“He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.”
- Psalm 107:35 -
One Friday a few weeks ago, my daughters and I hopped on our bicycles and rode from our house to the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy. Our family enjoys picnicking there, admiring the flowers in the Conservation Gardens and dipping our toes in the water pools at the Colorado Big Thompson Interpretive Area. The various pools in the interpretive area model the network of reservoirs, tunnels, canals and pipelines that provide water for us and many of our neighboring communities in Northern Colorado. Whenever we go there, I find myself marveling at the engineering work that has gone into ensuring that abundant clean water flows into our home each day.
Nine centuries ago, the Benedictine abbot Bernard of Clairvaux used the imagery of reservoirs and canals to describe the spiritual life. Bernard was a reformer within his monastic order and his works went on to influence countless later church leaders, including our tradition’s own founder, John Calvin. In one of his works, Bernard wrote that “One who is wise will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water until it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare.”
If these words were true of the Church in Bernard’s time, they are surely true in our world today. It’s not uncommon in Christian circles to speak of coming to a worship service or a Bible study in order “to get filled up.” We also sometimes speak of actions of service as “pouring out” our time and energy. The water imagery has obviously stayed with us, but that doesn’t mean our reservoirs are any deeper today than nine centuries ago. I myself find in pastoral ministry that it is easy to be a canal. It is much harder to be a reservoir, savoring the grace of God internally and serving from the overflow.
Just as the display at Northern Water shows us what kind of material engineering is necessary to provide water in our homes, I wonder what kind of spiritual engineering is necessary to hold living water in our hearts. Jesus said in John 7:38 that “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Clearly Jesus expects his love and the power of the Holy Spirit to flow through us into the world for its salvation. But Bernard of Clairvaux’s illustration of reservoirs and canals shows that we can let that living water flow while not allowing our own souls to become parched.
The first step in building a deep spiritual reservoir is coming to Jesus and recognizing him as the only true “spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Before speaking of the living water flowing out of our hearts, Jesus invited us to receive the living water from him: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37-38a). With what do you fill your reservoirs? When we’re tired or depleted, we can easily be tempted to think that other things will refresh our souls. We may overindulge in food or drink, numb our minds with distractions, or even expect other people to fill our souls for us. But only Jesus can truly restore us. By seeking him first through prayer, reading Scripture, and other spiritual practices we can uncover the spring of purest refreshment.
The second step in letting Jesus fill our reservoirs is to remain patient. A large reservoir such as Carter Lake or Horsetooth Reservoir fills gradually. Even in years of abundant precipitation, the water line rises slowly. Unlike my phone, which displays that it is “Charging Rapidly” whenever it’s plugged in, our souls need time to patiently absorb God’s Word and the strength God supplies. So, Bernard of Clarivaux wrote “You must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts.” When we try to rush the time we give to Jesus, our souls remain shallow, but when we remain patient, we receive more that we can share with others.
The third step is to give from the overflow. We cannot give what we do not have. When we pour ourselves out in ways that leave us feeling drained and depleted, we cannot pretend that such service is sustainable. Warning against this tendency, Bernard of Clairvaux simply said, “Do not try to be more generous than God.” God will provide the strength and resources to accomplish whatever he has called us to. If we find that we’re operating in ways that exceed God’s provision, we need to either take more time to replenish our reservoirs or question whether we’re hearing God’s calling correctly. There are endless opportunities to do good, but not every opportunity is a calling. Even the Apostle Paul tried to minister within the limits of his God-appointed calling, saying he would “keep within the field that God has assigned” (2 Corinthians 10:13).
One more way to sustain a deep reservoir is to regularly practice silence and stillness. St. Diadochos of Photiki, a fifth-century Greek pastor, compared the human heart to a room filled with steam. “When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes. Likewise, the soul, when it says many things, dissipates its remembrance of God.” If the soul is like a reservoir waiting to be filled with the Holy Spirit, silence is like a dam that helps us store up the truth God has spoken to us. At the appropriate time it will overflow and God will give us “the tongue of a teacher, to know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). In Diadochos’ words, “Ideas of value always shun verbosity. Timely silence, then, is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.”
One year ago, Colorado was in a drought. The landscape around us was brown and dry and the reservoirs in our region were low. Thanks to a very wet winter, the reservoirs around us have been full this summer. Especially to those who depend on the land for their livelihood, this year feels like one where God “turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water” (Psalm 107:35). I pray that the same would be true of our hearts and souls, as well.
Grace and Peace,