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Interview: Actress-turned-nun Mother Dolores Hart

By (May 9, 2014) No Comment

Dolores-Hart_cover0When you interview someone for an arts piece, there are numerous competing agendas at play, including:

1) What you, the interviewer, personally want to know, are curious about.

2) What you think is important for others to know.

3) What the average reader would probably find the most interesting, what will make the interview “pop.”

4) What will drive the highest readership/clicks/sales. (Hint: breaking news about new projects or revealed secrets, or a mid-interview meltdown of either subject or interviewer, or cats and nudity.)

5) What the subject is interested in talking about, what gets them excited.

6) What message the subject or studio’s publicity team wants you to help spread. (Not always the same as #5.)

So when I was offered the opportunity to talk to Mother Dolores Hart of the the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, I knew what the “story” was, the “big hook”: In the early ’60s Hart was a young, attractive actress on the rise, having famously starred with Elvis (in Loving You and King Creole), had a box-office hit with Where the Girls Are, and garnered acclaim for dramatic work in films like Wild is the Wind and Francis of Assisi.

dolores-hart-2-240But–and this is where the “big hook” comes in–in 1963, Hart answered what she felt was a higher, unavoidable calling and gave up her very promising Hollywood career and entered the Regina Laudis monastery as a Roman Catholic nun.

And so that became the story: Pretty young actress (who kissed Elvis!) becomes a nun. I even put it in the headline of this interview in hopes of getting you to read it.

Hart, now 75 and prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, has been doing a promotional tour for the past year in support of her autobiography The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows, as told to her lifelong friend Richard DeNeut.

The first half of the book is the typical Golden-Age Hollywood memoir, full of stories about Hart’s rise to fame, the mercurial personalities of producers, directors, and fellow actors, and of course, Elvis.

But the second half is set in Regina Laudis and details not just the questions of devotion and faith one struggles with when entering a religious life, but also the day-to-day life and activities of cloistered nuns, both sacred and mundane. (On the other hand, Hart remains a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

I knew what I was “supposed” to ask Mother Hart when I spoke to her on the phone two weeks ago: What’s it like to kiss Elvis? Why would you give up the Hollywood dream? Do you miss being a famous star? But not only did I assume she’d be thoroughly sick of those questions, I had no interest in them.

So what follows is a delightful interview with a very warm and friendly person in which–contrary to this being “a film blog”–almost nothing at all is said about movies.

The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey From Hollywood to Holy Vows is available from book sellers.


Mother-Dolores-at-OscarsIn the entertainment media and even in your book, your “story” is about leaving Hollywood for the nunnery. But what do you feel the story of your life has been?

Mother Dolores Hart: I think I was brought to the monastic life here to bring a question to religious life that this community was willing to answer with me: “How does one person entering a religious life and use their own true self in a religious calling and not just be told what to do?”

I fought very hard for that truth, and my abbess was very open to that. When we began to talk about it, she named me to Dean of Education. I said, “Dean of Education? I left school to be an actress,” and she said, “I’m talking about a new kind of education—I’m talking about educating from your life.”

I think that’s what you want people to do—to come to this monastery and begin to see what they are, what their call or mission is, and what they can give to a community. To open religious life to a new dimension of consciousness and call, between the authority and the person who comes to serve. Both of them are serving one another from a different point of view.

Now that I have authority in religious life, I realize that my job is to help people who come here find who they are and what it is they have to bring.

dolores+hart+nunIf you were looking to explore new ideas about individuality and the self in 1963, a Catholic monastery seems like a tricky place to start. Were you thinking about those things when you first entered Regina Laudis?

Mother Hart: It never occurred to me when I came here, because I was very interested in my drive find Christ in the context of the monastery. What I discovered is that Christ is in every person you live with—you don’t find Christ apart from the people with whom you live and love. God is love and that is the reality of Christ. You need to see what people love and why they do it. It’s been extraordinary adventure.

The past 50 years have certainly been full of change for the Church–did you feel like you’d entered a whirlwind?

Mother Hart: It was not only a whirlwind in the church, but in the world. I remember when my telephone had three people on the same line and you waited to get your turn to use the line. It’s a different world today, a whole different dimension of communication. So how do you bring that incredible capacity that digital life brings to us into being a servant of a god of love?

That also raises the question of how do you balance the inward, contemplative nature of monastic life against writing a book and doing press tours?

Mother Hart: There are many aspects of Benedictine and contemplative life that only become known when you live them. As you live a life of contemplation, you are thrust into the incredible package that life itself is. You don’t feel any way isolated or alone because you’re in the absolute center of this maelstrom of activity.

6868758343_28438eb06cThe purpose a contemplative life is to try to be still enough to hear the resonance of what this all means. What is the world, in its changing evolution and drive? What is actually happening?

If you’re always and only out in life talking about it, doing things, making money, you never get back to that still center of truly listening to the voice of God in His creation. That’s how God reveals himself to begin with: with a person who comes to be a body in the body of Christ, not to be isolated and apart from that.

Regina Laudis has a theater that puts on plays and musicals, and you’re a voting member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. What role do you think the popular arts and entertainment play when working toward religious or spiritual goals?

Mother Hart: I think when art is really good it gives you a sense of truth, of identity and meaning. Art has the capacity to bring you closer to a truth.

What’s the biggest misconception about monastic life and about your life in particular?

Mother Hart: Probably the most obvious one is that we’re running away from something, that we’re going into isolation. It couldn’t be further from the truth, as I’ve experienced it, because you go deeper into the meaning and substance of life.

We have a house here that’s open to guests, and people come to the monastery to try to find answers. You don’t have answers for them, but you can help direct them to a life of love, to what they love. That’s the only place people are going to find answers, is to become a loving person.