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Paradise Lost

California has always been the last chance for Eden on the American continent. But when that dream proves elusive--as it did for the Heaven's Gate cult members--the results can be devastating.

March 30, 1997|Richard Rodriguez | Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of "Days of Obligation" (Viking)

SAN FRANCISCO — They came, most of them, from elsewhere to die in California under a cloudless sky during the holiest week in the Christian calendar. Thirty-nine people, most of them middle-aged, all of them desperate for paradise, journeyed from Texas and New Mexico, from as far away as Florida and Ohio.

San Diego has seen their like before. At the start of the century, the Theosophical settlement at Point Loma, with its Aryan and Green Temples, and Raja Yoga College--built overlooking the sea--started California's reputation as a refuge for religious eccentrics. Now, near the end of the century, in a nouveau riche suburb called Rancho Santa Fe, the computer screens in the big house on the hill have gone black.

Seventy years ago, when there were fewer houses and cars and no freeways, San Diego was the suicide capital of America--with, as well, one of the highest rates of clinical depression.

In "The American Earthquake," America's foremost cultural historian Edmund Wilson suggests that San Diego suffered from being at the end of the road; "You seem to see the last futile effervescence of the burst of the American adventure. Here our people, so long told to 'Go West' to escape from ill health and poverty, maladjustment and industrial oppression, are discovering that, having come west, their problems and diseases remain, and that the ocean bars further flight."

California is the last chapter in a very old American story. The earliest Americans, arriving from Europe on the East Coast, imagined they had stumbled upon paradise, a new Eden. Through generations following, the conceit has persisted that our national birthright is paradise.

Whenever problems arose--a difficult parent or a dry winter--the western horizon beckoned. Americans could pack up and head west, away from the past, toward possibility and rebirth and the setting sun.

All along the California coast, through most of this century, religions of various sorts have been invented, often blending elements of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Today, Malibu Buddhism lives next door to Native American animism. Here in California, Canadian-born Aimee Semple McPherson walked into the sea and, several generations later, the Rev. Jim Jones abandoned a sinful San Francisco with his several hundred disciples to seek paradise in a South American jungle.

California, after all, is not paradise. If there is anything the young woman from New Jersey knows, as she plunges off the Golden Gate Bridge, it is finally this: California is the end of the line.

How odd the devotees of Heaven's Gate seemed to their neighbors--ghostly pale, with close-cropped hair, dark clothes, how taciturn--in Rancho Santa Fe. Having come to California, they couldn't bear to live here.

And how could they? The Pacific coastline--and the pounding surf's reminder of finitude--must have haunted them. Instead, they looked to the stars, to the ancient trails of comets. They waited for spaceships to transport them to the safe dark night of the universe, for rescue from the coming Armageddon on Earth.

Their bodies, of course, their middle-aged and sagging bodies, they disdainfully called their "vehicles" from which they could remove themselves at will. And they did.

The great religions of the world, the faiths that survive centuries and thrill the imagination of generations, teach less about the afterlife than they reconcile us to our lives in this world. The great religions must prepare us for death, but they do so by teaching us how to live.

How ironic that the mass suicide last week took place in a suburb, probably named by a Southern California real-estate developer who never realized that the Spanish words refer to the holy Christian faith.

Marshall Herff Applewhite, the leader of Heaven's Gate, who may or may not have been born in Texas, seems to have gathered from Anglican and Catholic sources that his vocation was monastic. There are references on the group's Web page to the ancient Christian church--the cloistered life, retreats, fasting, abstinence.

But one of the greatest teachers of Christian monasticism, Saint Teresa of Avila, warned in the 16th century of the dangers of a religious life that is only self-preoccupied. Religion is not only concerned with the inner life. Any spiritual life, she taught, was valueless unless it manifested itself in this world in acts of charity.

In the end, the religion propounded by Heaven's Gate owes more to the Age of Bill Gates and Microsoft than to the Age of Saint Teresa and the illuminated manuscript. Today, North County, San Diego, where the sect settled, is home to the global village of high-tech, bio-tech, info-tech. The area is replete with Land Rovers tuned to NPR, couples who sun-block and hydrate, eat what's good for them, convert amino acids to opinion.

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