A problem with that ‘third place’

I wrote in a column in 2018 about our parishes becoming our “third place,” a concept borrowed from the former CEO of Starbucks, who wanted his coffee shops to be next in line following work and home. I won’t rehash that column here. If you want to read it, The Message has a wonderful archive (evdiomessage-archive.org) where you can look up past columns from me and much better writers. Anyway, I had asked folks to send me ideas on how parishes could be that “third place,” and I received some intriguing replies. I had always intended to write a follow-up column; but here I am, two years later, still thinking of that “third place.” This time, however, I have a different thought: What happens when our “third place” is closed?

This Easter season stands in stark contrast to those that preceded it — I cannot recall another, for example, where I participated in Mass on TV; and the same goes for Palm Sunday, or the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Our parish is one of the foundations of our family life — work/school, home and Mass. Other than on Facebook Live, I haven’t seen the interior of my parish in weeks; and I don’t know when that will change. I can’t say that our parish was our official “third place” in terms of hours spent, but it certainly is in terms of significance. And we can’t go there during this pandemic.

One reply to my former column was emailed by Mrs. L.E. (no names, only abbreviations), who wrote of a pilgrimage she had made to Rome. Many on the trip slept-in at the hotel, went shopping or engaged in other activities that seemed to miss the significance of the Eternal City. L.E., on the other hand, rose early and visited historic churches where she spent time with Jesus, truly present in the Eucharist. I wish I could publish her whole email as it convicts me of my pettiness during this pandemic. After sharing some personal details, her email ended with the following: “‘My Place' is now, and has always been, with Jesus.”

The deep-yet-simple faith of L.E.’s sentence rings a note of truth for me. I spend so much time frustrated by not leaving the house, my wife and I both trying to work while our 3-year-old daughter competes for our attention, that I’ve overlooked the “First Place”— that inmost part of my heart where Jesus lives and speaks to me. It seems to me that I’m like those on L.E.’s Rome pilgrimage who missed the significance of where they were. God has allowed me to experience these historic events, and He wishes for me to focus on Him and what He is doing. Meanwhile, I’ve been too distracted to spend the time with Him that I should.

In full disclosure, I’m writing during Holy Week, and L.E.’s letter has me thinking of the Temple curtain that is ripped in two after Jesus breathes His last. God is no longer removed from us, only residing in the Temple; rather, He is in our very hearts. Most of us have, no doubt, read about Spiritual Communion, and the graces we can receive by truly wishing to receive Our Eucharistic Lord when we are unable to do so. Neither closed parishes nor suspended Masses can keep us from Jesus – He is always in the “First Place” of our hearts, waiting and ready for us to meet Him there.

As we continue in this Holy Season of Easter, I propose that we abandon that “third place,” focusing instead on the “First Place.” That inner core of our being where God dwells, conserving us in being with every heartbeat. He is closer to us than our own breath, and yet it is so easy to miss Him while we long for “third places” to reopen. May God draw us closer to Him during this historic Easter, and may the stories of our lives end with the simple sentence, “‘My Place' is now, and has always been, with Jesus.”