Cole Arthur Riley
Convergent Books, 336 pages | Published January 16, 2024
There are some people who make you feel at home before you even really know them. Maybe it’s in a certain kind of casualness; a familiarity that doesn’t feel calculated, coercive or forced. Or perhaps it’s in the invitation to show up without an expectation to perform any version of yourself than the one that is true. I felt this way when I read much of Cole Arthur Riley’s Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human.
A colleague asked, “Is this just her Instagram printed out?” Maybe. But whether her words have already been released to the world in some form isn’t quite the point. With a combination of slow-down soul speak and unflinching self-reflection, Black Liturgies is both an invitation to self-honesty and a resource for liturgical leadership. As Riley reflects on secrets she has kept and the liabilities of her chronically ill body, I find a fellow sojourner wondering aloud and a companion in curiosity.
While there is confidence in her own experience and wisdom, Riley has no interest in making pronouncements that present the reader with universal truths and in this, the writing might be experienced as somewhat exhausting. She is hyperaware of both her audience and her creative priorities. In this, her writing is not for everyone, with its particular wounds rooted in cultures that have limited space for the bodies and embodiments that refuse to conform to the expectations of the majority. She is here first for Black dignity and liberation, and if the reader doesn’t identify as such, it is not a disqualifier. For anyone feeling hollowed out by the litany of grief that envelops our news cycles, family systems and church communities, there is plenty of grace to be gained from her bodily prayers, (“INHALE: I don’t have to hold every pain at once / EXHALE: I can feel and not be consumed”), invitations to contemplation, (“ … there are forms for sadness that survive in the mouth of despair. A kind of sadness that does not want you well … Do not let your grief become a locked door.”), and calls to an undivided life (“Climb back inside your body … You are alive.”) In this way, the subtitle for Black Liturgies is spot on: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human. If there is anything anyone needs now, it is a reminder to stay human.
As a pastor, I always flirt with a sneaky slide toward burnout, and so I find Riley’s writing relevant and relentlessly demanding in all the necessary ways, calling me to a compassionate self-honesty that I could easily avoid with the endless meetings, one-on-ones, staff concerns and Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. This is the book readers should buy to aide their soul work — for themselves, for others. They will return to it because, as in the most honest works, each encounter will dare the reader to see himself or herself better and, in doing so, catch a glimpse of the imago dei that lies embedded within their very human soul.
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