Autumn 1966, age 15
John’s presence reverberated throughout the household, ramping up the tension. I did my best not to notice; there were too many things on my mind. School was starting and I would be in the Fifth Form, the year we had to prepare for the dreaded national ‘O Level’ exams. Worse than that, sometime recently I’d lost my faith: I no longer felt connected to the Catholic Church.
When we lived in Brecon, the years before we moved to Cardiff, life was simple. I went to school, played in the woods and gardens of Ffrwd and attended Mass at St. Michael’s Catholic church. One thing I knew for certain, I was going to become a real Catholic and probably a saint. Of course, I wasn’t a Catholic yet. I’d have to be re-baptized when I was 15—but in the meantime I was working on saintliness.
For hundreds of years Evanses had been Protestants, but all of us children attended the Catholic convent school, the best school in town. So Granny, to protect us from the clutches of the Papists, had my brothers and I baptized at Saint David’s Anglican church. I was three when I was subjected to the scary ritual.
The church was cold and dark. Granny, Daddy, Toody and John clustered around the gray stone baptismal font. John and I stepped up one at a time on to a little wooden box so the faceless Vicar could sprinkle us with water, intoning a mumble of meaningless words that echoed eerily around the empty church. Toody, a baby squirming in Daddy arms, screamed and screamed.
In Catholic school, I’d learned that Protestants weren’t real Christians. They didn’t have Latin Mass or confession; they didn’t honor the Virgin Mary or the rosary. Their communion was just bread and wine, not the body and blood of Christ, and sadly, they had no saints or martyrs. The Catholic Church was rich with a warm familiar feeling connected to the Irish Nuns, the Convent, the smell of incense and a sense of belonging.
Every Sunday, I bicycled the couple of miles into Brecon for Mass, leaving my unbelieving siblings to their heathen ways. The Ursuline Nuns in neatly pleated black cowls, knelt reverently in the front pews fingering their heavy beaded rosaries. From the back, they all looked the same, reminding me of Mother Columba, my savior. She was the first nun I ever met, the nun who shepherded me through kindergarten.
I am small and scared. Someone has just left me in a strange room filled with alien, noisy children. Beside me stands a tall figure, shrouded head to floor in black woven cloth. Around the middle is a wide leather belt buckled tight and hanging from it is a chain of wooden beads. Black shoes peak out from beneath the hem of the robe.
A gentle hand takes hold of mine. I look up to see a round face, glowing pink and scrubbed, framed by a stiff white headband and long black veil. The bodiless face swoops down and smiles: “Moey, this is your classroom and these are your classmates.”
The figure straightens up and addresses the room, “Children, say hello to Moey.”
I hear scuffling and hellos as I slide behind the protective black folds. A big boy with blond hair shouts out, “Here comes the Boogeyman!” and everyone bursts out laughing. A bolt of shock runs through my body but the gentle hand keeps me safe.
Mother Columba was that tender hand and smooth smiling face. I never glimpsed more of her body, not even a wisp of hair. When I was tired, she put me down for a nap. When I needed comfort, she helped me climb onto her lap. Mother Columba did not scold or complain—she radiated love. How could she be a woman; she was so different from my mother and sisters? To me she was not a person, not a female. She was a Mother.
Kindergarten was a refuge, distant from the turmoil, yelling and creepy feelings of the gloomy old farmhouse we lived in: Tal-y-bryn (tal-ur-brin). The house—dark purple stone and gray slate roof—sat high on a mountainside at the end of a long winding drive—alone, isolated and haunted.
Late at night the hallway downstairs echoed with crashes and sounds of things dragged across the floor; it wasn’t the cats. The stairway to the cellar was choked with dread. None of us children dared enter. One morning, John asked who was the man wandering the upstairs passageway in the middle of the night. Mummy woke gasping for breath from an invisible pillow pressed tight against her face. She guessed a previous owner had been helped to pass on. And those were just the poltergeist and ghosts.
Worse than the hauntings were the screaming rows, the physical fights and the chaos. All six of us children lived with Mummy in the farmhouse; Dad visited now and then, stayed for a weekend and then disappeared back to his work on a distant farm in Herefordshire. Each time he drove up on his old green motorbike, all Hell broke loose. Mummy was often drunk and usually belligerent, given to vicious verbal attacks and screaming fits. Dad sometimes fought back but more often left angrily to stay with Granny and Grampa at Ffrwd. One vivid image stuck with me:
Mummy and Daddy are fighting in the hallway. She has the metal tube of the Electrolux vacuum cleaner and is trying to hit Dad over the head. He is defending himself with a broom handle. They are sword fighting! One of their weapons hits the bells lining the corridor wall and they start jingling. All six of us children peek around the door of the kitchen watching the bizarre scene, trying to stifle our hysterical giggles, struggling with a mix of hilarity and horror.
Tal-y-Bryn was a scary place of brooding atmospheres and dark shadows. In contrast, the nursery school with Mother Columba was suffused with light, alive with the shrill voices of children.
The kindergarten took up one end of the massive, creaking, rambling building that was the Ursuline Convent. Standing back from the street, protected by ornate metal railings, it had once been a grand mansion. It went on forever: odd-shaped classrooms, secret areas where the Nuns slept, secluded lawns, tiered playgrounds and ornamental gardens stretching far out the back. The gym’s concrete floor was swept clean with musty used tealeaves; the corridors smelled of boiled cabbage and suet pudding. Around a corner, before a Nun appeared, you heard the rustling of heavy robes and the clicking of wooden beads.
Somewhere in distant classrooms, John and my sisters were doing their lessons. Occasionally, I caught glimpses of Jeffie and Dilly in their blue tunics and striped ties marching in crocodile formation up the street to Saint Michael’s church. The Convent was its own small universe, protected by it railings, a haven from the outside world.
The school years between ages three and seven slipped by in an unmemorable quiet haze. One evening, Jeffie mentioned that Mother Columba was going to Africa. I couldn’t grasp the idea, so it slipped away.
Then the primary school was in upheaval: we were moving into a new building down the street. Mother Columba held my hand as we walked along the sidewalk beside the convent railings toward the new school building. I noticed the cream-colored paint peeling off the railings.
Something was about to happen, something bigger than a change of location. I tugged at her hand and looked up at her dear face and asked, “Are you going away, Mother?”
She stopped and still holding my hand, leaned down and said, “I was going to tell the children today. I’ve been called back to the Mother House in Ireland.”
“Will you be coming back?” Numb dismay seeped through my body.
“I don’t think so. I’ll stay there for a little while and then I’m going on a mission to Africa.”
She noticed teardrops about to trickle down my cheeks. “Don’t be sad, Moey. God has called me to His work. It’s what I’ve always prayed for.”
She was going to teach the Little Black Babies—those poor children who we helped climb the stairway to Heaven with our pennies. They were so lucky and she was happy going to Africa. I wanted her to be happy—but I would miss her so much.
“Don’t worry, Moey. You’re going to be in a new class with Mother Aloysius, and she’ll look after you.” The aching emptiness eased a little; at least I would still have a Mother.
In two weeks Mother Columba was gone and she was right—the excitement of moving to the new school helped. I felt sad but soon attached myself to Mother Aloysius.
Unlike Mother Columba, Mother Aloysius was dark and intense—less patient, less gentle—but a natural teacher who cared deeply. Her eyes bright with intelligence, she taught us with a kind of lucid clarity. When I got into trouble, those same eyes flashed with displeasure under jet-black eyebrows.
“Moey, come up here and hold out your hand.” The wooden ruler would magically appear from one voluminous sleeve and come down hard on my palm. Then it was done, forgiven and forgotten.
I held Mother Aloysius in respectful awe. She knew everything, forgot nothing and somehow kept track of every one of her students and their families. Her piercing eye looked directly into my soul: she knew when I was not trying my hardest; she knew the chaos in our family. When things went wrong and I broke down over some tortuous Maths problem, she was quietly sympathetic. It was hard to face her kindness; it made me feel weak and weepy.
Occasionally, Mother Aloysius visited me in my dreams:
I am walking along the street in Brecon. I look down and there on the pavement are bright shiny coins. Some are copper pennies but others look like valuable silver crowns. Is it stealing to take them? “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” is the rule—but I hesitate. Then Mother Aloysius is beside me. She tells me, “Pick them up. They are meant for you—especially the silver ones.”
Not all the Nuns were kind. Mother Immaculata—despite her Madonna face—was nasty; Sister Kieran the cook, scowled and snapped at us. But they were the exceptions.
One Nun, Mother Eucharia, was a saint. Everyone loved her. As the art teacher she guided Veronica and Jeffie into life-long artistic careers. She presided over the refectory at lunchtimes where we gathered to eat watery overcooked meals followed by pudding and custard. She sat quietly in her corner beaming love at all the boisterous children. A few incongruous wisps of light hair always managed to escape her veil; they gave her large square face a certain gentleness and vulnerability, a halo of holiness.
During the rosary in St Michael’s church, I peeked across the aisle watching the Nuns, heads bent, eyes closed, murmuring in unison. It was hard to recognize individuals, but once or twice, I caught the glint of a tear on a cheek and felt as if I was spying into a very private world. Their prayers were filled with a special feeling, as they intoned: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Reeling off the required response: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen, I felt nothing except painful pressure on my bare knees. Wasn’t I meant to be holy, uplifted into some heavenly realm—but it was way beyond my reach. All I felt was a kind of yearning emptiness.
I left Saint Joseph’s school and Mother Aloysius at age ten to attend Brecon Grammar School. Peopled with Protestants, it was an exciting new world, but I desperately needed to stay connected to the Mother Church—a life raft protecting me from my irreligious family. I tried to be extra good, more virtuous, more devout; I even gave up swearing.
On Sundays, I bicycled the one and a half miles to St Michael’s Church. Mass was long, and dull and Father Brady, the Irish parish priest, blathered through the ceremony. I did my best not to fidget while nursing a secret hope that everyone, the Nuns and the flock, would recognize my special devotion: Don’t they know how hard it is for me to get to Mass? Can’t they see how saintly I am?
As a Catholic-in-waiting, I wasn’t allowed to receive the communion host. So I knelt alone in the empty pew, watching and wondering while the congregation filed up the aisle to the altar rail: What does the host taste like? Is it soft or crunchy? Does it make you feel different?
My eyes wandered over the carved plinths depicting the tortuous Stations of the Cross. I could never remember their titles or sequence. Catholic rituals and prayers were complicated and I didn’t particularly like Jesus. He was a distant male figure holding his bleeding heart in his hands or looking oddly comfortable nailed to a cross. The Virgin Mary with her star-shrouded head, pretty blue gown and serpent under foot was far more approachable.
One Sunday, I had a minor epiphany. The church was newly painted with old-fashioned turpentine paint. During mass, sweet incense wafted my way. The mixture of fragrant aromas was breathtaking; I sat transfixed floating in aromatic bliss. That was the closest I came to revelation.
It all changed when we moved to Cardiff. Suddenly I was adrift in a city filled with strangers where even the Catholics were strange: no Nuns, no familiar faces, not even an Irish accent like Father Brady. The Church was not far from our house, but I could hardly get to Mass on Sundays. If I did, no one noticed and no one cared. At school, I had declared as a Catholic to avoid Anglican morning prayers, but it only made me feel more of a fraud.
The strain of pretending to be Catholic each morning, pretending to be pure when all I could think about was sex, pretending to go to mass—it all wore me down. Sin and Hell made no sense. If there was a loving God, how come He was so mean and judgmental? It was too illogical and irrelevant.
The shipwreck clinched it. Whatever I experienced had nothing to do with religion. No illuminated figure appeared; no one waited for my prayers. That comforting presence did not need my faith and didn’t care what I thought or believed. The thin veneer of Catholicism peeled off to expose a raw abyss beneath.
But I was stuck in a trap. When I first came to Cardiff, I’d visited the local parish priest, Father Paul, and agreed to be re-baptized after my 15th birthday. Father Paul was English, educated and intelligent, just into his thirties, and he actually seemed interested in me. We met irregularly to chat about faith and morals and my preparation for re-baptism and communion. I was scheduled to meet with him the week after I turned 15.
My birthday came and went with a minor family celebration. I blew out the candles on the cake and received practical gifts, including a beautiful pigskin wallet from Dad. Immediately my anxiety spiraled: what was I going to say to Father Paul?
By the time I reached the rectory door, I could hardly breathe. Father Paul answered the door with his usual warm smile.
“Come on in, Owen. Would you like some tea? The teapot and biscuits are on the table.”
“Thank you, Father. That would be nice. Can I pour you a cup?” I welcomed any distraction from the stilted conversation.
“How are things at school?”
“There’re fine, Father. We’re preparing for O Levels.” I settled into my seat with tea and a biscuit, trying hard to look relaxed.
“What subjects are you taking? Are you doing music?
“Yes, it’s one of my favorites.” I bent the truth a little.
“So, tell me, which composer do you like best?”
That had me stymied so I said the first name that came to mind. “Beethoven, Father.”
“Oh yes, he amazing—possibly the greatest of them all. I’ve got a wonderful record of the Pastoral, conducted by Von Karajan. Let me put it on”
He got up, took a round black record out of its sleeve and placed it on the turntable; the room filled with rich orchestral sounds. I tried to listen but I was preoccupied.
Father Paul sat looking into the distance, transported. Abruptly he remembered why we were meeting.
“So, are you ready for the big day?” The question hit me like a brick and I couldn’t answer. He continued: “The Bishop is coming to Cardiff next month, and we can arrange your communion and confirmation right after your baptism.” I could feel the steel jaws of the trap closing, ready to snap shut.
Taking a deep breath I clutched at a sliver of courage. “I’m not sure, Father,” I mumbled He was a nice man; I wished I could share his unquestioned faith.
His voice got serious. “Well, you know this is a very important decision. You have to be sure.” He paused a moment, lost again in the music. “It’s better not to be a Catholic at all than to be a lapsed Catholic. You know that, don’t you?” His voice was kind.
Was he offering me a way out? I sensed the trap creak open a fraction. I looked up and replied, “I think so, Father.”
“This is a big decision and you can’t be hasty. God will guide you. Pray to do the right thing.” He hesitated a moment. “Maybe we should put off the baptism until you’re ready.”
I sat stunned: He was letting me escape! He must know I’ve lost my faith and he’s not blaming me! Tears of relief prickled at the back of my eyes.
There was nothing more to be said. The symphony swelled in the background as he led me to the door and gently patted me on the shoulder.
“If you need to talk, you know I’m here. Just call—any time.”
I looked at him with a feeling of gratitude. We both knew this was probably our last meeting. As I made my way back to Whitchurch Road, a heavy weight lifted from my soul. I didn’t have to pretend any more. I could slide gently into the simple, easygoing non-belief of the rest of my family.
A few weeks later, I was sitting on my bed reading. I put down the book to rest my eyes, not thinking about anything in particular. Across from the bed, the tall sash window looked out over a narrow gap between the houses to a sliver of garden, a brick-walled lane and gray-slated rooftops beyond.
My attention was drawn to the quality of the light streaming through the grimy glass. Each luminous mote-filled beam seemed alive, vibrating with a brightness that emanated from an unseen place beyond this world. I sat still, and for an instant a living vibration seized me. The light and I were one and the same—and it was radiant.
The next moment, my mind leaped into action: What’s happening? What does this mean? Instantly, the radiance blinked out and the beams speckled with ordinary dust. A doorway into another world had cracked open—and then slammed shut. Snatching at the experience had made it slip away, leaving me with a nameless longing for something almost familiar.
The Mother Archetype
Mother Columba saved me. Without her love, I would be more damaged by my home life. Years later, I heard other Nuns were shocked that she’d allowed me to sit on her lap and nuzzle up to her breasts behind the stiff white bib. Few details about her remain, only a soft moon face, a comforting presence and a sense of radiant goodness. Those are embodiments of the Great Mother archetype.
Every newborn expects to be loved totally. Months in the encompassing womb prepare the infant to be held, to be nurtured and to be kept safe. Even after the ordeal of birth—the harshness of bright lights and loud noises—something in us knows our mother is meant to be the all-accepting, all-embracing Mother.
Then reality hits: the body aches; the breast is empty; mother disappears and worse, mother is not all patient, giving and kind. No wonder babies cry with sadness and scream with frustration. They are grieving the womb of Eden, yearning for the lost perfect Mother.
Most loving parents do their best for their children. But it is nigh impossible to live up to the perfection a baby demands and expects. There is almost always a gulf between the actual and the ideal mother; unconsciously we keep striving to fill that empty space.
We grow up and try to accept reality—but we’re not good at it! We search for ways to be held, cherished and kept safe, projecting the Mother onto any and all manifestation of nurturing feminine energy. It might be a teacher, a grandparent, a lover or even a dog. Commonly, we experience the Mother through Mary, Kuan Yin, Gaia or even Jesus. We are certain the recipient of our projection is special, filled with an indispensible, luminous grace.
I was lucky to have Mother Columba and then Mother Aloysius; they were able to hold and personify my projection of the Great Mother when I needed it most. But all too often, individuals and institution fall short. The numinous projection dims and all of a sudden disillusionment sets in: we lose interest, fall out of love and see only flaws and hypocrisy.
That happened to me with Catholicism. After the shipwreck I felt it was no longer my Mother Church. Its power dwindled and died; again I was left motherless.
The Good Enough Mother
At age three, I needed the nuns to compensate for the harshness of home. While I vividly remember my introduction to kindergarten, I have no idea who dropped me off. Was it my mother? If so, she was not a nurturing presence in my life.
A good enough mother—one who to some degree embodies the Mother archetype—clasps us compassionately to the bosom of the world. We feel wanted, protected and loved; we know we are safe and the world is to be trusted. Unfortunately, my mother fell short.
I have no recollection of her comforting me, but certain dreamlike memories suggest my childhood pain and confusion. One powerful image from Talybryn is of my favorite book, Little Black Sambo (whose loving mother was Black Mumbo), lying discarded, dirty and neglected in the yard. Another strange memory: I go outside on a stormy day and open my child’s umbrella. I feel a gust of wind blowing me into the sky.
These dreamlike fragments are suggestive. Like Little Black Sambo, I was discarded and forgotten; like Flying Robert in the nightmarish German children’s book, Struwwelpeter, I was in danger of blowing away.  My mother could not provide the holding environment necessary for me to feel safe and grounded.
The experience of the archetypal Mother and her personification in the real mother is central to our sense of self. The Mother provides the template, the schema for our inner world, our feelings of self-compassion and our ability to relate in a loving way. The flesh and blood mother when she is good enough, nurtures the infant’s inborn ability to relate and feel, to settle and soothe and to trust that the world is OK. The mother actualizes the Mother schema within the infant and ultimately in the adult.
Love is the manifestation of the Mother. We know we are lovable when we feel loved. We love others because we know what love feels like. Love pulsates at the heart of our being and permeates every aspect of our relationships—our connection with ourselves, with the world, with other people and with the Divine.
My mother imperfectly embodied the archetype; she was simply not good enough. Thankfully Mother Columba soothed the wounds in my heart and helped make the world a little more tolerable. More of a Mother than my mother, she showed me what love is.
Religion and Spirituality
As a needy child, I clung to the Nuns. I wanted to be good because of their goodness; I had to be holy to partake of their holiness. For me the Church was an all-enveloping nun’s habit hiding the spirit within. Without the Nuns and their feeling sense, religious observance became an empty shell.
Many normal adolescents have a crisis of faith. Struggling to separate from their parents, they discard anything that smacks of control, duty and discipline. The scales fall from their eyes and all they see is hypocrisy and oppressive mumbo-jumbo. Feeling betrayed by their parent’s beliefs, they reject it in rebellion.
My situation was different. I never had real faith; Catholicism was essentially a projection of my need for a mother. The Nuns captured the Mother projection and transferred it to the Church. As soon as my relationship with the Nuns faded, harsh reality hit me; my numinous projection dissipated like mist in the wind.
Religion is meaningless if it is simply a projection of our wants, needs and fears. The outer raiment of a religion—its dogma, practices and beliefs (called Sharia in Islam)—is a mere container. Without a compelling inner experience of Love and Spirit, it is a banal, and somewhat bizarre set of rules, creeds and conventions. Like a human body without the life force, it quickly becomes a decaying corpse.
Catholicism died. With nothing to take its place I was left high and dry on an amoral and secular sandbank—no faith, no hope and no maternal charity. But Spirit doesn’t abandon us because we have no religious vessel to contain it. The transcendent is unexpected and inexplicable. Once we open a quiet space in the never-ending chatter of our mind and ego, mystery seeks to slip through. The window of our soul cracks open and we catch a fleeting glimpse of another world, a more expansive way of being beyond our small self.
Adolescents are particularly predisposed to these numinous openings—but they are also vulnerable to distraction and self-doubt, primed to discount anything not sanctioned by popular culture and peer group. Experiences of the unknown and unknowable are transitory and easily disrupted; most often they get neglected and forgotten.
I am not sure how many times these openings happened to me. My desire to capture and control these shy birds of paradise caused them to fly away. They left me with a pervasive yearning for something nameless. Only later in life did I learn to be still enough to let the birds roost on my shoulders.
We need someone to validate and normalize the inexplicable and unusual, to make it ordinary and natural. Religion can do this, as can family and mentors. If we are lucky to have someone remind us that these experiences are valuable, we acknowledge the mystery and miraculous. Only the truly sublime soothes the deepest ache in our hearts.
 The Good Enough Mother is a phrase coined by D. W. Winnicott, an influential UK psychoanalyst and pediatrician. It describes a mother who is devoted to her baby and responds appropriately to its needs. Over time, the mother allows the baby to experience small amounts of frustration so that it slowly adapts to the demands of the world. The mother is not perfect but she is ‘good enough’: loving and nurturing as well as helping the baby cope with reality.
Read the next chapter: 5: Shame about Sex
 Another powerful concept from D.W. Winnicott, the holding environment is the loving attention and empathic contact the mother shows the infant when she is holding and comforting it.