“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
and He tells me I am His own.
and the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.” (C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden”)
(this is a chapter I wrote in a book edited by Dr. Paul Basden called Encountering God in the Prayers of Others. used by permission.) For more information click here
Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, or or a meal with friends and a good book. God can show up anywhere, unannounced.
I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center. I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting. That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.
During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen. I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time.
After a while, I started singing an old favorite, “In the Garden.” Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God. The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.” It can be infantile and self-absorbed.
But as I sang it, something remarkable happened. I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools. We moved from there when I has only seven. Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.
My father’s job took us farther and farther away until, in the sixth grade, we lived in Wisconsin. My grandfather by that time had developed emphysema and died when I was eleven years old. As far as I knew, I never cried about it again and rarely spoke about it.
I am from the old school. Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate. But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy. The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.
Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and so happy. I was having trouble remembering the words for some reason and kept singing,
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
mmmmm mmmmm mmmm
mmmmm mmmmm mmmm
For whatever reason, I couldn’t remember those two lines. I began to feel a terrible tide on the other side of a carefully constructed dam I had built over the years. I was afraid as I sang that I losing control.
It was time for church, so I headed to the chapel. I walked over to our worship leader and asked, “What are those last two lines in the first verse?” She replied, “The voice I hear falling on my ear the Son of God discloses.”
The dam burst, and I began to weep. Twenty five years of unspoken grief tumbled .
I sat back down and my eye instinctively went to the light, shining through a stained glass window. On the window was an image of King David, playing the harp. It was the strangest sense that “the voice I heard” falling on my ear was being disclosed by God.
The great-granddaughter of Charles Austin Miles said once that the hymn “was written on a cold, dreary day in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window in it let alone a view of a garden. I guess you could say it is a tribute to my great-grandfather’s faith that he believed it existed, at least in his heart.”
Miles wrote the story to reflect the story of Mary Magdalene, first witness of the resurrection. If it is loathed and despised by some musicians and theologians for its “me focus,” it remains is one of the most loved hymns of all time.
There is a legitimate solitariness of soul that is part of every spiritual journey. We may learn prayer in community, but we must also learn to pray alone. It may bring us to places of utter loneliness. In those places we find that we are not alone at all, but that God is present to us, surprisingly, even in a resurrection appearance to an unlikely first witness, Mary, the first Christian, Saint of the Broken Heart, as far as I’m concerned. Garden or Basement, “the joy we share when we tarry there, none other has ever known.”