The Church’s 2,000 years of experience in leading souls to heaven have demonstrated that most people who are striving to become a saint need a sort of “coach” in the spiritual life. Many people receive this help in the form of advice given by the priest in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Formal spiritual direction, however, usually takes place apart from the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and often with someone other than one’s confessor. The topics discussed with one’s spiritual director go beyond sin, and are usually more “ascetical” in nature. The idea is that we don’t simply want to have our sins forgiven and to avoid sinning again. Rather, we want to make positive progress in our relationship with the Lord. We want to continue to grow in love for Him and to get to know Him more and more deeply.
The role of the spiritual director is to guide and assist us in this process. As we progress in our spiritual lives, the spiritual director will suggest books to read and serve as a kind of “sounding board” for thoughts and inspirations we’ve received in our prayer. He will encourage us to persevere in our spiritual life, even when we don’t feel like it. He’ll suggest topics for our prayer, and assist us in getting solid answers to questions we have about our faith.
In Opus Dei, a member’s apostolate is a “directed” apostolate. That is to say, he discusses the apostolate he is doing with his spiritual director to ensure he is carrying it out in a manner consistent with the spirit of the Work. This is done in the context of his regular meeting with his spiritual director. The spiritual director may make suggestions about how to approach a particular topic with a friend or suggest he start a cooperator circle, or make some other suggestion.
Certainly it is possible to get to heaven without ever having a spiritual director. Probably most of the people in heaven never had one. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see that spiritual direction can be a great help in our journey of faith and love.
For those not involved in an organization like Opus Dei it may be appropriate for spiritual direction to occur less frequently than it does for members of the Work (weekly for numeraries and associates, biweekly for supernumeraries). In Opus Dei much of the spiritual direction is geared toward growth in the spirit of the Work, including their apostolate. This would not be the case for others.
One of the criticisms of Opus Dei is that spiritual direction becomes nothing more than a weekly “status report” concerning one’s apostolic activity. This does sometimes happen, and when it does, members should ask for a new director if they can’t find a way to make it what it should be.
Another criticism is that members of Opus Dei are bound to obey their spiritual director in everything. This is not true. They are bound to obey the directors of the Work in matters related the spirit of the Work, but are not bound to obey them in other matters. The problem occurs when either the director or the member does not understand what the proper limits of this obedience are. There can be a large gray area. For example, a director may suggest to a member that he should start a cooperator’s circle. If the member believes he can’t do so, it is up to him to say “I can’t do that because of this or that reason.” Unfortunately, sometimes the member does not feel he has the freedom to say “no.” Whatever the cause, this is unfortunate because it betrays a lack of understanding of true Christian freedom on the part of the director or the member, or both.
My experience, and the experience of most others I know, is that in practice, this problem generally does not arise, and when it does, it is easily dealt with.