My friend  Richard was telling me last evening about the reptilian brain. I never heard of such a thing and imagined that it might have to do with the conspiracy theories of David Icke, who believes that the world’s ruling families are actually alien shapeshifters who practice black magic and turn into lizards.

Unfortunately it is more mundane, but still very interesting. It seems that the most primitive part of our brain–the brain stem and cerebellum are called ‘the reptilian brain’, and this is the first part of the brain to develop, and it controls the involuntary body systems as well as the instinctive reactions. When you flinch or duck as a baseball is coming at your head at 100 mph that’s your reptilian brain. The reptilian brain controls the fight or flight response and other sub verbal instinctual responses. This is helpful and good because we need these instinctive response to survive, but the reptilian brain also seems to be the location for other primitive survival urges–urges that can have a dark side: primitive beastly violence, irrational rage and lust.

What interests me is that this level of the brain is also the part which seems to be form habits. It likes ritual. It likes repetition. It likes simple repeated instinctive actions. Is this the part of the brain which is being affected therefore when we participate in ceremonial, ritual worship? Does repeated, ritualistic worship penetrate to the deepest and darkest corners of our soul? Even more interesting, is this the part of the brain which is affected through repetitious prayers and meditation that takes one beyond language and into the sub verbal parts of the soul?

If so, then we have an interesting rationale for liturgical, ritualistic worship and for praying the rosary. The ritual and the repetitious prayers and meditation take us beyond the rational faculties of the mind and go deeper to a more primitive level of our existence. The rosary reaches the parts of the soul the other prayers can’t reach. Mary brings light to the dark places–through the rosary her Son’s graces are taken ‘where the wild things are.’

I can’t resist, therefore, on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception but meditate on the symbolic and religious significance of the reptile and the woman. It is the Second Eve–the Blessed Virgin Mary who is seen trampling down the serpent. In calling this primitive beastly part of our brain the ‘reptilian brain’ how sweet it is to think that it is therefore the Rosary which penetrates that darkness and brings healing and light, and vanquishes the dragon.

The saints all hold up their rosaries and proclaim that the Blessed Mother is powerful against the serpent. Through the rosary the ‘serpent within’ the dark forces that are active in the reptilian brain can be trampled on controlled and redeemed.