“There’s no reason you should believe me. Take it or leave it kid. I am just some old jeweler who might be nuts. I could say anything. Why not? You don’t know me from Adam anyway.”
He put his palms flat down on the glass case that was filled with rings, necklaces and other sparkling things. Then he leaned forward and got quiet. He gestured with his head toward the other jewelers around him without breaking my glance. They were mostly Hong Kong Chinese. We were at the Toronto Jewelry Exchange. I was buying an engagement ring for my bride to be.
“All these people,” he said, “swimming in money. Condos, luxury high rises, fast cars. You think they got rich from selling jewelry? Or even real estate? Don’t kid yourself. I have been approached” he said, “An old Jewish guy, fat and bald, who would suspect me, crossing any international border? I look like everybody’s grandpa. I could carry anything and no one would suspect. All I would have to do is one drop, and my retirement would be made for life”. Then he laughed. It was a hollow but knowing laugh. I think I believed him.
Fast money. Voltaire said behind every great fortune lies an even greater crime. They say you should follow the money, at least if you can. Problem is, money can be hidden and stuffed into more respectable vehicles than drugs or other forms of corruption. Canada is only finding out now about thirty years later, what kind of a problem we have with artificially inflated real estate prices, and laundered money coming out of casinos and other venues, looking clean but making some very unsavoury people rich. It is a problem of such proportions that it can skew the fortunes of an entire economy.
Filthy lucre. Mammon. The Bible calls it by several names, and orders us to guard ourselves from the love of it lest we lose our very souls. Jesus busted up the party at the Temple and threw some people out bodily when he saw that his Father’s house was being used like a market to turn over a fast profit. “Will that be a turtle dove, or a lamb? That will be two shekels. Don’t worry. We exchange drachmas too, for a price.”
And so it seems that all of history has been haunted with the sale of religion. The Knights Templar, the ones tasked with guarding the Temple in Jerusalem when it was conquered in the Crusades, spun out a global career as mercenaries who would offer surety on a pilgrimage, or guarantee safe passage for whatever your treasure was, for a price. They were denounced and shaken down by Philip IV of France in 1307. He wanted some of that fast money. And so orders like the Free Masons were driven underground.
The Crusades are a fascinating bit of history. What started as religious fervour, was cheapened here and there by opportunists out to make some fast cash under the name of virtue. Passing through Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, they raped and pillaged with abandon en route to the Holy Land, which had been lost during the Third Crusade. It has resulted in some interesting spoils of war that I was reminded of when we went to Italy last year. The big lions that adorn the gates of Saint Mark’s cathedral in Venice... they were pillaged from that crusade, and Turkey still wants them back.
The other thing is holy relics. I have to admit this aspect of Catholicism totally creeps me out. The idea that holy power resides in the bones of dead saints. It has resulted in the trade of bones and other body parts for a long time. You can see them all over Europe, displayed in Churches along with the stories of when such relics displayed holy powers to heal or answer the prayer requests of mere mortals. Piece of the true Cross? The spear that was plunged into Jesus side? There are portions and versions of it in a few places. They cannot all be true.
The most strange to me, was the remains of Saint Andrew in the Church dedicated to him on the Amalfi coast. How did Saint Andrew end up in Italy? After all, legend tells us that his preaching took him to Patras, Greece, where he was crucified on an X-shaped cross. His relics, his remains, they were relocated to Constantinople, and as legend has it, other parts of his body made their way to Scotland where Saint Andrew is patron saint.
I didn’t go down to the vestibule to view Saint Andrew’s bones, despite that I had paid my entry fee. Like I said, such ultra-Catholic things make me squeamish. Still, it is funny how he ended up in Italy. It’s a follow-the-money kind of equation. Turns out that by the time the Fourth Crusade rolled around, it was getting hard to finance a huge band of itinerant soldiers on the move. So they borrowed a lot of money from rich Venetian bankers, money that had to be paid back.
Gold and silver have I none, but I can get you a piece of a saint, if you want. Yes, that’s how Saint Andrew ended up in Amalfi, as part of the repayment of a crusader’s debt. Now you know it’s true. Follow the money. It’s true even of religious things. You could not be unaware that religion is still a good business if you have ever browsed a Bible Book Store. No pieces of the true Cross to be had, but you can get yourself a ‘What would Jesus do’ bracelet, or a cheesy Mizpah friendship necklace made up of two halves. You just have to trot out some scripture to make it all good. “May God watch between me and thee while we are absent, one from another. That will be thirty-nine, ninety nine please, plus tax of course.”
I may think this is quaint, or even questionable, and yet I also came away from Amalfi, not with any bones, but with my own icon as souvenir, wrapped in a “someone-went on-vacation-and-all-I-got-was-this-lousy” T-shirt and tucked in a corner of my suitcase.
God bless you. Follow the money, I believe is what they say.