Most of you, I am sure, will instantly recognize this name, Eleni – Eleni Gatzoyiannis, the Greek peasant woman killed by Communist guerrillas in 1948, the subject of Nicholas Gage’s extraordinary book, the subject of a major motion picture. Who is she? Why is her story, among the countless biographies, documentaries and motion pictures, more significant than most of the other stories?
Her story is more important than most in that her person was extraordinary and in that it gives us an extremely rare and privileged understanding. There are two ways to understand. The first is intellectual. We learn through study, through tracking down facts and then relating them into some mental picture, some model, of what has happened, what is happening, of what the truth is. But there is a deeper way of understanding. Philosophers call it connaturality, understanding through compassion. Here we learn by linking ourselves to someone else’s life and experience. That other’s heart is the instrument of research, the litmus paper thrown onto the acid. In sharing that person’s experience, we begin to understand contemplatively, in the understanding Socrates called for when he said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
We see this, for example, in The Diary of Anne Frank. Thousands of well-researched books have been written about World War II. Yet the memoirs of this 13-year-old girl, just by themselves, give us an exceptional understanding of the real nature of the Second World War, of its real tragedy. The same holds true for Sheila Cassidy’s The Audacity to Believe. You can read a hundred books on what is happening in Chile, or you can read Sheila Cassidy. These stories see the event through one heart and in that they capture the event in a way that historical facts alone, irrespective of how well they are researched, never can.
Nicholas Gage’s story of his mother’s struggle and her ultimate execution by Greek Communists in 1948 is such a story. Books like these are rare. They come along every decade or so.Eleni is the story of a woman, of a war, of a family, of jealousy, of an execution and of a son’s struggle to deal with the loss of his mother. But it is more: It’s the eternal story of woman, of war and violence, of virtue and sin, of patriarchalism, of ideology become unhinged and of love’s final triumph. It’s Christ’s story, too, more than full of death and resurrection. Its author, Nicholas Gage, was nine years old, living in the Greek mountain village of Lia, when Eleni, his mother, was brutally tortured and executed by Communist guerrillas.
Young Nicholas who had escaped with his four sisters is sent to America to join his father who is living there. As an adult, he becomes a journalist and eventually returns to Greece as the foreign correspondent for the New York Times. His mother’s death has always haunted him and now, back in Greece, it becomes an obsession. The obsession, however, is fixed mainly around the idea of revenge. He begins to search for his mother’s killers. Eventually he quits his job as a journalist and begins, full-time, to track down those responsible for his mother’s death. But in doing this, in piecing together his mother’s story and the reasons for her death, his motives change, the obsession switches from the desire for revenge to the desire to recapture, for himself and his sisters, his mother’s soul. And the story he uncovers unearths a woman, 30 years dead, of extraordinary soul.
Caught alone in a civil war with five young children, Eleni vows that at all cost, even at the cost of her own life, she would save her family and her own integrity. Eventually, it costs her her life .She dies the cruellest of all deaths, violated, broken by torture, betrayed by friends, shot and dumped into a public grave.
Nicholas eventually confronts the man who tried and sentenced her. But, in recovering his mother’s soul, he also recovered her spirit. The mother he had been deprived of in life, now in death, gives her son the ability to live beyond vengeance.
That’s the surface story, but underneath these facts lies a rare and privileged insight into other things: poverty, the struggle to survive jealousy, the strength of family ties, patriarchalism that perennially disprivileges women and the kind of faith in God that can sustain people.
In the end, this is a prayer book. Reading Eleni is Lectio Divina, spiritual reading, in the classical sense. Among other things, prayer is meant to give a certain type of insight, namely, the kind of insight that sees history as God sees it, that is, from the point of view of the losers. Eleni’s story, like Christ’s, is history written from the point of view not of the conqueror, but of the conquered. That’s always good spirituality.