Review: The Ear of the Heart
by Senior Editor Gail Deibler Finke
The Ear of the Heart doesn’t know what kind of book it wants to be.
It’s a sort of two-person dialogue memoir, yes. But a memoir of what? Of a child growing up in a troubled family? Of a decades-long friendship? Of a charmed rise to Hollywood fame, with a one-and-only Broadway performance garnering an Emmy nomination along the way? Of Hollywood acquaintances and their quirky ways? Of discerning a vocation to a monastic life? Of a 20th-century woman beginning a 1500-year-old cloistered Benedictine life? Of how harsh monastic life was before Vatican II? Of attempts to revitalize Benedictine life while remaining true to its nature? Of a women’s monastic order struggling with Rome to keep some of its ancient traditions? Of the accomplished and interesting sort of women who join a monastery/abbey today? Of backbreaking efforts to work land in traditional ways? Of back-breaking efforts to work land in modern, organic ways? Of the founding of a repertory theater? Of identifying and learning to live with a mysterious, debilitating illness?
The book touches on all these subjects, and more, without going into depth about any of them. The reader will look in vain, for instance, for a real explanation of how Mother Dolores (formerly actress Dolores Hart, formerly student Dolores Hicks) discerns her calling. She just does. Her faith, described mostly in terms of going to daily Mass and making retreats at the Regina Laudis monastery she eventually enters, is barely touched on. More than halfway through the book, brief excerpts from journal entries describe a mystical search for oneness with the Beloved — presumably, the sort of thing Dolores has written (or at least thought) for ages. They come as a surprise, making the previous story more understandable, but similar things are rarely mentioned again.
The first half of the book recounts Mother Dolores’s early years, childhood conversion to Catholicism, and acting career. The book’s breakneck pace is easy to miss, because for about 200 pages what she and her co-writer (former suitor and life-long friend Richard DeNeut) recount is based on things that everyone is familiar with, at least by report: family problems, school, famous actors, working on films, working on Broadway, dating, and so on. When the writers skip over things, the reader can fill in the blanks.
Not so with the second half of the book, which describes things more removed from most people’s lives: the discipline of a Benedictine monastery, the social dynamics of religious life, working with actors in a repertory theater, and so on. The gaps are more obvious, because few people have backgrounds in even one or two of these things. The second half focuses on topics rather than chronology, which makes sense in many ways but can leave the reader confused: A lawsuit against a patron, covered toward the end of the book, comes as a surprise although it’s mentioned obliquely in sections dealing with other things that happened at the same time. Mother Dolores’s mysterious illness (which turns out to be a kind of neuropathy) likewise is covered only after other things that happened later are described.
It’s not only events that are described in this kaleidoscopic way. Mother Dolores’s inner life, including her presumably profound faith, is presented in a similarly fragmented fashion. She rarely mentions Christ, although in the last few pages she does mention the Eucharist. Most of the time, when she talks about God it’s in vague terms: God is present in everyone, in every profession, in every place. And so on. One has to assume that embarking on a life of 24-hour-a-day prayer and removal from the world entails accepting a vision of something a little more concrete, but what that might be is anyone’s guess. Likewise Mother Dolores touches on, but doesn’t really explore, what relationship her calling might have to a family history of alcohol, physical abuse, and divorce (her own parents were each divorced several times) — is she not capable of a marital commitment to the two men who loved her? Or is her vocation a gift, granting her a different type of commitment than the one that had failed so many times in her own family?
That said, the problem is not one of too little said, but of trying to cover too much. Despite its heft, the book is easy to read and interesting. The reader will find out many fascinating things about a fascinating person and fascinating ways of life, from acting with Hollywood stars to chanting psalms in the dark with novices and nuns that, as a novice herself, Sister Dolores was not allowed to speak to. There are profound and moving passages along the way. But don’t expect to close the book knowing the author well. Like a play or a film, the book leaves its readers with only a glimpse of who its star really is.
The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows, by Mother Dolores Hart, OSB and Richard DeNeut, is published by Ignatius Press. See a video trailer for the book, which includes brief interviews with the authors and many photos, here.
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