Real where is matters: Dolly Parton and St Benedict

To look at me, you probably wouldn’t guess that I am a huge Dolly Parton fan. You could be forgiven for imagining that Gregorian Chant might be more my thing. I grew up in a household where Radio’s Two Country Time show on a Sunday night was a much a marker of Sunday as going to Mass. If I am honest, as a teenager I groaned each time a Country track came on the radio. But then in early adulthood I discovered a fondness for those lyrics that tug at your heart strings and those re-assuring harmonies. To my surprise I had absorbed many more of the lyrics during childhood than I realised.

Dolly’s appearance has always drawn a lot of comment and this is usually one of the first things people will mention when they let you know that they don’t like her. We all the know the stories of her upbringing in the Smokey Mountains and her hand me down clothes. Quite understandably as a little girl she longed for sparkle. She looks to have had every type of cosmetic surgery that you can imagine. But what’s really interesting is that she knows she looks fake. In the podcast interview below Dolly comments: ‘I know everything about me is fake, but I like to think I am real where it matters.’

I like to think that St Benedict would have recognised Dolly’s desire to be real where it matters. The monastic way of life strips us away physically and spiritually and the goal is to be our true selves, our real selves. At its best, monastic life makes you attentive to what lies beneath the surface. So a facelift and lots of rhinestones wouldn’t be a barrier to seeing the real person.

As the interview above unfolds I hear more and more resonances with St Benedict’s way of thinking. Dolly speaks of her experiences in life and comments:

I hurt a lot and when I hurt, I hurt all over because I cannot harden my heart to protect myself. I always say that I strengthen the muscles around my heart, but I can’t harden it.

If we put this in theological language Dolly is in fact talking about the Body of Christ. Being aware enough of the other to feel it inside ourselves is one of the things that makes us human. Connection is why we are here. In Ch 72 of his Rule St Benedict’s makes explicit what this level of connection might look like. The chapter is worth quoting in full:

On the good zeal that monks should have.

‘Just as there is an evil and bitter zeal that separates one from God and leads to hell, so too there is a good zeal that separates one from evil and leads to God and eternal life. Thus monks should practice this zeal with the warmest love: ‘Let them strive to be the first to honour one another.’ They should bear each other’s weakness of body and character with the utmost patience. They must compete with one another in obedience. No one should pursue what he considers advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others. They must show selfless love to the brothers. Let then fear God out of love. They should love their abbot with sincere and humble charity. Let then prefer absolutely nothing to Christ, and may he lead us all together to everlasting life.’

Here we have the whole spectrum of St Benedict’s understanding of love. This is training for the heart so that it doesn’t harden.

Dolly’s songwriting has been prolific, and as far as I know, she is still writing. She has taken her life’s experiences and worked them out in music. She has written songs about topics that were taboo and intentionally pushed the boundaries. Throughout it all she mindful of her humble beginnings in the Smokey Mountains. She’s very clear on what she learned and how she learned it. And this is shown rather poignantly in her hit, Coat of Many Colours. It maybe an idealised picture that she paints of her mother telling the Bible story of Joseph as she stiches a coat made from rags, but it’s clear that Dolly grew up with the Bible. Towards the end of the interview above Brene asks Dolly a round of quick fire questions. She asks her to name the items on her nightstand. Along with her tape recorder and book of meditations, her nightstand holds her Bible.

As I have become more interested in Dolly’s story, there’s one thing that stands out for me and moves me deeply. Dolly has been responsible for putting more than 150 million books in the hands of young children through her Imagination Library scheme. If you sign your child up to the scheme they will receive a book every month, from birth until the time they begin school. Dolly knows the power of story. Through her generosity she’s helping to unlock the potential of each child.

I need no further proof that Dolly is real where it matters. This is concrete love. St Benedict would recognise this.