By T.C. MITCHELL, Anchorage Daily News - Published: April 4, 2007

During a 13-hour flight from here to Russia, an attendant placed a meal that included a piece of chicken in front of Father Daniel.

"You have a choice. Do you eat or do you not eat?" he asked, opening his palms over a table.

For many of us, that question would arise because of the declining quality of airline food. For Father Daniel, it was a matter of faith.

The priest at St. Tikhon in downtown Anchorage was traveling to his homeland during the Great Lent, as the six weeks of observance is called in the Russian Orthodox Church. During that time, Feb. 18 to April 1, there is fasting, and chicken is among the foods that should be avoided.

Despite the ban on eating animals with a spine, Father Daniel ate the chicken, but he figures he's still good to go as far as the afterlife is concerned.

"The fasting period shouldn't be looked on as a scholastic idea. It's not a whole bunch of rules. We don't do A to get to B so we're 100 percent certain we will get to C."

In other words, not eating chicken or beef or fish or eggs and butter is a matter of discipline, not an act of reaching heaven.

"Tell me: If you and I have a nice big steak, a glass of wine and a dessert, what do you feel like doing."

A nap came to mind.

Hence his point: "When people indulge in meat, they relax more."

And relaxing causes even the most devoted to lose their focus, and that's what Lent is about - focusing on one's spiritual life.

Given the state's abundance, Alaska seems like the best place in the world to fast in this way because shrimp don't have spines. Neither do clams, mussels, scallops or oysters. Not that we have lobsters here, but that's one spineless animal many of us could agree would get us by to the next meal. Surf without the turf seems a small price to pay.

But even with such a variety available, the advice still applies: Don't get so satiated that you turn inward. Because it's not about you, it's about your soul.

A heaping plate of clams in tomato sauce can be as distracting as a 16-ounce porterhouse.

"It's about moderation," the priest said.

It's also about common sense.

Not only is the weary, hungry traveler given the OK to eat a piece of chicken to sustain his health, so are nursing mothers, people with special dietary concerns and many others, including children.

"I have a 2-year-old daughter. It would be a sin for me to say, 'You can't drink milk for 40 days.' She wouldn't understand. And it wouldn't be good for her."

The same goes for people who live in the Bush.

"We have Carrs and Fred's. We can go to the store and get what we want. The church respects individual lives. People who live on the Upper Kuskokwim might have gotten their last bag of potatoes in September."

So they, unlike others in the church, can eat fish during the Great Lent because that's a food they have preserved for the future, knowing they would need it to last through the long winter.

Having grown up in interior Russia, Father Daniel can relate to long winters and planning for the future.

"In my mom's head, she knew each year the fast was coming up, and we needed to stock up on potatoes and preserve the mushrooms."

Besides all that, he thinks fasting is good for the body.

"Ask any doctor -- forget about six weeks -- if not eating meat is good for you. I don't know how many parishioners have come up to me after a few weeks without meat and tell me how good they feel.

"You could go to a dietician, and they will say the same thing. And after 2,000 years, we can tell you that for free."

The Eastern Church, like other denominations this year, is in the middle of the Holy Week, so the Great Lent ended last weekend. But the fast continues until Pascha -- Easter Sunday.

Saturday night at about 11:30, the parishioners will gather for services. Sometime after midnight, there will be a blessing of the Pascha baskets that will contain foods that weren't eaten for the past seven weeks.

This is no time to gorge, though.

"You have to build up to it. Take it easy. We might start with some eggs and cheese. You need to start slowly so your body gets used to it," Father Daniel said. "I might have something light, like a little bit of lamb. I would prefer an Alaska king salmon."

And so it will go for another 50 days until the Fast of the Holy Apostles begins, the second of four on the calendar. That one will last about a month this year, ending on June 29. Still time to catch a baseball game and enjoy a cheeseburger and a beer.

Photos by (BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News).

Observing Great Lent

Russian Orthodox clergy visiting from throughout the state observe the rules of the Great Lent during a retreat at Saint Innocent Cathedral in Anchorage. "It's about moderation," Father Daniel says.

Observing Great Lent

Serving the Clergy

Mina Jacobs prepares Oriental shrimp for visiting Russian Orthodox clergy during a retreat at St. Innocent Cathedral. During the Great Lent, members of the Russian Orthodox Church abstain from dairy, eggs and meat.

Serving the Clergy

Lenten Retreat Meals

Cake made without dairy products, left, and oriental shrimp with Greek green beans were served during a Lenten retreat.

Lenten Retreat Meal

Grape Leaves

Dolmades are delicate parcels made from grape leaves and stuffed with rice and herbs that were prepared by members of the St. Innocent sisterhood.

Grape Leave