There is something about Hollywood that captures us and draws us in. It’s every little girl’s dream to grow up and become a famous movie star. When I saw Mother Dolores Hart’s autobiography The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows I knew it had to be one of my reads for this summer. Co-authored by Mother Dolores Hart OSB and Richard DeNeut, the story is told in conversation between the two old friends.
Being in my late thirties, I honestly had never heard of Dolores Hart as an actress, but the story of a women who gave up an acting career and the fame and fortune of Hollywood for a contemplative life attracted me. What a journey this book chronicles! The first part of The Ear of the Heart tells of Dolores’ childhood and time in Hollywood as an actress in the 50’s and 60’s. Mother Dolores Hart, born Dolores Hicks, was a born into non-religious family broken by divorce and alcoholism. Finding herself in a Catholic school for logistical reasons, the tale begins when Dolores asked the sisters to “have bread with the other children.” Meaning the snacks given to her schoolmates after mass, the sister mistakenly thought she wanted to make her Holy Communion. She asked her if she wanted to convert. Young Dolores agreed and began to study to faith and became Catholic. The seed was planted as she feel a sense of “joyousness and purpose” in her new faith as a child.
Her Hollywood career began in college. Her first film was with none other than Elvis Presley in Loving You. Delores starred in 9 more movies, a Broadway play and television shows. (You can take a peek of Delores on film in the Ignatius Press site here and here). She was a rising starlet, engaged to be married and left it all to be the Bride of Christ in the cloistered community of Regina Laudis.
While reading about her life in Hollywood was fascinating, I appreciated even more the second half of her book devoted to life in the monastery. Life in the cloister was not an easy transition, filled with consolations for the star. It was a very difficult spiritual test, and Mother Dolores wrote how she cried herself to sleep each night in her cell for three years. Mother Dolores shares each step of her vocational journey from the first day in the monastery, First Vows, Consecration ceremony, Final Vows to life in the monastery in present time. She shares the amazing challenges faced by the nuns as they transitioned to an Abbey, made changes in its structure and governance while adhering to 1500 year old Benedictine Rule, recording their chant to CD (take a listen to this beautiful music here) and even building a theater to host productions by their very own Act Association.
The Ear of the Heart also shares the daily life the nuns live in Bethlehem, Connecticut. As a Benedictine Community, the dedicated women praise God through prayer and work. They chant the mass and divine office each day and work on the land. I was truly amazed at the work the nuns do at the abbey. They farm the land, raise sheep and cows, make cheese, build barns, garden, preserve the vegetables, bale hay, work in the blacksmith shop and even make their own coffins. More than I can list here, you’ll have to check out the photo gallery on the Regina Laudis site to see it all in action!
Mother Dolores also introduces you to each of the nuns that are in the Abbey. Filled very talented and educated women, the chaplain of the community, Fr. Prokes, stressed to the women that “We came to a contemplative order because we had reached some manner of success in our fields and with that could have a true sense of place in monastic life.” Yet no matter what gifts and talents each woman brings to the Abbey, Mother Dolores stresses that the most important part of monastic life is prayer. She shares this story about working one day when the bell rang to gather the women to pray the Office:
“One day in the shop I was just about to finish cutting a board with the power saw when the bell rang. I was annoyed because with one quick push I would finish the job and wouldn’t have to set up the whole thing the next day. But just before the last chime, I heard my formation mother’s voice in my head. ‘Your core reason for being is to praise God.’ Immediately I stopped the machine and turned to leave. But it didn’t stop. I looked back to see the center pin holding the saw in place was wobbling frantically. Suddenly the blade flew off the saw in the place where I had been standing. I was shaken to the bone. If I hadn’t listen to that bell, the blade would have struck me in the heart.”
In the final pages of the book, Mother Dolores shares her “dark night of the soul” as she developed peripheral sensory neuropathy and endured severe chronic pain. It was during that period of intense suffering that her Community encouraged her to write her memoir. The Ear of the Heart is a beautiful labor of love, and as co-author Richard DeNeut writes in the introduction, it’s a story for those “who find themselves living a contradiction between their inner truth and the values of the world around them.“
Highly recommended. The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows can be purchased through Ignatius Press.