Dallas, Oct. 4-- The September afternoon sun slants through the chapel windows, casting a clear, soft light on Shalina Stilley. Her white satin gown shimmers like sunlight on water, highlighting her own natural glow. Standing on the altar at the Church of the Incarnation at the University of Dallas, she looks the picture of a bride on her wedding day.

And in a way, she is. Only these nuptials are bringing together not a husband and wife, but the spiritual marriage of a woman and Jesus. "Are you resolved to persevere to the end of your days in the holy state of virginity and in the service of God and his church?" asks Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante.

"I am," Stilley responds.

"? Are you resolved to accept solemn consecration as a bride of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God?"

"I am."

And with those words, Stilley, 29, gives consent to a life of perpetual virginity. Accepting Jesus as her bridegroom, she pledges to share his way of life: to live in the world with a loving heart for all.

Stilley is participating in a little-known Catholic ritual called the Solemn Rite of the Consecration of Virgins for Women Living in the World. Others who have taken the vow have flown in from across the country to join her in solidarity and celebration.

Consecrated virginity dates back to the earliest days of the church, when devoted followers of Christ became hermits and consecrated virgins. They practiced chastity, were self-supporting and lived either in the world or off by themselves. The development of religious orders and monasteries supplanted this way of life, and the tradition fell into disuse around A.D. 500.

Following reforms initiated by Vatican II, the church restored the rite in 1970. The vocation appeals to women interested in a religious life, but who do not want to join an order of nuns with a mother superior and a designated mission. There is no male counterpart. "The church recognizes that vocations can take various forms," says Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis., spiritual director for American consecrated virgins. "These women don't have the call to be sisters. That's a very distinct call to live in a community life and to take up a particular (mission), or to devote oneself completely to contemplation and prayer."

Stilley joins an exclusive group of about 100 other American women and about 1,000 worldwide, according to the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. At a time when American women have abundant freedom of choice in their career and lifestyle, the vocation might seem appealing to only a few reclusives.

In fact, consecrated virgins in the United States come from all walks of life, and include CPAs, teachers, housekeepers, office workers and even a physician. Stilley, currently at work on a master's degree in theology at the University of Dallas, plans to eventually work in nursing.

They are women of deep faith, devoted to lives of prayer and service, while living and working in the world. What draws them to this vocation is not easily put into words, these women say."It's kind of an intuitive thing, a very interior thing," Stilley says. "Even now I still feel it's an invitation from God that he's revealed to me. I can't explain why."

It is a turbulent time in the Catholic Church, which finds itself convulsed by sex abuse scandals and a noisy debate over the merits of clerical celibacy. But on this mid-September Saturday, the church's crisis does not intrude on this ceremony, attended by about 70 people.

The rite of consecration blends aspects of a wedding and a religious ordination. With her gold ring and white veil, and a bridal gown she made herself, Stilley offers herself up to be the mystical bride of Christ. She becomes a visible symbol, or witness, of the church's own fidelity to Christ.

The vocation is open to women who have never married or "lived in open violation of chastity," according to church literature. In effect, this rules out women who have had any sexual relations, except in cases of rape or incest, according to Burke.

Unlike a nun, the consecrated virgin wears no habit. She wears a ring as a sign of her betrothal to Christ. Consecrated virgins also support themselves, receiving no financial help from the church.

In general, consecrated virgins attend daily Mass and spend much time in prayer. Many pray specifically for priests and seminarians and volunteer for their local parish and diocese, although they are not obligated to do so.

But the vocation carries no official duty, says Galante, other than to be fully committed to Jesus, and to try to live in a quiet and unassuming way that carries out his message and mission. "I think the impact of those quiet and committed lives has an effect on the lives of the people they touch," Galante said during an interview at his Dallas office

. "Those effects may not be immediately measurable. But just by their own charity, their own way of reaching out to people, their own forgetfulness of self for others, they are visible signs of God's love.