On the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the heart of a Denver woman was united to that of Christ, Our Lady and the Church in a humble act of consecration.
As she lay before the altar, donning a pure white dress and an even purer heart, Senite Sahlezghi was consecrated a virgin before the Lord in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. In his homily addressed to her, the archbishop recalled the beatitude, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God”; words that will serve as a guiding light and a True North in Sahlezghi’s vocation as a consecrated virgin.
“It is precisely in seeing God first that we become pure of heart,” Archbishop Aquila told Sahlezghi. “It is his work, it is his love that transforms our hearts and will transform your heart, my daughter, as you continue to grow and to fall in love with him, to grow deeper into intimacy with him.
“You are called to reflect the very purity of God. You are called to a life of greater fervor to spread the kingdom of God by your prayer, by your example and your good words. You are to give to the world the spirit of Christ. You are to live the virtue of chastity that is rooted in the virtue of charity.
“You are called to have the heart of Mary.”
A twitch of the thread
Sahlezghi’s act of consecration was a beautiful yet radical statement in 2021 about who God is and how his call for the lives of his people sometimes leads them down the most surprising of paths.
This was certainly the case for Sahlezghi, who works as the director of Marisol Health in Lafayette. A Colorado native, her parents immigrated from Eritrea separately, met each other in Colorado, got married and raised four children, of which Senite is the eldest. She went to Bishop Machebeuf High School and had a profound conversion during her junior year.
“[It was] very unexpected and unwanted,” Sahlezghi told the Denver Catholic. “But God is so faithful. Sixteen was a big year for me for different reasons, and I took the faith on as my own. I’m a big fan of metanoia, I think we all live continuing conversions. There are these definitive moments that are so profound and important and then it’s just this constant invitation to love him. I would teeter, and he would bring me back.”
“It’s like that great line from Brideshead,” she said, referring to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. “‘A twitch of the thread.’ He just twitches it. That was a lot of that season of my life.”
After high school, Sahlezghi earned her undergrad degree at Franciscan University of Steubenville and then obtained a master’s in counseling from the University of Denver to become a licensed professional counselor. Prior to Marisol Health, she worked as a mental health case manager and the intensive case management supervisor at Samaritan House.
“I worked with the general population, which was incredible. I saw the higher needs clients, and all of them either had overt mental health diagnoses or substance use diagnoses and all experiencing homelessness,” she explained. “I was in Christ in the City way back when and was at Sam House once a day doing ministry, so I have roots there. It’s a huge part of my heart, so I’m grateful to have been able to serve [those who are in that situation].”
‘What does this mean for me?’
To the outside observer and even those who know her, Sahlezghi’s servant heart seems to lend itself perfectly to some form of consecrated or religious life, but it was never on her radar. However, that all changed rather unexpectedly during a hike with friends on the feast of St. Catherine of Siena in 2015 and a Mass celebrated on the side of the mountain.
“During Mass that day, the Eucharistic prayer was being said, and there was just this moment in my heart where I heard, ‘I am supposed to be Christ’s.’ It was simple and silent and still. It was so peaceful, and while walking off the mountain literally, I was like, ‘oh, no, what does this mean for me?’” she said with a laugh.
The obvious answer for women is to discern religious life within a religious order. Sahlezghi was always drawn to the Missionaries of Charity and their charism of service to the poor and continual growth in personal holiness, so she discerned with their community in Denver for a year. Towards the end of that process, during a visit to the Missionaries of Charity convent in Chicago, she heard the Lord’s voice again.
“I was in a two week visit with them in Chicago, and after a year of discerning with them and getting to the point where I could commit to the next big thing, a few days in, I was praying, and I just heard that I’m supposed to be Christ’s bride, and it was as a consecrated virgin,” she said. “I think it had to be that definitive for me not to shake it. It was just this incredible grace and relay of my identity and my mission, all in this beautiful moment in the garden outside of the Missionaries of Charities convent in Chicago.”
Over the past five years since that moment, she’s been discerning God’s call for her to become a consecrated virgin, which culminated with the consecration Mass on June 12, when she said “yes” to the Lord.
“Mother Teresa has this great line, ‘according to his heart,’ and that’s what it’s been,” Sahlezghi said. “There have been moments it really has felt like a twirl-a-whirl, and there are moments of just a great peace, where it would have been dishonest for me not to have said ‘yes’ because this is what I was made for, this is who I was made to be.
“And the gift of that ‘yes’ in that garden in Chicago, any time I revisit that moment, I think I’ll spend the rest of my life returning to it and unpacking it. But this whole process since coming back from Chicago has just been like a deepening of my ‘yes.’ I’ve been trying to say, ‘yes’ more and more.”
During her consecration Mass, Sahlezghi invited four priests who have walked with her along this journey to stand at the altar beside her as she gave herself fully to Christ. Father Brady Wagner, a formation advisor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, met with Sahlezghi every month over the past four years to study different aspects of the Christian life, especially those regarding consecrated life.
“Her longing to belong fully to Christ has been a beautiful testimony of love’s desire, to make a promise and commitment that does not calculate or hold anything back,” Father Wagner told the Denver Catholic. “It is the only thing that really makes sense in response to the unreserved gift of Christ to us, especially in the Eucharist.
An ancient vocation
The vocation of consecrated virginity dates back the to the early Church. In fact, Mary herself was a consecrated virgin, though in a very distinct way. As Sahlezghi dove into the rich history of the vocation and noticed a growing number of women answering the call to become consecrated virgins, she found herself drawn to it more and more.
“I’m a big fan of roots, knowing who you’re from and where you’re from, and the Church has this incredible treasury within it,” Sahlezghi explained. “This vocation is an ancient vocation, and I think to remember the roots of it has been so helpful and profound to me. The apostles were ordained, and then women were consecrated and then the religious came from it. I think that there’s a really beautiful opportunity, and I’ve always just been stunned that in the 21st century, there’s been a revival of this vocation. You just wonder what the Holy Spirit is doing.”
In both the ancient and modern understanding of consecrated virginity, this vocation is reflective as an image of Christ and his bride, the Church, in a very particular way — in its radicality, to be sure, but more importantly, in its purity. Sahlezghi understands that consecrating herself as a virgin can be perceived as quite an “extreme” thing to do in 2021 — especially for those outside of the Church.
“This vocation is so beautiful in that it is inviting women to live a unique expression of the mystery of the Church,” she said. “And that’s insane to say out loud, but there’s a dignity that comes from that, and it even strikes the hearts of those who don’t attest to believe what we believe. It’s profoundly human.
“My hope is that people know the richness of this vocation and what the intention was to begin with, why Christ made it so, and to realize that it’s not a competition,” she explained. “We all play a part in the salvation of the world and each other and ourselves, and the fact that it’s God’s work before it’s any of ours and that he lets us help is astounding. There is a particular charism within this vocation that resonated deeply within my own soul. I am excited to see how it unfolds and how I can be of service to the local Church and to the Church, period.”
‘Our Lady’s heart is a home’
As she fully enters her vocation as a consecrated virgin, much of Sahlezghi’s life will look the same. She’ll have the same family and friends she’s always had. She’ll continue to work in the world and use the gifts and talents God gifted her with. She’ll still endure the same struggles and challenges and sufferings that are common to Christian life. But through the lens of a heart fully united to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, she’ll encounter the world with the love of Christ and orient all she does toward helping others have that same encounter with Christ that’s changed her heart for good.
“I’m just so grateful. I’m grateful to get to be consecrated to Christ and give him my full heart and my whole life and my whole love on the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” she said. “It’s overwhelming when I think about it. There’s a lot of mercy and me not realizing the full weight of it because it’s like a dream come true. Hearts united in more ways than one.
“Our lady’s heart is a home, that’s what the Church is,” Sahlezghi concluded. “I just hope that this for me will be that, and I hope for the local Church at large to experience the hospitality and the joy of a home, to really find rest in her heart, and then by default, in his heart because of it. It’s the same heart.”