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Not a moment's rest

We all have a different idea of what is the deadliest of the traditional seven deadly sins. For Goethe it was sloth. In Faust he has the Lord say to the devil Mephistopheles: ''Try to lead my servant Faust astray. As long as he strives he is safe from you.''

In our little village, where the pace of life is slow, nothing would be simpler than to stop striving, to slide into procrastinating ways, to believe that tomorrow is soon enough. A Mephistopheles could have bound us all in chains if it had not been for three men who came to the parish.

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The first was Dan, a retired banker. Now, instead of poring over figures in a ledger, he studied figures in a landscape - ours - in a flood of satirical poems.

We came to shiver at the sight of Dan's neat, sturdy person advancing on us, his eyes, sharp as a badger's, piercing through all pretence. The more we tried to make ourselves out better than we were the wider grew his ironical smile.

''Wheesht! Why did you let that slip? He'll put it in a poem!'' one of us would mutter furiously to another.

''I didn't even open my mouth. Dan knew it without my saying a word.''

As the stone carvers in medieval cathedrals depicted the ordinary burghers of the town in all their foibles and quirks of character, so Dan portrayed us in his poems, stripping us bare of sham, never letting us get away with pomposity or hypocrisy.

''O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, not to see oursel's as Dannie sees us!'' We would paraphrase Robert Burns with a groan. We were so appalled, however, by what Dan revealed about us that we strove to be less devious, kindlier, in short better.

The second uncomfortable presence in our midst was Fergus, a tousled, redheaded Highlander. When we saw him ringing the bell at the door of the village school we realized that it tolled for us. Life would not be so peaceful now for the fifty little Lowlanders under his charge, or for their parents either. The last dominie had been an indolent man. Fergus was like a tidal wave breaking on a quiet shore. He was determined to bring learning from the enlightened Highlands to the benighted Lowlands.

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Fergus had a quotation for every occasion. If it should elude him, a tormented look crossed his face while he clutched desperately after the missing words. Fergus sent books scattering, his finger triumphantly jabbing the page.

''There it is! Just as Gogol (or Cervantes or Dante) said!''

''Who's Gogol?'' we would whisper. ''Perhaps something to do with television. The Gogol box.'' For the local farmers, until they knew better, Pushkin was a kind of turnip.

We passed the schoolhouse with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity, wondering if Fergus would wave us in to share his latest discovery in the realms of gold where he travelled so widely and where we had up till now ventured so rarely. Without him, we would say to one another, would we ever have pronounced - mis-pronounced rather - the names of Baudelaire, Leopardi, Holderlin? Never!

It was bad enough to endure Fergus demanding: ''Do you no' ken your Shakespeare? your Homer?'' But there was worse to bear - the return of our children from school. ''Heard what the maister taught us today?'' they would demand smugly, very often adding scornfully, ''Have you no' heard of Rousseau!''

It was intolerable. We would have to bestir ourselves, read unceasingly with no more idling over television, if we ever wanted to be a step ahead of our own children, not merely alongside them or trailing far behind.

The third member of our community who spurred us into activity was the one you could call its leader - the minister. We saw right away that in his preaching there would be no easy promises of paradise, no speedy steps to salvation. For him, as for Shelley, imagination was the great moral faculty, and he was going to make us use ours.

On his first Sabbath in the pulpit he led us to consider not only the plight of Jonah but also the discomfort and alarm felt by the whale to have a prophet lodged unexpectedly in its belly. He made us consider the lions in the den where Daniel was cast. What was it like for them to have a prophet in their cage and not allowed so much as a snap or growl at him?

We must try to comprehend King Saul's jealousy of David, enter the mind of Pilate, consider the different phases of Job's endurance of his ordeals.

The farmers, who had been bewildered by Pushkin and Gogol, left the kirk murmuring, ''Is yon no' wonderful? I'd never have thocht of it by myself.''

Not a moment's rest.

''Face your faults,'' said Dan. ''Improve!''

''Know,'' said Fergus. ''Knowledge is virtue, as you'll learn from Socrates.''

''Enlarge your imaginative faculty,'' said the preacher. ''Widen your humanity.''

With them anybody would be safe from Faust's bed of sloth.

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