Ear of the Heart

Okay, so I’ve got this book review pile which is like one of those friendship cakes that keep on growing no matter how much you eat, and one of the books sat there most of the summer was The Ear of the Heart by Mother Dolores Hart.

I glanced at the hype about the book and didn’t think much of it. A movie star I’d never heard of was famous for kissing Elvis then she tootles off to become a nun. Big deal. And there she was wearing flowers on her wimple looking as sweet as Julie Andrews and I’m yawning a good deal. So the book sits there and other books are read first, but the end of last week it finally surfaced again so I started to read.

I was hooked from the first page. I thought this girl had maybe one decent movie break with Elvis, then when it looked like she was going to be just another waitress in LA one of the stars that never were parking cars and pumping gas she decides to run away to the convent. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

She’s the only child of drunken losers–her Dad a bit part actor in a couple of movies and her mom a sad, lonely outrageous drinker and serial bride. The young Dolores just happens to be sent to a Catholic grade school where she converts to the faith almost accidentally. In college she gets her big Elvis break and turns out to be a genuine star. She picks up some acting lessons, has a Broadway hit, makes more movies, becomes good friends with Anthony Quinn, Gary Cooper and a whole constellation of other stars, then just when the really big movie offers start to come in and she is jetting to film in Europe and developing her reputation she heads off to Regina Laudis monastery in Connecticut.

This is the early 1960s. Life in a Benedictine convent was tough. I mean really tough. The young ingenue goes from mink coats and diamonds and being mistaken for Grace Kelly in Monaco to getting up at 5:30 to sing Latin chants and dig out and move boulders all day. She moves from shopping with Gary Cooper’s wife in Paris, walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards and having Elvis around for an intimate birthday party to wearing a bib at mealtime, living in an 8′ x 6′ cell and visiting with friends once in a while through a grille. She cried herself to sleep every night for the first three years.

But she stuck it out. I thought the story might bog down once she got to the monastery, but as a Benedictine oblate I found that the most interesting part. Most fascinating was the sharing with her the Benedictine formation and watching a soul being made through all the hardship, seeming cruelty and absurdity of much of the pre-Vatican II monastic life. Through the book we see her and her sisters struggle through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Her mother superior holds fast to the Benedictine traditions despite the rear guard action of a group of progressive sisters who  want to wear denim skirts and sing folk songs instead of Gregorian chant.

Mother did not hold to the Benedictine traditions for their own sake, but steadily and surely listened to the true wisdom of the Council Fathers and brought the ancient Benedictine tradition intact into the modern age. The most exciting part of the book was reading the stories of the new breed of nuns at Regina Laudis–smart women with top notch educational credentials living the intelligent, artistic and spiritual Benedictine tradition in the modern age while still being faithful to the spirit and rule of St Benedict. As I read their stories I was witnessing a new generation of St Hildegardes, Julians of Norwich, Etheldredas and Hildas.

The Ear of the Heart ranks as one of my favorite books of the year. Mother Dolores’ story reveals the wonderful mystery of God’s providence. When she went into the monastery so many people said “But you can serve the church so much better by being a good and faithful Catholic witness in Hollywood!” No. Off she went to the Connecticut woods where her life was hid by God in Christ. There she remained, faithfully learning the new way of life and faithfully following the rule. Eventually she was used to help renew the Order of St Benedict in this country.

I believe history will show that these turbulent fifty years in the church have been a great lesson. The events at Regina Laudis and the work of Mother Placid, Mother Dolores and the others in developing and properly renewing women’s religious life will stand as a stark contrast to the rebellion apostasy and heresy evidenced by so many of the other religious sisters–as chronicled by Ann Carey in Sisters in Crisis.The renewal at Regina Laudis and the other traditional religious houses where young vocations are abundant will become the seed of a new revival in religious life in this country.

Reading Mother Dolores’ fantastic story and the renewal not only in her own life but in the Benedictine house she served, I couldn’t help seeing a renewal of women’s religious life across the whole of the Catholic Church, and I was reminded what an old monk once said to me when I observed the resilience of the Benedictines through persecution, corruption and hardship.

He said, “We’re like weeds. We come back.”