affirming every step that I was taking,” creating “a lot of joy, peace – and a desire to come back.”
Lauren wasn’t feeling the same pull, and the sisters suggested that they visit a cloistered Carmelite convent about 12 minutes down the road.
She knew from prayer and previous convent visits that she was drawn to a cloistered life of prayer.
“I remember telling one of my roommates the reason that I believe in Jesus and love him is because when I’m with him I never want to leave his presence,” Lauren said. “I just feel really consoled.”
At the St. Joseph Carmelite community, Lauren and Erin prayed in a eucharistic adoration chapel for about 45 minutes.
“I just stared at Jesus in the Eucharist and just was so joyful,” Lauren said. “I said nothing. I just stared at him and smiled and loved and let him love me.”
She prayed a Chaplet of Divine Mercy before a statue that depicted St. Therese of Lisieux kneeling before the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus. Lauren prayed for Mary’s intercession and said she felt even more consolation.
After a couple months of discerning, she knew she felt called to be a cloistered Carmelite but was still deciding where.
“Erin and I were talking one day and she said, ‘Why not go back to the Carmel of St. Joseph? You seem to have a lot of consolation there.’
“My heart had already thought about that, but I just needed someone to say it so that I could go. Erin knowing me so well confirmed that that was where I should go back to.”
“I feel very called to this community, to discern with them,” Lauren said. “The Lord knows what my vocation is, what his will is, so I’m willing to go where he sends me and allow him to do what he wants with me.”
Leaving family to answer God’s call is difficult, but perhaps especially for Lauren and her mother, Janet Melchior Kopp, who have just each other as immediate family.
Lauren is an only child and her father, Kurt, passed away in 2017, when she was 20.
The mother and daughter said they’ve always been close. Lauren is the daughter she prayed for and received, Melchior Kopp said.
As the date of Lauren’s entry into religious life approaches, “I’m thinking about it more, and it’s getting closer, and there’s more of a tinge of sadness about it,” the mother said. “I mean, I want her to do God’s will, but it’s hard for a mom when she’s your only child. I’ve said to her it’s kind of like Abraham and Isaac. … I don’t want to sacrifice her. … But she seems really happy about the choice and her discernment.”
“It’s very hard for my mom and I to make this decision,” Lauren said, “but we’ve had so many, so many conversations about it. And I think we’ve both come to peace with it. My mom knows this is something that I have to do. I have to know if the Lord is asking me to do this, and I have to go.”
“The ultimate thing you really want is for your child to be happy,” her mother said, “and I can tell she’s very happy with her discernment decision. So that makes me happy as a mom.”
“I just want her to do what God is calling her to do, and hopefully I have the grace to accept it.”
Erin’s family also is preparing for separation.
“I’m excited for her because she’s so happy and excited,” Kathy Jones, her mother, said. “I think she’ll go where she’s led, but it is a little difficult. All her younger siblings, they’re already a little sad that she’s leaving. It’s pretty close, and nobody’s left Omaha until now. But we’re happy that we get to see her, that she’ll get to visit us for eight days a year and we can visit her too.”
“There’s a little bit of just letting her go,” the mother said. “God gave us this gift, and now we have to give her back. … She’s yours, not mine.”
When God calls people away from their past lives and their loved ones, “they receive something greater,” Father Roza said.
“They go in service of something beyond themselves,” he said. “Part of doing that is being able to lovingly and prayerfully say goodbye to the things of the past … even though they’ve been very good. But these girls will not be abandoning their families.”
“There are real sacrifices involved,” he said. “But I think both girls have had very powerful experiences within the communities to which they’re called. And when you fall in love, you have to respond.”
Both will be able to have visitors and continue to correspond with loved ones. Lauren will receive her visitors from behind a grill, which separates the cloistered community from the public.
YEARS TO DISCERN
Entering a convent is by no means a permanent decision. The two will have at least eight years to discern before taking final vows.
“There’s a process that’s long established by Mother Church to help ensure that young men and young women who enter religious life have a confidence that they’re entering into what God has really planned for them,” Father Roza said. “They’re just taking the next step.”
Lauren’s and Erin’s paths will likely continue to cross after they enter religious life. Erin said her community sometimes worships at Mass with Lauren’s community at the St. Joseph site, with the cloistered sisters remaining behind the grill.
“So I’m hoping throughout the years I’ll get to see Lauren,” Erin said.
Both women said they are eager for the next step.
“I have fallen in love with Jesus, and I just want to give him everything,” Erin said. “I’m ready. I’ve adopted Mary’s words from the Annunciation: ‘I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.’
“I’m ready to take up the cross and follow him wherever that leads me.”