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Lucy Hansell's letters - “Tender love and sympathy”

“Whoever writes [M. Lavinia’s] life, I shall be very glad to lend my letters from her to be published in part” writes Lucy Hansell to M. Adele. “Of course some are of too private a nature for the eyes of the public”. It may be that the idea to write a life of M. Lavinia is why we have a collection of her letters, including four to Lucy herself. M. Lavinia had known the Hansell family for some time, having been friends with an aunt of Lucy’s before founding the Community.

Lucy herself became a first order Associate of the Community in 1880, two years after her father had died. [1st order associates were also known as Sister Associates, and had a different rule of life from 2nd order Associates. There is now only one order. An early Associates’ medal is pictured].


I’ve always assumed that the four existing letters we have from M. Lavinia to Lucy are only a selection of those that were sent, and that the others may have been of ‘too private a nature’ for sharing. That Lucy valued them and the advice contained in them is clear from the letter to M. Adele, written as a thank you for allowing Lucy to stay at Ditchingham at the time of M. Lavinia’s funeral. M. Lavinia also had contact with the wider Hansell family, as is evident from references in the letters, and from a letter to Lucy’s older sister, Katharine. The letters do contain some personal information, but are mostly spiritual in nature, advising Lucy on her Christian life.


The first letter was actually written from Lucy’s home in the Upper Close at Norwich Cathedral, where M. Lavinia was a visitor when Lucy was away from home, staying with “good Christian people”, which had evidently caused difficulties in keeping with her Rule of Life as an Associate. M. Lavinia’s answer to this is quite wise: “I think that as a visitor in the house of good Christian people you could only do as they wished & that it [would] be quite an exception to the rule. You [would] gain experience by passing these tests & exercising a right judgement respecting them. I would not relinquish the rule on account of positive hindrances that occurred occasionally. You could always give an account of breaches afterwards but be careful not to give way to scruples concerning what is intended to help lift you up.”  [I am quoting from transcripts, not the originals]. There is no evidence in the letter as to exactly what the breach was, nor do I know what the Rule of 1st order Associates was, but it seems that Lucy may have felt that she should withdraw as an Associate, as she hadn’t been able to keep the rule. M. Lavinia’s reply is one that shows her understanding of the potential problems that might arise, and encourages Lucy to see “positive hindrances” as a means by which to deepen her commitment rather than agonising over a breach about which she had little option.


It is clear from the other letters that Lucy was going through a difficult time at this period. While the letters are not dated, I am assuming they were written in the 1880’s, after Lucy’s admittance as an Associate, and before M. Lavinia’s death in June 1890. During this period, Lucy’s younger sister, Mary Adelaide, died aged 34, and Lucy’s mother, Maria needed care, given (I suspect) by Lucy and her sister, Elizabeth, who both lived with their mother. How helpful M. Lavinia’s advice was, we cannot know - except the letters were kept. We also know that M. Lavinia herself was suffering from increasing ill health at the time: these thoughts came from experience. They also come from a nineteenth century viewpoint, both theologically and in terms of physical and mental health.


“Remember that we must pass through the night of faith before we can attain to that divine union – that close, unbroken sense of ‘My beloved is mine & I am his’ … But love can endure it all - & the soul really does travel on (by night & in darkness) tho’ it knows it not. Only let God lead you on into Himself …. remembering that you are following a conqueror”.


“I am sure that you will not doubt the increasing grace that will be given you to endure your great sorrows and bereavements. If our hearts seem to bleed for you, what must the tender love and sympathy of the dear Master be towards you all in this sad time of sorrow and trial?”


“You must feel losing Amy and that dear, good Canon - & you are overtired with watching and nursing your good mother – and life looks dark & there is nothing to brighten it up. No – but then we have bright hopes and expectations - & we must keep looking there, beyond the grave, & that will garrison us with God’s peace.” This letter finishes “much love to you dear Lucy”, which may have been as comforting as the advice. M. Lavinia is clear that it was Lucy’s outer circumstances that were contributing to her feelings, circumstances about which she could do little, although she had obviously sought help with her difficulties. There are ideas here that it might be worth considering; but, ultimately, we could do worse than ponder the “tender love and sympathy” our Saviour bears for us, remembering that we are also “following a conqueror”.

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