Monday, April 9, 2012

HBO Film Reveals the Power of Cloistered Life: In a Word—“Love”

By Mary Claire Kendall 

Originally published in The Wanderer

Dolores Hart and Elvis Presley in Loving You (1957).
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
“How do you explain love?” Mother Dolores Hart asks in HBO’s Oscar-nominated film, God Is the Bigger Elvis, premiering on Holy Thursday.*  

Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this 40-minute documentary answers the question as it artfully describes, through the medium Hart mastered, cloistered life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut—the only enclosed Benedictine monastery and working farm in the United States.  As Mother Prioress, Hart leads the community of 38 that follows the strict Benedictine schedule of work and prayer.

Much of the story is told through the prism of Mother Dolores’ life, which she relates with grace, charm and wit.

The film dramatically opens with Elvis singing “Young Dreams” to Dolores Hart in Loving You (1958).  “I often wonder,” Mother Dolores reflects, “why the Lord gave me such an opportunity to audition with Elvis… And, I just can’t believe I got the part.”  Two years later, while starring on Broadway, a friend introduced her to the Abbey. Her life was never the same.

“I never felt that I was leaving Hollywood,” she says. “The Abbey was like a grace of God that entered my life… totally unexpected…  God was… the bigger Elvis.”

Tackling a batch of letters with her loyal parakeet Toby by her side, she reads one from an “adorable” fan, who enthuses she and Elvis were his favorites. “What are you doing now?” he ends, eliciting a hearty laugh, a pause and, another hearty laugh. 

“I was 19 and just on the threshold of the biggest career that you could ever have,” she comments. “Hal Wallis offered me a seven year contract.”

When a visitor tells of his distress over a missing loved one, Mother Dolores promises she will pray. She comments afterwards, “My role is to help a person discover you can always find hope and if you can find hope you might find faith.”

“My early life,” she reflects, was “most unstable”—her grandmother counseled her teen parents to get an abortion. But, this very instability nurtured her vocation as she realized, “The stability factor had to come within myself.”

In Hollywood, she rose every morning at 6 a.m. whether or not she was working, to go to mass. 

“Every role I got I prayed for.”

While Hart was pursuing her career, the reverend mother clarified for her that “chastity doesn’t mean that you don’t appreciate what God created. Chastity says use it well,” which gave her “a sense of peace” -- and a desire to return to the abbey.

Besides Elvis, she was starring opposite heartthrobs like Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Warren Beatty, who wanted to open her contract to MGM, raising her value to $1 million.

“But… in the back of my mind,” she says, “I was thinking about going back to Regina Laudis… (to have) true communion with God.  And, eternal love is the mystery that I found here.”

Poignant testimony from the others, including Sr. John Mary—once a powerful executive in politics then advertising who coped by using alcohol and drugs—helps complete the picture and explain the mystery of eternal love.

“Someone described a monastery as a powerhouse of prayer,” she says. “We’re carrying a lot for people and you make a decision here to surrender your life to God…This is the only place I could see myself being because this is where it’s at.” Said like the advertising pro she is.

It’s also a bed of roses—complete with thorns. 

After entering the Abbey in June 1963, wearing a wedding gown, Mother Dolores thought it would be nirvana. Instead, “The first night I felt like I had jumped off a 20-story building and landed flat on my butt. I had no idea it was going to mean singing seven times a day, working in the garden, 10 people in one bathroom, the sternness.”

It didn’t help that the other nuns didn’t give “the actress” a month.  But, the actress fought back, apparently with salty words.  As her former fiancé notes, “She wanted to be married to God.”

“In monastic life,” notes Sister John Mary, “there is no way out... Mother Prioress describes it as being skinned alive.”

But, as the film portrays, she deploys plenty of wisdom and inventiveness to ease the way, as two touching vignettes—one involving a Llama, another, a heart-to-heart talk—reveal.  She has also artfully involved the community, as more clips show, helping each discover their own unique calling. 

And, now, through this well-done HBO documentary, she’s involving Hollywood, to which she returned this year for the Oscars.  If she helped lead the late great Patricia Neal, in her darkest days, to God (a story the film omits), it’s a good bet more miracles will follow.  After 49 years of loving God, she’s certainly stored up the requisite spiritual wealth for that production.

*All HBO playdates and times: April 5 (8-8:40 p.m.) 8 (4 p.m.) 10 (11:15 a.m.), 13 (4:30 p.m.), 14 (9:45 a.m.) and 19 (2:45 p.m.)

Note: The Abbey of Regina Laudis is currently  conducting a capital fundraising campaign. If you wish to contribute, 

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