A great many communities may promote themselves as some sort of garden spot, but relatively few can claim to be the original site of the Garden of Eden. Mormon founder Joseph Smith identified Jackson County, Missouri as the place where Adam and Eve’s misadventure with the apple led to their expulsion from paradise. The local citizenry has done curiously little to exploit this claim to distinction, apart from an historical marker at the spot where Smith believed Christ would one day return to build his temple. Mormons flocked to the area in the early 1830s, believing the Second Coming was imminent. Alarmed by the sudden influx of people practicing a strange religion, the locals rose up and drove them from the county, thereby marking the second time God’s people had been expelled from paradise.
Non-Mormons may wonder how the Garden of Eden got transplanted to Missouri, since the geographical clues found in the Old Testament story would seem to place it somewhere in the Middle East. Smith based his reckoning on divine revelation, leaving it to his followers to sweat the details. In any event, he was not the first to believe that Eden lay to the west. A six-century Irish monk named Brendan set sail across the Atlantic in search of paradise and straggled back years later with tales of a “blessed isle.” Christopher Columbus thought he had sailed past paradise on one of his voyages to the New World, but he never actually set foot there because he believed it was forbidden.
According to the biblical creation story, the Lord assigned angels armed with flaming swords to guard the way to Eden after Adam and Eve were shown the exit. In retrospect, this precaution appears to have been unnecessary. With due respect to Joseph Smith and company, there is not much evidence to support the theory that the Garden of Eden was located in the Western Hemisphere. Nor, for that matter, has anyone been able to find it by looking in the other direction. Brendan’s “blessed isle” had its counterpart to the East in a magical kingdom ruled by the legendary Prester John, supposedly a descendant of one of the three Magi. Alas, neither Prester John nor his kingdom was ever found to exist, and the geographical markers in the Genesis story would place Eden’s location anywhere from eastern Turkey to the Persian Gulf.
Paradise, it seems, is lost in more ways than one. But perhaps that is because we have been looking in all the wrong places. As long as we believe that paradise lies outside ourselves, it will always be located elsewhere, a mirage shimmering on the horizon of human imagination. Paradise is not really a place at all but a state of being. Jesus called it the kingdom of God, and he warned people that they shouldn’t go looking for it here and there. “Behold,” he said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” Or as Thomas Merton put it: “If we have God dwelling within us, making our souls His paradise, then the world around us can also become for us what it was meant to be for Adam -- his paradise.”
Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island