Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human

Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human

by Cole Arthur Riley
Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human

Black Liturgies: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Staying Human

by Cole Arthur Riley


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Richly composed and full of spiritual energy, this compilation of prayers and poems is sure to enliven your spirit and leave you feeling fuller. Along with calming practices and contemplations around prayer and religion, there is something here to soothe any soul.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A collection of prayer, poetry, and spiritual practice centering the Black interior world, from the author of This Here Flesh and creator of Black Liturgies

“A true spiritual balm for our troubled times.”—Michael Eric Dyson, author of What Truth Sounds Like

For years, Cole Arthur Riley was desperate for a spirituality she could trust. Amid ongoing national racial violence, the isolation of the pandemic, and a surge of anti-Black rhetoric in many Christian spaces, she began dreaming of a more human, more liberating expression of faith. She went on to create Black Liturgies, a digital project that connects spiritual practice with Black emotion, Black memory, and the Black body.

In this book, she brings together hundreds of new prayers, along with letters, poems, meditation questions, breath practices, scriptures, and the writings of Black literary ancestors to offer forty-three liturgies that can be practiced individually or as a community. Inviting readers to reflect on their shared experiences of wonder, rest, rage, and repair, and creating rituals for holidays like Lent and Juneteenth, Arthur Riley writes with a poet’s touch and a sensitivity that has made her one of the most important spiritual voices at work today.

For anyone healing from communities that were more violent than loving; for anyone who has escaped the trauma of white Christian nationalism, religious homophobia, or transphobia; for anyone asking what it means to be human in a world of both beauty and terror, Black Liturgies is a work of healing and empowerment, and a vision for what might be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593593646
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/16/2024
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 9,770
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Cole Arthur Riley is a writer, poet, and author of the New York Times bestseller, This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories That Make Us. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, Guernica, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. 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.

Read an Excerpt

1 Dignity

When God had made [the human], he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.

—Zora Neale Hurston

I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

—Nikki Giovanni

Letter I | To those with heads bowed too long

I’m writing this first letter from bed. I lie here on my left side, peeking my right hand from underneath the empty duvet to type. It is not practical, but it is necessary because I’m in pain again and depressed again, and this is all I have to give today.

I’ve waited months to begin, far too many to admit to my editor now. I wanted upright Cole to write this book—upright and at the eighteenth-century oak desk I bought to make me feel big, like a real writer. Instead, I write this book of liturgies under sheets stained from last night’s pumpkin curry. Beside me is a nightstand covered in medications, half-drank mugs of tea, and a littering of elaborate skincare I haven’t touched in weeks. I don’t feel very big today.

But just now, the man I try to love creaks the door open—slowly, carefully. He perches at the far end of the bed, without speaking, giving me space to adjust to another person in the room. Then he places a bowl of grapes on top of the duvet and nudges it toward me. I pause, stretch out a twitchy arm, and pop one grape into each side of my mouth, and he scoots closer. A hand to my legs, the legs that have only risen to go to the bathroom and back for a week. Closer. Then, If you never write another word again . . . And instead of finishing he just stares at me. Nods. And I know. On his way out, he takes what mugs he can and closes the door behind him.

I don’t know what dignity is. Not cognitively. But I know what it feels like. To be loved, to receive honor, to be encountered as a human, not because of any demonstration or performance of such, but because, in mystery, your very being is a miracle, your existence a delicate stitch in the cosmos. Dignity will never depend on anyone’s belief in it, certainly not your own. It is not born of writing, even excellent writing. Or excellent research or beautiful architecture or good parenting. It is inherent. If I never write another word, my dignity cannot be diminished. And yet, the world has a choice: to honor or not to honor. The toll this choice takes has very real implications on our rights, our wealth, our justice, our children, and even our perceptions of dignity, but never dignity itself.

If my hands can take it, I’m going to wash my hair today. Wash day is my dignity ritual. It requires precisely the same tenderness and patience the world withholds from Black women. In a world that demeans this body—these hands, this scalp—I, in mysterious paradox, am required to meet them with grave compassion. I let my fingers dance and dip, freeing every tangle. I cradle each tendril like gold as it passes through the Denman brush. What used to feel like a punishment has become an honoring. It is a liturgy of reverence. I don’t need the liturgy in order to become dignified, but it reminds me of the miracle, of the inherent beauty of life lived in this body. With these particular hands, with this particular curl pattern. Wash day asks me to look up. To behold.

Our liturgies begin with dignity, because that is where any kind of liberation begins: with an awareness that you are worthy of so much more than whatever form your chains have taken today. For now, you are here—breathing, being, granting a gift that cannot be replicated. Your simple, miraculous, necessary existence.

Believing with you,



All the empty bowls are beginning to wonder why I keep shattering them on marble countertops because my hands aren’t what they were.

I was still collecting shards when you called me to say there’s no such thing as collapsed lungs from speaking too loud.

But that you shouldn’t sleep with your chin tucked into your own chest and you should never dream with your mouth open letting anything make its home in you.

And I remember
Something about the way my father held the mirror, saying
If it’s a storm,
You’re the lightning his sparkling sunken eyes waiting above the backwards me.

He lifts my chin up by a string.
All the empty bowls are beginning to wonder why I hold these hands like a miracle.


For worth

God in us,

We know the miracle inherent in our existence. We are here, our beauty stretching out and dwelling within us. But it is hard to believe in one’s dignity when the systems and societies to which we belong are content to destroy us. We have heard lies of our worthlessness in the explicit and implicit ways the world interacts with our bodies, stories, and homes. It is incessant—this lie of our own inadequacy, this charade of our inferiority. Remind us that our dignity does not wane or bud in relation to anyone’s belief in it, including our own. Let us rest with the knowledge that we have nothing to prove; our dignity, perpetual as it is divine. We will not shrink. We expand. Remind us of our making. For we too contain the divine. Amen.

For little Black girls

God of the Black girl,

We call on your protection. Release us from the kind of fear that doesn’t lead to wisdom, and grant us that wisdom which guides our souls from danger. We pray that when others look on us, they would be freed from the evil whispers that drive them—the hidden voice that seeks to discredit and villainize us, claiming we are too callous, too angry, too dramatic. May our glory confound all those who despise us; let them learn to gaze on it without impulse to devour it. Guide us to communities that see us in the fullness of our humanity; and regardless of the honor withheld from us by the world, let us walk in the unwavering knowledge of our dignity. Let us marvel at the elders and ancestors who walked before us, knowing that our story is entwined with theirs; that we come from a brilliance of mind and heart. Free us from the lie that our beauty and brilliance are things to be proven but let the truth of them hold us like the warmth of the wombs that formed us. Ase.

For decolonizing your interior landscape

God who reclaims,

One moment we are free, jaws unclenched and at home with ourselves. Then, without warning, a wind passes through us, sending a thousand tiny uncertainties ricocheting through our inner worlds. We question our beauty, our power and memory. We grow suspicious of love and feel foolish for our hope. Remind us that it’s not our fault. Let us remember that a society constructed by the oppressor never wanted us free. We’ve been conditioned toward a very particular form of seeing; we have been indoctrinated into the illusion that says white is pure and black is sinful. That says our worth is correlated with how willing we are to be eaten and spit out by capitalist appetite. That says power is measured by the force with which we take someone else’s agency. Travel with us into our interior worlds, reclaiming every site that has been colonized, every location of internalized hatred and dishonor. Take us home to ourselves. And let us remember what it feels like to say our own names with the reverence they demand. Take us home. Amen.

For those who dare degrade

God who keeps watch,

Woe to those who dare degrade us. May we see them for what they are, and call wicked by its name. Awaken in us a sacred intuition that exposes those who work exhaustively against our welfare. We’re tired of protecting them. We’re tired of easing them into the realization of their own violence, the ugly that has made its home in them. May they writhe in the night. May their inner worlds tremble. Make the secret guilt that drives them grow loud enough to shame them. Let the sound reach those who need protection, and may we have the wisdom to trust our instincts, believing ourselves when a space or moment doesn’t feel safe even if we cannot articulate why. God, keep watch, keep guard, as we wait for the day when the terrible become human again. May it be so.

For trans and nonbinary lives

God of our truest names,

We confess that too often we have encountered liberation in a person and chosen hatred. We confess our own jealousy at a person capable of living into their true self, when we ourselves are suffocating. We are in bondage to binaries that limit our imaginations for full liberation. Remind us that you yourself contain multitudes. Let us encounter the divine that refuses to be contained by human definition or imagination. Expose all the ways we neglect trans people in our activism. Expose the moral rot that makes us so terrified of publicly supporting Black trans women. Let us become honest about the hatred we have inherited, the violence enacted against queer folk at the hands of those who came before us—Christianity playing no small part in a culture of transphobia. Protect those with the courage to stay near to themselves. May their liberation be multiplied in all who encounter it. Amen.

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