If there is tension outside prayer, there will be a corresponding tension inside prayer as well. The mind will run busily on. The thoughts may be holy, but they will be rushed. Tthe atmosphere will vibrate. Prayers will rattle.
All this means that we start off at a disadvantage. We of this generation have to make much more effort to secure calmness in prayer. The practical question arises as to what is the best way to do it. Someone has said that just as a man who is about to dive into the water waits until the surface disturbed by the previous diver is smooth again, so the man about to pray must wait until all the surface disturbances have ceased before he plunges into the presence of God. The only trouble about this is that he may have to wait all day. There is always something or someone; the surface does not remain smooth for long. A better idea would be, in this particular kind of diving, for the diver to get into the water the quickest way possible and let it smooth him. If tranquility is necessary for prayer -- and it certainly is -- then a way must be found not only of stemming the rush of images and distractions but of quietening down the pieties as well. A distraction is a distraction even if it is about sanctity. Anxieties are no less anxieties because they happen to be about prayer. You will admit that you have spoiled your prayer by worrying over what you are going to wear at tomorrow's party; you forget that you can spoil your prayer just as much by wondering what you are going to do for Lent. All these things can be arranged outside prayer time. When praying, get into the presence of God, and ask Him to shed your worries and wonderings for you.
So it would be a mistake to imagine that in prayer there must be a succession of either holy imaginations, holy reasonings, holy emotions, or holy words. If holy thoughts suggest themselves, follow them up. But do not either force them in the first instance, or so follow them up that they become a preoccupation to the exclusion of what Dame Julian calls the 'naked intent and single desire.' It is the perfectly straightforward and simple act of desiring God and praising Him which you must aim at in prayer. Anything which militates against this must be pushed aside -- even if it means handling a good thing roughly. It is the over-activity, the misplaced emotion, the ill-directed idea which must be corrected. The main thing is the desire for God's glory, and everything must be subordinated to that.
Forget about prayer being a recitation of sentiments suitable to a creature, and think of it as the kind of orientation of heart which it must be gratifying for the Creator to see in His friends. This gives a wider idea than that which suggest that we pray only when we are saying things to God from a kneeling position. To keep up a flow of talk may be necessary when dealing with some of our friends (though goodness knows it should not be), but it can hardly be necessary when we are trying to get in touch with God.
Although prayer is a ceaseless output of praise, it is not a feverish output. There should be no production target, no bustle. Industrialised activity outside prayer time has done harm to man's natural and supernatural instincts about this. The soul feels that there must be a nonstop chasing of words as on the conveyor belt in a factory. But souls must not become machines. If a simile is to be taken from industry, there should be greater emphasis on the power and the plant than on the various functions of the bolts and plugs. The powerhouse is God; man is little more than the raw material. And since the consumer, too, is God, the only thing which souls themselves have to bother about in their praying is to hand over willing instruments to be used for whatever purpose and in whatever way that God may choose.
So if prayer is thought of as output, it must be thought of as intake as well. In fact there can be no satisfactory output unless there is proportionately more intake going on at the same time. And for intake there has to be serenity, silence of the more noisy faculties, receptivity.
'Be it done unto me according to Thy word.'
'Be still and see the salvation of the Lord."
'Let all flesh be silent at the presence of the Lord.'
* And, this, folks, was written in 1951!