Guest Review: The Enlightened Heart, ed. Stephen Mitchell

September 19, 2012

Life has been frightening and cataclysmic lately, so I needed some reading material that would reconnect me with a sense of the spiritual. I also haven’t had a lot of time to read, I’ve been writing so much. So the book I just finished was unlike my usual favorites: nonfiction books about history or colorful, literary adventure novels. I decided to pick up a book I’d had on my shelf for a long time, The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, edited by Stephen Mitchell.

Book Review The Enlightened Heart

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This remarkable volume serves as a history of world religion, as well as a collection of beautiful poetry. In fact, we might not even have considered many of these works “poetry” the way we normally think of it. Many of the world’s great religious classics, (and indeed most highbrow literature before a few hundred years ago) were written in verse rather than prose, as the divinity they were meant to express can only be captured, even in part, by the beauty of a poetic treatment.

In order, The Enlightened Heart contains selections from: the Upanishads, the Book of Psalms, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, the Odes of Solomon, Chinese nature poets, early Christian theologians, Japanese haiku practitioners, Sufi poet Rumi, Dante, Kabir, Shakespeare, and so on all the way down to the cosmically aware mid-20th-century poetry of Wallace Stevens and D.H. Lawrence.

This chronological organization balances the globe-trotting geographical universality of the collection, giving it a certain unity and fascination to see what spiritual truths different world cultures were expressing at roughly the same time.

German philosopher Karl Jaspers once theorized about something called the Axial Age, dating roughly to 600 BC, when many of the world’s religions sprang up. It is fascinating to consider that Zarathustra and Lao Tse, a world apart at that time, were contemporaries. So, a couple generations later were the Buddha and Mahavira, founder of Jainism. Meanwhile, in Israel, the Torah was taking shape.

The power of these early transcendent truths is echoed in the more personalized literature of the medieval era, when worshipping God in the form of Christ or Krishna, or in the ecstatic paeans of Rumi, becomes a form of love poetry. Again, interesting correspondences between vastly different civilizations.

But the best part of reading this book was that I could access it in short bursts, whenever I needed a mystical or meditative pick-me-up. Like I said, I’ve been busy lately, so it was nice to not feel daunted by the project of finishing a book, the way I do when making my way through epic (life-changing, but also life-swallowing) stories like Don Quixote or Moby-Dick. Instead, I could read for an hour or two if I felt like it, or just take a nugget here, a nugget there.

It kept me in a good mood for a solid week, which is no small achievement. I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to inject their lives with a little sacred beauty.

Buy this book in paper or electronic format

Pepper Givens is an online blogger and freelance writer from

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  • Laurie CSeptember 27, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Hope things are better now. It’s great when you hit on just the right book you need at the right time. I’m too much of a completist to like anthologies, but they are a good way to sample different works to see what resonates.

  • Laurie CSeptember 27, 2012 at 8:05 am

    Oops! Forgot this was a guest post I was reading and thought I was commenting to Zohar. But still, the sentiment is the same!

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