Mother Dolores Hart, O.S.B., & Richard DeNeut, The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013, xvii + 457 pp., £15.05/$24.95 cloth.
The Ear of the Heart is an excellent and eminently readable book for anyone interested in monasticism or Hollywood, or anyone wondering why a Hollywood starlet-on-the-rise would turn down fame, fortune, and a line of handsome leading men in order to take up a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience enclosed within the boundaries of a Connecticut farm.
The Ear of the Heart is the long-awaited autobiography of Mother Dolores Hart, OSB, a Benedictine nun and prioress at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT. Some readers may be familiar with Mother Dolores as the subject of the short film God is the Bigger Elvis, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 2012, and was screened on HBO later that year.
Once a rising star in Hollywood–she gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss—Dolores Hart decided to enter the Abbey of Regina Laudis in 1963, at the age of 24. The first half of the book covers Hart’s childhood and family life, her entrance into the acting profession (including starring roles in several feature films alongside A-list stars like Montgomery Clift, as well as a Tony-nominated Broadway turn), her friendships (including her close friendship with Maria Cooper, daughter of actor Gary Cooper), and the development of her spiritual life, especially focused on her growing attraction to the Benedictine monastic life as lived at Regina Laudis.
She writes of the exchange she had with the Abbey’s Reverend Mother during the last of her visits in 1959, while she was performing in The Pleasure of His Company on Broadway:
It was during our last parlor that I suddenly blurted out, “I worry that I might have a call. I know I’ve been looking for something deeper. I wonder, “[sic] Am I material to enter the monastery? Could this be where I belong?”
“No, Dolores,” she replied, “go back to Hollywood, return to your career. And from time to time, come back and visit.”
Hart would continue to visit, and eventually entered in June of 1963, famously going straight from her last red-carpet premiere to the convent.
The second half of the book covers Hart’s life in the Abbey, as well as stories about the history of the Abbey – its founding and early years, its growth and challenges in the aftermath of Vatican II, and its current thriving religious life and variety of ministries, including the communities it has formed with lay people outside the convent.
A signature piece of this ministry and privilege of Hart’s past is the monastery’s engagement with theatre. Building upon the success of the Act Association, a group of friends of the Abbey who began putting on shows at the convent in the 1970s, Hart and the Regina Laudis Abbey established The Gary-The Olivia Theater, a professional summer stock theatre. It is the only Benedictine monastery of which I am aware that hosts a professional theatre.
In addition to its entertaining account of its acting ministry, Hart also provides a detailed account of the founding and development of one of the first Benedictine contemplative communities for women in the United States. It is a fascinating insider’s account that should prove invaluable to anyone interested in the day-to-day reality of modern religious life. I especially encourage anyone who is discerning the foundation of a new religious community, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, to learn from the wisdom on offer here.
The book was written with the help of Mother Dolores Hart’s friend Richard DeNeut, and is presented in the form of a conversation between them – switching between the first-person accounts of Hart and the third-person narration of events by DeNeut, with occasional interjections by DeNeut in response to Hart’s statements. This format gives the reader the experience of sitting down with Hart and DeNeut, and listening to them speak to each other, as a third friend. It makes for a very enjoyable reading experience.
If, as St Benedict asks in his Rule, one listens with ‘the ear of the heart’ to the story of this book, it offers a profound spiritual experience of learning to trust the still, silent voice of God, and seeing how much joy that journey can bring.
Review by Cole Matson