This is the secret of prayer: to allow oneself to be led by the Spirit. Prayer must not be cast as a struggle to think only of God or to create void and discard distractions. In the poverty of dryness and distraction one must remain before the divine Friend with all one's life exposed, all the whirling thoughts and images that are there. Prayer must be truthful corresponding to the reality one carries within oneself, however miserable. If we satisfy ourselves with nice thoughts about God and believe that we are achieving something, we may be deceiving ourselves. Our concerns and concrete life are not what sets us apart from God, but our not knowing how to place our lives in God's hands and behold them with God's eyes. This is not just another method of concentration, but something necessary for prayer to be Christian. Anyone who reaches total interior silence knows that it is but the consequence of an effort to live only for God and to place all one's life in God's hands.
Painful experience has shown me that this is true. How often I used to put off prayer till I was "in the right frame of mind", or until I had "some quality time to spend with God". All that happened, of course, was that I put off praying, and when I felt really bad, say if Jan and I had had a row, or I had received some bad news, then I had nowhere to turn except the self-referential spiral of my own inner bitterness.
For me, this brings one of the enormous benefits of praying the hours. No matter how I am feeling, I pray when (or approximately when!) I have scheduled time for the next Office. Four times a day, I come to God in the silence, in the wonderful words of the Daily Office, in the Jesus Prayer, no matter how I am feeling, no matter what has been happening. There isn't really time for prevarication, for generating "nice thoughts about God", and the me God gets is the me that happens to be around at the time. This he can deal with – he is the God of love, and truth, not the God of the brave face, or the God of the pious attitude.
The times when I have most truly encountered God, when I really have met Christ in his mercy and his grace and his indefatigable love, have most often been the times when I have had least to give, when I was dry, and empty of everything but lust and grief, and so so tired. Then I knew it was him – there was nothing left of my pretend piety with which to generate illusions.
I often think we only know our Lord when we are at the end of ourselves. It's not an easy way to have to find him; but he did say himself that "the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life" (Matthew 7.14) so I suppose it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise…