In the continuing coverage of the most recent New Jersey scandal the Star-Ledger, on Monday’s front page, posted a picture of San Giacomo Apostolo in Hoboken. San Giacomo is traditionally the brother of the equally mythical St. Ann. The statue, which stands outdoors in a public street, has monetary donations tacked to it. The image flashed me back to my Nashotah House days when students became visibly excited nearing the date for the procession of Our Lady of Walsingham at the proto-shrine in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Seminarians would beg for an opportunity to hoist the holy statue, or at least be a lowly acolyte. (These were grown men, mind you — many of them seeking the priesthood as a second career.) I never attended Walsingham, but it was my understanding that pilgrims and penitents at the festival also adorned their lady with money in hopes of some gift of grace. I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.
While on a recent trip home, I saw a church for sale. As I started to break out my checkbook, I recalled how closely money and religion are tied together. The more I pondered this, the clearer their ancient, entangled roots became. The religiously observant bringing gifts to the temples of their gods was a standard act of piety and civic duty in the ancient world. Temples were expensive and the staff could only be supported by continuous donations. In the Ugaritic tale of Kirta, our protagonist seeks a son and makes a vow to Lady Asherah that if he successfully procures a wife he will make a statue of her in silver and gold. The favors of gods may be purchased. Today credit cards are accepted, but we are still caught in the web of those who claim God has asked them for your money.
When I was a teenager a friend invited me to attend a public presentation by some visiting Rev. Harrington, a popular evangelist. Several times during his high-energy sermon he sent the collection baskets around. The first time it was for your standard church offering. The second time was for any change you had in your pockets. The third time was for a special blessing. For those who had checkbooks ready, a thousand-dollar donation would get your name on a personalized plaque in his private jet. Years later I saw Harrington on television during an interview on his private estate. He puttered around it in a customized golf cart with wheels designed not to scuff up the gold-plated bricks that constituted the drive before his opulent mansion. “If we’re going to walk on streets of gold in heaven, I want to get used to it here,” he casually explained.
So, as an (unofficial) agent of Asherah, if you are seeking to make a divine investment, get out your checkbooks and I’ll tell you where to send the donations (checks made to “cash” please!).