they were hungry. God was feeding them; He was feeding them with manna from heaven - the food of angels, their daily bread in the form of a daily miracle. But this wasn't enough for them.
When Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he finds the Israelites engaged in horrific behavior - worshipping a false god of their own making (after just having been delivered by the true God). When Jesus comes down from the mountain of His Transfiguration, He finds the disciples arguing over why they can't exorcise a demon from an epileptic. "O ye of little faith," says He, "this kind can come out only by prayer and fasting."
The fasting Our Lord refers to is, at least on one level, mortification of the flesh.
If we cannot turn from the fleshpots of Egypt - all those great cucumbers and melons we had when we were slaves - we cannot accept the spiritual food, the manna, the Eucharist, that nourishes our true selves.
I don't know about you, but I find myself spending most of my time trying to feed the flesh and not the spirit. I don't mean simply eating food, but feeding my "fleshy desires" - feeding the Hungry I.
The Hungry I is the name of a famous nightclub in San Francisco, named apparently after the "hungry id" of Freud, but I'm using it here to stand for that nasty little demanding ego inside each of us, that petty tyrant who, if given a chance, would rule the world, for his desire is never satisfied.
We underestimate the power of the Hungry I. We think, foolishly, that to follow your desire is to "follow your bliss" - and this is true to a certain extent. It's true if you're following the bliss of your spirit, but not if you're following the bliss of your flesh. The desires of the flesh lead to the works of the flesh. And what are the works of the flesh?
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)
Of course we are suspicious, and rightly so, of any Puritanical condemnation of the body - but when Paul talks of the flesh, he doesn't exactly mean "the body". He means the selfish desires of the fallen man, the urges of the corrupt spirit; he means what happens when the Old Adam "follows his bliss".
Sometimes God gives us a great grace, which is always a severe mercy and is always felt like a punishment. That grace consists of giving us what we want.
In the case of the grousing Israelites, he gave them grouse - stuffed their mouths with their own desires enfleshed.
Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” (Num. 11:18-20) ... Now a wind went out from the Lord and drove quail in from the sea. It scattered them up to two cubits deep all around the camp, as far as a day’s walk in any direction. All that day and night and all the next day the people went out and gathered quail. No one gathered less than ten homers. (Num. 11:31-32)
Sometimes when we get what we want, when we have so much that it's "coming out of our nostrils", we find that the flesh bears the fruit of corruption; while the Spirit bears the fruit of life.
For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Gal. 6:8)
In my case, when I yearn for and seek for the desires of the flesh - adulation, attention, success, adoring love - when my Hungry I gorges itself on grouse, I find myself becoming more and more of a despicable person, more and more unhappy, more and more corrupt.
May the Lord help us all to mortify the desires of the Hungry I - especially during this Great Novena.