Mother Dolores Hart has been a member of Abbey of Regina Laudis for the past 37 years. Recently, she became prioress, second in rank to the abbess. She joined the Connecticut community in her teens, after having a brief career in film. As an actress, she had the distinction of being the first to kiss Elvis Presley on screen. She also starred in "Where the Boys Are." Mother Dolores talked with Beliefnet senior producer Anne Simpkinson about the impact chant has on the lives of her fellow sisters, who have produced two CDs, "Women in Chant" and "Women in Chant Recordare."

I understand that you pray the divine office daily, that you have consistent prayer times throughout the day.
Yes, and [we] also [pray] once in the middle of the night.

So would it be fair to say that chant creates the rhythm of your day?
Absolutely, chant is the skeleton of our day

How then does chant impact your spiritual life?
It gives our spiritual life a grounded sense of relationship. We are not praying in the abstract; we have to pray in relationship to what is happening around us, through the people and situations that are tangible.

If He [God] became the Word, then we have the right to become the song.

Also, the text of the chant has been taken from the ancient words from the holy scriptures. They are the cries, the lamentations, the call of the human heart that goes back centuries and centuries in time. When you recall this whole call of humanity in chant, you are really picking up a divine network of what the human heart has been anguishing about for centuries. In one day, when you go through the chants, you have pretty well said what everybody in the lifetime of man has had on their minds.

Do you think that the chanting, the actual physical verbalization of the prayers--the singing aspect--makes it different than praying silently or reciting the liturgy out loud?
It has been said by a better man than I that when you sing you pray twice. The drive to sing is very deep in all humans. There is an ecstasy when humans first hear the sound of their own voice in a singing tone. That tone brought into whatever prayer form is a heart-to-heart call from the individual to God.
If our community could not chant, we would all be wrecks.

Maybe in the beginning, we start out with God as Mother, or God as Father, or God as our Mate, or God as our Friend, but there is an ecstasy, even a sexual ecstasy, in the sound of a voice that is singing. If we were meant to be silent, then why would God become the Word? If He became the Word, then we have the right to become the song.

Mother Dolores, I understand that you have been in the abbey for 37 years. Do you think that the effects of chanting are cumulative, that over the years it deepens your spirit? Does the practice really work over time?
Oh yes, I have no doubt about that. When you say "work," our work is that we want to come to purity of heart, to a place where we can lose the anguish that we have felt in the aloneness--at least I felt very alone at 19, which seems strange to say, but there are a lot of lonely kids out there in their teens. That's a condition of human existence. I think the lifelong love affair with chant does give your heart a place of peace, and in that it "works."

In "The Mozart Effect" by Don Campbell, he talks about a monastery in France in the '70's. They had cut out chanting, and there was a spate of illness among the monks. A physician by the name of Alfred Tomatis said that their ill health had to do with the stopping of their chanting. Do you think that chanting is not only useful spiritually but that it also has a physical effect?
I think that if our community could not chant, we would all be wrecks. I think that the only thing that keeps us going is the fact that we have the gift of our [daily] office, and not only because we have our own work of redemption but because our work is also to take on the redemptive work of prayer given to us by people who have enlisted our help.

I know when someone calls and there is a serious situation, it goes to the body of the community and we can feel it within hours. We are in union with that problem in some way or another; it is very mysterious.

Almost like you take on their problem?
We take it on. We don't know how or why.

Let me see if I understand what you're saying. When people tell you about suffering in their lives, somehow that suffering transfers to the members of your community, and chanting gives you the ability to bear their suffering?
Yes, that's right.

I understand that your particular abbey has a special connection to chant, that back in the '40s your foundress made it a special point to have the nuns study chant, and that tradition carries through to today.
We had a very close relationship to Dr. Theodore Marier, who died recently. He was our chant master since 1960. He was very severe. He believed that there were absolute laws [with regard to chant] that had to be studied. He did not believe that one could get to the truth of chant by freelancing.

In fact, he left us with the Ten Commandments of chant, which one of the sisters is working on now to complete. If you don't follow the laws, you are going to get lost very fast.

I am curious as to how the release of these two CDs may have affected your community?
Oh, I think they are very happy that the CDs are out there, but I don't think they think about it very much.

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