This Hollywood star kissed Elvis Presley before becoming…a Benedictine nun!

2nd Week of Lent 2024

I remember that day in the courthouse parking lot like it was yesterday (even though it was 23 years ago).  On that bright, sunny September Friday morning, the words that kept going through my mind were, “This is not the way the script goes!  This is not the script of my life.  This is not how things are supposed to be.”  Minutes before, I had been inside a courtroom where a judge had pronounced that my marriage of eleven years was over, and we were officially divorced.  The whole thing had been pretty amicable and humane, relatively speaking, so I wasn’t feeling shocked or traumatized, just completely disoriented—confused—because for so long I had been following a “script” for my life. I had been so sure of the story’s ending, and this was not it. 

Have you ever had a moment like that in your life?  A complete disconnect in some profound way between the way you always thought your life would go and how it actually went?  I imagine it’s how Peter felt that day in Caesarea Philippi when he named Jesus as The Messiah [Mark 8:29-36].  Peter thought he knew what that meant—he was following the script he had been taught since birth: one day The Messiah would arrive, lead Israel in a military coup to overthrow the Roman occupiers and restore a Jewish king to the throne. In saying that Jesus was The Messiah, Peter was saying that he expected Jesus would follow that script.

But then the proverbial rug got pulled right out from under Peter’s feet.  And it was Jesus who gave that rug a good hard yank.  With the word “Messiah” still hanging in the air, Jesus explained he was about to undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders of Israel, and be killed.  (He added that after three days he would rise again, but I don’t think Peter caught that tiny detail—he was too busy dragging poor Jesus aside to urgently whisper in his ear that he had it all wrong.  “Messiahs don’t suffer.  Messiahs aren’t rejected by their own religious leaders.  And Messiahs sure as heck don’t get themselves killed!  It’s not in the script!  Come on, Jesus, get with the program!”) The bible doesn’t tell us what Peter said to Jesus—just that he “rebuked him”—but knowing Peter, he was probably in full melodramatic meltdown mode.

Jesus was following a different script than the one Peter knew.  A very different script. So he rebuked Peter right back—he saw Peter’s rebuke, and raised him the whole pile of poker chips.  “Get behind me Satan!” Jesus snaps at him.  “My followers must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

This must have stunned Peter and the rest of the disciples.  The gospel says they didn’t do anything for the next six days.  Those six days must have been filled with questions and anxiety about just what Jesus meant, and why he was no longer following the script that they all assumed he had been following.  Suffering, rejection, execution?  This was not how they had expected the story would end.  And why on earth did Jesus say they would each have to pick up their own cross—a cross?!?—that gruesome, gory, brutal instrument of torture and execution? (They had no way of knowing that what lay ahead was Jesus’ own crucifixion at Golgotha.)  They must have been so confused.

Sadly, the confusion over those words of Jesus didn’t end 2,000 years ago.  Even today, well-meaning but ill-informed faith leaders misinterpret his words, too often telling victims of abuse to “deny themselves,” that “it’s their cross to bear” and “Jesus taught us we must suffer if we want to follow him.”  Let me be clear, that is NOT what Jesus meant—and we should never use our faith and its sacred texts to force someone to remain in an abusive or violent situation.  Ever.

But if that wasn’t what Jesus was saying, what DID he mean?  I believe Jesus was trying to teach them—and us—about vocation and discipleship.  When Jesus “took up his cross,” he was choosing to carry out the ministry that God called him to do, his vocation, his calling.  “Follow me,” Jesus is saying to them, “Watch what I am about to do.  I am going to deny myself and do what I know God is calling me to do.  I want each of you to do the same.”  He wasn’t saying that each of them (or each of us) has to go to Jerusalem and get crucified.  He was using “take up your cross” as shorthand for “find your vocation, your calling, from God, and do it—even when it’s hard, even when you suffer because of it, even when you’re scared. Even when it doesn’t follow the script you thought it would.”

The hard lesson Peter learned that day is that the script the world wants us to follow isn’t the one God wants us to follow.  Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!” because Peter was trying to convince him to be the kind of Messiah the world’s script called for: a military conqueror allied with Jewish authorities. But God’s script turns the world’s script upside down and Jesus knew that. 

The world’s script says finders keepers, losers weepers.  God’s script says finders are the weepers, and losers are the keepers. It says God came among us not as a conquering hero, but as a vulnerable baby born amongst the poor, lived as an immigrant and associated with outcasts, was executed as a criminal and buried in a borrowed tomb. The world’s script says that we are supposed to be winners and leaders. But following Jesus requires us to stop following the world’s script and start following God’s.

Dolores Hart is one inspiring example of what that looks like. A young, beautiful movie star in the late 50’s and early 60’s, she was called the “next Grace Kelly” and was the first girl with whom Elvis had an on-screen kiss.  She starred opposite the day’s most handsome leading men: George Peppard, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Anthony Quinn, Robert Wagner, Montgomery Clift.  By 1963, she was starring on Broadway and engaged to be married to a handsome, successful architect who adored her.  She was following the world’s script—literally—and perfectly.  She was destined for great success and happiness by the world’s standards. 

There was just one problem.  Dolores took a short vacation from that play on Broadway and a friend recommended she go to a retreat center, the Abbey of Regina Laudis, an enclosed Benedictine abbey and working farm in Bethlehem, Connecticut, where she could get some much-needed rest.  She stayed there for nine days, watching the nuns go about their lives—singing in the chapel, tending the garden, caring for the herds of livestock.  She returned several times after that, each time feeling more powerfully drawn to their way of life.  She met with the Mother Abbess and said she thought she was sensing a vocation.  “No!  Don’t be silly!” the Abbess told her, “Go back to your glamorous life in the movies.” 

She did go back and completed filming of “Come Fly With Me,” but she did not lose that sense of calling.  So, she sat down with her fiancée and broke their engagement (and his heart), telling him that she was going to be a nun.  Then she told the movie studio execs she needed a short break from the promotion tour for the movie to go visit “a friend” in Connecticut.  They offered her the use of the company limo, and that is how she arrived at the Abbey where she entered that day as a novice. The head of the movie studio was FURIOUS!  And her parents tried to talk her out of it.

Today, 60 years later, she is still there, and is now the Mother Abbess of the Order.  In 2012, HBO made a short documentary film about her life that was nominated for an Academy Award, “God Is The Bigger Elvis.” She arrived on the red carpet in Hollywood dressed in her black and white nun’s habit!

Mother Dolores’ story is one of courageous discipleship and a willingness to follow God’s script even when it meant denying herself the bright lights of a fabulously successful Hollywood career and the love of a man who adored her (he never married, and for 47 years, until his death, he visited her at the Abbey once a year).

Sooner or later, each of us makes choices—big and small—about which script to read from.  Perhaps our choices won’t be quite as dramatic as denying ourselves the chance to kiss Elvis or star on Broadway, but still, we must ask ourselves:  Am I following the world’s script for my life, or God’s? 

May this Lenten season offer us the chance to learn some new lines, to try following some different choreography—the chance to lose our lives that they might be saved.

May it be so.