I am not a Catholic, but a Presbyterian. For some reason I'm very drawn to Catholic blogs, though I have no desire to become a Catholic (sorry). At any rate, I've been shoring up on my theological reading. I started with some CS Lewis, but then I felt I really needed a BACKGROUND. So I bought St Augustine's Confessions. It has been wonderful!While I can perhaps claim to have read a little more early Christian writing than the average bear (sadly, much of the bear population is still illiterate) I don't feel that I'm by any means an expert, and I suspect that some of our readers would be able to answer this question rather better than I could, so I asked her permission to answer the question partially in a post, and then open things up for readers.
I know there is a wealth of early Christian literature, but I feel somewhat overwhelmed and unsure of what order to go in. I'd like to build upon what Augustine taught me. I'm also open to reading lit crit of these same authors. Of course Aquinas and Merton are on my "to read" list, but I don't want to skip around and become confused or overwhelmed.
In short: what do you recommend I read next?
My first thought is that Augustine's Confessions are are incredibly good place to start such a task. For my money, it's nearly unmatched in combining readability with some fairly deep theological and philosophical thinking. This makes suggesting follow-ons particularly difficult. Additionally, I'd warn that a lot of early Christian writing is not, at least to my experience, super-readable. I think I'd originally had the idea that early Christian writing would be fairly basic, and that you'd see a gradual increase in complexity up until the high middle ages when (according to stereotype) the Scholastics were calculating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. This is now, however, how it works out. Christianity spread as Roman and Hellenistic civilizations were fusing in a cosmopolitan Mediterranean world, and the early Christians very quickly (well before Augustine) started looking at theological questions through the most advanced philosophical and scientific understandings of their day. Given that some of these are not only complex, but fairly alien to our modern way of thinking, this can make for some tough going, at least for a non-specialist like me.
A good place to start might be right at the beginning. There's a slim Penguin Classics book entitled Early Christian Writings which collects the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians and the Didache. These works are very, very early -- basically contemporary with the books on the New Testament -- but unlike some of the "other gospel" things that float around they were widely read and respected by orthodox Christians.
Only slightly later is St. Irenaeus (who lived from around 130 to 202 AD). His famous work is a defense of the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ against the Gnostic heresy titled Against the Heresies. There's a fairly readable, edited version of this put out by Ignatius in which Irenaeus' work is cut down a bit and organized thematically, published under the title Scandal of the Incarnation. (I found this fairly readable as a college sophomore. I haven't read the full version, so I don't know how it is by comparison.)
About 50 years later than Irenaeus is Origen -- who is an interesting guy but not terribly readable. Most of the Origen that I read utterly mystified me, but I did have a strong affection for his Commentary on the Song of Songs (a book length work) which is fascinating both as a window on the incredibly detailed way in which the ancients approach the scriptures -- very different from modern literary analysis, but not for lack of complexity -- and simply because you can see a great mind doing backflips for the sheer intellectual joy of it.
Only slightly before Augustine would be St. Athanasius, one of the great Fathers of the Church, and a leader of the Council of Nicea. One of his great works, which is fairly readable, is his On the Incarnation (this edition is fairly readable and features an introduction by C. S. Lewis.)
Rome was sacked during Augustine's lifetime, and you start to see some big changes in the tenor of Christian intellectual life, molded in part by the increasing changes in society. Working through Late Antiquity and into the Medieval period, I'd suggest the following as fairly readable and emblematic:
The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell provides a lot of stories about the early monastics in one easily accessible package.
The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict is probably something of a must read both as a work of spirituality and because it is so influential on later Christian monastic history.
The Life of St. Benedict written by St. Gregory the Great gives a good feel for the practice and spirituality of the period.
Moving forward a good long ways (from the sixth century to the twelfth) you would probably want to read The Little Flowers of St. Francis (a collection of incidents and sayings of St. Francis written down by one of his friars) and St. Bonaventure's Life of St. Francis. These are both quite short and readable, and while not by any means deeply theological in the way that an Augustine or a Athanasius is, they give an intense feel for a type of spirituality which St. Francis embodied and which has remained with Christianity in various forms ever since.
You say Aquinas is already on your list, and working chronologically this is where he'd fit in. Maybe one of our readers could suggest a particularly good framing text. If you are reading parts of the Summa, I would particularly recommend questions 2 and 44 as dealing with "big questions" in an interesting way that gives you a good feel for how Aquinas works.
This is something I know I am into far more than most people, but I can't help putting in a good word for reading Dante's Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest work of theological poetry ever written. Shake off any English-class idea that it's just a dour poem about how people Dante didn't like were being tortured, and as you read it try to focus on Dante's personal journey as he first recognizes the nature of sin in Inferno, then learns to replace it with virtue in Purgatorio, and finally comes to appreciate the types of perfection in Paradiso. It can help to read this together with C. S. Lewis' Discarded Image, which is about the medieval cosmological and philosophical world view. The notes written by Dorothy Sayers for her translation of Dante are also great in this regard, but unfortunately his poetry doesn't really hold up all that well. Bulky though it can be, reading her commentary along with some more successfully poetic translation can work well.
I get spottier as I get more modern, and it probably starts to depend a lot whether you're looking more for Christian practice and spirituality or more academically oriented theology.
Some possible choices I would recommend (without much explanation, as I'm running out of time) would be:
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman
Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton