The Very Young at Heart

There were children playing in the park. It was hot. And that’s what kids do in the summer. You have to admire kids, taking advantage of the dog days, even though there’s a pandemic going on.

Remember how euphoric it was being out of school for summer?

Yeah. Me too.

These children wore face masks. They were on the swing set, having a non-stop party. They achieved high altitudes. Did dangerous somersaults. Broke femurs. Loved every minute.

I saw the old man on a bench. He arrived early for our meeting by about ten minutes. He wore a mask. He was reading.

I introduced myself, then asked, “What’cha reading?”

“Oh, nothing.”

But it wasn’t nothing. It was a comic book. This elderly man, old enough to be my grandfather, with dove-white hair, was reading comics.

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said.

“No, thank YOU,” he said, stretching his frail hand outward to shake mine. “I’m retired, I get bored sitting at home.”

I stared at his outstretched hand. I hadn’t shaken hands in half a year since the pandemic began. So we bumped elbows.

“Is that a comic book?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I like the pictures.”

It was Batman.

I had to laugh. When I was a boy, I was a Superman fanatic. I subscribed to “Action Comics” for nine bucks per year and received 24 issues in the mail. It was the best deal in town.

Before our conversation got going, he offered to say an official blessing. This was a little weird, but I went along with it. I closed my eyes because I didn’t know what else to do.

If you’ve never heard a blessing from a retired Catholic priest, it’s cool. They recite what sounds like antiquated poetry.

Which is different from the way I grew up. We were Baptists. Our preachers’ prayers were pure improv. They would say anything that came to their minds. And when they ran out of words they’d say, “Yessssssssss Lord!” until they either thought of something else or someone’s mom passed out.

In a way, when it comes to praying, Baptist preachers are like blues musicians. Catholic priests are Beethoven.

Men of the cloth—even retired ones—use language that transcends our era and reaches backward into a time before a coronavirus. Before Europe. Before Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, or Monday Night Football.

I’ll confess. I’ve been fascinated by the Catholic viewpoint ever since this quarantine started. Not because I’m a religious guy—I’m really not—but because I grew up knowing NOTHING about Catholicism.

Which is especially bizarre when you consider that my late father was raised German Catholic. He converted to hard-shell fundamentalism before I was born.

And he wouldn’t step foot in a Catholic church. I never knew why.

He had gone to Catholic school, was taught by nuns, and played baseball on a team coached by priests. He was an altar boy, for crying out loud.

One time my father and I attended an infant baptism for my cousin. The ceremony was in a Catholic chapel. No sooner had my father entered the church than he took a knee and crossed himself.

“What’re you doing?” I asked. But he refused to explain.

After he died, I never thought about his early years until I wrote a book about him. Then I started digging and realized I had ignored a huge piece of his upbringing.

“So what’s on your mind?” the priest said.

I tried not to burden him with all that was on my mind. But I found myself unloading.

He only nodded, but said nothing.

I was a little disappointed in his response. He offered no wealth of knowledge. No insightful proverbs like: “Seek and ye shall find.” Or: “If at first you don’t succeed, do it the way your wife told you to.”

This priest wasn’t flexing any intellectual muscle. He was just sitting there. A comic book beside him.

Then it occurred to me. Here was a real person. Plain and simple. Just like me, but older. The only difference was, he wasn’t pretending to be a grown-up like I often do.

“You know,” he said. “This year hasn’t been an easy year.”

I waited for more. But nothing. He had no ground shattering insights. No big answers. I kept expecting him to say something valuable that I could take comfort in, reflect upon, and above all, use for a topic in a column.

I waited for him to act like he was smarter than me. But he never would.

Instead, we found ourselves staring into the distance, along with several nearby parents. We simply watched kids play on a swing set.

The children kicked their legs hard, swinging high into the air. They were shouting. Laughing. Screaming. Doing what kids do.

“I used to do that,” the old man said.

Me too. I was one of the best swing-set Evel Knievels this side of the Mississippi. I was giddy about everything. And so hopeful. How could I have changed so much?

“Would you just look at those kids?” he said.

And I did. For a long time. I just watched kids until I forgot what I was doing.

Then he prayed a small prayer. The prayer was short. But it would’ve put Beethoven to shame. And we parted ways.

He’ll probably read these words. And I’m sure he wouldn’t want me writing about him. But I thought he’d like to know that after our meeting, on the way home, I stopped to buy a few comic books.

Because I think I heard what he was trying to say.


  1. Robert Young - August 11, 2020 11:03 am

    The power of unspoken words is comforting and full of wisdom.

  2. turtlekid - August 11, 2020 11:10 am

    Interesting because you don’t say why you made the appointment. Nobody has any answers, we are all bumbling along. Find pleasure in whatever floats your boat. I used to be a Catholic, but hubby was something else. After 4 children I knew we needed to be in agreement and go to church as a family, so I listened to the different way of being a Christian and agreed to be one by being baptized. It has been a better way. Sadly young folks these days don’t think there is a God. It makes me sad, but I still pray for them, and for this country. God is the only WAY.

  3. Leslie in NC - August 11, 2020 11:24 am

    Very thought provoking column, Sean. I think we all, especially during these most unsettling times, need to allow our inner child to just come out and play!

  4. MR Russell - August 11, 2020 12:13 pm

    … Jesus invited a little child to stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

    I know you said you are not really a religious person, Sean. Come to think of it. . . Neither are little children.

  5. James e inman - August 11, 2020 12:18 pm

    There’s a lot to be heard in the unspoken word. Too many talking heads with nothing being said these days. I’ll hush now, another Son of the South!

  6. Curtis Lee Zeitelhack - August 11, 2020 12:36 pm

    Enjoy your life. Amen.

  7. Jan - August 11, 2020 12:47 pm

    Both of you tell a story, just in a different way. I have sometimes been accused of being too wordy (by teachers and my husband & sons). It takes great patience and self control to just sit in silence with someone, especially someone you do not know well. If you can do it, those can be the most educational times of all.

  8. Anne Arthur - August 11, 2020 1:29 pm

    Profound post today, Sean. And it’s certainly not a coincidence that the Gospel that is being read today in all the Catholic masses around the world is this:

    Gospel: MT 18:1-5, 10, 12-14

    The disciples approached Jesus and said,
    “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?”
    He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said,
    “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children,
    you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.
    Whoever becomes humble like this child
    is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
    And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.

    “See that you do not despise one of these little ones,
    for I say to you that their angels in heaven
    always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.
    What is your opinion?
    If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
    will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
    and go in search of the stray?
    And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
    than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.
    In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
    that one of these little ones be lost.”

  9. Kathy - August 11, 2020 2:30 pm

    This is terrific! Just what I needed. Do you know how often you do that?

  10. Warren Kulo - August 11, 2020 4:19 pm

    Reading this column I was reminded of Sammy Cahn’s wonderful lyrics to “September of My Years” (made famous, of course, by Sinatra):

    “As a man who has never paused at wishing wells
    Now I’m watching children’s carousels
    And their laughter’s music to my ears
    And I find that I’m smiling gently as I near
    September, the warm September of my years”

  11. Susan Smith - August 11, 2020 4:59 pm
    God bless you Sean

  12. Susan Smith - August 11, 2020 5:02 pm

    Oops. Should be
    Bless you

  13. Linda Moon - August 11, 2020 5:25 pm

    2,345,405 words to go. Here are three more: “Life is difficult” – M. Scott Peck. (It is – Linda Moon). You had me at the title because we are….my guy and me…..even with difficulties and unanswered questions. I hear the Blues and Beethoven prayers in me right now, thanks to you, Sean. I think you heard what the priest tried to say. And maybe some of God, too. Stay young, my friend. If we get back to the Ryman Auditorium a few more times to hear some good music and maybe a Live Event of yours, too, we’ll be lucky enough to feel young again!

  14. Live - August 11, 2020 5:54 pm

    Thank you for sharing that! What wonderful ways God shows up!

  15. Livy - August 11, 2020 5:56 pm

    Sean, thank you for having the wisdom to recognize wisdom and the generosity to share it…. truly gifts and we are the beneficiaries…. I am greatful.

  16. MAM - August 11, 2020 6:14 pm

    Beautiful and calming, as well as encouraging. Thanks, Sean. And I’m sorry you did not know Catholicism. It has its ups and downs as do all religions, but it is the foundation of all the other Christian faiths. I just finished the Book of Wisdom in the Bible. Wisdom should always be what we seek! And God gives it to us in unexpected ways if we are receptive. And you were that day!

  17. Robert M Brenner - August 11, 2020 11:40 pm

    You are the best! Sean, you make so many people just plain happy…Thanks

  18. Robert Chiles - August 12, 2020 12:32 am

    From the lips of one of the Desert Fathers in the 3rd. century, “If I cannot edify you by my silence, why do you think I could edify you by my words.”

  19. Charlie Mathers - August 12, 2020 12:43 am

    Some times I share your columns because others need what you have to say. I am keeping this for me. I need this one. Thanks.

  20. allisvant - August 12, 2020 3:41 am

    Another excellent column; I’ve been following you for only a few months, but you constantly do what good writers do – you make me think, you make me smile, and sometimes you make me assess where I am in life; you constantly make me remember the good things about growing up in the rural South – there are too many things to itemize here, but among them are growing, picking, & eating country vegetables, fishing where watching blue skies & nature around me were as enjoyable as catching bream or a bass; playing baseball at recess on hard dirt playgrounds,, etc, etc; our mutual love of baseball from childhood gives us more common ground & today you touched on another area of commonality one- as attested to by the 400 or more D.C. comic books in boxes in my basement!

  21. Kathryn - September 16, 2020 10:15 pm

    I love that comparison of Baptist ministers to blues musicians! You just wait for the riff. . .

  22. Skye - September 18, 2020 10:14 am

    Watching children when they are in their element, running wild and free, can be an exercise in liberation. My grandson has the ability to remind me of my priorities. Delightful article! Thank you.


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