When is a 74-year-old Nun More Interesting than the COO of Facebook?

Coincidentally, my review copy of The Ear of the Heart: An Actress’ Journey from Hollywood to Holy Vows by Mother Dolores Hart arrived the same day as inter-library loan delivered  Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. That was interesting.

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You’re going to have to trust me on this one: a 74-year-old cloistered nun speaks more clearly and significantly to our time than the COO of Facebook.

I don’t come to bury Sandberg but to (sort of) praise her. She works mightily to promote the laudable goal of women succeeding in the workforce, and the outside and self-made obstacles that prevent that.

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But try as she might, Sandberg writes Lean In chiefly for other uber-successful full-time professionals, and for those who want to be. Yes, she gives some lip service to supporting women’s choice to be out of the paid work force, but can we be honest? Not a whole bunch.

I found myself not so much pondering what Sandberg would think of at-home-mom me for not putting my M.S.J. to full-time work. I’m older than her and both secure in my choices and welcoming of other women’s choices.

Instead, I wondered: whatever would Sheryl Sandberg make of Mother Dolores Hart?

On the surface, Mother Dolores breaks pretty much all of Sandberg’s rules in Lean In about women and success. She “leans out” instead of “leaning in” by leaving Hollywood in the 1960s–just as her acting career was taking off–to enter Regina Laudis, a Benedictine monastery of nuns in Connecticut. Perhaps more accurately, Mother Dolores “leans in” to a life far more influential and powerful than the typical career in Hollywood or elsewhere.

Over a long and varied life, Mother Dolores Hart develops spiritual wisdom and realism about the world and human life, born from a life of disciplined Benedictine prayer and work. That’s what makes The Ear of the Heart truly much more relevant for our time than the rather narrow message of Lean In.

The Ear of the Heart offers space for pondering and reflection, no matter your age or life path, on living life fully and intentionally, on spiritual friendship, and on maturity.

Like all good spiritual autobiographies, The Ear of the Heart really takes off once the vocation begins. Struggles with early doubts, times of desolation, community struggles and more, make for fascinating reading.

The book is bursting with spiritual nuggets. Consider part of a much longer passage of Mother Dolores reflecting on the value of prayer in coping with pain:

“God did not create us to suffer. He made us for joy and goodness, and He made the body to be a container of beauty. I believe He wants our body to be a treasure. If not, why would God want His Son to be part of humanity? When we are in pain our only answer is to stay in that identification with God’s Son, who transformed pain through love.”

The book is co-written with Mother Dolores Hart’s longtime friend and Hollywood insider Richard DeNeut. Their back-and-forth informal conversation through the book offers both a unique structure and the ability for other voices–of Hart’s friends, family and fellow nuns–to “speak” in the book in a natural way.

What did I find most surprising about The Ear of the Heart? How, once upon a time, so many major Hollywood stars were serious Catholics or converts to Catholicism. May it be so once again.

—- Briefly noted: An interesting cultural connection with The Ear of the Heart: When I read about one of the Regina Laudis nuns, Sister Noelle, who is well-known in natural-foods circles for her cheese-making and research into cheese, I thought her name sounded familiar.

Then I realized Sister Noelle, the “cheese nun,” was favorably profiled in food writer Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

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Food Rules is still my favorite Michael Pollan book, for many reasons, but Cooked had much of value to say about family and the importance of real cooking and people eating together. At times it felt like Pollan was channeling G.K. Chesterton, so much does he stress the value of families eating home-cooked meals together.  And his time with Sister Noelle makes me want to try to make my own cheese (but, being honest, I’m more likely to try homemade yogurt or perhaps kimchee if I’m feeling really brave).

A more common exclamation as I read through The Ear of the Heart, was, “This is a real-life In This House of Brede.” Fiction lovers may find of interest Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, her account of many decades in the lives of nuns in an English Benedictine monastery.

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Godden is a beautiful as well as melancholy writer, and In This House of Brede is probably best among her books for adults. But feel free to skip the 1975 film with Diana Rigg, which does justice to neither the book nor Benedictine life and spirituality.

One thought on “When is a 74-year-old Nun More Interesting than the COO of Facebook?”

  1. Thanks for leaving me this link Nancy. It’s an excellent review. Our book club was also surprised by how many stars were Catholic and some were even evangelizing! Now you have me wanting to read the Pollan books. I am planning to see the Cheese Nun documentary soon. Have a blessed day!

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