Grand Silence

Fifty-five years ago I was in a friary, preparing to join a religious order. During my time there, immediately after the Second Vatican Council, we still maintained many of the old ways of the Order. You could join at age 13, for example. We observed the Hours of prayer (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Sext, Terse, etc.). Each night, after Compline was sung, we began the Grand Silence, a period of complete quiet with no communication, verbal or otherwise, until after Mass, breakfast, and morning prayers, when the fast and contemplation ended.

We elected to keep silence as a discipline for prayer and thought. It was not viewed as a constraint, but rather as a liberating practice.

As I continue to think about celebrating my 70th birthday, I am pondering death, sex, and money. And I believe that there is nothing grand about our silence regarding any of these three. It is a rigid silence that constrains us and keeps us captive.

When I joined the staff of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin in the mid-1980s, the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics were doing what we now call gender confirmation surgeries. The University partnered with Planned Parenthood to offer Sexual Attitude Reassessment (SAR) seminars in which groups of 20 people spent two full days talking about sex and watching films about sexual activity. These were not porn films, but rather they showed oral-, vaginal-, and anal-insertive or penetrative sex in clinical precision. Fondling, 69, frottage, and more were all considered. One of the most remarkable films I watched involved a heterosexual couple in their late 70s enjoying vaginal intercourse. The female narrated the film and recounted how her spouse was an “impetuous” lover when they first met in their teens, but his tenderness had increased with age. Further, she appreciated that it took him longer to achieve and maintain an erection after age 60, resulting in a pace that allowed her more pleasure and comfort.

I found the SAR, especially that last film, to be among the most useful and hopeful educational experiences in my life — right up there with my classes in linguistics and Adlerian psychology. Seeing that couple, then more than twice my age, enjoying sex, sex that I had never once heard talked about in school, opened for me the possibility of embracing life longer than I thought possible.

But this experience was before Republican legislatures, conservative university chancellors and trustees, and the backlash against abortion, LGBTQ liberation, and AIDS made this candor — this liberation — impossible.

Even now, in the age of Tinder and Grindr, people remained unsure about their health status related to sexually transmitted infections. The very notion of sexually transmitted infections is sort of quaint. We emphasize the mode of transmission (unprotected sex) rather than the type of infection (bacterial, viral, protozoa, or fungal). Some in public health act surprised that reducing teen pregnancy rates with long-acting reversible contraceptives has contributed to a rise in STI rates among teens. The same is true in the rise of STI rates among those using PrEP without condoms.

And then there is aging. As I approach 70, a widower for three and a half years, I am at a loss, but not at a loss about love. No, I enjoy fulfilling, committed relationships with scores of people about whom I am passionate and with whom I exchange my deepest thoughts and feelings. I love and am loved well. But that love we bizarrely call romantic, sexual love, is elusive in the grand silence that enshrouds it. Oh, I suspect if I held a heterosexual identity, things might be a bit more forthcoming. I do get hit on by women about once a month. True, my cohort of gay men is decimated by more than 3 decades of HIV. True, too, that I am a picky guy after 32 years with Paul. But, still…I have come to learn that not all silence is liberating. Much of it just keeps us stuck.

Okay, there. I said it. I broke the silence, another taboo. We’ll see if I am assigned penance.

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