Eric Metaxas

Eric MetaxasThe Golden Fish

How God woke me up in a dream. Eric Metaxas| May 30, 2013

   Is it possible for one's life to change literally overnight? In 1988, I had a dream that God spoke to me in what I have come to call "the secret vocabulary of my heart." The next morning, all was new.  

   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, I am Greek; second, I loved freshwater fishing; and third, 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. They met in an English class in Manhattan and later married. I came into the world in 1963 at Astoria General Hospital, and attended a Greek Orthodox parochial school through the 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 take pride in their heritage and 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." 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 other than watching television was freshwater fly fishing, and sometimes tied my own flies. I once fished for bass in a tournament, and I ice-fished a few times too.

   As an undergraduate at Yale, I was exposed to the intellectual life and half-heartedly, attempted to understand the meaning of life with mixed results. My Christian faith was essentially nominal, and never took seriously the idea that our lives are meaningless; but didn’t settle on any particular alternative.

   Sometime after graduation, I came up with a sort of answer that involved the symbolic image of drilling through ice on the surface of a lake. It was a vague Jungian/Freudian idea that said the goal of life and all religions was to drill through this ice. It represented the conscious mind, in order to touch the water beneath the ice, 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 that I'd been climbing my whole life. Good grades got me through Yale. I majored in English, and edited the Yale humor magazine. I worked in the dining hall and sang in some musicals. At graduation I was the Class Day speaker, preceding the main speaker and my future friend, talk-show host Dick Cavett. I received several awards for my short fiction. What else but success could lie ahead?

   Instead, I was launched into a void and unable to climb toward what 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. Eventually selling 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; my own parents 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.

   There I was, 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 and we began to discuss the issue of faith. Ed Tuttle was older and married with kids. He was one of those born-again Christians that I had been told 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. I order to avoid real engagement or controversy, I warily half-pretended to agree with him and his positions. Whenever he invited me to church, I made excuses not to attend.

   One day at lunch, Ed said, "Perhaps you don't really know God as well as you think, Eric."

   I was truly 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. We would have to content ourselves with agnosticism, but I wasn't content. Ed once told me to pray and God would reveal himself to me. 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. I closed my eyes while Ed prayed aloud. As he did, some transcendent shift seemed to take place. It was as though a window had been opened into another realm and I felt a faint touch of a heavenly breeze.

   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 the idea that these people believed there was a God who heard their prayers. A few days later, Ed asked if he could pray for my uncle with me. I quickly agreed and followed Ed into a fluorescent-lit conference room. I had never done anything like this, but felt it couldn't hurt. So I closed my eyes as Ed prayed aloud, and as he did, some transcendent shift seemed to take place.  

   Around this time a slight shift was taking place in my mind too. I 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 can’t 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 that 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, picked it up by the gills and held it up. It was a large pickerel or perhaps even a pike. In the bright sunlight shining off the white snow and ice, the bronze-colored fish appeared positively golden. But then I realized it didn't merely look golden; it actually was golden. It was a living golden fish, as though I was in a fairy tale.

   Suddenly, I understood that this golden fish was ixthys, Jesus Christ, Son of God and our Savior. That God was one-upping me in the language of my own symbol system. I wanted to touch inert water and touch the so-called "collective unconscious;" but He had something more for me. This was His Son, a living Person, and Jesus Christ. I realized in the dream that He was real, and came from the other side.  Now I was holding Him there in the bright sunlight, and at long last my search was over. 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. I said that I had accepted Jesus. When I spoke those words, I was flooded with that same joy I had had inside the dream. I've had that joy with me for the past 25 years.

   Eric Metaxas is the most recent author of Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness and the New York Times bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson).

Eric Metaxas Hearing His Voice Testimony