Once, I set out to connect with the Mennonite congregation in the city where I was doing graduate study. I snagged the start time from the church’s answering machine, hit the subway and arrived at a rented church building with an aura of venerable decrepitude.
The front door was locked. Undeterred, I tried a lower-level side door. That one opened. Unable to find the light switches, I entered into darkness. I picked my way through the basement, hands massaging the air along an invisible path like an unprepared spelunker. (This was before ubiquitous cellphones with flashlights.)
I pressed on through the dark, just sure that I would open a door and stumble into a bright room filled with Mennonites. You came through that door! they would laugh. I fumbled one knob and then another. And found myself back outside.
The message on the congregation’s answering machine, I would later discover, had failed to mention they didn’t meet on fourth Sundays.
I’ve walked in the dark plenty of times since. But what I count as more interesting are the times I’ve been led in the dark.
So it was for cyrus of Persia, whom God led onto the pages of history. In the sixth century B.C., young Cyrus ascended to the throne of the Median kingdom. Within a few short years he would conquer the Babylonians and claim an empire larger than any the world had ever known.
Rather than the forced relocations the Babylonians imposed, Cyrus allowed people to return to their native lands and practice their ancestral religions. Thus the exiled Jewish people returned to rebuild Jerusalem.
In Isaiah 45, the prophet pronounces God’s word over these events: Cyrus’ rise was not due to his privileged birth, his intelligence or his leadership charisma. Whatever gifts Cyrus brought to the table, it was the Lord who anointed him. Cyrus rose because the Lord took him by the hand “to subdue nations” and went before him to “break the doors,” “level mountains” and “cut through bars of iron” (Isaiah 45:1-2).
“I will give you the treasures of darkness,” says God (45:3). “It’s because of my dear servant Jacob, Israel my chosen, that I’ve singled you out, called you by name, and given you this privileged work” (45:3-4, Message).
Of course it was the God of Israel. Who else? “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.”
But Cyrus knew not this God of gods. “I arm you, though you do not know me,” says the Lord (45:6). God led Cyrus in the dark.
In my experience, there are two ways God leads us in the dark. In the first, we know it’s dark. Our lostness is evident to us. We pray for guidance and press on because we believe “even the darkness is not dark” to God (Psalm 139:12).
Sometimes we feel God taking us by the hand and leading us through these times. During an uncertain patch in my own life, I grasped for anything solid. My prayer became simple and repetitive: “Lord, you know.”
There’s a second and more terrifying kind of leading that happens in the dark. This is when, like Cyrus, we don’t know what we don’t know. Sometimes we don’t even know it’s dark, much less that the hand tugging us along is God’s.
“Late have I loved you,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions. “You were with me, and I was not with you.”
Afterward, we turn back and see that the abyss was right there in the fog, one false step away, while we walked blithely along. Gaining insight into God’s leading after the fact arrives as a grace, though often a searing one. Many never see it. But when we do, it can blitz our comfortable theologies. How much did we really know God then? How much do we know ourselves now?
THe realization that we walk in the dark impacts how we pray. In what ways might God be leading me? The present is always a little more obscure than we think, a matchstick of unbrightness. The urgencies of the moment often overshadow the deep, quiet, treasures-of-darkness ways that God is present.
A 14th-century prayer manual, The Cloud of Unknowning, sketches how to pray in the dark. “A thing that you will never comprehend,” writes the anonymous author, will stir you “to desire you-know-not-what. Do not worry even though you understand no more, I beg you, but move forward ever more and more, so that you are always advancing.”
It’s one foot in front of the other, reaching through the darkness for the hand of One who draws us forward.