The person who is wise, therefore, will see their life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself. He knows that a curse is on the person who allows their own property to degenerate. And if you think my opinion worthless, then listen to one who is wiser than I: “The fool,” said Solomon, “comes out with all his feelings at once, but the wise man subdues and restrains them.” Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. So urgent is the charity of those through whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us, that they want to pour it forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.
I am convinced that no degree of the charity that leads to salvation may be preferred to that suggested by the Wise Man: “Have pity on your own soul, pleasing God.” If I have but a little oil, sufficient for my own anointing, do you suppose I should give it to you and be left with nothing? I am keeping it for myself, utterly unwilling to proffer it to anyone except at the Prophet’s bidding. And should any of you, thinking me to be better than I seem or than my words suggest, insist on asking for it, here is my answer to him: “There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves.” But charity, you reply, does not seek what is its own. And do you know why? It does not seek what is its own precisely because it has it. Who seeks for what he possesses? Charity never lacks what is her own, all that she needs for her own security. Not alone does she have it, she abounds with it. She wants this abundance for herself that she may share it with all; and she reserves enough for herself so that she disappoints nobody. For charity is perfect only when full.
But you, my brother, your salvation is not yet assured; your charity as yet is either non-existent or so meager and reed-like that it bends with every breeze, puts its trust in every spirit, and is carried along by every wind of doctrine; or it is so great that you transcend the limits of the commandment by loving your neighbor more than yourself, or yet again so unsound that, contrary to the commandment, it bows to flattery, flinches under fear, is upset by sadness, shriveled by avarice, entangled by ambition, disquieted by suspicions, tormented by insults, exhausted by anxieties, puffed up by honors, consumed by envy. If you discover this chaos in your own interior, what madness drives you to insinuate yourself into other people’s business? But listen to what a prudent and vigilant charity advises: “This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves: it is a question of balancing.” “Do not be over-virtuous.” It is enough that you love your neighbor as yourself; this is the balancing to which the Apostle refers. David says: “My soul will feast most richly, on my lips a song of joy and, in my mouth, praise.” To preclude a mere empty yawning, he wishes that infusion should precede the effusion, an infusion to the fullest capacity that gushes out. In this he shows prudence, his relieving of others does not embarrass himself; and he has a right intention, since he imitates him of whose fullness we have all received. You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God. The reservoir resembles the fountain that runs to form a stream or spreads to form a pool only when its own waters are brimming over. The reservoir is not ashamed to be no more lavish than the spring that fills it. And so, he who is the primal Fountain of life, full in himself and filled with himself, gushed forth and danced into the secret places of the heavens about him, to fill them all with his favors. And having endowed these remotest heights and recesses, he burst upon our earth, saving men and beasts through his munificence, multiplying his mercies everywhere. When he had first filled up the secret places, his teeming mercies billowed over; they poured upon the earth and drenched it, to multiply its riches. You must imitate this process. First be filled, and then control the outpouring. The charity that is benign and prudent does not flow outwards until it abounds within. “My son,” said Solomon, “do not let yourself drift away.” And the Apostle says: “We ought then to turn our minds more attentively than before to what we have been taught, so that we do not drift away.” See what is involved here. Are you holier than Paul, wiser than Solomon? Besides, I cannot see myself being enriched by your wasting of your powers. For if you are mean to yourself, to whom will you be good? Help me out of your abundance if you have it; if not, then spare yourself the trouble.
from Bernard of Clairvaux’s “Sermons on the Song of Songs”