"What might it mean to be 'fully alive'? Obviously, it is not the same as simply eating and breathing. Nor is it expressed in a flurry of manic activity. To be fully alive is a matter of living out of the deepest part of oneself. Call it the heart or the soul; these are words that describe the central and intimate core of our being, the place where we are most truly ourselves. Given the noise and distractions that surround us, it is often hard to imagine that such places exist. We glide along the surface, taking our cues from the newspapers, or our neighbors, or the commercials on TV. They tell us what to desire, what to fear, and what will bring us joy. Yet the more we listen to such voices, the less we know about ourselves. No wonder happiness is so elusive.

"The men and women called saints have walked a different path, a path to God that was at the same time the path to their own true selves. There is much that they might teach us. Yet their authority as guides and teachers often fades in the shadow of an apparent 'otherness' that renders them at once inaccessible and unappealing, To begin with, saints are supposed to be perfect people —'not like us.' Traditional stories about their lives reinforce this impression, emphasizing miraculous and other worldly traits while airbrushing anything recognizably human. On this basis we might share George Orwell's conclusion that the very aspiration to holiness is evidence of a warped personality. 'Saints,' he wrote, 'should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.'

"Sentimental and saccharine hagiography is partly to blame. Dorothy Day wrote about coming across one book about saints that included this passage on their eating habits: 'The saints went to their meals singing. St. Alphonsus, when sitting down, would think only of the suffering of souls in purgatory, and with tears would beseech Our Lady to accept the mortifications he imposed upon himself during meals. Blessed de Montfort sometimes shed tears and sobbed bitterly when sitting at the table to eat.' To this, Day offered the brief comment: 'No wonder no one wants to be a saint.'

"Yet Day herself conveyed something else. No one who ever observed how she savored a cup of instant coffee or the rare luxury of a fresh roll, how she enjoyed watching the shifting tides of Raritan Bay off Staten Island or listened raptly to the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts on the radio could fail to detect the quality that Teilhard de Chardin described as a 'zest for living': that spiritual disposition, at once intellectual and affective, in virtue of which life, the world, and action seem to us, on the whole, luminous — interesting — appetizing."

"As the otherworldly heroes of pious legend, saints may seem close to God but not exactly human. In fact, as Thomas Merton observed, sanctity is really a matter of being more fully human: 'This implies a greater capacity for concern, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for appreciation for the good and beautiful things of life.' One observes those qualities in holy persons of recent times — Mother Teresa, or Pope John XXIII, or the Dalai Lama — a certain lightness of being, far from the torturous attitude of Blessed de Montfort toward his food. And it makes one wonder if a similar quality or aura did not surround the saints of the past — whether St. Francis of Assisi, who built the first Christmas crèche, or St. Teresa of Avila, who prayed to God to 'deliver us from sour-faced saints,' or St. Francis de Sales, who said that a 'sad saint is a sad sort of saint.' They stood out not just for their faith or good works but for exhibiting a certain quality of being. In traditional Christian art this aura was represented by a halo. Real saints have no such distinguishing marks. But the aura is real. It is the presence of life, life in abundance."