The devil can’t make hell look good, so he has to make the road that leads there look good.
Denying that fact doesn’t make the road or its destination go away.
“We’re up against someone who doesn’t want what’s good for us,” Father William Peckman warned. “The devil can’t ‘make you do it,’ but he is very good at tempting us.”
Fr. Peckman offers straightforward advice for battling the forces of evil in his recently completed book, A Young Catholic’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare.
It is written for young people of all ages.
“I specifically directed it toward Catholics from age 15 to 30,” said Fr. Peckman, pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Macon, St. Mary Parish in Shelbina, St. Patrick Parish in Clarence and the Mission of the Sacred Heart in Bevier.
“Although, given the general dearth of available catechesis on this topic, I think anybody could benefit from picking it up and reading it,” he said.
He said the book is a wake-up call.
“These things are real and need to be dealt with,” he insisted. “The last several popes have made that very clear to us.”
The book carries an “Imprimatur” from Bishop W. Shawn McKnight and a “Nihil Obstat” from Father Dylan Schrader, moderator of youth and young adults and religious education for the Jefferson City diocese.
This means the book has been reviewed thoroughly and found to be free of objectionable content or doctrinal error, although it does not necessarily mean those who reviewed the book endorse the content.
Battling the lie
Fr. Peckman said the entertainment industry has damaged many people’s perceptions of spiritual warfare.
“Everyone wants to jump to ‘The Exorcist,’” he said, “but spiritual warfare is actually much more about how we deal with temptation in the day-to-day choices we make.”
Those decisions can be particularly difficult in a culture “where so much of what we in the Church recognize as sinful is seen as normal by people outside the Church,” he said.
Nonetheless, spiritual warfare is nothing new. It’s nearly as old as humanity itself.
“The Scriptures consistently present a very pronounced idea of doing battle with temptation and the forces of evil — from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation,” said Fr. Peckman.
There’s also a consistently clear distinction between tempting and enticing, which the devil does very well, and actually making people do something bad, which the devil cannot do.
“Temptation makes sin look positive, like it’s something for your good,” Fr. Peckman noted. “But in the end, it’s always a lie.”
“This is real”
Fr. Peckman, who has been a priest since 1997, speaks from personal experience.
“I wrote this book because these are things I struggle with,” he said. “I personally know what spiritual warfare looks like. It’s part of my daily life. I’ve had to fight these fights and I continue to fight these fights.”
His interest in spiritual warfare started early in life.
“I knew about it because it was something my dad really understood well and instilled in each of us children,” he said.
Fr. Peckman later took up the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. All three found compelling ways to express the eternal struggle between good in evil in this life.
As a seminarian, Fr. Peckman got to listen at length to a priest who was serving as an exorcist.
“While he could not tell me any of the details, he wanted to make it absolutely clear to me that this is real and cannot to be taken lightly,” he said. “That has always stuck with me.”
Fr. Peckman speaks more directly in the book than he’s accustomed to writing or preaching.
“It’s pretty in-your-face,” he said. “The goal the reader to engage and ponder, ‘How does all of this come into play in my own life?’”
He wrote and his editors edited in a style that’s very accessible, “so that someone in their late teens or early 20s would pick it up and be engaged with it.”
The first chapter is an introduction to what the Church knows and teaches about such things as the devil, sin, mortal sin, temptation and the human tendency to be drawn to sin.
“Then I talk about how we go against all of these things and why we engage in spiritual warfare,” the priest said.
“I also talk about the tools we bring to the fight — our use of prayer, our use of the sacraments, our developing of virtue in our life,” he stated.
He pointed out that this isn’t just about the salvation of one’s own soul.
“When you’re in a position of influence or authority over other people, you also carry their soul with you,” he said. “So whether you’re a priest or a parent, your attitude is either one of helping people fight these battles, or you’re part of the problem.”
The author also delves into the seven deadly sins — envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath — along with the “big lie” at the core of each of them and the reasons people tend to fall for that lie.
“I also go into the idea of using virtues, especially humility, in combatting these sins,” he said.
He explores the meaning Ephesians 6:10-17, in which St. Paul directs his readers to “put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil.”
Fr. Peckman’s approach and most of the insights in his book come from saints and many great spiritual masters of the Church, going back through the ages.
“I try to only steal from the best,” he said.
He further draws from the work of Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, the 16th-century author of a book called The Spiritual Combat, as well as Father Gabriele Amorth, the former exorcist for the Archdiocese of Rome; Dr. Ralph Martin, who helped bring about the spiritual renewal at Franciscan University in Steubenville; and Father Chad Ripperger, who comments on many of these things in his podcasts and online posts.
He quotes extensively from the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“These are things the Church has always taught,” he noted. “Just because they’re not talked about very often doesn’t mean they’re not an important part of the Deposit of Faith.”
He pointed out that for centuries, Catholic theologians wrote reams about doing battle against evil.
The well ran dry about 60 years ago, when secular values began overtaking Christian virtues in many Western societies.
“As humans, we tend toward extremes,” said Fr. Peckman. “We somehow went from hell, fire and brimstone to butterflies and rainbows instead of reaching a healthy balance between the two.”
As a result, “whether you’re talking about sexuality, consumerism, greed or gluttony, these things that used to be seen as sinful are now widely accepted as good, as sources of happiness,” he said.
As pastor of three parishes and a mission, Fr. Peckman usually writes only on his days off and during vacations.
He planned to write a chapter or two while on vacation in the mountains this past fall.
Becoming ill shortly after arriving, he wound up devoting his full energy to completing the book before returning home.
“God has a sense of humor and impeccable timing,” he stated.
The writing became for Fr. Peckman a prolonged examination of conscience.
“In the seminary, they used to tell us to never preach a homily you don’t need to hear,” he said. “By that same token, you should never write a book that you don’t need to read.”
He said spiritual warfare starts with people understanding the importance of their relationship with God, how sin damages that relationship, and how His grace and mercy ultimately restore it.
“God not only gives us opportunities to combat temptation but also to be reconciled with Him once we have fallen,” he noted.
He pointed out how combatting temptation and sin in one’s own life is an important part of leading other people to Christ.
“We can’t be good evangelizers when we’re tied down with sin,” he said. “A person who practices spiritual warfare uses the grace of God to hold back their sinful tendencies so that the love of Christ shows through them.”
Fr. Peckman hopes the book will help people avoid equally paralyzing and danming extremes.
“Letting down our guard is not wise,” he said. “We never take for granted our salvation, nor do we ever take for granted our condemnation.”
Sin has real consequences, but so does God’s mercy.
“Yes, we must talk the reality of hell and eternal condemnation,” he said. “But on the other hand, we’re not ‘sinners in hand of an angry God,’ with that last thread about to fray, and then boom, we’re gone.”
He’s convinced that humility is the key to finding “the middle ground where truth is found.”
“Humility is honesty before God about who I am, Who God is and who I am before God,” he said.