Is it possible for one's life to change literally overnight? In 1988 I had a dream in which God spoke to me in what I have come to call "the secret vocabulary of my heart." The next morning, all was new and newness. Perhaps even newness-ness.
I had the dream around my 25th birthday, and if someone had investigated my life at that time to determine who I was, they'd likely have settled on three themes at the heart of my identity: first, that I am Greek; second, that I loved freshwater fishing; and third, that I was deeply committed to the life of the mind and the search for meaning.
My parents are European immigrants (my dad is from Greece, my mother from Germany) who came to New York in the mid-1950s, met in an English class in Manhattan, and married. I came into the world in 1963 at Astoria General Hospital, and attended a Greek Orthodox parochial school through fourth grade. In 1972, we moved to the relatively rural environs of Danbury, Connecticut, where I went to a public school and attended the Greek Orthodox church every Sunday.
Greeks in America prize their Greekness, and perhaps because I am only half-Greek, it was especially important for my dad to instill this in me. Once, when he saw the chrome fish on the back of a car, he was excited to explain that this was from the Greek word ixthys, meaning "fish," because the early Christians used this word as an acronym—Iesus Xristos THeos Ymon Sotir. It stood for Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior. It was their secret symbol.
My only hobby besides watching television was freshwater fishing. I fly-fished, sometimes tying my own flies. I fished for bass, once in a tournament, and of course I ice-fished a few times too.
As an undergraduate at Yale I was exposed to the intellectual life, and I half-heartedly attempted to divine the meaning of life, with mixed results. My Christian faith was essentially nominal; I never took seriously the idea that our lives are meaningless, but neither did I settle on any particular alternative.
Sometime after graduation I came up with a kind of answer, involving the symbolic image of drilling through ice on the surface of a lake. It was a vaguely Jungian/Freudian idea that said the goal of life and all religions was to drill through this ice, which represented the conscious mind, in order to touch the water beneath, which represented Jung's "collective unconscious"—a vague "God force" that somehow connected all of humanity. It was an Eastern and impersonal idea of God, making no particular moral claims on anyone. How one went about doing any of this was anybody's guess.
Graduation itself was like stepping off the top of the ladder I'd been climbing my whole life. Good grades got me to Yale and through Yale. I majored in English, edited the Yale humor magazine, worked in the dining hall, and sang in some musicals. At graduation I was Class Day speaker, preceding the main speaker—my future friend, talk-show host Dick Cavett—and I received several awards for my short fiction. What but success could lie ahead?
Instead I was launched into a step-less void, unable to climb toward what I thought I'd wanted to achieve, which was success and acclaim as a fiction writer. For the next few years I tried, mostly in vain, to write short fiction, and eventually sold some literary humor pieces to The Atlantic. I spent aimless and unproductive months at the elite writers' colonies of Yaddo and MacDowell in New York and New Hampshire, respectively. I lived in sublets in the Boston area and clung to a sad relationship. You might say that I floated and drifted, which inescapably and inevitably leads to that singularly humiliating cul-de-sac of moving back in with one's parents.
The parents of my friends saw that I was trying to find myself, but my own parents— who'd never had the privilege of a college experience and worked very hard to finance my own—preferred that I simply find a job. It was a seriously awful time. My relationship, now long-distance, was foundering, and I took the only job I could get, proofreading chemical manuals and other nonliterary arcana at Union Carbide's world headquarters. My cubicle was a quarter of a mile from the nearest window. (And the password is … Gehenna.)
But it was there, alone in the belly of a corporate whale, that I would finally consider the question of God. In my misery I befriended a bright graphic designer who began to engage me on the issue of faith. Ed Tuttle was older, already married with kids, and one of those born-again Christians I had been trained to steer well clear of at Yale. I was perpetually wary, but in my pain and longing for relief I was desperate enough to keep the conversation going, for weeks and then months. To avoid real engagement or controversy, I cagily half-pretended to agree with him and his positions. But whenever he invited me to church, I demurred.
One day at lunch, Ed said, "Perhaps you don't really know God as well as you think, Eric." I was offended. Who did he think he was, and how could anyone claim to know God? Anyone with a brain knew that even if it were all true, we certainly couldn't know it, and would have to content ourselves with that, with agnosticism. But I wasn't content. Ed once told me to pray that God would reveal himself to me, but I thought praying to a God I wasn't sure was there didn't make sense. But in my confusion I sometimes did ask for some sort of sign.
In June of 1988, my uncle had a stroke and went into a coma. Ed said he and some friends were praying for him. I was astounded at the kindness of the gesture and at the idea that these people believed there was a God who heard prayers like this and could do something about it. A few days later, Ed asked if he could pray for my uncle with me. I quickly agreed and followed Ed into a ghastly fluorescent-lit conference room. I had never done anything like this, but it couldn't hurt. So I closed my eyes as Ed prayed aloud, and as he did, some transcendent shift seemed to take place. It was as though a window had been opened onto another realm and I'd felt the faintest touch of some heavenly breeze. When it was over, I opened my eyes. What was that?
Around this time a slight shift was taking place in my mind, too. I had picked up M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and this prominent Harvard psychologist's experiences with real evil got my attention. If real evil existed, there must be an alternative. Would that be God? I was also reading Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, though I cannot remember if I was reading these before or after the dream. Ah yes, the dream.
One night near my 25th birthday, I dreamt I was ice-fishing on Candlewood Lake in Danbury. I believe my childhood friend John Tomanio and his father were with me. I looked into the large hole we had cut into the ice and saw the snout of a fish poking out. (Of course ice-fishing is never this easy.) I reached down and picked it up by the gills and held it up. It was a large pickerel or perhaps even a pike. And in the dazzlingly bright sunlight shining through the blue sky and off the white snow and ice onto the bronze-colored fish, it appeared positively golden. But then I realized that it didn't merely look golden, it actually was golden. It was a living golden fish, as though I were in a fairy tale.
And suddenly I understood that this golden fish was ixthys—Jesus Christ Son of God Our Savior—and that God was one-upping me in the language of my own symbol system. I had wanted to touch inert water, to touch the so-called "collective unconscious," but he had something more for me: this was his Son, a living Person, Jesus Christ. And I realized in the dream that he was real and had come from the other side and now I was holding him there in the bright sunlight and at long last my search was over. And I was flooded with joy.
When I went to work the next day, I told Ed about the dream. He asked what it meant, and I said what I never would have said before—and would have cringed to hear anyone else say. I said that I had accepted Jesus. And when I spoke those words I was flooded with the same joy I had had inside the dream. And I've had that joy with me for the past 25 years.