Miriam Marston, who grew up in a loving Catholic home outside Washington, D.C., attends the Maryland Renaissance Festival at about age 7.  (Courtesy Miriam Marston) 
Miriam Marston, who grew up in a loving Catholic home outside Washington, D.C., attends the Maryland Renaissance Festival at about age 7. (Courtesy Miriam Marston) 
On a seemingly unremarkable winter day, a 21-year-old Miriam Marston was reading a book as music played in the background.

Then, in a mere moment, she fell — hard — in love. It was the sort of love that upends life, that changes everything.

This May, nearly two decades later, Marston will wear a white dress, receive a ring and stand in front of the altar at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland.

There will be no tux-clad groom by her side.

In one of the oldest rites of the church, Marston, 38, will be consecrated to God — “mystically espoused to Christ and dedicated to the service of the church,” according to the Code of Canon Law. She’ll join approximately 250 women in the United States who are known as “consecrated virgins living in the world.”

Like many love stories that end in a union, however, Marston’s was preceded by pain.

She grew up in a loving home just outside Washington, D.C. Though raised Catholic, she wasn’t particularly engaged with her faith. “For a long stretch I was probably fairly agnostic,” said Marston, who has bright blue eyes and a gentle, confident manner.

In her sophomore year at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, two successive tragedies shook the faith she did possess.

First, her cousin committed suicide.

“That sent shock waves through my family,” said Marston.

A few months later, two planes plowed into the twin towers, and a third crashed into the Pentagon, only a few miles from the Marston family’s home.

The suicide and 9/11 “had me questioning everything I thought I knew about life,” said Marston. “It got me wondering, genuinely for the first time, if there was a God and if this was a good God. I was looking for meaning, because any meaning I’d had — it had gotten completely deconstructed,” she said. “I was trying to make sense out of suffering.”

Amid this spiritual crisis, Marston’s mother gave her a copy of “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis’ logical defense of God’s existence.

The book offered her intellect a proof for God, while the grief opened her heart, just a little.

“So many conversions happen through broken hearts; the Holy Spirit can get through cracks,” said Marston.

“As I was reading that book, I had this … .” She paused. “This is where words fall short. Because how do you explain when God breaks into your heart? It goes beyond a feeling. It was like this infused knowledge that God was real and that he loved me.

“I’d fallen into love with this God,” she said. “I cried for two weeks after my conversion — happy tears.”

She didn’t go right back to church though. For several months she took detours, studying Buddhism and Hinduism. “I was still really searching,” said Marston.

In the end, she felt nothing answered the question of suffering better than Christianity.

“I needed a religion with a cross,” she said. “I can’t go anywhere in my aches and sufferings and in those questions that Jesus hasn’t already gone. He plunged into those depths as deep as he could go. He really knew the human experience inside and out. It’s mysterious, but it’s beautiful and it’s helpful.”

Back at William and Mary, Marston took the only class on Catholicism she could find. Her final paper, entitled “The struggle for the undivided heart,” was a defense of priestly celibacy.

“That was the first place I was really working out this stirring I was feeling,” a desire to “live out this sense of the undivided heart and to give something back to God who has given me everything,” she said.

After graduating, Marston wrestled with where the Lord was calling her. She discerned for a time with the Daughters of St. Paul and lived in England for several years.

“I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Lord was calling me to be his own in this more exclusive way,” said Marston. She’d go on dates but jokes she was a “one-date wonder.”

“My heart was not really into it because I felt like I was called on another path.”

While living in Boston, Marston met a woman preparing to be a consecrated virgin. It was something she’d never heard of. It caught her attention.

The vocation sounded “like home to me,” said Marston, adding that she didn’t feel the need to pursue it immediately.

Consecrated virgins living in the world existed in the early church, but the vocation essentially disappeared in the 11th century as monastic communities of women religious formed. A restored rite was issued following the Second Vatican Council. To become a “bride of Christ,” a woman must have never married and must demonstrate a life of chastity and devotion to the church.

Marston acknowledges the word “virginity,” can make some people uncomfortable because it calls to mind human sexuality. But consecrated virginity is “the idea of giving that gift of virginity back to God,” she said, that “God has all of me, body and soul.”

Several years after learning of the vocation, Marston was out to dinner with a friend who shared that she’d been considering becoming a consecrated virgin. When the friend got up to use the restroom, Marston looked down at her phone.

The woman who’d introduced her to consecrated virginity years prior had just written on her Facebook page that she was in adoration praying for those discerning God’s will for their lives. She’d posted: “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Yes.’”

“That was just my sign,” said Marston, a big believer in the positive potential of judicious social media use.

Back at home that night Marston emailed the delegate for religious life in the Archdiocese of Boston and asked to meet. She began formation soon after.

In 2014, to be near her sister and her sister’s young family, Marston took her formation journey to the West Coast. She’s an adored auntie, snuggling the newest arrivals, reading bedtime stories, helping with homework and attending sporting events.

Marston also works full time as coordinator for the Portland Archdiocese’s Institute for Catholic Life and Leadership, which oversees lay ministry formation programs.

As part of the formation process she’s had regular meetings with another local woman in formation and two of the four consecrated virgins in the Archdiocese of Portland. They’ve read St. John Paul II’s document on consecrated life and studied the history of the vocation. Marston prays the Divine Office, attends daily Mass and makes regular confessions.

On May 24, 2020, Archbishop Alexander Sample will consecrate the two women to God.

Marston often is asked a series of questions about her unique vocation, including why she didn’t choose to be a religious sister.

Her short answer is that God didn’t call her to that vocation. “But part of it was that I had this desire to live in the world and be a witness in the heart of everyday life,” she said, adding with a smile that she calls it “being a secret agent for Jesus.”

Unlike religious, consecrated virgins do not live in community, wear distinguishing garb or take a title like “sister.” They support themselves financially and pursue diverse careers, many in the secular world. Marston knows one consecrated virgin who is an emergency room nurse.

The vocation points toward the reality that Christ is the ultimate fulfillment, explained Marston. In the end, her call to be a bride of Christ “was a grace,” she said.

“I want so badly to reassure folks that God is real, heaven is real, and we can be happy,” said Marston. “It sounds sentimental, and I don’t want to be a walking Hallmark card. But it’s true.”

It’s clear there’s a lot of unhappiness in our culture, added Marston. “I hope to be part of that remedy, to say, ‘No, we’re not called to stay in that loneliness and despair and kind of a wandering state. We have a path set out before us. And it’s one that leads to the very heart of God.”