by Pastor Doug Kings
I’m just finishing my third book (a collection of her writings) about a woman I would have much liked to have known. She lived on “the edge” of history, you might say, but few would recognize her name. Yet to those who did know her, she was a powerful witness to living fully in the modern world, with care, concern, openness, and joy. Her name was Edith Warner.
Warner was born in Philadelphia in 1893 and died in 1951, at her home near Los Alamos, New Mexico. At her doctor’s recommendation, Warner had first visited New Mexico for health reasons in 1921. After a few years, she left to receive more intensive medical care in Denver and returned in 1928. With no obvious way to support herself, she accepted the meager paying position of stationmaster for a rural railroad stop. Her primary task was to supervise the unloading of supplies for the nearby Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys.
Thus began Warner’s new life at the foot of the Parajito Plateau and on the banks of the Rio Grande. Since her small house was both at the train stop and the road bridge, she developed it into a lunch and tearoom, with one guest room, for the steady stream of tourists visiting the scenic area. The real center of her life, however, was her growing relationship with members of the adjacent San Ildefonso Pueblo, who soon welcomed her into their community and personal lives.
In 1943, Warner’s life changed dramatically when the Los Alamos school property was requisitioned to become the military laboratory that would develop the atomic bomb. With the school’s closing and the end of tourism, Warner prepared to shut her business down, as well. But a proposal from the laboratory director, Robert Oppenheimer, kept her in place. At his request, Warner changed her business to cater exclusively to the Los Alamos staff, thus providing a secure place for them to occasionally get away.
During the next three years she served hundreds of people in her tiny dining room, five nights a week. Reservations soon had to be gotten weeks in advance. Warner was never told the lab’s purpose but knowing her customers she had a guess. However, she carefully avoided any conversation on the topic. Besides, she was too busy cooking and serving!
Nonetheless, over those years she developed close relationships with many of the Los Alamos staff. As a result, she became a curious bridge between two very different worlds. During the day and on weekends she engaged with the pueblo across the river, including joining in traditions and rituals dating back centuries, some likely from the former residents of the nearby Bandelier ruins. In the evening she entertained the men literally creating what would become the atomic age.
Warner understood her unique position. A pacifist, she was skeptical of the Los Alamos project but respected the scientists and cared deeply for the young men of the pueblo who went off to war. And at a time when Native Americans were mostly viewed as cartoonish movie characters, she intuited that Indian wisdom and traditions had something important to teach the Western world, then in the process of tearing itself apart.
Warner’s connection to her adopted home was deeply spiritual. The land and sky, its plant and animal life, the remnants of ancient residents reaching back 10,000 years, and the native population now present, all combined to affirm an awareness of life she only had intimations of in her former, stress-filled urban existence in the east.
What that quality of life was, Warner never defined. But she recognized it when she saw it in the world around her and in others. The war heightened her awareness of how desperately the world needed spiritual vision but also how modern life made such vision so difficult. In a letter to her goddaughter, Henrietta “Peter” Miller, a frequent visitor who shared her spiritual sensitivity, Warner wrote,
What you and I feel certainly is everywhere but in some parts of the earth is more shut off by the material of our culture…. Eventually it is possible, I believe, if a human being is capable, to have its deep silent wonder permanently. I think also that it is possible for that to be so and yet the individual to lead a useful, busy life. I am thinking of [Danish physicist Niels] Bohr…. All sorts of thoughts open up in connection with the world and its dire situation and this power so little used. Those ancient civilizations had it and lost it. It would seem almost as though too much material advance were an obstruction.
While deeply aware, Warner did not give “the world’s problems” much of her time. Even with those problems almost literally on her doorstep, it was the scientists as people that she cared about, the needs of her Indian neighbors that she focused on, the people brought by car or train to her parlor that got her attention.
And the depth of that attention and awareness was recognized. Peter Miller wrote that she “was as close to becoming as free of self as anyone I’ve know.” Supporting that was Warner’s love of the phrase “flute of the gods.” “I had no particular power,” she wrote, “but acted as a medium through which a source of strength could flow.”
When diagnosed with cancer, Warner chose to die at home and did so as she lived, a friend said, “gallantly.” Another said, “Edith showed us how to live. Now she is showing us all how to die.” Her Anglo friends were moved by the stream of Indians who came and, while usually silent, spoke “powerful” words of appreciation for her. When Warner died, the pueblo mourned for four days, and buried her on its property.
Edith Warner demonstrated the importance and value of the often-overlooked quality of hospitality. She welcomed, and often served, anyone who came her way. Doing so was often exhausting but she wasn’t resentful, nor did she feel the role in any way demeaning. She perceived in every person an inherent depth and value which they may not have recognized themselves. She accepted and practiced an ancient teaching that is little recognized in the world today: that our value is not in our doing but in our being. For those who encountered Edith Warner, people came away with a new appreciation of what it meant to be human.
Blessings in your life and ministry.