It was halfway through the summer of 1948. Marilyn Ring had graduated from high school and now was watching as her friends prepared to leave for secretarial school, marriage and the convent. Despite an active faith life that had included daily Mass and a fabulous Catholic youth group experience at Peoria’s Academy of Our Lady, nothing called to her.
At least not at the moment. Something had seemed to nudge her briefly in her senior year. Just before the 3-day class retreat, the youth center priest had taken Marilyn aside to tell her he thought she might have a vocation. Marilyn had been “dumbfounded,” but explored the idea during her retreat.
“I never had thought of it,” Sister Marilyn says. She’s taking a break from her work as Augustana College campus minister at a cozy coffeehouse not far from her office. Over a latte and blueberry muffin, she shares her story in the hope that it will resonate with another woman trying to find her own path.
“I’d seen the pamphlets with the girl on the phone that said, Is God calling you?,” she says. “But Father Carlton’s words hit me like a ton of bricks. I trusted him. I thought, Maybe that’s why I don’t know what I want to do when I graduate.
“I found myself being more prayerful during retreat, asking Are you really calling me? I even knelt by my bedside. I wondered, Where would I go?”
When retreat ended, Marilyn and a friend visited a cloistered community that was “out in the middle of nowhere. My friend loved the silence, the all-night vigils. I was looking at my watch, thinking Get me out of here!”
About a month later, Marilyn visited an apostolic community.
“It was way too big,” she says. “Also in the middle of nowhere. I did not enjoy the isolation or the big, huge buildings. The only other kind of religious community I knew of was missionary orders. I didn’t want to go to Africa!
“Then I learned about the Benedictine community in Nauvoo. What a difference from the other places! It was a small community, the Sisters were friendly. They invited us to lunch. They really wanted to get to know us. I liked it. And they weren’t going to send me to Africa. I thought, I’ll think about this later.”
Marilyn went home to begin working at Caterpillar. She wrote to Father Carlton, who had since moved to Washington, about her experiences. She told him that the cloistered community had been too isolated and silent and that the apostolic community had been too isolated and big. The Benedictine community might do, she said, but she wasn’t ready to enter yet. She’d wait a year and then think about it again.
He wrote back immediately. Fine, he said, but if you’re not ready yet, you should spend the year getting ready. He suggested that Marilyn stop dating, cease going to parties, take up daily Mass. Marilyn was unnerved.
“I thought, I can’t do this alone,” she says. “I might as well go now. It may be what I’m supposed to do. I guess I’ll give it a try. My mother didn’t approve but went along with it. My father thought I needed to get it out of my system. I guess we were all a little bit wrong. Because from the moment I got myself unpacked, I knew I was finally where I belonged. I felt such peace.”
Cup and saucer pushed now to the side, Sister Marilyn needs to get to the office. It’s already been a long morning – weekday Lauds begins at 6:30, followed by Eucharist. Students and colleagues will keep her busy until Vespers at 5:00 followed by dinner with the Sisters. Community night – an evening spent doing puzzles, playing games and enjoying conversation together with the entire group – will follow. It’s an evening she looks forward to every week.
“I tell my students that life itself is a risk,” Sister Marilyn says as she pulls on her coat. “It’s a risk whenever you say yes, to college, to marriage, to religious life. We receive God’s call in so many ways. This way was certainly right for me. It’s been wonderful to live with a community of loving and prayerful women serving God’s people in so many different ways.”