HUSTLER MAGAZINE, as all Washington was surprised to learn this week, will "no longer hang women up as pieces of meat," because the publisher has seen the light and experienced a religious conversion. He now believes Hustler fell short, in some respects, as a force for good.

Once reckoned to be as raunchy a rack as any big-sale magazine in America, Hustler will now "extol godly living," the publisher says.

The rebirthing of Hustler will take until March, as I understand it, and probably will be uncomfortable.

Moses and Lincoln, the publisher went on, were the great liberators, and he himself will join them to make it a threesome (he says) to liberate neurotics from their darkness.

Certainly I never thought, even in the maddest of fantasies, the day would ever come when I might usefully advise the publisher of Hustler on any technical mechanical matter.

But once, year ago, I was editor of a magazine as obscure as Hustler is famous, and as unsuccessfuI as Hustler is successful. You can learn a lot from experience and you should share it, which I am glad to do.

As everyone know, Larry Flynt, who is Hustler's chief, got converted by Ruth Stapleton, an evangelist. Because of this event, Hustler must now change its spots.

Very well, what sort of new features should there be? In the past Hustler always has ignored food and diets, a major media mistake if you want the truth. Something on the order of "Dr. Stapleton's High-Probity Diet," giving advice monthly, would be a fine thing.

The old features and departments should be revamped, not scrapped, if Hustler wants the benefit of my experience in magazines. Just as the early Christians took pagan festivals and shrines and infused them with new meanings.

It will take both intelligence and skill for Flynt to pull it off, but it can be done. The name Flynt, by the way, is too rough. Winston Travertine sounds more like godly living to me.

Charles Colson, a former White House aide, said that angels were rejoicing, and that's a plus. Make a great cover.

Immediately after learning all this suprising news, I raced over to the Library of Congress, where the deputy librarian Raq - wait, William J. Welsh, was honoring Alan Paton with lunch attended by intellectuals, artists, administrators.

Paton (pay-ton) is a novelist, author of "Cry, the Beloved Country," and sometimes called a great conscience of South Africa. A title like Defender of the Faith might apply to a fellow who for so many decades has stood for what most Americans would call justice and racial fairness, except that such titles and best with-held from living men. The Greeks were right, mortals are merely mortal and ought not assume the style of the gods.

Paton spoke at lunch, and later at a lecture in Coolidge Auditorium.

He is a plain man, small of build, with a face the color of roses, moderately snowed on top. Whatever the god-like Achilles looked like, it was not like him.

His subjects are the stuff of gloom - lashes, death, paranoia, pettiness, restriction of movement - but he is not gloomy either to himself or to others.

"Hearing him I don't feel like going to a party," said Lois Fern at the library, "I feel I should be alone, and maybe pray.

At lunch, blacks and whites commented on his lack of shrillness, lack of self-aggrandizement, and the largeness of his heart. For a while there, you would have thought they were laying oak leaves on their best hound's grave, and might cry.

Patton has a way squinching up his lips at the end of his sentences, like a rabbit working on lettuce. Somebody would pay him a block buster compliment and he'd go rabbit-rabbit with his lips and say something about what is practical, what is likely to be useful, what is basically just.

He appeared to be one of those fellows who is too modest to blush or fumble when people praise him, because it never occurs to him that virtue (which is what they are praising) has any special connection with him.

Peter Taylor, writer and teacher, said something a little different, after a lot of people had spoken of Paton's goodness:

"You taught us the technique, the art, by which our own writers, especially in the Deep South, could write about race. Because, of course, propaganda is never enough and noble us how the thing can not only be felt, but accomplished."

Well said. Seeing the light is all very well, but how, exactly, do you fix the axle?

Paton almost allowed himself a wry smile. His great influence - ha - never had any effect in his own country (he said) that he could see.

He is despised by millions, he has been a Personna non grata, his Liberal Party (he was an official) was banned because it allowed all races membership, and it dissolved rather than become a one-race party.

When he says the minister of justice does not pay enough attention to the secret police, he is not sure what action may be taken against him when he returns from his six-week tour of America.

"At first, people made jokes about the secret police. They don't anymore."

He surveyed South Africa through the centuries, refusing to impute evil even to those who once took his passport away because of his words, but condemning evil results as he sees them.

The system of restrictive laws (and fierce penalties for disobeying them) to keep races separate is a thing he considers not only immoral (though that in itself would have him up on his hind legs protesting) but irrational and reckless.

Ten lashes, he said, are not administered to lawbreakers over 50. "I was spared that." The death penalty, he said, may be invoked against anyone advocating overthrow of the government, and he certainly did not advocate that. "I am 74 years of age, but even so, "I would not like to incur that."

His hope (though he suspects many of his countrymen are "psychically impotent" to produce change) is that reason will so far prevail that some of the most "cruel" laws will be changed and that blacks will accept them.

Always in the back of his mind is a thing from his first hugely successful book, in which a fictional character says his worst fear is that when the white man finally turns to loving, the black will turn to hating.

One reason people gave him a hero's applause at his lecture was that his tone was moderate, his sentences plain and superbly constructed; and his air of simplicity and honesty are so rarely met with in speeches.

I asked him if he had even thought of leaving his country, despite the wrenching.

"The what?"

"The wrenching. The tearing-apart."

"Not until quite recently," he said. He has long known he was not making any dent in Southe Africa, but it had not, in all those decades, occurred to him to leave:

"I always thought it would be like desertion, for me to run away."

In an account of armies, Xenophon once said, "In that fight some of the soldiers ran back towards the camp, but others thought it shameful to run away." Paton probably picked it up somewhere.

Paton said at lunch that it was a religious conviction of his, back when he was still a young man, that he ought to spend his life in some public service. When he became director of a reformatory for boys, he said, his eyes were opened to the kind of society he was part of, and he thougth how he might help change it. The books, the public protest - the failure.

There he was, standing up at 74, a figure any punk could knock over with one slight shove. A bit of humor and clean plaid sentences. "It builds, doesn't it and grows on you like a symphony?" someone said afterwards.

"Yes. Or like a fugue. The themes are under control, but they keep coming back with bigger force."

There is no real connection between Paton, the man of such celebrated honor, and Hustler, the rag (though it is not without redeeming social value). Except that both called for attention the same day in this town and religion was cited as the force that led to the big decision in each.

After some hours in Paton's presence, seeing in him something not very far from despair, I now suspect virtue sometimes gets shortchanged by at least six rococo angels, who might have cheered things up a bit.

Hustler's news, of course, made people laugh, while Paton's lecture, so full of hard things, made people imagine splendor is yet possible for any man if he's hell-bent on it.

Possibly the angels are weary of rejoicing, after so many decades, and reserve their toots and trumpets only for the moments of first seeing the light, leaving the guy to muddle around the next 50 years and let the sense of righteousness wear off.

That way the fellow might actually get something don. Something to make archangels grin.