Tag Archives: John Gasson

The meet-cute to the tearjerking goodbye


John and Magda in the ’70s

They met in her Harvard summer school class. She was the teacher, he was the student who stood out. Roman collar, razor sharp  wit, head and shoulders above the rest of the class both physically and intellectually. She was surprised (disappointed?) he didn’t stop by her office hours.  When he finally did they couldn’t stop talking…about Thomas Aquinas, emotion, the nature of being. Heady stuff. Life changing stuff. He had to leave the class early to give a retreat. They agreed to write and write they did.

At first about spiritual things, as she continued on her spiritual quest.

Her: “I just plod along the only road left open, not knowing whether I’m going forward or backward, nor at times whether I am on the right road at all.”

Him: “Do you know, my child, where you want to go? Could it be that you are going away from something and not toward something?”

He was out of his mind happy when she decided to convert.(“Te Deum Laudamus; Te Dominum confitemur!! …Welcome home!”)

Somewhere along the way they stopped calling each other Dr. Arnold and Father Gasson and instead wrote as Magda and Johnny.

Hot stuff, sometimes, for a priest and a good Catholic woman. Lots of endearments. Code for I love you (ily).

  • “Dear heart:- May the Lord be sweet when He comes to you on Christmas morning. It would be nice if I could be there with Him to Help Him”
  • “I’m still savoring your visit— I’ve not been as happy for I don’t know since when as when you were here. You’re wonderful andily.”
  • “I’ll think about what I’d like for my birthday – besides yourself, I mean.”
  • “Be good. Give me some news about you and believe me ily to be ily mostly your ily or most yoursly x Johnny”

They bore one another’s burdens. They talked about everything  He urged her to write, exhorted her to be of good cheer, gave feedback on all her drafts, edited her publications. She tried to give him credit but he told her not to be a fool. The last thing she need was a Jesuit coauthor bogging down her scholarship. In an age in which male scientists regularly took advantage of and failed to credit female labor (including their own wives!) he was content to play a supportive role. His credo was “he that loses his life, shall find it.” And besides, he loved her.

40 years of friendship. Years of visits, and letters, and finally the relief of living in the same town. But then, too soon, the cancer that would end his life. She got special permission to care for him at her home. When he got too ill she visited him every day in hospice. Eventually he couldn’t remember why he was there and would beg her to take him home with her. He started to lose his hearing and shouting didn’t make for intimate conversation, so all that was left was “to sit quietly, speaking to him in the heart and from the heart.” When he died she was bereft.

She wrote: “Christmas was difficult for me, the first Christmas without him. I know that friendship does not end just because one friend has died. Where he is, there is no time or space, so there are no limits to love. It’s only we, still earthbound, who suffer from the impossibility to see, hear or touch those we have lost.”

Her: “Friendship, the love between two persons, is the best there is in life, it is an earthly image of God’s love for us and our love for Him.”

Him: “I could not distinguish the parts you wrote and my parts… /Dear, dear, you and me belong so much together!!/”

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dramatis personae

So who am I writing my dissertation on? Here’s a quick intro to the two major players.


  • Born 1903, in a small German-speaking town in what was then Austria
  • Got interested in psychology by reading Freud at age 16
  • Immigrated to Toronto in 1928 with her husband, to the US in 1947 by herself to teach
  • Was able to begin university and study psychology only because of her separation from her husband (and his custody of their 3 girls)
  • Got her PhD from University of Toronto with a dissertation that challenged the established wisdom about the role of adrenaline in emotion (think fight or flight)
  • In 1948 converted to Catholicism, a decision which impacted both her career and her thinking about psychology–her theories of emotion were inspired by and relied on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas
  • Introduced the appraisal theory of emotion, which foreshadowed and influenced cognitive theories of emotion. Magnum opus = Emotion and Personality (1960)
  • Edited The Human Person (1954), the result of a symposium she organized for Catholics in psychology which attempted to review personality and reinterpret the conclusions “from a Christian conception of man as a philosophical basis.”

If you had asked me about my dissertation project this summer at the beginning of the fall, I would have stopped there. My dissertation focuses on Magda Arnold and the impact her religious belief had on her scientific theories, and that is quite enough to cover in one dissertation, thank you very much!

But then in October I visited Joan Arnold, Magda’s oldest daughter. She generously shared with me a treasure trove of papers from Magda, which blew my plans for my dissertation right out of the water! In addition to a bunch of other cool things, the most thrilling was a stack of correspondence circa 1950 between Magda Arnold and her priest friend Father John Gasson. The letters were completely charming and full of the sort of details of daily life that historians crave, but more importantly they filled in the story about how Magda came to faith. John Gasson was the key–Magda called meeting him “the greatest stroke of luck” in her life. So here’s what I know about him so far:



  • Born in 1904 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
  • Joined the Society of Jesus in Macon, Georgia in 1921, was ordained in 1933
  • Received degrees in from Boston College (BA and MA), Gregorian University in Rome (PhD),  and Weston College (STL)
  • Dissertation on ‘The Psychological Structure of Religious Experience’
  • Taught at Spring Hill College and the Jesuit House of Studies there
  • Taught primarily psychology and philosophy, but also Latin, Greek, history, logic, and anthropology
  • Established the psychology department at Spring Hill in 1962
  • Led numerous retreats and provided counseling to various clients
  • Co-edited The Human Person with Magda Arnold
  • Guided Magda back into the Catholic church in 1948
  • Was deeply influential in Magda’s thinking–an intellectual partner and her closest friend

Of course, I know a whole lot more than that about John’s personality, thanks to his letters. I know, for example, that he was a joyful person with a great sense of humor–he was an (intentionally) sloppy speller, he rarely dated his letters other than by the day of the week (or a holy day), and occasionally broke out his typewriter’s red ink for emphasis or to be funny. As you can tell, I like him a lot. I’m still not quite sure how he fits into my dissertation, though.

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