Memories of C. S. Lewis and J. B. Phillips

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 69, Summer 1996 The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing

By Dr. Cleaver Keenan
285 Clear Lake Drive
Espanola, Ontario P5E IN6
E-mail address:

Way back in the early fifties when I was a medical student in T.C.D. (Trinity College Dublin) I heard that C. S. Lewis was going to be the guest speaker at the Historical Society. I had a struggle with my conscience. You see the Hist was a ‘secular’ society like the Phil (Philosophical) and I was a member of the Evangelical Union. I was also a Northern Irish Protestant fundamentalist and a member of a strict sect that even St. Paul would have had difficulty getting into. However since a teenager I was a devoted reader of Lewis’s books. Should I go? At least it was the Hist that were sponsoring him, not the Phil who were noted for their lax morals!

My adulation overcame my religious scruples. The hall was packed, but I was able to get a seat at the back, hoping that no one from the E.U. would see me. I well remember the sight of this bald man standing behind the table, looking like a prosperous butcher, I can’t remember why a butcher, maybe I had known one who looked like him. And (I can hardly write it) he was chain smoking. At least that was what I thought, but you must remember that chain smoking to me then was more than one cigarette an hour. I have no idea what he spoke about, probably some abstruse English Lit subject, however he could have spoken in Greek, and he could have, and it would not have made any difference to me, love is not only blind, but deaf.

At this point I now have some sympathy with Walter Hooper, as what happened at the end of the lecture was as follows. I walked up to Mr. Lewis and said, “Good evening, Sir, I have read all your books with great interest, but I would like to correct you on one or two theological points”. After a stimulating discussion he looked at me and said, “Young man, you have a very clear insight into my thinking, I thank for your contribution”.

At least that’s what happened in my imagination. What actually happened is a little less clear. Indeed my memory of it is very vague indeed, I know I did shake his hand, but whether I did so when I left, assuming he stood at the door like the rector after a morning service, or whether I pushed my way up to the platform in fear and trembling and stuck my hand out, is lost in the mists of antiquity.

If only I had started my custom of writing to authors earlier I would have a stack of letters from him to show you. Alas I do not. I think the first time I wrote to an author was when I wrote from a cannibal island off the coast of Sierra Leone to the Rev. J. B. Phillips thanking him for his translation, “Letter to young churches”. I got back a letter which began,

Dear Dr. Keenan, Thank you for your letter which I received this morning. . .

And that was before e-mail was a glimmer in the electronic mind of God. But it began an interesting friendship. Later I was to visit him at his home in Swanage, when he told me the story he tells in one of his books about Lewis appearing to him after his death (Lewis’s!) and saying to him, “It’s not as bad as you think, you know.” He was very depressed at the time. I was reminded of this recently when a friend returned my autographed copy of “The young church in action” given to me then.

I think it all started because of vague aspirations to write, and I hoped that if I wrote to famous authors some of their genius might rub off. Sadly this was not to be. Anyway I continued the custom with, to me, delightful results.

Yesterday I even had another letter from the Features Editor of a Medical magazine with words sweet to my eyes, “I thank you for your humorous article on ‘Antenatal and Peri-Mortem evangelism’. I enjoyed it and do wish to accept it for publication.” They even pay real money. Most of my scribblings appear in various religious magazines, even Anglican papers, and like the Gospel, are free!