From Pop Movie Star to Cloistered Nun
Posted on 09 February 2015, 10:18
While watching the Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News a few weeks before Christmas, I observed an interview with Mother Dolores Hart, now a cloistered Catholic nun but a popular movie actress during the early 1960s, playing the love interest of such stars as Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton and others. Clips of some of those movies were shown by O’Reilly. (See link). I was fascinated by the story, wondering what could possibly motivate a beautiful young woman, called a Grace Kelly look-alike, to leave the glamorous and exciting Hollywood lifestyle at age 24 to become a cloistered nun. It was puzzling enough that she would want to become a nun, but to become a cloistered nun – one confined to an abbey and shut off from the rest of the world, even unable to socialize with other nuns – made it exponentially more puzzling.
I put “Dolores Hart” (below) into a Google search and found that she was engaged to be married at the time she made the decision to enter the Benedictine order at Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut during 1963 and that her former fiancé, Don Robinson, continued to visit her at the abbey in Connecticut every year until his death in 2011, never marrying himself. That added further intrigue to the story and prompted me to buy the Kindle version of the book, The Ear of the Heart, subtitled An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, by Hart and Richard DeNeut, published in 2013. While most of the writing is done by DeNeut, Hart’s words are inserted in italics.
As I was to read in the introductory remarks, DeNeut was Hart’s boyfriend before Robinson, but they broke up because DeNeut was unable to completely appreciate her Catholic faith, a religion she was converted to at age 10, independent of any parental influence, while attending a Catholic school. Her grandmother, a non-Catholic, as were her parents, enrolled her in the school simply because it was closer to their home than other schools and didn’t involve crossing too many busy streets.
“When the priest sprinkled me with holy water, it was the greatest moment of joy in my ten years of life,” Mother Dolores writes of her baptism. “I experienced a sensation of acceptance that any child, and especially a child in my circumstances, would find quite empowering…I had found something that was now my own place, above and beyond all that had been cruel and dishonorable in my parents home.”
Having grown up a Catholic and having attended a Catholic school, I couldn’t imagine what there was about that experience that so empowered her. My own Catholic faith was more fear-based than anything else and I never could get into the ritual and adoration part of the Sunday mass as I couldn’t believe that God wanted to be worshipped like some pagan idol. At the same time, however, I had two good friends who answered the “calling” to the priesthood, and left for the seminary after grammar school, so I recognized even back then that people respond to different influences.
Dolores Hart had made the biggest leap from the materialist side to the spiritual side that I had ever heard of – one from the excesses of Epicureanism, as represented by hedonistic Hollywood, to the extreme Stoicism that might be forced upon a person in exile on a deserted island. To me, it seemed almost like agreeing to go to prison for the rest of one’s life. But nobody was forcing young Dolores to abandon her comfortable and apparently satisfying lifestyle. In fact, most of her relatives and friends were opposed to it. I wanted to understand the inner calling that motivated such a change in a seemingly sane person, and so I continued reading.
“I left the world I knew in order to reenter it on a more profound level,” Mother Dolores offers early in the book. “Many people don’t understand the difference between a vocation and your own idea about something. A vocation is a call – one you don’t necessarily want. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress. But I was called by God.” That statement didn’t help me understand; in fact, it further muddied the waters, since it would have been easier to understand the transformation if she had not liked being an actress.
DeNeut didn’t understand, either. He said that he struggled to grasp the meaning of the term “call,” as used in the expression, “I had a call.” He even badgered Lady Abbess, the founder of Regina Laudis, in the hope that he could come to grips with Dolores’s decision. He was told that a “call” can’t be explained any more than one can explain falling in love.
Mother Dolores recollected that even in grammar school she was curious enough about life to record the words of Italian actress Eleanora Duse in her diary: “When we grow old, there can only be one regret – not to have given enough of ourselves.” Even then, she remembers thinking that her life was not for her, “that it somehow was something outside of me.” She further remembers babysitting two cousins – the daughters of her aunt and uncle (her uncle being Mario Lanza, the famous singer), and making sure they understood that “life was about something more than thirty-foot, Saks-decorated Christmas trees and wagons full of toys.”
Sometime during her grammar school years, while living with her grandmother in Chicago, Dolores was injured at a swimming pool and then had an adverse reaction to penicillin. She remembered feeling that she was going to die. “I couldn’t explain it, but I felt the presence of something that I accepted as the presence of authority – the presence of God,” she explains. “I spoke – not prayed, but spoke – to God: ‘If you want me to go to You, I’ll go. I’m not afraid.’” It was then, she adds, that she found the gift of faith.
I wondered if that experience was something akin to a near-death experience – an out-of-body experience in which she met a “being of light,” as sometimes classified, which she took to be “God” – and if she had remembered only a small part of it. Many people who have had NDEs report life-changing behavior. The brain chemistry seems to be altered in the process, or maybe it is a physics thing, the vibration frequency switched to another wave length, one at which they are more closely tuned to celestial realms. Could that have been the case with young Dolores?
One big draw of the religious life mentioned by Mother Dolores was “continuity.” Because of discord between her parents and later divorce, she was going back and forth between Los Angeles and Chicago, living with her parents at times and with her grandparents at other times. This was very unsettling and the cinema lifestyle added to it in that she would make friends with various people while making a movie, then break off those friendships when the movie was wrapped up. She apparently had hoped to find a stable “family” in the Benedictine order. “Bonds would form,” she says of making movies. “The film would end, and then suddenly that relationship I trusted would be gone. It was to me, shattering. I felt there had to be some centering in my life in which there was continuity.”
Although Dolores clearly recognized that she was joining a contemplative order – one shut up in a monastery with limited interaction among its members – and not an order engaged in teaching or charity work, she seems to have misjudged the extent of the “family” environment in the monastery. She states that she initially felt a tremendous rapport with the Benedictine Rule’s basic premises – simplicity, discernment and praise of God, but she may have underestimated the amount of “detachment” from the world that was required.
As she described her small “cell,” i.e., her room, five feet by eight feet with a cot and three-inch mattress with no bed springs, a wash bowl with no running water, a small window that looked out at the top of a tree, I could understand why she said she cried herself to sleep every night for the first three years and why she felt a gnawing sense of abandonment, along with confusion, aloneness, and bewilderment in those early years. “What have I done?” she continually asked herself, wondering why God wasn’t there waiting for her and offering comfort. While other would-be nuns couldn’t take it and left the order, Dolores persisted. “I was stubborn,” she goes on. “I believed that I was called to take on this place and to follow Christ in His Passion…I couldn’t leave because deep down I trusted God had to be there and that was what mattered. I swore that I would wait as long as I had to.”
I stopped at this point to ponder on what seemed like a paradoxical situation. I wondered if remaining in the convent because of stubbornness was grounded in pride, one of the seven deadly sins, while also wondering if leaving the convent called for humbleness or humility, a virtue, since it would have no doubt involved many friends and relatives telling her, “We told you so…,” while also having to depend on those same friends and relatives for financial support in starting over again.
One friend told Dolores that the cloistered life is “selfish and useless,” something several spirit communicators have also said, explaining that life is about learning from our experiences while interacting with, loving, and serving others. Dolores reacted to that friend by saying that she was finding some real challenges in living in solitude with 40 other nuns and that as a monastic nun she would be a witness to the truth that love is real. That explanation pretty much went over my head, but I was still hoping to better understand what motivates a young person to take such a drastic leap into a secluded world as I continued reading.
The changes in the Catholic Church brought about by Vatican II seem to have made the cloistered life a little more tolerable, allowing for more interaction among the nuns and a little more contact with the outside world, but the daily life still consisted of basically three elements – prayer, manual labor, and scriptural reading aimed at bringing a deeper knowledge of oneself, others, and God. Clearly, such a life has appealed to more than a young movie actress. As mentioned in the book, the Benedictine order at Regina Laudis now includes two former lawyers, several teachers, three with Ph.D.s, an artist, a former advertising account executive, and a former investment banker.
I finished the book without getting an answer to my question of what motivates a young person to pursue the cloistered life, at least an answer I could understand. The recurring explanation seemed to boil down to “praising God,” but that opens up a discussion as to the meaning of “praise” and “God.” Reverting to the definitions I had of them as a young Catholic, I still question an anthropomorphic God’s need for praise. Perhaps it is better understood by more advanced souls. However, there was one other explanation offered by Mother Dolores – learning to surrender. That lesson may be worth a lifetime of suffering.
Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die is published by White Crow Books. His latest book, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife is now available on Amazon and other online book stores.
His latest book Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I is published by White Crow Books.
Next blog: Feb. 23
Beautifully written, poignant in its search though disappointed in its outcome, this piece reminded me of my own early “spiritual” experience, which was quite different from the young 10 year-old actress-to-be. I studied hard for Confirmation in my Episcopal Church and looked forward to a religious experience at the moment of confirmation. I remember exactly the words and the tone of the Bishop as he placed his hands on my head and intoned: “Defend, O Lord, this thy child with thy heavenly grace, that he may continue thine forever, and daily increase in thy hold word until he comes into thy everlasting kingdom.” That, Mike, was more than sixty years ago, and I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, the experience. And what happened, what occurred: NOTHING. No special sensations, no sense of religious experience, nothing but a big DISAPPOINTMENT.
I always had my doubts, as a child, about religion, the existence of God, and the “realness” of Christianity; so I hoped that my experience at confirmation would give me experiential evidence that I was mistaken. Instead, it confirmed the emptiness of religion; and although I continued in the faith until the beginning of my sophomore year in college, the seeds of rejecting religion were sown most powerfully during my experience, or non-experience, at confirmation.
Thanks, as always, for your beautiful article and for the sensitivity that you bring to your subject-matter.
John F. Miller, Fri 13 Feb, 03:34
John Van Auken writes about the influences of what 72 of Edgar Cayce’s discourses call, “The Unseen Forces.” These readings describe the unseen forces as “a consciousness of that divine force that emanates in Life itself in this material plane.” ( Edgar Cayce Reading 281-7, my emphasis)
According to these discourses, the unseen forces are more powerful than the seen, or what some call reality. (Edgar Cayce Reading 262-8) The laws and physics of material reality are, according to the readings, the result, not the cause or source of our situations or abilities. All projected life in this world comes from unseen influences within, not without.
Even human weaknesses and evil are a result of the misuse of free will, a misuse that began in the spirit and mind, long before material life even began. The implication here is that all outer influences, whether they are good or evil, emanate from the unseen realms of spirit and mind.
Cayce’s readings acknowledge the “warring” that occurs within us and between the unseen realms and the seen. (281-7) His readings even call this war the true Armageddon, a battle between the influences entering the earth plane and those being forced out of it. (3976-15)
Even the light-bearing souls struggle against dark forces within themselves to maintain their hold on the Light. It is difficult to be pure channels of the Light in this life.
Jane Katra, Tue 10 Feb, 06:09
Thanks, Mike, for your comments. I have been reflecting a lot on life as aging keeps moving faster. We are spending more time and energy now in trying to discover how, when, where, etc. human life began and also what comes next after this one (physical) ends. And in between we try in countless ways to find out the best way to live. This is what our nun was doing.
Richard Batzler, Tue 10 Feb, 05:30
Both past and future influence the present. What is important about those of us who are concerned and seeking to know more of the future (afterlife) is that it can cast light and evoke hope for our present state of distressed life worldwide.
Life and death, though realized by all who are created, still are involved in the great mystery. But as we strive to understand more of the mystery,I believe that the Divine Consciousness will provide that which we need to know and grow.
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