Cole Arthur Riley is the author of this New York Times best-seller and is also a spiritual teacher in residence at Cornell University. She is the creator of Black Liturgies, a space that integrates spiritual practice with Black emotion, Black literature, and the Black body. You can get a taste of these on her Instagram page, which is followed by 190,000 people: @blackliturgies.
She writes beautifully and insightfully because she uses her senses so well. Listening recurs often in these pages. “Have you ever stood in the presence of a tree and listened to the wind pass through its leaves?” appears on page one. A little while later: “We are meant to be connected to our where, to the sensory experience of it. The simple beholding of place can slow your heart and steady your breath. It is quite the protective force.”
She understands trauma and alienation, and she writes of those places in her life and in the lives of others. She writes of her Blackness, of her ancestors being captured and held as slaves, and yet somehow still that “wonder includes the capacity to be in awe of humanity,” adding, “Practicing wonder is a powerful tool against despair.”
Awe and wonder for the world around us is important, but most of all, awe must begin at home, inside of you, Riley explains. Only then, “To be able to marvel at the face of our neighbor with the same awe we have for the mountaintop, the sunlight refracting — this manner of vision is what will keep us from destroying each other.”
There is much more here as well. The power of this book is its ability to be spiritually literate with emotional depth across a wide range of topics. Beauty is next, beginning with, “We have found ourselves too busy for beauty. We spin our bodies into chaos with the habits and expectations of the dominating culture, giving and doing and working.” Then, still speaking directly to the experience of herself and other Black Americans, she uses language that might be applicable to a person of any color: “Do not blame yourself for that buzzing terror in the back of your mind; it was injected there at the site of our ancestors’ enslavement.”
This is a book for addressing rage in our lives, and beginning to do repairs.
She writes also about silence and solitude — and in ways that many of us need to hear. White writers (Thomas Merton is one) have taught us for too long, Riley explains, that contemplative spirituality is a kind of “disembodied, solitary intellectual musing.” Instead, she says, look to the body, look to your fear, lament, rage, and seek justice, as your contemplative practice.
Later chapters move into hope and joy, with encouragement and suggestions as to how to make these real in our lives. Riley writes in chapter 13, “As joy gives way to dreaming, our hope becomes more and more secure. We begin to believe that what is will not always be, that the ache will not always linger. And we may even begin to believe that we are worthy of what we are hoping for.”