This Here Flesh
Spirituality, Liberation and the Stories that Make Us
Cole Arthur Riley
This is a book of contemporary storytelling… The pages you hold are where the stories that have formed me across generations meet our common practice of beholding the divine… Storytelling is core to what it means to be human… Part of the power of remembrance is in its recitation… We must teach our children and our children’s children what it means to be free. What it feels like to be whole. To exhale. And stories are our greatest teachers… We need to know and own the stories that have made us.Cole Arthur Riley
On 26 June 2020, Cole Arthur Riley’s new account Black Liturgies (https://www.instagram.com/blackliturgies/?hl=en) went live on Instagram, described as ‘a space where Black words live in dignity, lament, rage, and hope.’ 4 weeks later, Cole had 5,000 followers; 6 months later, she had over 100,000 followers.
As a Black millennial woman living in New York, Cole’s modern liturgies for everyday life struck a chord deeply in the midst of a global pandemic and at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, speaking into a context of anger, hurt, fear and pain. Being immune-compromised, Cole had to self-isolate with her husband at home for 15 months. Through her writing on Black Liturgies, she ‘found the healing required to write publicly and honestly again’ and, as her self-isolation continued, she started writing a book, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation and the Stories That Make Us, a multi-layered, moving and often a poetic exploration of faith, lament, community and much more.
Cole describes This Here Flesh as ‘more remembrance than revelation, more maybes than certainty.’ Drawing on her own life story and those of her father and her grandmother – as well as characters from the Bible – Cole shares and explores personal experiences of community, tragedy, abandonment, abuse, fear, resilience, determination, faith, love, and more, grouped under 15 themes which are integral to her experience and understanding of spirituality: dignity, place, wonder, calling, body, belonging, fear, lament, rage, justice, repair, rest, joy, memory, and liberation. Along the way, Cole talks openly about her struggles with anxiety and depression and her experience of being sick for 4 years ‘with a litany of neurological disorders that refuse to reveal their origin’, undergoing many surgeries, being bed-bound for long periods of time, and fearing blindness and further deterioration. She and her father and her gramma have experienced many difficult times but their determination, their love for each other, and their faith enable them to have a thankful and a trusting heart, while not being afraid to lament and rage at God when life is hard. Along the way, Cole also talks about ‘the force of whiteness’, writing that ‘as a default, I imagine God as a white man’, and looking at how ‘it takes time to undo the whiteness of God’ and the ways in which ‘this force [of whiteness] has obscured the face and character of God’.
I am interested in reclaiming a contemplation that is not exclusive to whiteness, intellectualism, ableism, or mere hobby… As a Black woman, I am disinterested in any call to spirituality that divorces my mind from my body, voice, or people. To suggest a form of faith that tells me to sit alone and be quiet? It does not rest easy on the bones. It is a shadow of true contemplative life, and it would be violence to my Black-woman soul… for me, most simply, contemplative spirituality is a fidelity to beholding the divine in all things… a sacred attention… so I write these pages in solitude but tethered to those to whom I belong and who in some manner belong to me… My spiritual formation comes to me in memories – not creeds or doctrine, but the air we breathed, stories, myth and a kind of attentiveness.Cole Arthur Riley
PRAISE FOR THIS HERE FLESH:
‘Exquisite… Arthur Riley’s writing is both transporting and hauntingly intimate as she narrates this important account of generational inheritance. The stories and meditations in this book are sure to stay with you forever.’
Ayo Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
‘This book is breathtaking. Full of profound revelation and beauty woven into poetry, unforgettable imagery, and story, it will stay with me long after I’ve read it. I will keep returning to its pages, ready to hear in Cole Arthur Riley’s reflections new ways to see myself, my family, my faith, and my God. Who knew truth-telling could be so beautiful?’
Chine McDonald, author of God Is Not A White Man
COLE ON LAMENT:
‘True lament is not born from that trite sentiment that the world is bad but rather from a deep conviction that it is worthy of goodness… Lament is not anti-hope… lament itself is a form of hope. It’s an innate awareness that what is should not be.’
COLE ON LIBERATION:
‘Many of us end up surrendering a spirituality that allows us to be curious and uncertain and free so that we can maintain some semblance of belonging, even if that means we adhere to a way of life that doesn’t leave room for the truth of us.’
COLE ON REPAIR:
‘Repair – truth-telling, reparations, healing, reconciliation – these are what breathes new life into us.’
COLE ON JOY:
‘We must become people capable of delight. And people who have been delighted in.’
COLE ON REST:
‘The curse of the world has made for restless hearts, bodies, minds… God is trying to steady us and make it so that we can be still without becoming terrified of things, of ourselves… rest is an act of defiance.’
About the author:
Cole Arthur Riley is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space where Black words of dignity, lament, rage, and rest, are curated and integrated with a liberating spirituality. She works as the content and spiritual formation manager for Chesterton House: A Centre for Christian Studies at Cornell University. Born and for the most part, raised in Pittsburgh, Cole studied Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She once took a professor’s advice very seriously to begin writing a little every day and has followed it for nearly a decade.
Hardback, 224 pages, 978 1 5293 7279 3, £16.99, publishing 24 February 2022
Written By: Rhoda Hardie