Raising Our Voices in Church: A Discussion of Dignity

Nicole Letendre ’23

Chief Features Editor

Courtesy of the Office of the College Chaplains
Cole Arthur Riley

On Nov. 3, New York Times bestselling author Cole Arthur Riley attended campus for a lecture entitled, “Raising Our Voices in Church,” which celebrated the 50th anniversary of co-education at Holy Cross. Riley works as a spiritual leader for Cornell University’s Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making and is the author of “This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us.” She discussed the concept of dignity, and how to respect our bodies and our individual identities. Suffering from a chronic illness, she acknowledged her own struggles and reflected on the meaning of dignity and how to love ourselves through the hardships of life. At the conclusion of her discussion, she gave audience members an opportunity to have their books signed. In addition to her work at Cornell University, Riley is also the founder of Black Liturgies, which incorporates spiritual exercise with Black culture. 

Riley grew up surrounded by the stories of her family members, and even stories she would create on her own. Raised in Pittsburgh, she went on to study writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she encountered the texts of inspiring writers, such as Toni Morrison. She discussed her childhood extensively: growing up as a reserved young girl, highly introspective and suffering from selective mutism. Riley recalled as a child having a ceremony with her best friend, involving bowing and creating chants. Similarly, she remembered taking expired condiments from the fridge and creating “magic potions” in the backyard with her sister—combining the sauces and chanting over them. In these memories, she identified a longing for sacred tradition in herself. She possessed a level of mysticism that she had not initially noticed. She became more self-aware and noticed the ways in which she operated in the world. Riley found a particular longing for and attachment to storytelling.

She discussed the process of writing her book, “This Here Flesh,” and how she interviewed various family members, most prominently her father and grandmother. Riley found something inherently valuable about their stories and felt obligated to catalog them in her book. Overall, her lecture was wonderfully presented and highly introspective. Struggling with her own chronic illnesses, Riley spent time contemplating the act of loving your personhood. When she had difficulty walking and eating unaided, she noticed a deterioration within herself. She developed a hatred of her body and turned to literature and podcasts for comfort. By sharing this deeply personal story of suffering, Riley examined the concept of dignity for oneself. She did a beautiful job illustrating her own experiences, and the discussion was well-organized, thoughtful and provided valuable insight.

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