Be a Reservoir, Not a Canal – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Acts 1:1-8

We read in the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus’ apostles have become very active.  They who, not long ago, were cowering with fear, seem now fearless as they give witness “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  We also give witness to Jesus in our respective vocations, to our own “end of the earth.”  It’s worthwhile remembering how Jesus went about giving witness and doing ministry.[i]  He was very active, clearly; he counterbalanced his activity by regularly making retreats, the very thing you, our guests, are doing here with us.

In Jesus’ ministry, the multitudes are desperate to hear Jesus and to experience his help and healing.  The crowds’ expectations only grow.  And what does Jesus do?  It’s quite revealing.  He withdraws quite regularly. Jesus would minister mightily, and then the Gospels say he would withdraw to deserted places.  Note the plural – deserted places – and he would pray.[ii]  The cry is not the call.  The cry for help is not one-in-the-same with our call to respond.  It certainly was not for Jesus.  There was always more to do.  Jesus shows his truly-human side, without infinite resources, and he practices a kind of “life rhythm” clearly knowing when he must withdraw to rest and pray.

How is Jesus praying at these times?  Two ways.  I imagine he is “disgorging” the heaviness of need he has experienced – the anguishing pain and overwhelming despair and brokenness – in his contact with so many people in need.  That kind of prayer we call “oblation”: handing to God what is too much for us to carry.  Without that prayer of oblation, we risk becoming infected by what has affected us.  A prayer of oblation.  And then Iimagine Jesus praying for replenishment, for the restoration of what has been spent.  Without this prayer of oblation and restoration – without Jesus’ doing that, and without our doing that – there will be nothing left to give or to live.  Worse than that, the “nothing left,” if unaddressed, will eventually become a vacuum.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled.  If the vacuum is not filled by what is good and right and full of light, it will be filled by what is bad and broken and very dark.  Very risky business.

Bernard of Clairvaux, the great twelfth-century French abbot, clearly knew in his own days about crowds and people with overwhelming needs.[iii]  Bernard had a strong admonition particularly for leaders of the church, but, for that matter, what he said can be applied to anyone with eyes to see and a heart to care for the needs of the world that surrounds us.  The endless needs.  St. Bernard said, if you are wise, you will be more like a reservoir than a canal.  “A water canal,” he says, “spreads abroad the water as it receives it.” (A canal is a pass-through.)“A reservoir waits until it is filled before overflowing.  A reservoir, without loss to itself, shares its superabundant water.  In the church at the present day” – this is Bernard speaking about twelfth-century Europe but it is equally true for us today – “we have many canals but few reservoirs.”

The cry is not the call.  Be a reservoir.Make a retreat, at least once a day.  At least.  You’re worth it.

[i]Jesus said that “a servant is not greater than the servant’s master.” (Matthew 10:24; John 13:16; John 15:20).

[ii] Luke 5:12-16.

[iii]Bernard of Clairvaux, O.Cist. (1090-1153) a French Benedictine abbot, led the Benedictine reform movement which became the Cistercian order.

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  1. Pamela Post-Ferrante on May 15, 2023 at 12:53

    It never occurred to me to pray for myself or to retreat from the world each day to take care of myself and also it seems my prayer for others would also benefit from my self care in prayer.
    Wish I had read this twenty years ago!
    Thank you, Brother Curtis

  2. Daniel on May 15, 2023 at 07:38

    I’m afraid so much time has gone by, Br Curtis, that answering this question may be too much: what do you mean by “The cry is not the call”? Thank you for the reservoir and canal imagery: so fitting for working in chaplaincy and now in pediatric palliative care.

    • Megan on May 15, 2023 at 11:59

      I think it means that peoples’ cry is not equal to God’s call. Sometimes when people cry out, God calls us to respond then and there–and sometimes not. The cries are constant but we are not called to respond constantly. We have to follow Jesus’s example and refill (and do so before we are dry), which means understanding that sometimes we have to leave the cries unfulfilled.

  3. Martin wheeler on May 19, 2020 at 17:43

    Thank for the wisdom and reminder you bring us in this reflection, Brother Curtis. We are so often driven to demonstrate our accomplishments forgetting where our true value and worth reside. We too easily drive on to exhaustion and burnout. The reminder to rest and return to the Presence for refreshment, renewal and healing of the world’s pain is so helpful. Some days in response to all the suffering and pain that surrounds us I can only cry “Lord, have mercy”. That way I know my true limits and where the power lies. And also it is good to thank God for his graciousness and loving presence to all his creatures.

  4. Jeanne DeFazio on May 19, 2020 at 12:20

    Beautiful word! Many thanks!


  5. Kevin Hannis on May 19, 2020 at 10:20

    Thank you

    • Jaan Sass on May 19, 2020 at 22:55

      To be resevior much of the time I feel like a canal always drying up. I am going to try a daily retreat.

  6. Lee Graham on May 19, 2020 at 09:55

    Thank you Brother Curtis for giving me permission to retreat daily and a better understanding about prayers of oblations. In the past I have berated myself for spending too much time in prayer, study and contemplation of God. But now I view what I do as time well spent, filling my reservoir. Similarly, I pray for many people, but seldom for myself. Imagining Jesus praying for replenishment and restoration gives me the courage to pray for myself when I feel depleted and overwhelmed. God bless you for your words of wisdom.

  7. Diane on May 19, 2020 at 08:15

    Amen, Amen

    Today, with the Covid shut down of almost everything, I miss my church in Bemidji, which has been closed since the outbreak. Thank you for the sermons which allow me to think and worship at home!

  8. Rachel Williamson on May 19, 2020 at 08:07

    Bless you, Br. Curtis, for sharing with us these words. I needed them today, in May 2020, even more than when you first wrote them four years ago. Trying to help my neighbors in crisis during this pandemic is indeed creating a vacuum in my life and it is time for me to refill the reservoir. Daily.

  9. Jeff McGuire on May 19, 2020 at 05:24

    Thank you.

  10. Tammy on April 14, 2016 at 08:26

    Thank you Brother Curtis. I cannot tell you how timely this sermon is for me. I have had to put off retreat time twice due to health reasons but work has been more demanding than ever in my 24 years of ordained ministry. I am also reminded of something Brother Mark mentioned in my last retreat regarding The rule. To ignore who God has made you to be in favor of who others need you to be is not honoring ones vocation. Thank you for amplifying the still small voice.

  11. Rhode on April 9, 2016 at 08:43

    My retreat is the morning hour before my husband wakes. I do the format from the Episcopal Bible Challenge that helps me read the entire bible in one year. Three chapters of OT a day starting with Genesis, 1 chapter of NT starting with Matthew and ending with one Psalm per day. This is my third go round. The bible speaks! I connect to SSJE …this is my first year as I became a participant through my church links to your Rule for Life Lenten series. I enjoy these devotions immensely. (thank you!) I pray for my family, friends, community, our world, special needs, whatever comes to mind… I praise God for Everything. The Spirit of the living God reveals this time as holy, necessary, beautiful. I retreat to be filled to be spilled.

  12. Ruth West on April 8, 2016 at 22:57

    I needed this sermon, Brother Curtis. Thank you.
    I have been overwhelmed lately by a needy person who has somewhat “adopted” me, telling me how important I am to his life. His constant calling, expressing hallucinations and delusions,
    mentioning suicidal tendencies, etc. have depleted me. I need to withdraw for that renewal, which I am trying to do even today. I don’t want to be the canal rather than the reservoir. I want to be a star, not a black hole.I want to be a genuine server, not an enabler.
    Bottom line is I need the guidance of the Holy Spirit in knowing how to deal with this problem.
    Since I live alone, withdrawing to a quiet place, as Jesus did in the desert, should not be a problem.
    But, even so, there are many distractions. I seek His presence and guidance. With God’s help, I will have a daily retreat. Thanks for your sermon.

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