Cole Arthur Riley | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. Each week, we endeavor to bring you a new interview with someone who, like Henri Nouwen, is thoughtfully and freshly exploring the concerns and issues of Christian spirituality today. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family. Our core purpose is to share Henri Nouwen’s spiritual vision, so that people can be transformed by experiencing themselves as God’s beloved.
Now, let me introduce you to my guest today. Cole Arthur Riley, the creator of the popular and groundbreaking social media account, Black Liturgies, has just released her first book: This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us.
In this exquisite book, Cole weaves together stories from three generations of her family, alongside deeply spiritual, contemplative reflections. Krista Tippett, host of On Being, invites us to “welcome the rising of Cole Arthur Riley’s astonishing voice.” As Krista says, this is a gorgeous and muscular work. And I agree. In honesty, I’ve never read a book like this, and I loved it. When I got to the end, I wanted to go back and start all over again. It is deeply spiritual, poetic, and profound, calling readers to a new, contemplative way of being. Cole’s insights demand our attention.
Cole, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you for having me.
Karen Pascal: Before we discuss the book, may I ask a little bit about Black Liturgies? It’s described as a project seeking integration of dignity, lament, rage, justice, and rest. You started Black Liturgies on Instagram in July 2020. Who are you talking to? How many people are listening?
Cole Arthur Riley:
When I’m writing Black Liturgies, I’m thinking of black people and I’m speaking primarily to other black people. And I really started the project because I was looking for a kind of spiritual space, a spiritual community even, that allowed for black grief and black anger and black lament and black joy and the black body to exist and to be taken seriously. And to even be centered. I’d been involved in liturgical spaces for years when I started Black Liturgies, and I found so much beauty and healing in written prayer and a kind of restfulness in written prayer that I wanted to engage – but out of my blackness.
Karen Pascal: You had described yourself as a liturgist. That preceded this? Were you kind of involved in a traditional church where that was something you were doing, or is it just that the liturgies that you found in those settings has inspired you?
Cole Arthur Riley: The former. So, I was a liturgist with the past two churches I’ve attended. An Episcopal church that I actually worked for was the first place I served as a liturgist and leading the prayers of the people, which was really beautiful and special. But then, in my work with college students – so, I began working with college students and really leaning more into the writer in me and my work with spiritual formation. And so, I would have students write liturgies and practice writing prayers. And I’ve always been a writer. That’s always been the way I’ve felt most connected with the divine. And so, when it came time to try to form a community, it just made sense. It was going to be about words. It was going to be liturgies for me.
Karen Pascal: Oh, that’s lovely. It’s interesting, because I’m, in a way, part of the same kind of a community here in Toronto, and I just love it. I love the freshness and the depth of it and the honesty of it. And obviously you have seen a need and you’re filling it. Can I ask? I think I was hearing that you have over a hundred… how many people are there? Is it like 125,000 or more that are on to this Instagram, Black Liturgies? I’m curious.
Cole Arthur Riley: It’s a lot. I can’t remember the exact number. I should know this. I know that we recently hit 140,000. So, it can’t be much more than that.
Karen Pascal: That just says how vibrant it is and how much it is being heard and being valued. Now, Cole, what was the catalyst behind This Here Flesh? What made you want to shift from creating content on Instagram and elsewhere to writing this book?
Cole Arthur Riley: I think Black Liturgies really opened doors for me in the publishing world. I had a few editors reach out to me and, like I said, I’ve always loved writing and dreamed about sharing my writing in this way and on this level before. So, I just jumped at the opportunity. Honestly, I definitely think I’m a stronger writer than I am liturgist.
So, it was really nice to be able to explore that part of me. And when I set out to write – I didn’t really set out. I had thought that I was going to write this very serious and removed book of Christian contemplation. And it certainly contains the contemplative, but I quickly realized that my strengths as a writer are in storytelling. And also, I just had these stories from my family that were so alive in me at that point that I was just unable to write anything but them. I just wasn’t able to muster up any kind of meaningful thought that wasn’t connected to the stories of my father and my grandma, and some of myself as well.
Karen Pascal: I love that part of it. Interestingly enough, my background is that I was a filmmaker and I did 40 mini-documentaries. They were half-hour long, on people’s lives, and it was called Stories of Our Becoming. And immediately as I began reading your book, I went, “This is the story of your becoming.” And all those stories of our becoming, they are woven together with our family histories and the people that, in a way, have so shaped who we are. It’s always been interesting to me that often filmmakers’ first films are about their families. You know, they go back because they’re trying to show that’s what’s made them who they are, and they want to tell that story, because it’s deep in them. So, in a way, I came to the book and I realized, “This is a story of my becoming.” It’s a story of your becoming, and it’s quite wonderful. And I think you honored your grandma and your father so beautifully in the book, because they’re written with love. They’re written with great honesty. At times it breaks my heart, some of the realities that you share, but I see them with the love that you see them.
Has it lifted something from you to be able to have, almost in a sense, got that off your chest? I love the way you integrate your reflections and your contemplation and your spirituality with these stories. It’s beautifully woven together.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah. I mean, I definitely feel this. I feel certainly nervous and a little bit bare anytime you kind of share your stories or forms of them. But I also do feel a sense of relief. I feel much more connected to my interior life, more connected to what I believe about the world, what I just don’t know about the world. I think writing has a wonderful way of, kind of, and maybe all art has a wonderful way of just drawing out the truest things and really begging you to tell the truth. So, I just had to become honest about a lot and travel to places in my stories that I wouldn’t normally go. And so, in that sense, I do feel the sense of well, a deeper sense of connection to myself.
Karen Pascal: I loved that you’re talking about contemplation, but you’re saying, “I’m interested in reclaiming a contemplation that’s not exclusive to whiteness, intellectualism, ableism, or mere hobby. And as a black woman, I am disinterested in any call to spirituality that divorces my mind from my body, voice or people.” That to me seemed to say where this, where you’d chosen to begin and where you choose to center the book.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yes, exactly. I mean, for so long I’d been really concerned with earning the approval of a lot of white, intellectual spaces, in academia, especially. And there was just this desire to prove my intellect in terms of my spirituality, which, yeah, I think is just a really dangerous path to travel, you know? It’s one thing to believe that the mind has to do with spirituality, but to have it completely eclipse your spiritual life is really dangerous, I think, and I was definitely in those waters for a while.
And so, this book – I knew, okay, if I’m going to talk about spirituality, I can talk about the mind, but I can’t continue down this road of divorcing my body from my spirituality, divorcing spirituality from the physical realities. And I think good contemplation wants that for us, of course. It’s usually people who are kind of skimming off the top of the contemplative tradition who make it just about the mind.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because you kind of remind me of Henri Nouwen, in that he kept kind of going up the intellectual ladder, you know? He is teaching at Notre Dame and then at Yale and then at Harvard and then he kind of comes to the conclusion: “I’m teaching about this, but I’m not doing it. I’m not living it,” and realizing it’s an interesting conflict. And it sounds like the very one that somehow you think, “If I have that intellectual approval for what I’m doing, it affirms it,” when in fact it actually puts you on the fringes of what you would like to experience and what you really want to find and base your life on. Has Henri been an influence, too? I’m curious.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, he certainly has. I’ve been so moved by Henri Nouwen over the years. I was in the real throes of some unhealthy, I think, Christian spaces. And I was reading a lot of writers who I assumed could lead me and form me, just because they had written a book. This was in college and I was just very naive and I didn’t have a kind of strong foundation of any kind of Christian tradition at that point. So, I was just kind of going where the wind tossed me. And thank goodness I happened across Henri Nouwen’s work. I read In the Name of Jesus first. And I remember thinking how deep the language was, but also very simple; he wasn’t trying to confuse you. He wasn’t trying to make things more elaborate or even contentious than they needed to be. And I just found, I was just really drawn to him, the language that he used. So, I think he among others, I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Julian of Norwich and Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, like those kinds of writers, gave me the courage to kind of interrogate the language I was using about God, and to simplify some of my beliefs and to really pare them back to find what’s most true or would I believe to be most true – if that makes sense.
Karen Pascal: It does. It does make sense. And honestly, that’s part of the richness of this book. I love the way you kind of seamlessly weave in your reflections about God, into the midst of story. I mean, if you were to see my book right now, it is just, it’s got lines on almost every single page, because for me it was just such a treasure to find some of these things and they made so much sense in the context that you put them. And it is really one of the reasons I want to invite our listening audiences to be sure and get This Here Flesh – you’re going to be blessed. Honestly, you’re going to be blessed and informed. And what I love is, I really feel the contemporariness of it, too. I mean, the fact that you are speaking in a way that I’ve longed to hear somebody speak. One of the things about it is quite honestly, with all the suffering that comes out in this book in terms of stories that are painful – you know, I turn around and say, “How can you have faith?” – but it’s there; it’s there in a kind of glowing and deep and honest way, and that I really value. And you’ve found fresh words for it.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Karen Pascal: I love the God that I meet in the pages. Tell me a little bit about who God is for you.
Cole Arthur Riley: Ugh, this question. Yeah, you just made me smile, just even hearing that question, because it’s so difficult for me to answer. I mean, I certainly have a relationship to God as my Creator. I’m thinking of this James Baldwin quote that has really been centering what I think about God in this season, at least. He says, “If God is to have any validity, any usefulness, it’s that it will make us freer, more loving, more gracious.” And I love that kind of framing of thinking about God, not in terms of how he’s criticizing me, how smart he thinks I am. Yeah, but more about the freedom that I think comes with God, this kind of opening of self, this entrance into the self, this freedom to travel into you and into other people.
And I know that’s all very vague, but I’m sure you expected as much. But I think I started the book, that the first chapter is on dignity. And I knew that for all the pain in the book and for this desire for this spiritual liberation – at least, that’s language I’m using – I wanted to start from a place with this origin story of God being creator, and there being inherent dignity and beauty in that. I wanted to begin there, because I knew that if I started anywhere else, if I started with the chapter on lament, you can almost reduce an experience to that, because it’s so emotional. It draws you in, and so we go there. It’s easy to go there, but beginning with dignity, it kind of gives you an appetite, I think, for spiritual liberation, when you know that you don’t have to live so constricted.
I’m actually thinking about Henri Nouwen and how he talks about self-rejection and that being the most dangerous thing, even more than popularity and power and success. The most dangerous is this self-rejection and this feeling that you aren’t dignified and that if anyone accuses you or criticizes you, then you’ll be rejected and it’s a rejection. And so, I love his reframing of God as this tender kind of compassionate figure that is very disinterested in rejection and much more concerned with reminding you that you’re beloved. That was just why I wanted to ground the book in that first chapter, in dignity.
Karen Pascal: I love, too, that you share with me a God that is multiple; there’s room for the faces of others. And I think that’s something that you bring to this. It’s beautifully stated. You talk about wonder, and I think that’s an interesting thing. It’s rich. I think awe is an exercise, both a doing and a being, it is a spiritual muscle of our humanity that we can only keep from atrophying if we exercise it habitually. “Awe is not a lens through which we see the world, but our sole path to seeing.” I love the fact that each chapter heading brings us into something, but I thought the one on awe was wonderful.
Cole Arthur Riley: Wonder was my favorite. It is my favorite chapter. I was just telling my husband that last night. He said, “What’s your favorite chapter?” I’m like, I know authors aren’t supposed to choose a favorite, but mine is exactly the chapter on wonder, because I feel it’s so playful. And yeah, and maybe it’s resisting some of that hyper-intellectualism that I was talking about earlier that I was formed in. I just feel my soul kind of relaxing back in the chair of it. And maybe that was how I experienced the writing, as well.
But I think – and I’m certainly not the first to say this – we have to get used to being people of wonder and to practicing wonder habitually. You know, the violence of the world, the traumas of the world, with how much access we have especially through social media in our current times, with how much access and the immediacy of that access we have to every trauma and every terror, I think we can only really survive if wonder is practiced. If beauty is practiced as a habit. It needs that kind of habitual resistance, if that makes sense. And I think most of the time I’m looking around at the world, I’m staring at a tree in my corner right now. And, you know, I’ve stared at this tree every day for three years. But what does it mean to try to really see it today and see how the light is falling on it, and the shadow that the curtain is leaving on it? And to really have those kinds of mundane moments of beauty prepares me, I think, to encounter the terrible and the scary and the violent, even. It’s kind of building up my inner strength.
Karen Pascal: You have a chapter on calling and I was so struck by some of the things that you wrote. Obviously, you’ve already mentioned, James Baldwin was a really important influence. You say, “The first time I picked up James Baldwin, I finally saw myself. It occurred to me that I could be an activist from my own source of power: words.” And then it goes on to say, “If writing is a calling, I have a responsibility to demand justice in my writing, as much as in the streets.”
I just thought, “wow!” It’s right in the heart of the book, by the way. So, kind of in the middle. And I think that’s who you are. I mean, that’s probably what I found so striking in the book: You are an activist in this book in a wonderful way, and an activist for the spiritual concerns of the world. You can’t be spiritual and ignore pain and justify injustice. You can’t. That’s what I found in your pages here.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you. I think so many of us are trying to force ourselves into these very particular molds of justice-seekers and what we think activists should look like. And I’ve just been so hard on myself over the years of, “Am I doing enough?” And James Baldwin had those same fears, those same insecurities. He spoke about it very openly in interviews, which kind of breaks my heart. And, you know, nowadays we know the impact that his art had, but I think to know that it doesn’t have to look the same for everyone can be such a relief, can increase accessibility, certainly to activism and justice issues. There’s a reason why I started Black Liturgies and centered it around my words. And you don’t see my face a whole lot on that page, because that’s just not who I am. If I was going to do it, it was going to be words. Yeah.
Karen Pascal: Well, you are a force to be reckoned with in these words and it’s for everyone. That’s what I’m going to say to everybody. This Here Flesh is for everyone, and it’s really important. You’ve known a lot of suffering in your life. That works its way into these pages, too. A lot of physical suffering. How has that shaped you?
Cole Arthur Riley: I became sick when I was 26. I’m 31 now. So, before that I was a very active person. I was a dancer for the majority of my life, trained in ballet. And so, I’ve had to have this major shift in how I relate to my body in my sickness. And I was already a person inclined to just living in my head, you know? And so, dance was the one thing that kind of got me connected to my physical selfhood. So, it’s been a journey to kind of find other ways to connect with my body when it’s in so much pain. It’s easy and I think even understandable for people with chronic illness to want to forget our bodies, because that in so many ways can mean relief. But it’s also a very dangerous spiritual practice to forget the physical and to not take care of yourself. When you forget, you’re not inclined to rest as much. You’re not inclined to eat at normal times, or when you need to eat, I should say.
And so, I think I’ve had to learn God as this kind of nurturing, almost maternal figure who’s reminding me, “Rest, come to me and lie on my chest.” And when I think about the maternal nature of the divine, even how Julian of Norwich would describe the maternal nature of God, I think about a connection to the body and a connection to the physical first, and this kind of gentle, tender asking us to listen, pay attention. So, I’m learning that. I’m learning to be kind and to listen to my body and try my best to befriend a body that’s hurting more often than it’s not.
Karen Pascal: You, in a way, sort of remind me of Henri. That was a big struggle for him, I think, to acknowledge that part of his being. It is easy to live in your head, isn’t it? And to live in your spirit and then not care properly for your body and not be able to love it and let others love it, too. I think that’s a really important part of it.
I can’t help but wondering if you’ve always been an old soul. Even as I read the book and I read about your relationship to your grandma and to your father, I sense, probably, that might be who you are. What would you say?
Cole Arthur Riley: You know, I think so, the more I think about it. I’ve never actively thought of myself like that, but I mean, my family, they always say I was born a skeptic and that’s just like, that’s my story in my family: “Cole came out a skeptic.” And I think that there’s something very adult about that, because as we age, we become just terrified of things. And I think that’s what skepticism usually is – just a fear. And I’m very honest about that in the book. I’m just a very scared person. And in that way, yes, I think my soul is just old enough to be scared and understand fear, but not quite old enough to… you’ve reached that point in wisdom and in maturation where you understand the fears and then you’re able to exist in them. You’re so used to them that you’re able to exist in spite of them. So, yeah, I guess I’ll say I have a medium-old soul.
Karen Pascal: Well, it’s an interesting thing. Going back to the reality that you live with pain. It is interesting. It’s almost like that when you live with pain, you don’t say things lightly, you don’t offer up platitudes, because pain is pain. There’s hard stuff in this book. There’s hard, deep stuff in it, and you live it through with honesty, and I really appreciate that. You write about being raised with the mantra, “pay attention.” How do you think that translates to our current world, both in terms of racial justice and contemplation?
Cole Arthur Riley: Oh, beautiful question. Yeah, that’s a beautiful question. So, I live in upstate New York now. I was telling you that earlier. And I live in a place called Ithaca, New York, and it’s known for being this very idyllic, beautiful place with all of these waterfalls, and not too much poverty, compared to the country’s poverty levels. And so, I’ve only lived here for about four or five years. And so, it can be very easy to live sheltered from the pain of the world and to live sheltered from racial injustice. My husband’s white, and so he can attest to it. He said, “You know, if I lived here without you, I don’t know how much I would know about the pain that’s happening in this moment.”
And that really is sad. And so, when I think about that phrase that my father kind of drilled into us, “Pay attention, look up,” I think there’s something really beautiful in asking us to care about more than just our own interior lives, like care about things that are introspective. He certainly drew us to those places, but also to look up and see what’s happening out there. Look up past your point of view and what is there to engage? What is there that can hurt you? What is there that needs protection? So yeah, I love this question. I love thinking about that family mantra in that way. And then I also think there’s something about wonder, that that phrase makes me think of – you know, pay attention – and just seeing. Are you looking at the tree or are you really being attentive to it and its beauty? So, I think, yeah, it’s a multi-use mantra for sure.
Karen Pascal: Can I ask you where the title of the book comes from? It feels blunt to me. It says This Here Flesh. It feels almost like there’s a nakedness to it. Where does it come from? Why that?
Cole Arthur Riley: So, it’s a very, very subtle nod to this space that Toni Morrison writes about in Beloved, called the Clearing. And there’s this wonderful scene in Beloved where Morrison takes us back to a clearing where the matriarch of the family, Baby Suggs, is giving her sermons and she’s giving the sermon. But before she does, she calls the women to the center. Well, first she calls the children and she says, “Let your mothers see you dance.” And then she calls the men, and she says, “Let your wives hear you cry.” And then she calls the women to the center. And she tells the women to cry for the living and the dead, just cry.
And so, they have this kind of embodied, intergenerational, embodied spiritual experience. And then they all lie down in the grass and Baby Suggs gives a sermon. And she says, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it.” And I mean, her sermon goes on past that, and it’s this beautiful portrait of spirituality. It’s absolutely what I want my spiritual life to look like, this embodied, intergenerational emotional picture of spirituality that also is asking us to love ourselves, to call ourselves beloved, but to call every part of our flesh beloved. So, yes, it’s a very gentle nod to that scene.
Karen Pascal: And it’s interesting. It brings me back again to say, you and Henri would be good friends. That belovedness, that discovery of being beloved was his breakthrough. His great honesty about our self-hatred or being our worst enemy: It was his war zone, and all of us have some of that within us, I think. But when you truly discover God really, truly loves me, you can love others. You can see God’s love for others, unrestrained and wild about his creation, wild about her creation, wild about it all – that comes through.
It’s funny: At some point, and maybe this is going backwards a little bit, but I realize at some point in the book, you said, at first you were given the image of a “white man God.” And I think maybe when, before, when I was asking you about what is God like for you now, as you think about that, I’m sure that must have been painful.
Cole Arthur Riley: Yeah, it was, because even once I was finally prepared to contend with the fact that he wasn’t, you know, white, it was really difficult to kind of rend that image from my mind. You know, when someone said “God,” when someone said “Jesus,” he was white and he had blue eyes. That’s the image that came into my mind. And it just shows just how deep these lessons go, and you can’t just walk out of the door, once you’ve realized that it’s the wrong door. And so, it takes practice, I think, practice in visualizing God in other ways.
And I’ve just finished reading this really challenging book by a scholar named Christina Cleveland. She wrote a book called God is a Black Woman. A very provocative title. She travels around to these different black Madonnas in France, and she tells the story of just detaching from this very strict portrait of a white male God in experiencing the divine and these black Madonnas around France. And it’s a really good book, a really difficult book to read and I think will challenge many of us.
But as I was reading, I realized that it was still very hard for me to picture God looking anything like me. And so, I was just reminded, I need more practice at that, more practice of even trying to experience God in, like I said, in the mundane, in beauty, in general, and trying to have some experience of God, that kind of transcends. At least, that’s what I’m practicing in this season.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting as I read through your book, and there’s wonderful chapters, there’s chapters on rage, there’s chapters on lament. I think perhaps the lament chapter moved me the most, because you tell the story of your grandma. But there’s such honesty in it. And that’s one of the reasons I just want to encourage listeners: This is a book that will help you freshly look under the covers a little bit at some of these things that need to be looked at more carefully and need to be rethought. You’ve done a good job of it. I’m really grateful for all that you have said, and for what you bring, and there’s beauty throughout it. All I could think of was it’s so rich poetically and it’s so profound. It’s just, yes, your gift is words and you are using words as an activist in a very powerful and fresh way, for us to discover the contemplative for the now. And that’s really, I think, an amazing gift you’re giving us.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Karen Pascal: Thanks for spending time with me today. What a privilege to have the book and then to get to talk with you. And I look forward to doing this again. I have the feeling that someday I’ll say, “Oh, I interviewed her when she came out with her first book.” To me, you’re a Toni Morrison. You’re a James Baldwin. It is a beautifully written book. And it is a very meaningful and deep book. So, I’m thankful that you would have this conversation and I’m so thankful that you also know Henri. That means a lot to all of us.
Cole Arthur Riley: Thanks for having me.
Karen Pascal: Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I loved Cole Arthur Riley’s new book, This Here Flesh. It is so deep and rich spiritually, asking the questions we must ask ourselves. As Cole has written, “If we have any interest in representing a liberating spirituality, we must adopt a spiritual psyche whose deepest concern is not enlightenment or education, but doing our best at telling the truth.” I’m so grateful for the honest and challenging thinking and writing Cole has done. And I encourage you to get the book, This Here Flesh.
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