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In the steps of St. Francis

On Oct. 13, 37 women (two from Ashland) and three men, all from various countries, met in Rome where we were transported by bus to a monastery at Mount LaVerna in north-central Italy. An amazing journey lie ahead for us as we set our intention to walk 116 miles over 10 days to Assisi, the city of Peace and following the footsteps of St. Francis 800 years ago.

Most were not sure why they felt guided to do this, but responded with an immediate "YES" when James Twyman of Ashland invited us to join him for a peace walk in Italy. Half of the members of the group were in their 50s and 60s and the oldest was 71.

The next day we woke to howling winds and bitter cold temperatures for which we were not prepared. We toured the area where St. Francis had received his first stigmata and the stone where Jesus sat when he appeared to Francis. We received our certificates, which would be stamped at each stop along the way, just like at the Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Day 1 of the walk was windy and cold again. We had very little warm clothing, anticipating 70-degree weather, but we layered and began our journey. Each day began with reciting the prayers of peace from the 12 major religions and then we walked an hour in silence, praying the prayers.

The first hour was straight up a long, rocky trail. One girl fell and broke her wrist, one man twisted his knee. There were no options but to continue up the steep slopes for another 11 miles. By the end of the challenging day many were questioning their ability to complete the walk. But our quest for world peace, and our hearts, kept us going. Our shortest day was eight miles and the longest was 17.9.

On Day 3 there was another injury — a woman broke an ankle while descending a steep, rocky trail. This time, an ambulance got near enough to carry her out.

With the weather and exhaustion affecting our immune systems, most of us ended up with colds. The guides were great about accommodating all needs. The scenery was fabulous and reminded me of Oregon. The people were warm and helpful. In small villages we stayed in hostels, convents or small hotels that were not always what we'd expected, but we learned to surrender and adjust, as Francis had done. We visited some of the places he slept — usually a small stone bed in a little corner in a cave, a humbling experience. The food was an adjustment but we ate it in gratitude.

Day 10 was our final ascent into Assisi. Spirits were high. As we topped one hill, we saw Assisi in the distance on top of a mountain. What a beautiful sight! Emotions ran high and cameras were clicking. About two hours later we arrived at the base of Assisi where we were joined by those injured or too ill to make the final ascent with us. We even pushed an injured party member in her wheelchair, which doubled the challenge. Others were there to greet us as we entered the arch of Assisi, and many watched and took photos as we marched through the walled city to the Basilica of St. Francis with our flags and peace shirts, chanting peace songs.

I can't describe the emotions we felt. Some sobbed uncontrollably. We entered the basilica and sat at the tomb of Francis, full of gratitude for this man who paved the way for peace. We had walked the camino in his footsteps, continuing his vigil for peace, and we were forever changed. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I would do it again.

James Twyman filmed the walk for a documentary. The pope and 12 leaders of the major religions were there for a world peace conference, commemorating the last one held there 25 years ago.

Another small step for mankind. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Carolynn Kelley, a former Peace Corp member, divides her time between Ashland and volunteering in Third World countries.

Send articles on all aspects of Inner Peace to Sally McKirgan innerpeace@q.com