Mother Dolores Hart has had an interesting and unusual life, as outlined in the Benedictine nun's memoir, "The Ear of the Heart."
She was born Dolores Hicks in 1938, the only child of Bert and Harriet Hicks, whose tumultuous marriage ended in divorce when she was 3. Her chaotic and distressing childhood was spent partly in Chicago with her maternal grandparents and partly in Beverly Hills, marred by her parent's alcoholism, infidelity and violence.
When she was 9, living in Chicago and attending parochial school, she asked if she could become a Catholic. "Granny didn't care. She said whatever I wanted to do, I could do: 'Just because we never found anything, that doesn't mean we should deny you the right to try.'" Dolores, baptized a few days before her 10th birthday, recalls how Catholicism's "strength and solidity" gave her "a sense of belonging."
Her successful, albeit brief acting career began when she was a student at Marymount College, and included movies (several with Elvis Presley) and stage work. While appearing on Broadway she became acquainted with Regina Laudis monastery and, although engaged to be married, she couldn't avoid a growing sense that she had a religious vocation. She stunned her colleagues and family when she entered Regina Laudis in 1963.
Now, 50 years later, with the help of an old friend and Hollywood writer Richard DeNeut, she has told her story in this poorly written, problematic book. Some pages are presented in the form of a conversation between Mother Dolores and DeNeut, but at other times there are long sections of text where it isn't clear who is writing. This can be annoying, but it is a minor problem. The more serious flaw can be summed up in an anecdote about Hart's entrance as a postulant.
"'We live by the Rule of St. Benedict,' the Reverend Mother said. 'Do you respond to the Rule?' 'Oh yes,' I replied. I greatly respond to the Rule. St. Benedict thinks like I do.'
"The silence in the room was deafening, broken only when one of the nuns berated me: 'St. Benedict, young lady, does not think the way you do. Don't you think you should have said you think like St. Benedict?'"
Reverend Mother defended her ("This is a new era, and we should listen to what the new generation is saying"), but that statement could be taken as a fair characterization of this self-absorbed book.
"The Ear of the Heart" makes mention of characteristic monastic elements: vocation, cloister, Gregorian chant, liturgy, community and prayer, but these are never discussed in any substantive way. We never learn what led her to Regina Laudis, nor what it was like to be a cloistered contemplative for 50 years. She adverts to the impact of the Second Vatican Council and cultural shifts, but gives little attention to the historical issues in the United States, the Catholic Church or Regina Laudis itself.
One would reasonably expect a book titled "The Ear of the Heart" to have some spiritual content. Instead, Regina Laudis functions as a stage set for vaguely entertaining stories about Dolores Hart's interesting life and remarkable people she has met.
Now, it is true that even a cloistered nun is under no obligation to write a spiritual memoir, but she is required to be serious about her subject. The lack of depth and frank mistakes in this book diminish the author's credibility, such as this explanation of a correspondence with Douglas Fairbanks: "He never visited Regina Laudis, but I've included him among our visitors because there is an observation in spiritual life known as 'consolation without cause.' This refers to a feeling of warmth and comfort that comes for no apparent reason. You don't ask for it. But out of nowhere, you instinctively have this marvelous feeling of well-being that comes from -- somewhere. That was Mr. Fairbanks."
In fact, the correct term is "consolation without prior cause." It is not a "feeling of warmth" but an important tool used in Ignatian discernment of spirits (why it is particularly egregious to find this kind of mistake in a book published by Ignatius Press).
It's not wrong to write, or to read, a self-absorbed book, but it is a pity to have spent 50 years in a cloister without showing any evidence of growth in humility, charity and obedience that is the hallmark of Benedictine monasticism.