It’s the question that echoes between the lines of mainstream news features about the life and work of Mother Dolores Hart, the cloistered nun (yes, she gave Elvis his first on-screen kiss) who walked away from her promising future in Hollywood.
The question, stated simply, is this: Why did she do it?
The answer? I’m not really clear on that, but based on reading a number of mainstream press reports on this subject I can say that her decision — if the mainstream media is to be believed — had very little to do with her love for Jesus or his church.
Let’s set this question up, via some material from a new Religion News Service piece (it’s much better than the norm) about Hart:
As if to test her resolve in those weeks before she left Hollywood, Universal Studios offered her a role opposite Marlon Brando, a role she turned down shortly after she broke off her engagement to Don Robinson, a kind and handsome businessman who loved her intensely.
“Even my best friend, who was a priest, Father Doody, said, ‘You’re crazy. This is absolutely insane to do this,’” Mother Delores Hart remembered in a recent interview, conducted 50 years after she entered the Order of St. Benedict. To try to explain her decision to a world that’s perhaps even more enamored of celebrity than it was a half century ago, Hart, 74, has written “The Ear of the Heart,” a memoir of her life on screen and behind the convent walls.
Even though she wasn’t raised Catholic, 9-year-old Dolores decided to convert when she found meaning and comfort in the rituals of her Catholic school. At 24, she quit Hollywood to answer a call she heard from God. “I left the world I knew in order to reenter it on a more profound level,” she writes.
So, a “call from God” and that is that.
Now, the story dedicates all kinds of space to her life before that decision and to her connections to Hollywood. All well and good.
But, again, what was the nature of the life-changing spiritual tug that led her to spend decades working in an abbey laundry room, or roughing up her hands in a wood shop making coffins? She took the divine call. What did Hart hear on the line?
Nothing in particular, apparently.
I became interested in Hart’s story while writing about the angels and demons in the life of one of her famous friends, the Oscar winner Patricia Neal. In an earlier GetReligion post — about an Entertainment Weekly story about Hart — I noted that Elvis was not, in the end, the most important man in her life:
… (This) is an interesting profile and it spends — justifiably — quite a bit of time on the factors that went into Hart’s decision to enter the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. At the top of the list was her decision to walk away from her fiance and her wedding date that loomed in the near future. That’s all well and good. It’s also interesting that Hart has, to some degree, kept in touch with her roots — especially when a much more famous actress, Patricia Neal, came to the abbey to wrestle with the tragic issues that dominated several decades of her life and work. Was Hart the sister who yelled and cursed right back at Neal during one of their counseling sessions? …
What is striking — surprise, surprise — is that her faith and its role in her life-changing decision is given very little attention, until the very end of the article. Even then, it’s hard to write a length piece about a nun without mentioning one particular man in her life, as in Jesus of Nazareth. And what about the Catholic Church? Did love of the church play any role in all of this?
In the new RNS piece, there is one new quote — second hand — about Hart’s “call from God.” It’s an intriguing one to say the least. The key voice is that Suzanne Zada, a Holocaust survivor linked to a key Hart movie role decades ago.
“I was very upset and actually for a couple of years I was still writing her angry notes about throwing her life away,” said Zada, who still travels from Los Angeles to visit Hart at the abbey.
“If you heard what I hear,” Hart once told Zada, “you would come, too.”
OK, I’ll ask: What did Hart hear that was so life-changing?
Perhaps Hart is reluctant to talk about her inner spiritual life — with the press. It is clear that she has been an open and lively guide to many who came to the abbey seeking help and faith.
Does Hart not want to talk to the press, or it is possible that journalists — in the end — are not that interested in her real life? I mean, how do you top kissing Elvis?