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.

"They don't go around wearing a sign that says, `Hey, I'm a consecrated virgin.' But their lifestyle and interaction with people has an effect that over time begins to show up."

Shalina Stilley was a teen-ager looking around a New Age bookstore one day when she felt the stirrings that at first startled her and then spurred her to find her calling. In the bookstore, in her hometown of Flagstaff, Ariz., she encountered the writings of the Catholic mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both portrayed spiritual life as a journey, and that was "something that really struck a chord in me," Stilley says. Raised Episcopalian, she had up to that point found church uninspiring, a ritual that seemed to offer people little more than a chance to get dressed up. "I was looking for spirituality, a religion that was a lifestyle that would be part of every moment of my life, that would give my life meaning," says Stilley.

Inspired by the example of St. Teresa, Stilley felt moved to do something extraordinary and deeply personal. She walked into a Catholic church for the first time in her life and knelt before a statue of the Sacred Heart. Then she quietly expressed an embryonic idea that felt compelling yet delicate, more of a whisper than a gusting wind. "Lord, I'm not Catholic, and I don't know how this is supposed to be done. But this is my intention, a simple promise of virginity."

She was just 16 years old. Even at the time, she knew she wasn't old enough to comprehend what she was asking of herself. "I didn't," she says, "and I knew I didn't." She was prepared to live a life of chastity if that was God's will. "But if it's not of you," she prayed, "then show me."

Time and a searching mind would eventually bring her an answer. Born in 1973, Stilley grew up in Flagstaff, the middle of three children. About once a month, the family went to an Episcopal church, where Stilley's grandfather played the organ, says Stilley's mother, Vickie Kolbe, of San Diego. Stilley's mother and father divorced when she was 5 years old. "She was a very quiet little girl, but she always knew what she wanted," Ms. Kolbe says.

As a young teen-ager, she was a budding empiricist who didn't believe in God. "I was very much into science," she says. "I was what philosophers call a materialist - there's no visible proof there is anything else." In high school, however, she found herself changing direction. Devouring books on Buddhism and Eastern mysticism, she felt drawn toward a spiritual life. This was not all that unusual in Flagstaff. An old hippie town that is the gateway to the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff inspires spiritual questers of all types. Among her fellow students, some meditated, others practiced yoga or joined exotic cults.

But Stilley's experience in the bookstore proved no passing fancy. Over the next 12 years, she continued her spiritual journey. While an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University, she completed the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults to become a Catholic.

Stilley took time off from school to check out various religious orders. For several months she lived in the cloistered community of Poor Claires nuns in Roswell, N.M. "I thought I was going to be a nun," Stilley says. "Actually, for years I wanted to be a cloistered nun, especially after reading about Teresa of Avila."

She also stayed at a Cistercian abbey in Wisconsin. But she came down with frostbitten toes and a painful jaw ailment, which she took as a sign that "God didn't want me to be there," she says, chuckling.

It was a seminarian friend who told her about the vocation of consecrated virginity. Her spiritual director, a priest, suggested she take time to sort out her feelings about marriage. She had to understand that chastity was not inherently a more spiritual calling than marriage.

"They're both paths to holiness," Stilley says. "Marriage is a path to holiness and a sacrament. You have to understand that before you can embrace the vocation of consecrated virginity."

Stilley says she's not running from marriage or men. "I value deeply my friendships with men. They are obviously part of the human race and God's creatures. If I feel attracted to a man, it's not some kind of sin. It's normal," she says. As for crushes, she's had a few: "I'm a normal human being," she says. "Just because you have a celibate vocation doesn't mean you are anti-sex. It's part of marriage and God's plan." At 25, after graduating from college, Stilley spent a year in France with another religious community, immersing herself in study and prayer. "I loved it. I was extremely happy there," she says. But in the end, she felt like she was retreating from the world. "How can I call myself a Christian if all I do is pray all day?" In her mind, the gospel calls for action as well as prayer . "The more I enter into prayer, the more strongly I feel the need to serve. Prayer is going out of yourself into God, and serving can be a prayer. You're going out of yourself to befriend someone else. The more I develop a friendship with Christ, the more I see him explicitly in other people."

During the consecration Mass, Susan Ahern stood by Stilley's side as one of her two witnesses. Ahern, 39, who works in the business office at Cooper Aerobics Clinic, was concecrated a year ago during a Mass also celebrated by Galante.

A lifelong Catholic, the native New Yorker moved to Dallas to be closer to family members. As her faith deepened, she became open to a religious vocation. "The only way I knew to live out this desire was to enter a religious order and become a nun," she says. She visited several convents and religious orders. "I never got a sense of where I belonged."

When she heard about consecrated virgins, she felt an instant connection. The year since her consecration has been "the most joyful and challenging of my life," Ahern says. She is active with a new parish in Plano, Texas, Our Lady of Angels. She has organized youth activities and a women's retreat and run various charity drives, and she visits the sick and the elderly.

Most people whom she meets react positively to her vocation. "Living in the world makes me more like them and not someone who is mysterious or whose ways may be unfamiliar to them."

Some women question how she could give up motherhood, she says. Other times, these same women admit to difficulties with their marriages or families, Ahern says. Her life is not perfect, she says. "We all have difficult and dark times in our vocations and lives."

Ahern says she gets support from a social and religious network that includes friends, family and other consecrated virgins. She also gains support from the Franciscan Third Order, a secular religious society to which she belongs.

Like other consecrated virgins, she talks regularly with a priest who is her spiritual director and meets at least annually with her bishop. We don't do it alone. We also get a lot of support from our parish priests."

During a reception at a campus social center after the ceremony, Stacy Raab, a former roommate of Stilley's at the University of Dallas, said she feels Stilley made the right choice. "At first I was intimidated by her, as if consecrated life were a superior way of being a Catholic. She quickly disabused me of that notion in a strong and gentle way. She's not an `ivory tower academic."'

While Raab considered herself the extrovert and Stilley the introvert, it was her roommate who would get most of the phone calls at their apartment. "She was always getting phone calls from people asking her guidance." And that gets at the reasons Stilley feels called to this particular vocation. "Being consecrated also opens many doors for being able to minister to people's spiritual needs. I think people who are in distress or in need of spiritual support find it easy to approach those who are consecrated."

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