HBO explores the mystery of love April 5, when the network airs “God Is the Bigger Elvis.” It is the story of Dolores Hart, a young starlet of the fifties and sixties who became a cloistered nun. The little more than half-hour documentary, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012, reflects the mystery of God in the actress’s life and the power of two loves.
Dolores Hart is now the prioress of Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. The story reveals the film and Broadway star’s enduring commitments to her one-time fiancé Don Robinson and to God. In 1963, Dolores Hart left Robinson, an architect, for life in the cloister. The stage lights yielded to chapel candles, and curtain call to the convent bell that announce the hours of the Divine Office. Their deep friendship remained, however; so too, her commitment to God.
“God Is the Bigger Elvis” celebrates lasting love. Don, who never married, visited Mother Dolores annually and helped support the rural 400-acre monastery with its working farm. He died last November. Mother Dolores, meanwhile, now celebrates almost 50 years as a Benedictine nun.
The actress, who gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss in “Loving You” and starred on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company,” knew romance-full Hollywood. Yet she chose the most romantic life of all when she entered the monastery. What can be more romantic that giving your life to the unseen God and responding to a stirring of the heart evoked by Someone who offers no sweet nothings?
In the documentary, Mother Dolores does not explain the call that has sustained her half a century. But who of us really can explain love, even the spark that launches a couple's decades-long friendship, even marriage? “It was her smile,” some say. “His laugh.” “His eyes.” “The way she walked into a room.” “He was so much fun.” “She was so pretty.”
Even harder to explain is the love that a nun has for a church and a religious community through its human and, sometimes, inhumane moments. Who can explain her steadfast love for an itinerant preacher who walked in Galilee 2,000 years ago?
HBO will air the program on Holy Thursday, the commemoration of another love story, that of the Man Who gave up His life for His friends. It is the story of the ultimate sacrifice that underlies the faith of Christians around the world. Like other loves, it holds an element of mystery, and we accept it, without complete understanding.
Speaking to NBC-TV last January, Mother Dolores said that when she broke off her engagement, she told Don Robinson, “Every love doesn’t have to end at the altar.” On the Hollywood level, theirs did not. His obit said they were “close, close friends.” Yet, on the level of abiding friendship, perhaps it did.
For great loves do lead to an altar, the altar of sacrifice that is celebrated especially every Holy Week. It is a solemn love, intangible, yet real; more passionate than even swivel-hipped Elvis, and powerful enough to hold us to Him, never seen yet felt within our very souls.