When 9-year-old Peter put “play a board game” on the Guest family’s “Countdown Chain,” it gave the family pause.

“He understood for us to stop and play with him was a wonderful sacrifice,” his mom Kelly explained, especially for his older siblings.

The family’s Lenten practice of compiling a chain of sacrifices was sparked when Paul and Kelly Guest’s oldest son would ask, “How much longer till …?” Kelly’s idea worked so well to teach fasting, prayer and almsgiving that she continued the practice as their other children came along and still uses it with the four youngest (shown below). At the same time, the Lenten fasting practices have taken root and continue in the lives of the five older children, now in their teens and early 20s.

“Watching the chain become smaller and smaller during Lent adds to the excitement of the approaching holy day. They have an active part in the 40 days,” Kelly Guest explained from their Hampstead, Maryland, home. Four- to 7-year-olds might find it nearly overwhelming to give up TV or ice cream for the entire 40 days, but the countdown chain opens lots of penitential possibilities.

Guest divides 40 strips of purple paper, 10 for each of the four youngest children, ages 9 to 14. The children write one Lenten practice — sacrifice, prayer and almsgiving — on each piece before the papers are turned into “links” for the chain. “The only thing I ask of them is the Rosary on one,” Guest said. “For the other nine they can choose anything.”

The children pick an array of choices for their Lenten fasts, such as no snacks, or desserts or TV for the day. “On their own they will say ‘no electronics,’ ‘no computer or PlayStation time,’” Guest said.

Sacrifices include almsgiving, such as putting their own money in the poor box at church and donating toys and canned goods to local charities.

Guest also reminds the children that these 40 days should be a time of “extra prayer,” which can include reading the Bible for 30 minutes or saints’ stories.

Praying the Rosary is one of the things 14-year-old Cate likes to do. “It makes me feel like I’m helping others,” she said. She also likes praying a Holy Hour.

These penances offer tests, too, Cate explained, like the day requiring everyone “to say no mean words, but say something nice to other siblings. That one is really challenging. It’s a very difficult one.” So is when dessert is involved, Cate said. “We usually eat snacks after meals, and everybody loves ice cream. That one is really hard” to give up, she reported. Each morning a link comes off the chain to reveal the Lenten practice for that day. Whatever it is, all are responsible for abiding by that day’s practice, from the youngest to the oldest.

In Missouri, Father Bill Peckman, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul parish in Boonville and St. Joseph parish in Fayette, was in grade school in Kentucky when his family became Catholic. “Fasting and almsgiving were part of the Catholic life, and we were doing this to show our love for God,” he remembered.

“To give alms meant that we didn’t go to the movies or have candy, and that was okay,” he said. “Our love for God came before the other things.”

He counsels that carrying out such sacrifice as a family is always important. “Parents need to embrace what they’re doing and to teach their children the good of why they’re doing it.”

Father Peckman tells families, “Detaching ourselves from the things of this world shows that our love for God is greater than our love for fill-in-the-blank. We open our space for God in our lives, intentionally making that space in our hearts.”

Father Michael Champagne, superior of the Community of Jesus Crucified and based in St. Martinsville, Louisiana, described how, when he was growing up, he and his family took part in the Operation Rice Bowl in his diocese.

The family would eat simple meals like lentils and would not have sweets. His mother set aside the money saved, and by Easter, the family had $100 that became part of the funds collected by the diocese and given toward the work of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

“That’s a creative way to deprive yourself,” he said. “You save money spent on sweets and give that to the poor.”

Father Peckman is of similar mind. He advises giving saved money to a family’s charity of choice.

His parish is committing to Operation Rice Bowl to raise money to support the 40 people in the homeless shelter in their small town. Father Champagne also remembers other early practices — children couldn’t watch TV during Lent, except on Sundays. But, he said, the same can happen today with things like Facebook. “Fast certain hours on cellphones, for kids, for adults,” he counsels. “It’s important to fast.”

 

Fast Not Fest

Also in St. Martinsville, Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, founders of “Witness to Love: Marriage Preparation Renewal Ministry,” are expecting their fifth child in April (their oldest is 9), and they are cultivating a Lenten fasting culture in their home.

“We have a monastic soup cookbook and try to have soup nights, eating simple meals and reading the Gospel of the day and talking about it,” Ryan Verret explained.

They pray the Rosary, and each decade is dedicated to the well-being of their five children, one for each child, including the fourth child they lost. They also pray for families suffering the loss of a child, for the end of abortion and for the building up of a culture of life.

On Lenten Friday nights the Verrets connect with another Catholic family for a meal of soup and bread, which is not all that easy since “in Louisiana Fridays are like seafood feast day,” he said.

“We really have to work hard that Friday in Lent is not a ‘seafood fest.’ We’re trying to teach the kids that’s not what Friday in Lent is about.”

Ryan said he and his wife foster a sense of “being invited to something that’s a gift for us,” so the fast doesn’t feel like a burden but an invitation for their children.

He cited St. John Paul II, saying the Church “proposes” and does not “impose” the Gospel.

“It’s good to start in little ways,” he said, citing St. Thérèse’s “Little Way” and what it might do to “shape little people in little ways,” he said.

 

Benefits of Lenten Practice

All the “giving up” is for positive results. “Fasting is a boon to prayer,” said Father Champagne. “The Lord hears that prayer much more powerfully.”

As part of the Mystical Body, depriving yourself is assisting others, he said, fostering solidarity.

He explains, “I’m going to fast from Facebook because my brothers and sisters in other countries don’t have those things. Even though I’m not able to send them something, I can do this.”

Remember, because Jesus fasted, we fast, he said. “We want to be like Christ. It’s to identify with him.”

Fasting can mean growing in temperance, “a big branch on the tree of virtue,” Father Champagne added.

Children grow, too, from such acts of charity. Kelly Guest takes her four youngest to the pregnancy center where she volunteers biweekly, and on the way, one daughter has asked to buy a case of diapers for the women who come there.

Guest does not ask her older children what they sacrifice, but sometimes they tell her. One daughter shared how giving up social media was difficult, but, ultimately, by the end of Lent, she felt liberated by doing so.

“I know I gave them the foundation,” Guest said.

“During the high-school years they should sacrifice something and give of themselves financially, or of their talent, a little extra during Lent, and do some extra prayer or spiritual reading. The chain was one way I choose to instill that in them.”

For Cate, the lessons learned along the countdown chain don’t end. “It just makes me feel like I want to keep doing these things, even though it’s not Lent,” she told the Register, “praying for everyone and trying to grow in your faith as much as you can during the year, not just in Lent.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.