By Melanie P. Moore
“I used to think that Christian contemplation was reserved for white men who leave copies of C.S. Lewis’s letters strewn about and know a great deal about coffee and beard oils,” Cole Arthur Riley writes in the preface to her New York Times bestselling debut, This Here Flesh, from Convergent Books.
In the first chapter, Dignity, Riley writes, “It takes time to undo the whiteness of God. …We have to persist in observing and naming all the ways this force has obscured the face and character of God.”
Riley, 32, is a writer, speaker, and spiritual teacher in residence with Cornell University’s Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making. She is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space that integrates spiritual practice with Black emotion, Black literature, and the Black body; and a project of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation where she serves as Curator.
The book, made up of 15 well-paced chapters titled, in this order: Dignity, Place, Wonder, Calling, Body, Belonging, Fear, Lament, Rage, Justice, Repair, Rest, Joy, Memory, Liberation, is a book by a Black woman, for Black people. The cover art is a stunning image of a vine/tree of life in the shape of windpipe and lungs—body and breath.
As white people, we are lucky to have access to this rapturous new voice. I feel a monumental responsibility to read Riley’s work with humility, even as a queer woman who grew up being taught a hetero-normative image of God that excluded me. Riley uses expansive language to reference God including pronouns “she” and “they.” This resonated with warm acceptance for me, as did these sentences from the Body chapter: “For me, the story of God becoming body is only matched by God’s submission to the body of a woman. That the creator of the cosmos would choose to rely on an embodied creation. … You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Riley writes with specificity and a wisdom and gravity that defy her years. As she describes it, “This is a book of contemplative storytelling. The pages you hold are where the stories that have formed me across generations meet our common practice of beholding the divine.” There are three generations of her family in the book which is part memoir, part contemplation, part myth, and part magical realism. In it, she quotes theologians and her literary ancestors, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, bel hooks, Audre Lorde, and Zora Neale Hurston, among others.
In a podcast interview she said, “I had been in places where contemplation was intellectual … a disembodied pursuit.” In the preface she quotes from Morrison’s Beloved, a section she calls “The Clearing:”
“In this way contemplative spirituality is in Black blood. But it is not a spirituality of disembodied, solitary, intellectual musing. It is a way of being together in ‘The Clearing’ with God,” and remarks that “…this literary moment of intergenerational, dignity-affirming, embodied liberation is my model for spirituality.”
Also from the Body chapter: “Our tales of Christian escapism lead us to the place where the physical is damned and the immaterial is gloried. Where the only holy things are invisible. How could you expect me to believe this when I’ve met a God who drank from the breast of his creation?”
Through the specificity of her multi-generational stories, we see the strength, hope, heroics, and broken humanity of the family members that formed her as she lays out a path to embodied spirituality and liberation. No, not a path to, but a path that is itself these things. It is no accident that the final chapters are Joy, Memory, and Liberation.
In podcast interviews, she commented on the fast growth of the Instagram account she started in the summer of 2020 when she was angered (again) about the deaths of Black people after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. The account is @blackliturgies and she said she didn’t know much about social media at the time—she thought it would be an intimate group of maybe 12 or 20 people. To date, it has 187,000 followers—including me. Which brings up a point from some of the interviews where she talked about the “white gaze” and how that makes her work more complicated. She wonders what the white gaze is doing and now must interrogate who she is writing for. A complication she notes—and that Black podcasters agreed with—is that, “The white gaze pays, it can make things go viral. You make money because of the white gaze on your work.” She also said, “…for the rare white person who can de-center themselves in the space, it can be quite beautiful.” As a follower of Black Liturgies who has found the space to be quite meaningful, I was warmed to hear this.
St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin, Texas, a mostly white church, will be reading This Here Flesh as our “One Church, One Book” study during Lent. You can sign up here. Let us read Riley’s work and liturgies from the sidelines as her blazing voice takes center stage.
You can buy the book, out in paperback Jan. 31, 2023, locally in Austin at BookPeople, or online at Bookshop.org. For more about Cole Arthur Riley, visit her website www.colearthurriley.com where you can also sign up to receive breath prayers delivered to your email. Her daily spiritual reflections are on Facebook (@blackliturgist), Instagram (@blackliturgies), and Twitter (@blackliturgist).