Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Presley's Prioress

As the annual Elvis Memorial Post always seems to go over well 'round these parts, a true "keeper" of a related story recently got picked up in the Catholic press.

It's been noted before, but back in 1962 Dolores Hart -- who starred opposite the King in both King Creole and Loving You -- shocked Hollywood by leaving a promising career in the business to enter religious life as a cloistered Benedictine. Now, still far from the spotlight, Hart remains at Connecticut's Regina Laudis Abbey, where she eventually became Mother Dolores and, ergo, superior of the house.

In a rare interview covering her acting past and ascetic present, Hart spoke at length with The (Brooklyn) Tablet:
Although the two were still teenagers when they made their first film together, Elvis had already gained stardom with his rock and roll music.

“Because I co-starred with Elvis, people kept coming up to me asking if I could get them a lock of his hair!” recalled Mother Dolores with a chuckle.

She recalls an incident that describes the humility and thoughtfulness of Elvis. One day while filming “King Creole,” the streets of New Orleans were jammed with people trying to get a glimpse of The King. She hopped into the back of a limo with Elvis to drive to the movie set. A young girl put her arm into the slightly opened window of the car to try to touch Elvis as the car was moving.

“I remember so well my shouting at Elvis to tell the driver to stop the car. The driver didn’t stop. Elvis then grabbed the driver and shouted that he must stop the car immediately. Elvis got out of the car to check to see if the young lady was okay. He told the girl that he was not as important as she was.

“Later, when I was here at the Abbey, I received a call from that woman thanking me for what Elvis and I did to help her. It was evident that Elvis Presley was a very caring and self-deprecating individual.”

And as for that on-camera kiss? “It was the kiss that lasted over 45 years!” she says with an impish radiance that betrays the actress still in her.

On matters of religion, spirituality or faith, Mother Dolores points out that Elvis did not discuss such topics with her “but many times on the set, in between breaks, Elvis would ask me how often I read the Bible or if I had a favorite Psalm. He seemed to always want to know if there was a Bible around somewhere.”

Elvis loved to sing and record Gospel music. “Those spiritual songs had an unquestionable depth of soul to them,” she notes. “They were like incarnational expressions for all who heard them. Elvis no doubt touched something very deep in the heart and soul of so many individuals. He reached deep down into that place that awakened a call to Christ. I have no doubt that Elvis Presley made the Lord a reality for others not only in his Gospel music but in his countless gestures of generosity and caring compassion. People seemed to be called out of darkness by his voice in those songs of deep devotion, hope and abiding faith.”

When Elvis died, Mother recalled being “deeply, deeply pained. He was so talented, so glorious.”...

Being an actress “....was a definitive ‘call,’” explains Mother Dolores. It was her grandfather (a projectionist at a movie theater) who was the most influential person in shaping her impassioned acting career.

“Although I had always wanted to be an actress since I was seven years old, it was really my grandfather who truly encouraged me to be one. He was the ‘patriarch’ for me and was the primary source of my continued encouragement. I prayed and prayed for years to become an actress. Acting was in the gene pool of my family (her father was an actor), it flowed through our veins, it was in the blood for sure.”...

At the age of 24, Dolores Hart startled the film world in 1962 when she left a thriving and beloved screen career to become a cloistered Benedictine nun. But it wasn’t an easy transition. “...It was like purgatory,” she says. “I felt as if I had jumped from a 20-story building into a pool with no water.” Many times, she felt that she wanted to run out of the monastery.

But she had entered searching for the “will of God” and she wasn’t ready to give up that easily.

Visitors to the austere environment of Regina Laudis might wonder why a young woman with her entire career ahead of her would give up fame and fortune to enter a monastery. It wasn’t because she was fed up with Hollywood or the stage.

“I came here initially at the suggestion of a dear friend. I had been on Broadway for nine months in ‘The Pleasure of His Company.’ I was weary, very weary.

When I came to Regina Laudis Abbey I just knew that this was what God wanted from me. I just kept returning again and again. I guess you might say that I really didn’t come here looking for anything. Rather, I was trying to understand why I was being led into such a place that was the shocking opposite of the life I was living. There was something about the vow of stability that monastic men or women take that was very significant for me. That vow gives one a place where one can find a still center in the midst of constant change. There is that still center in the midst of all that is so unsettling and what appears as seeming meaninglessness in a society that is losing its own sense of history and purpose.”

Asked to elaborate about her “nudge” from God to enter the cloistered monastic community, she added, “It is hard to explain. I guess the best way I could answer that this is this way: if one is married, why did one marry so and so and not another? If you have a beloved pet, why did that one pet enter your life and not another? It was the monastic life that found me.”

She rather amusingly produced her BlackBerry-cell phone. “You see this? Imagine if everyone in the world had one of these and was able to ‘clock’ into the Holy Spirit? But certainly I don’t really need anything like that to explain what I have now in my life.”

For the first time since entering the monastery, Mother Dolores returned to Hollywood in early 2006. Still a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, she remains an annual Oscar voter -- and an avid one at that.