A Meal Prayer from Dachau

by Sr. M. Anna

In late November we celebrate Thanksgiving as a national holiday, gathering with family and friends to share a traditional turkey dinner, a harvest feast. Many volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinners in homeless shelters or donate funds and food to needy families. Our prayer at Thanksgiving often includes the grateful memories of the manifold gifts we have received from God. Catholic families ask a blessing over the food they share and acknowledge that all good gifts come from the bounty of the Lord: “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts.”  Above all, the sacrificial meal of the holy Mass, the Eucharist, is our Thanksgiving to God. Jesus gives himself to us in the form of bread and wine that we may give ourselves more fully to God and to our neighbors in overflowing love.

What sort of meal prayer would Father Kentenich and his fellow prisoners have prayed in the concentration camp in Dachau? Composed in Dachau, the collected prayers in Heavenwards includes a meal prayer under the title “I praise you, Mother.”

Thanks “for the Gifts that Loyal Hearts have Sent”

The prayer has seven short stanzas. In the first stanza, Father Kentenich praises and thanks the Blessed Mother “for the gifts that loyal hearts have sent [him.]” On July 2, 1942, the Feast of the Visitation, during a time of great starvation in the camp, when “more and more prisoners died of exhaustion and hunger” (E. Monnerjahn, Joseph Kentenich: A Life for the Church, 164), Father Kentenich had turned to the Mother Thrice Admirable. Invoking her under the title of the “Bread Mother,” he had begged her to provide both physical and spiritual nourishment for the starving prisoners. The Blessed Mother heard his prayer. Beginning in late October, the Nazi camp administrators changed their policy to allow prisoners to receive parcels from outside the camp. Relatives and friends of the prisoners could send food packages to them.

“Tell me how it Best be Shared to Bring you Honor and Joy”

Father Kentenich also received food packages, by means of which he could feed others and save lives. The Sisters sent him boiled eggs, butter, bread. But whom should he help? The amount of food he received was always very small in proportion to the thousands of hungry prisoners. Everyone was terribly undernourished. He needed to proceed wisely, giving priority to the members of the various Schoenstatt groups that were forming among the prisoners. In the second stanza, therefore, Father Kentenich turns to the Blessed Mother, spiritually returns all the food items into her hands, and begs her: “Tell me how it best be shared / to bring you honor and joy.”

“Come, Mediatrix of all Gifts and Graces”

In the third stanza, Father Kentenich invites the Blessed Mother and Jesus to be his dinner guests, to sit at table with him and his companions in the camp:

Come, Mediatrix of all gifts and graces,

With your Son accept the invitation to be our guests,

Tenderly uniting us with a family bond—

From heart to heart and from land to land.

Reading these lines, one can imagine an ideal family life, a communion of hearts drawn together through a common bond of love, a circulation of love between parents and children. A meal prayer is often called a “grace.” Here Father Kentenich links the earthly grace of shared food with the heavenly graces  interceded by Mary, the “Mediatrix of all gifts and graces.”

“Never Give Him Rest with your Childlike Plea!”

The fourth and fifth stanzas express a childlike trust and self-surrender in return for the gifts of food and companionship. Speaking on behalf of all, Father Kentenich says, “We want to selflessly serve your work / with steadfast hearts and joyful bearing.”  Seeking the Kingdom of God first, the children of God trust that the Heavenly Father will give them whatever they need. As an expression of this trust, Father Kentenich also begs the Blessed Mother’s constant intercession: “Never give him rest with your childlike plea!”

“Teach us through These Gifts to Ascend to you”

The sixth stanza emphasizes that every gift from God is meant to teach us something about God, about his merciful love and fatherly care, and to draw us ever more deeply into a loving relationship with him:

Teach us through these gifts to ascend to you

And to bow in reverence before the Eternal Love

Which opens to us daily more and more

The inexhaustible ocean of God’s mercy.

“Implore God’s Richest Blessing for all those who Work and Sacrifice for our Well-being”

Just as the first stanza praises the Blessed Mother and gratefully mentions the “loyal hearts” who have sent him food packages, the final stanza asks her to “implore God’s richest blessing for all those / who work and sacrifice for our well-being.” In this way, the thanksgiving owed to God and to our Mother Mary is organically connected with the warm gratitude we owe to one another.

Since we can never thank God and each other enough, Father Kentenich asks the Blessed Mother to be the one who rewards our benefactors: “Grant them in the difficult paths of life / A generous measure of your love and grace. Amen.”

Let us Be Grateful for our Gifts and Remember those who Suffer Hunger

Perhaps only those who have faced starvation can know how to give a proper meal prayer. But let us learn from Father Kentenich’s prayer to appreciate more gratefully the food we share, those who have prepared it, and those who sit with us at table. Let us remember those who suffer hunger. And let us be generous as instruments of Mary, our “Bread Mother,” in caring for them.